Jesse Hunter has just turned thirty. He still lives at home with his parents (in his childhood room, no less), he’s a college drop out and a werewolf who doesn’t like to shift, and yet, somehow his friends still like him and the town of Rowan Harbor seems to think he’s worth something. Or he would be if he’d only get off his butt and climb out of the bottom of the bottle he’s been drinking himself into. While celebrating his birthday-eve with a few drinks, a strange vampire decides to show his fangs at the local bar. Cassidy and Max, two vampiric residents of the town, show theirs in return. It’s dislike at first snarl.
Cassidy knows the stranger, Sol, from her days as a human, back when the two of them ran scams and alcohol during prohibition days. The two of them were turned at the same time, but something happened to sour their friendship and Cassidy kicked Sol to the curb before running to find a new life in Rowan Harbor. So it’s not just Jesse and his inner wolf who hate the man at first sight. Cassidy’s fear rouses Jesse’s dislike to new levels, which seems to be justified when he finds a childhood friend, Isla, bloody and unconscious in an alley. Even after days in the hospital she still shows no signs of waking, and no one is able to prove who hurt her, even though most of the town are firmly convinced it’s the stranger in their midst.
Isla was Jesse’s first friend and he’s sworn to himself and to Isla’s family that he’ll find who did this to her and make them pay. Coming from a bookkeeper who couldn’t manage to stay in college long enough to become an actual accountant, it’s hardly a promise anyone could believe in, but somehow not only Isla’s brother, but Jesse’s brother, Jesse’s friends, and even the whole town take Jesse at his word. Something in their faith, something in their belief in him makes Jesse both believe in himself and worry that he might not be strong enough to be what they want him to be.
Adding personal problems to the mix is Sean, a young man with a gift for plants who has bought the old nursery and is currently involved in diplomatic negotiations with the local squirrels. He’s also easy on the eyes and Jesse, working on his personal demons as well as the evil infecting his town, has to decide if he’s not only ready to be the alpha werewolf his town needs, but if he’s ready to open his heart again.
Wolf and the Holly is the second book in a projected nine-volume series — three trilogies involving the city of Rowan Harbor and it’s mystical residents — but you do not need to have read the first book to enjoy book two. It helps flesh out the world as book one introduced the town and its residents while book two jumps right into the action, but you can easily follow the story without it.
Jesse thinks he’s a broken man. Something happened to him at college, something he’s never told anyone about. It caused him to lose confidence in himself and has led to him ignoring the other half of himself. He hasn’t shifted to wolf form since coming back, hasn’t patrolled the magical barriers of Rowan Harbor — a task the alpha werewolf is supposed to do, a task his brother has been doing in his place — hasn’t done anything but… give up. He does the books for various businesses, socializes with his friends, and little more. With his best friend Devon back home, though, Jesse has been drawn out of his shame to his friend’s side. Devon brings out the old Jesse, the strong werewolf who fights for his friends, pranks the town, laughs and jokes with his friends, and isn’t afraid to do what has to be done.
Jesse’s mother is trying to get her son to take over for her on the city council — a semi-secret council of powerful supernaturals who protect and watch over Rowan Harbor. Jesse fights her with passive resistance, shying away from work and avoiding every responsibility until the incident with Isla. It’s not his anger at the attack, but his need to help his friend and to avenge her, that proves to his mother and through her the rest of town that they have a new alpha. Not that Jesse believes in the alpha wolf nonsense. Wolves in the wild don’t have the alpha/beta dynamics of popular superstition, but — as Devon keeps pointing out — Jesse isn’t a wolf. He’s a werewolf. A werewolf angry that a member of his pack has been hurt, angry that his territory has been invaded. A werewolf who has had enough time lying to himself about who and what he is.
In other books when the main character has to go from being wretched to being a warrior it happens in one climactic scene. Here, we watch Jesse go from passive to active, seeing his thoughts and emotions through the entire book as he realizes he not only has to take control of a situation but wants to, and is good at it. He always had the strength, it’s just that he was too busy sitting down to realize he could stand up. Burns handles Jesse’s thoughts and growing confidence naturally and seamlessly. The Jesse who finishes the book isn’t the same Jesse as we started with, and I can’t wait to see him through the eyes of our next narrator in book three.
The love story in Wolf and the Holly makes a late appearance near the final third of the book, which works for this story. Jesse, at the beginning, isn’t ready to be half of a couple. He’s barely ready to be a single! Being pushed into action helps him confront his own past and finally close the chapter on his previous and unhappy college romance. Sean may or may not be another magical member of the town, but other than a rapport with trees — and squirrels — he seems human enough, and grounded enough, and … real enough that I can understand how he and Jesse fit together. Sean is several years younger and knows Jesse through two lenses: the first, as a much younger kid watching older teens pull pranks and show off, and the second as the rather intimdating and capable werewolf hunting down those who threaten his people. Sean never saw Jesse at his worst, which means Jesse doesn’t have to try to overcome that particular — and self-inflicted — burden. He’s free to be himself, his real self, now that he’s stopped hiding. There’s an ease to them as a couple, the sort of natural coming together of two people who just seem perfect together. Jesse doesn’t need fireworks, he needs someone to love him. Sean, though, with his late introduction, remains a bit of a cypher. Other than being easy-going and friendly, I never really got a sense of him as a person, just a sense of him as the missing half of Jesse’s story.
I have greatly enjoyed both books in this series. The writing is clean, the pacing is tight, the story is fun, and the characters are personable. I’m enjoying learning about each new supernatural force in Rowan Harbor. So far we’ve seen fairies and werewolves; we know vampires and succubi exist. So what’s next? I’m very much looking forward to book three. And four. And five…