Book Review: In This Iron Ground, by Marina Vivancos

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.

In This Iron Ground, by Marina Vivancos

Rating: 4.75 out of 5

This is one of those books that’s something of a rough read, but in the end is so, so worth it. Young Damien is a pawn of the foster care system. He bounces from home to home, then the bad situation is made worse when he is placed with a foster carers (not parents, never parents) who don’t know how to deal with a rambunctious 13-year-old, and resort to abusive behavior to keep him from upsetting their lives too much. This is so painful to read, as we see Damien taught that this is all he is worth, an afterthought, an outcast. Hope is the enemy because it only brings pain.

The story is told from Damien’s point of view, and the matter-of-fact statements of his own low estimation of his worth are made all the more visceral by this. The other characters are defined through Damien’s eyes. Seeing them change over the years, how the relationships with his family and friends change, and how this affects Damien are a big part of the story.

Surprisingly, the fact that the Salgados are werewolves is almost peripheral to the overall story, though it brings profound definitions of family, belonging, and spiritual balance into stark reality. Damien’s matter-of-fact acceptance of werewolves is amusing, rationalizing that werewolves are good or evil as much as humans are good or evil – the definition is in their actions, not their being. His isolation is emphasized, though, as he feels that as a human, he is a friend of the pack but can never truly be a part of it.

Vivancos’ writing can be straightforward, but in some of Damien’s early trauma the writing is almost impressionistic, leaving the reader as unsure of reality or fantasy as Damien is. The extended passages of a college-age Damien speaking with a therapist as he strives to find personal balance are absolutely spot-on. Honestly, I recognize some approaches and techniques I’ve discussed with my own therapist (though for very different reasons). This really made the book personal for me, and is one of the reasons I loved it so much. The fact that the ending made me cry (in a happy way!) didn’t hurt either.

I highly recommend this book. It can be a rough ride emotionally, but the journey is absolutely worth it!