Rating: 3.25 stars
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Matt, with his ember now awakened, that spark of power that marks him as an alpha Vargr, is settling into his new life. His parents are reunited, his adopted uncles and cousins surround him, and the pack alpha, Steffen, is taking over Matt’s training. Having been given his first Bite, the bite that awakened his Vargr blood, Matt is stronger, faster, and more attuned to the pack around him. But he’s also angry. It’s an unfocused anger, a drive that pushes him to do his best, to go farther and push harder, but it’s not supposed to be fueled by anger. His spark is what makes him an alpha, and an alpha ruled by anger is a dangerous thing.
Matt needs to learn what fueled his ember, what causes it to flare to life and how to understand both his spark and himself, as well as his destined path within the pack. Sköll has been born into the world, and Hati is sure to follow. These two wolves, one black and one white, foretell greatness for the packs, but not always peace. The last time they were seen was during World War II, and Steffen fears for his people, especially as he becomes convinced that Matt, when he takes his Vargr form and learns to shift into his wolf, will have a coat as white as the moon. He, like many others, fears that Matt is Hati, destined to lead the Vargr into a new future.
Awakening Ember cannot be read without having read the first book in the Vargr series, Slumbering Ember, as it’s necessary to understand the Vargr, their history, and how Matt became who he is today. Unfortunately, this book pays little attention to the world building and focuses instead on the characters of Matt and Steffen. Matt is a thoughtful young man with a powerful ember, but it’s hard to tell if he’s simply humble or, instead, deliberately blind as he never seems to feel or think about just how powerful he is, to notice how attentive Steffen is to him, how carefully everyone is focused on his training. He thinks he’s nothing special, even while being focused entirely on himself.
Matt’s spark, that magic ability that connects him to the pack, that allows him to call to them — to summon them, to dominate them, to compel them — reacts to his emotions, and it reacts most readily when he’s angry. Angry about the injustice his father faced, angry that his uncles got away with it, angry at fascism and bullies, angry at unfairness. And while anger can be a useful tool, the all-consuming rage he sometimes feels can overwhelm lesser members of his pack and cause them to react in violent ways, which is why it’s imperative he learns to control himself.
Steffen, the pack alpha, is also given time to reflect on his life, the moments that led him to be alpha of his pack, father of his people. His true mate, Tristan, is the Regional Alpha, which means the two of them are rarely together. Both have their own packs, both have assigned partners to help oversee the packs they lead, and both have to lead their own lives. It leaves Steffen feeling alone and lonely, craving those brief encounters where he can be in the arms of the man he loves. It’s hard for Tristan, too, who has to be impartial and hands-off, even when he wants to help Steffen, wants to side with him. Steffen would give up alphaship of his pack if someone stepped forward who he thought would take care of them. He wants to be at Tristan’s side, he wants to put down the responsibility he never wanted and never asked for.
Steffen put down Ulrik, an abusive and violent alpha. He did it to save his pack. And because he took his position by violence and not politics or inheritance, he’s on thin ice with the council that oversees the Vargr. Everything he does must be by the book. Every step he takes must be the right one, and it’s wearing him down. He can focus on his pack, on the young men and women who look to him for guidance, but all he wants is to guide and to help, not to lead and certainly not to rule. And credit to him that he has never taken the easy way, has never sought to hand his pack over, and has not allowed the council to put someone else in his place. Steffen will do what is right because he is an alpha. He will do what is right because he is a good person. And he will stand against the council and his mate if it comes to it.
For about the first half of the book, the focus of the story is on what Matt feels, what Matt thinks, what Matt wants. For months, and pages, it’s nothing but circular thoughts and wheel spinning as Matt thinks and feels and people talk about Matt’s thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, I appreciate the author taking the time to explore the Vargr’s power, and to explore the character growth as Matt comes to terms with his new power. But it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. For half the book, it’s repetitive and tedious and I was, frankly, bored. There were only so many times Matt could ponder how to guide his spark before I just stopped being interested.
Halfway through the book, the story picks up, and while the pace is still leisurely and thoughtful, the characters suddenly begin to do more, to talk more, to show more of the lovely and inviting Vargr society. The focus on bonds between friends, on Steffen’s story, on how the Vargr strengthen their extended family as a whole, on being there for the ones you care about returns and the story drifts on and on and on. With so much of the first book being setup and foreshadowing, I expected more from this second book. Instead, it’s introspection and slice of life moments that — don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy — they just didn’t move the story forward. And then more foreshadowing followed by more introspection. And then the rather exciting and climactic end, before it closes on a bit of a cliffhanger.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did the first one, but I did enjoy it (mostly the second half of it). I’m very invested in this world and the characters and the Vargr society, but that fondness was more for the first book. This series entry, on its own, just spent too much time doing very little while hinting that the next book would be interesting. I’m still eagerly looking forward to the third book, but I just can’t totally recommend this one.