In This Iron Ground (Natural Magic #1), Marina Vivancos
Rating: 5 Stars
Publisher: Self Published
Genre: Gay Paranormal/Coming of Age Romance
Tags: Main Character Ages Span 13-19/15-21, Interracial MCs, Childhood Abuse, Psychological, Family, Paranormal – Pack, Werewolves. Hurt/Comfort, Romance
Length: 85,000 Words
Reviewer: Kazza K
Purchase At: amazon.com
Damien is nine years old when his parents die. What should have been the worst moment of his life begins a journey shadowed by loneliness and pain. The night of a full moon, four years and seven foster homes later, Damien flees to the forest, desperate to escape everything.
Instead, he finds the Salgado pack, and the earth beneath his feet shifts. Damien has seen the Salgado children in his school: Koko, who is in his class, and Hakan, two years older and infinitely unreachable. Damien is suddenly introduced into a world that had only ever existed in his imagination, where there is magic in the forest and the moon. He meets creatures that look like monsters, but Damien knows that monsters have the same face as anybody else.
Over the years, Damien and Hakan grow closer. First, just as friends and foster brothers in the Salgado house, and then into something heated and breathless when Damien joins Hakan at college. Despite what he may yearn for in the darkest part of the night, Damien knows, deep down in that bruised and mealy part of his core, that he’s not good enough to be part of the Salgado family, their pack. He’s not worthy of calling Hakan his home.
Even though he knows in the end it’ll hurt him, he’ll hold onto this for as long as he can.
CONTENT WARNING: This book contains themes of emotional and (nonsexual) physical child abuse and the subsequent emotional, cognitive, and behavioural impacts.
This story contains sexually explicit scenes between consenting adults and is meant for an adult audience.
This is what they didn’t tell you. Some families were given, and some families were found.
Damien Henson is a child who has been bounced around the foster care system after his parents death when he was nine. There’s been at least one decent carer but mostly he’s been told by numerous carers that he’s too much to handle, when it should be clearly understood he has unresolved grief and trauma. That he’s also bad, a rotten apple, the last one being the hardest for Damien to deal with – being rotten.
There are authority figures who care about him in the system but their hands are tied. Like Nicola, Damien’s social (or case) worker. Nicola leaves Damien with carers she hopes are good people, at least okay, but sadly what happens is there are people who want the money and benefits, not the child. They’re adults who abuse and emotionally cripple children at formative stages in their lives without a care, leaving hidden and chronic scars. The damage done to young minds is frightening, disturbing, real. Marina Vivancos’ writing is evocative, and while dealing with a tough subject, it’s not always graphic, sometimes using magic realism, and a lyrical prose to make certain experiences more abstract. Other times it’s more gritty, leaving the reader a frustrated observer of wrongs. Mostly it’s emotional as you are in the mind of an anguished thirteen year old in bad hands, one who grows into a psychologically troubled older teen.
Being placed into his latest foster home at the McKenzies, Damien is at the point of almost being unable to attach. He’s bright but his schoolwork and school life have become affected. His grades are dropping. He has no friends and feels isolated in the schoolyard, having no safe place when he leaves to go home. The McKenzies house is a place of coldness and cruelty. It’s where he is tied to chairs and a bed, sometimes having hands placed over his mouth in the dark. Damien reads comic books as an escape, to combat being moved and unloved, and he’s enamoured with the idea of superpowers, the ability of good to triumph over bad.
One full-moon night, when he’s had more than enough, Damien escapes the McKenzies and is drawn to the forest. It’s here he meets beings he never expected but accepts more readily than most would be able to. Maybe they’re here to inflict his punishment for being so troubled, exhausting, rotten.
The Salgados are local werewolves and Miakoda Salgado’s children were in the forest in wolf form when Damien sees them. When she finds the cold and frightened Damien she runs her hands though his hair to reassure him. Not at all what he was expecting.
“Are you going to kill me?” Damien asked hoarsely.
“No, pup,” the woman said, and where there should have been relief was only frustration.
“Why not?” He whispered.
Mia is the Kephalē, or head, of the local family wolf pack. She takes Damien home with her children so she can look after him until someone comes for him. Mia Salgado is a lovely soul, a fitting Kephalē of the highly regarded Salgado pack and family. It’s the beginning of growing interactions and deeper connections between the Salgado’s and the then thirteen year old Damien. One that continues to develop over the next six years of In This Iron Ground.
These creatures looked like monsters, but Damien was bound to so much worse.
The werewolf pack of this tale is one that is defined by family. By Kephalē and Ousía, not Alpha. Ousía is a spirituality that underpins a complete way of life, thinking, and behaviour. One that’s in harmony with the environment – think Mother Earth or Gaia. The werewolf pack in this world can include humans who have a receptive or conductive ability in regards to Ousía. Or, as we discover with Damien, those who are intuitive to Ousía. They can also be ritualised via shamans or witches. Mia is Native American, which definitely helps with her in-tune nature to the earth and its inhabitants. Mia’s big and gentle bear of a husband, Cameron, is African American and human, but, human or not, he is most definitely pack.
The children in the Salgado home are all born wolves and include Nadie, Hakan, Koko, and the young twins, Lallo and Dee. Each has their own personality, but Koko, who is Damien’s age and in the same year as him at school, and brother Hakan, who is two years Damien’s and Koko’s senior, become important in Damien’s world.
Koko is loud, has opinions she likes to share, and is good for the inward Damien. Hakan is reserved, caring and a quietly protective soul who watches over Damien. After a near catastrophic event involving Damien, one that you know has a profound effect on Hakan, they form a closer connection. Both boys enjoy comics and games, forming a kindred alliance. Then there’s Olive, another fostered teen who comes to their school. Damien instinctually understands her anger at adults and her feigned indifference of the world. He makes sure she is part of their little pack of friends.
There are amazing bonds that form in this book. Family. Spiritual. Romantic, although the latter doesn’t develop quickly as Damien and Hakan are thirteen and fifteen when the story begins. It’s when Damien is in his fifteenth year that he realises his attraction to Hakan, who he also thinks is unattainable. That out-of-reach feeling is further confirmed in Damien’s mind at sixteen when he tries to kiss eighteen year old Hakan before he heads off to Eketon University. It doesn’t go as Damien’s somewhat buoyed teen mind hoped and further adds to his doubts and torment. Hakan has his reasons. Even though you are never in Hakan’s head, and he isn’t particularly garrulous by nature, the reader knows he would not want to take advantage of a sixteen year old, one who is still fragile.
During the span of the book, when they are old enough, Damien and Hakan are involved with other people, especially Damien who can have sex with others but cannot form loving attachments – except for the torch he steadfastly holds for Hakan. One he thinks is secret. That Damien has feelings for Hakan is obvious to pretty much everyone, even people he has sex with, much to Damien’s dismay. That Hakan feels the same is also fairly clear to most people, to the reader, but not to Damien.
What made In This Iron Ground special for me was the care to detail around an emotionally damaged child/teen. That the main characters, and this is an ensemble cast, are all enjoyable and so easy to love or care about, each with distinct voices. Damien is a kind person, a forgiving soul, who gives far more than he ever takes, yet doesn’t believe he is good or worthy enough. He is, and I waited and hoped he might find that out. He loves that the Salgados take him into their warm family but is just as terrified they’ll find out how bad he truly is and make him leave. He is often one part wonder and three parts fear during his time with them. Always unsure. He loves the half and full-moon shifts and runs. The pack always makes sure he has someone to guide the slower human, whether that be Lallo and Dee or Hakan.
The Salgado’s live up to the word ‘family’ in all the very best ways, including unconditional love and support. It’s wonderful to read. It’s a balm to the hurt.
“I will never, ever tie you down. Ever. There is nothing you can do, and nothing you can say, that will make me hurt you. Nothing. As a Kephalē, as your foster carer, my role is to protect you. And I know that that’s hard to believe, but I’ll keep telling you, and keep showing you. That’s my job.”
I enjoyed the thoughts on living a lifestyle of Ousía – of nurturing, kindness, respect – the concept of caring for the land, the different people within. The concept that your animal is determined by the properties you have inside, human and wolf in the Salgado’s case. I’m looking forward to it being further explored in the next books.
This is a book of two parts. The first part is about 65% of the entire book. It covers the McKenzies, another foster house, then on to the Salgado’s fostering Damien. It encompasses the younger teen years through to Damien turning eighteen. It can be quite young adult to new adult in nature, including banter between teenage characters and being in the head of a teenage Damien. Being an older reader, the teen dialogue could sometimes frustrate me. On occasion I felt the writing was the lovechild of Sean Michael and Jack L Pyke with the reminiscent unfinished thoughts, sentences, and ellipses –
“You reacted to a situation that you were put in, but I can’t forget it. The way you smelt…God. I thought. I thought for sure you’d…there in mom’s arms I thought…and when they took you away in the ambulance… “That wasn’t you. As in, it was the situation, it, it, you—no one, no one deserves what you went through. Jesus, you were thirteen!”
However, teenagers can get stuck in “like” cycle conversations and also tend to fade off in their sentences, quickly being picked up by their insync peers. It is what it is, the overall writing suited the characters and situations, but if you’re older like me you may struggle with teen-talk.
Part 2 is when Damien and Hakan are at the same university together – eighteen to nineteen for Damien and (when Damien arrives) twenty to twenty-one for Hakan. This is when they eventually get together sexually, albeit a bit complicated at first, until there is a deeper connection and awakening between them. Until Damien understands. This is when the book is far more adult in nature. This is where Damien should be asserting himself more within social groups, and the people he lets in really like him a lot, but he’s still reminded of his doubts and fears, his unworthy self. His nightmares still haunt him.
As mentioned before, there are other partners for Damien, even though he loves Hakan. Even when he finally has sex with Hakan he feels there can be no future with him. Still, he can’t resist the beautiful, reserved and comforting Hakan. Hakan can’t resist the damaged but tender-hearted and resilient Damien. If you want a couple to fall neatly in love, be monogamous, have quicker declarations of love, In This Iron Ground may not be the book for you. It would be unrealistic given their ages and given their history to fall and everything is roses, but some readers do not like non-monogamy. Even by the book’s end Damien is a work in progress. No magic fix. However, if you’re looking for an evocative coming-of-age story with a romance between beautiful souls, then here it is.
I was so happy there was counselling for Damien. Very. Happy. Hakan suggests it and, true to life, Damien is resistant, even though he’s studying psychology. Trust me on this, psych student or not, teens are highly resistant to counselling, let alone abuse counselling. If they go, usually forced, they rarely go for more than one or two sessions. They tend to rebel against it and don’t see the need. Adults usually have to have a significant catalyst to make an appointment, and usually there is the motivation of the potential loss of a partner and children, sometimes a job, to seek counselling for childhood abuse. For those who are unsure, this was well written.
Having said the above, there are sections where this book can get bogged down in psychology, taking you through parts of a session with Damien and his therapist. As good as it is, CBT, thoughts not facts, subjective and objective self perspective, the overall psychology gets an excessive workout. For some people this may be quite cathartic, for me it was like work.
I loved when Hakan growled. Loved it. It meant so much. It meant love. It meant mine, and it only happens for Damien. Hakan’s half-moon shifts – awesome. Rubbing the nape of the neck was of great importance and I thought that was all kinds of hotly possessive – I really expect and like that personal possessiveness in paranormal reading.
I don’t know what the next book will be in this series, who it will be about, but I hope it’s more Damien and Hakan. If they are not primary characters, then I certainly hope they are strong secondary characters because I need some more of them.
I was thoroughly mesmerised and engrossed by In This Iron Ground from the very start. I love unusual spins on paranormal and alt-contemporary or somewhat parallel worlds – it isn’t ever specifically mentioned where this takes place, but Mia is a Native American woman and Cameron an African American man. So more than likely America, but it is never specific. I usually prefer less ambiguity around place but it worked here, allowing the characters and events to own their universe. The werewolves are not standard romance trope shifters either. Not at all. I love psychology and behaviour as a primary arc in my reading too, which this book provides. I also love lyrical writing with shifts in reality – magic realism, counter realism, poetic license, call it what you will.
No matter what, this was a deeply moving book with two of the most generous of spirit and gentle MCs I’ve encountered. Plus a wonderful family – and pack – in the Salgados. It ticked a lot of my personal reading boxes but may nonplus MM readers looking for a more conventional, monogamous, and completely adult romance. If you want something different in the gay romance genre, something touching and visceral, then I definitely urge you to read this beautiful book. 5 Stars!