Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Werewolves In the Mist

Benjamin Percy, Red Moon: A Novel

The Lycans live among us. They could be the pretty girl at school, the quiet guy at the factory, or the person in the next seat on the plane. They are ordinary people, but they could become cold-blooded killers. Every time some isolated Lycan lashes out at the humans around them, hateful political rhetoric notches up; and with every rhetorical increase, the chance of violence grows.

Benjamin Percy won’t let readers to dismiss his werewolf novel as mere fantasy. He works hard to spotlight the political ramifications, practically grabbing readers’ lapels to demonstrate how simplistic solutions—on either side—fail to remedy a painful situation. But by keeping the focus on his nuanced, melancholy characters, he prevents it spiraling into mere drum-beating propaganda.

When Lycans attack three transcontinental airplanes, leaving a trail of dead throughout America, young Patrick Gamble survives by sheer accident. It will be the first of several times he survives by refusing to fight. But politicians don’t learn from him, and every American Lycan gets treated like a criminal because so few acted violently. Not surprisingly, previously law-abiding Lycans feel oppressed, and rebel.

One such rebel is Claire Forrester. At an age when other girls pick colleges and boyfriends, she’s on the run from the FBI, paying for her parents’ sins which she never previously knew. Now she finds herself thrust into a world of radical politics, legalized oppression, and criminal shapeshifters. She never wanted this fight, but it chose her, and she has no choice but to see it through to the end.

Meanwhile, firebrand governor Chase Williams’ knee-jerk rhetoric draws Lycan attention. One bite, and he finds himself slowly turning into the enemy he has promised to bring down. While he keeps to the old rhetoric, riding anti-Lycan sentiment into the White House, he has to take increasingly extreme measures to conceal the fact that, on full moon nights, he feels less and less like himself.

Percy juggles these three convergent narratives, and enough subplots to fuel a cast of thousands, in a mostly satisfying manner. His savage, austere language, reminiscent of Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler, strips away all pretense and demonstrates characters at their most raw. He manages to keep characters engaged and stories moving forward without making them feel busy.

Throughout, Percy’s story mirrors the way America has treated subsets of its population in recent years. Readers who like their political symbolism oblique may not appreciate Percy’s straight-on approach. But by removing race and religion from the limelight, Percy is able to address common, widely held concerns without having to seem pedantic or preachy.

While America deals with restive Lycans at home, American troops struggle to keep the peace in the Lycan Republic. Or, let’s say, “keep the peace,” because commanders on the ground don’t even pretend they’re there for any reason than to keep the supply lines open and raw uranium flowing back to the States. Many soldiers enter the field thinking they’re doing right, and leave with more questions than answers.

A scientist with military connections stands at the verge of inventing a cure for Lycans, a mission that gains extra urgency when President Williams needs his help to conceal his growing illness. But his own ghosts won’t let him be. And Patrick finds himself needing the professor’s help when he discovers his soldier father’s strange connection to the growing research. All society may rest on an appallingly fragile foundation.

Percy’s storytelling chops resist easy designation. Though his language makes easy reading, his non-sequential structure takes some getting used to. He may jump forward several months without warning, leaving us hanging for pages before closing the gaps in flashback. His characters’ penchant for long bouts of introspection come across as either touching or tedious, depending on your taste.

And while Percy makes a good novelist, he’s less of a fantasist. His unnecessary attempt at a scientific justification for Lycans just thuds, leading to scattered moments of unintentional comedy. It feels as though, in moments of visceral terror, he forgets that horror is as horror does. He feels that he ought to explain, which isn’t his strong suit; he’s far, far better at creating characters and situations.

These problems notwithstanding, Percy creates a smart, engaging allegory that rewards attentive audiences. His structural complexity does not let us read this as a “mere” novel, demanding we read with our critical faculties engaged. Diligent readers will find plenty to like in this book that reads smoothly, but refuses to let readers down easy.

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