Review: Stag and the Ash by Sam Burns

Rating: 5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novella


It’s been little more than a month since Sean’s mother died, a month during which he’s had to come two terms with the fact that he’s a succubus, like his mother was, and she’s not here to help him through it. Jessie, too, is struggling, not only with his boyfriend’s grief, but the emotional scars and self doubt given to him by his abusive ex and his uncertainty in his ability to be the alpha wolf Rowan Harbor needs him to be. Especially now that they’re at war. Whoever set the troll upon the town’s children isn’t done with them and their mysterious friend has sent another note warning of new arrivals and treachery.

While reviewing the footage on the flash drive sent by their ally, Jessie sees an all-too familiar face: Charles. His ex. The man who abused Jessie, who beat him, and who one night came at him with a knife, forcing Jessie to reveal his true nature in order to defend himself. He’s always feared that something would happen because of his slip, that somehow Charles would find a way to hurt Rowan Harbor, and it turns out he was right. This, all of this, is his fault. If he hadn’t drawn on the power of his wolf to save himself, Charles wouldn’t have known werewolves existed and wouldn’t be trying to kill them now.

While dealing with that revelation, and the guilt that comes with it, Jessie is called upon by Hannah, who owns the Half Moon — a local restaurant the town Council favors. A trio of young werewolves has come into town, and what is Jessie going to do about them? The answer, of course, once he sees them and how hungry and lost they are, is to take care of them. Yes, one or more of them might be a spy, but they’re wolves and he’s an alpha. He can no more turn his back on them than he can say no to Sean when his boyfriend needs him.

Soon Madison, her brother Anthony, and their friend Joshua are living with Sean and Jessie, sleeping in the spare bedroom and on the living room couch. Madison and Anthony are born wolves whose mother was killed and whose father went mad, biting Joshua and turning him into a wolf. All three of them have the strangest ideas about werewolves with too many movies, too many books, and no pack to set them straight. Fortunately, Jessie’s been a werewolf his entire life and his mother would box his ears if he didn’t set the kids straight. Plus, he kind of likes them, which only makes it more difficult when he knows one of them must be a traitor.

This is the fifth book in Rowan Harbor Cycle series, and while this book could be read on its own as the story is somewhat self-contained, you would miss most of the overarching plot and some of the subtleties in how the characters have grown over the previous four books. Out of the five books I’ve read so far, this one is my favorite — and not just because I like Jessie more than the other characters. Devon is charmed and charming, but Jessie is someone who was a little broken and battered, who came home in disgrace and is now learning that many of his self doubts were all in his head. His family loves him, his friends support him, and his town needs him. Jessie is discovering that he’s pretty good at being the war leader of Rowan Harbor, and he’s a pretty good alpha, too.

Jessie and Sean haven’t gone much beyond heavy petting since Jessie is still dealing with the PTSD from his last relationship. Charles beat him down emotionally, as well as physically. He made Jessie doubt himself as a person and doubt his own self worth. Even now he still has nightmares. While working to overcome his past, he’s also trying to figure out how to be an alpha, how to be a member of the council, and how to be a war leader in a war Rowan Harbor isn’t ready for. None of them are violent people, though Jessie’s discovering he has very little problem with putting down anyone threatening his town.

Sean’s grief for his mother is fresh, but it’s having to share space with his nascent powers waking up. While he can tell when someone’s interested, and get an inkling of what their sexual fantasies and thoughts are — such as the mayor’s wife thinking of her husband and some chocolate sauce — he doesn’t know what else he can do, or how his powers even work. So far he’s stayed in Jessie’s house, hiding away and hiding behind his boyfriend. When the new wolves come into the house, though, Sean perks up a bit. The novelty, perhaps, for both he and Jessie. Madison, Ant, and Josh are something new, people in need of help and having questions they can answer. It’s a bright light during a dark patch, allowing Jessie and Sean to be helpful, useful and… powerful in a time they are both feeling lost and powerless.

As a couple Jessie and Sean are in a very rocky place. Their instant connection — the infamous “zap” that lets people know when they’ve found their soul mate — happened not that long ago and now they’re living together in Jessie’s house. They’ve been too busy trying to save Rowan Harbor and trying to find themselves to do much more than make out and so this quiet time of grief has been, sadly, good for them. They’ve been able to be together, bonding with each other even if it is in the aftermath of a tragedy. Sean, with his still moments and gentle nature, is a balm to Jessie’s soul, and Jessie’s playfulness and need to care for everyone suit Sean’s amiable personality. They balance each other and make each other happy. Now if they’d only have a few moments of peace and happiness so that Jessie can let Sean know he’s ready to do more than just fool around.

This book is more like a long novella than a full length story, but the pace is bright and spritely. Nothing drags and there are no passages of patient exposition to either remind of us what happened in previous books or to drag us down with a lengthy explanation of how magic works in this world. It makes it difficult for someone picking up this book without having read the previous volumes, but not impossible. This is a rather self-contained story that just happens to be part of a larger plot.

The werewolves of Rowan Harbor aren’t your typical movie werewolves. Yes, a silver bullet to the heart will kill them, but it would kill pretty much anyone. Also, while they’re allergic to silver, they’re not immune to normal bullets. Shifting on the full moon doesn’t make them crazy, ravening monsters, it just makes them wolves. There’s no pain and gore in going from man to wolf. Instead, for Jessie in particular, there’s a joy in it, something I don’t often see in werewolf stories, but something I honestly love. Why should something natural to a shifter hurt so much?

Burns manages to put the ‘normal’ into paranormal. His characters live their lives, aware of their differences, their powers and their circle of unworldly magic in this small town much the same as any other people. They wake up and brush their teeth, watch television, gossip with friends, go to school, raise families and love one another. Being a werewolf isn’t strange or wonderful; being a werewolf is something that certain people in town simply … do. It’s refreshing to have a supernatural world where the drama, the angst and the conflict come from people being people and the disruption of their normalcy rather than the unhappiness of being different. The Rowan Harbor books are comforting and familiar, well-written and populated with people I like and whose stories I like reading. I recommend each one of them, and Stag and the Ash in particular.

elizabeth sig

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