Title: Off the Beaten Path
Author: Cari Z.
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Length: 200 Pages
Category: Fantasy, Paranormal, Shifters
At a Glance: After reading so many reviews of this author’s work, and finally having the opportunity to be a first-time reader myself, I can see what all the praise is about. Off the Beaten Path is a great addition to the shifter sub-genre.
Reviewed By: Lisa
Blurb: When Ward Johannsen’s little girl Ava shifted into a werewolf, she was taken into custody by the feds and shipped off to the nearest pack, all ties between father and daughter severed. Ward burned every bridge he had discovering her location, and then almost froze to death in the Colorado mountains tracking her new pack down. And that’s just the beginning of his struggle.
Henry Dormer is an alpha werewolf and an elite black ops soldier who failed his last mission. He returns home, hoping for some time to recuperate and help settle the pack’s newest member, a little pup named Ava who can’t shift back to her human form. Instead he meets Ward, who refuses to leave his daughter without a fight. The two men are as different as night and day, but their respect for each other strikes a spark of mutual interest that quickly grows into a flame. They might find something special together—love, passion, and even a family—if they can survive trigger-happy pack guardians, violent werewolf politics, and meddling government agencies that are just as likely to get their alpha soldiers killed as bring them home safely.
Review: A parent’s fear for a child and his willingness to do whatever it takes to get her back, including using illegal means to walk straight into a den of wolves, sets the foundation for Cari Z.’s Off the Beaten Path. Ward Johannsen’s desperation to find his little girl, who was taken from him when she shifted into a wolf, and given to the nearest pack, begins not only the story but the building of his character as well. Ward’s devotion to his daughter is steadfast, and it’s his fierce love for her that makes him fearless when he comes face to face with Henry Dormer, the pack alpha—then Ward must confront the consequences of his trespassing. Ward might be slight in stature and frail of body, but there was no one, not even an alpha werewolf, who was going to keep him from his child. I loved Ward, without question, from the moment he appeared on the page.
This alternate reality, where werewolves are a protected species and the government controls everything from their cell phones to their media to the movies they’re allowed to watch, comes with a much greater caveat. They also must justify this protected status—alphas are required to serve as military operatives, sent into the most dangerous of situations with no guarantee of their survival, and this presents as a sort of systemic prejudice as the story progresses. Henry is a major in the Army, and has just returned from a failed mission that exacted a soul-deep toll on him. While honor, duty, loyalty and his sacrifice are all hallmarks of his character, the good of the pack and his bond with his sister, Sam, weigh heavily on him in his absences. His pack suffers when he’s gone, and the turmoil this causes within him is what makes him the strong and solid alpha with a softer side to him. He’s determined to keep his pack whole and healthy. But he’s lonely, if not a little broken too, and I love how Ward notched into Henry’s life so well.
One of the things Cari Z. did to keep this story fresh and give it a leg up over other shifter novels is avoiding the instant mate-bond in building Henry and Ward’s relationship, something I appreciated more than I can express. There was no doubt a connection between them, but it wasn’t based on feral sex or magick chemistry. Though there was definite attraction there, the relationship was built around a growing mutual respect and regard for each other, and while they may have been opposites in some significant ways, their coming to care for each other was warm and familial:
“I’d seen enough movies to know that a feeling of contentedness wasn’t exactly what was popular when it came to romance. Where was the burning passion, where was the desperate desire? It was different for me, though, at least right now.”
Ward represents comfort and stability to Henry, and their relationship was not only about falling in love with someone because of how they make you feel but falling in love with the way they feel like home and comfort.
The core conflict in the story revolves around Ava’s shift and the fact that she’s been stuck in wolf form, unable to transition back to human. I appreciated the way things were layered into the storyline, no info dumps or difficult to disseminate details. I liked how matter-of-fact the werewolves in our own world was—no deep exploration of the hows and whys, it just was, and I bought into it. This felt like a world that could coexist with our own, and I liked the rising tension that came with what would become of little Ava if Henry and Ward failed to coax her out of her shift. Pack tempers flare as well, as Henry struggles to maintain, and I liked how it all came to a head, especially in the role Sam and her husband Liam played. It all made for a lovely wrap-up.
Cari Z. has such a great writing voice. Because both Ward’s and Henry’s stories were important to the overall plot, individually, telling the story in the alternating first person was the perfect option. The dialogue, something that can make or break a book for me, is composed of authentic conversation that never reads as stilted or, worse, cringe-worthy. It helps tell the story and allows the characters to develop as people rather than simple one-dimensional characters on the page.
After reading so many reviews of this author’s work, and finally having the opportunity to be a first-time reader myself, I can see what all the praise is about. Off the Beaten Path is a great addition to the shifter sub-genre, something a little different, and I enjoyed sinking into this world for a while.
You can buy Off the Beaten Path here: