I’m not much for paranormal fiction (except, I suppose, zombies). I never read a lot of vampire fiction — be it Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer — and so I’ve largely avoided the various books about other things that go bump in the night. But in the past few months I was sent a couple of books about werewolves, and I thought it might be fun to read them all in a batch and see how they compare. These three are very different books, not at all aimed at the same target audience, so it’s interesting to see how each author decided to handle the werewolf mythos. The Pack is pulpy adult horror fiction; Wereworld is middle grade fantasy; The Last Werewolf is adult literary fiction. (I’ve saved the best for last.)
The Pack by Jason Starr
The Pack is from Berkley UK, Penguin’s new sci-fi/fantasy imprint. While I’m all for more sci-fi and fantasy, I’ll tell you right up front: I don’t know that I can really recommend this book. But I’ll tell you what sparked my interest in the book, what irritated me about it, and you can decide for yourself. [Note: This review contains spoilers.]
So here’s the premise: Simon Burns, New York City ad executive, gets fired from his job, and ends up taking on a stay-at-home dad role for a while. He runs into a couple other guys when he takes his three-year-old to the playground, and feels that there’s something different about them. But then a guys’ night out goes gets way out of hand, and things start changing in Simon’s world.
All right: that’s pretty much what I knew going into the book. Between the back cover and the publicity info (and the title), you can pretty much guess that it’s a werewolf book. I was curious about how much the stay-at-home dad role played into the book, and I admit I was curious about the werewolves-in-NYC idea. Well, most of the first chapter is about Simon going to work, expecting a big promotion … and then getting fired. It’s a surprise to nobody but him, because you knew going into the book that he’s going to be a stay-at-home dad. And maybe it’s because I’m not in the cutthroat world of advertising, or maybe because I already knew the outcome, but the office politics scenes just kinda fell flat.
So, then Simon and his wife Alison have a long discussion, and they decide to fire their nanny and have Simon stay at home for a while. The next scene is like something from Mr. Mom: his son Jeremy has a major meltdown when he discovers his beloved nanny isn’t coming back; and then he throws a fit on the way to the park, at the park, while leaving the park; Jeremy has to go poop but the bathroom at the pizza place is out of order — and wouldn’t you know it, Simon is on foot and doesn’t have a change of clothes. Oh, and then of course Simon sticks his kid in front of the TV for hours, and his wife comes home to a messy apartment and no dinner.
Fast forward: Simon meets these new guys, who are all really buff, surprisingly fast, and seem to be able to hear and smell really well. (One of them notices his son needs a diaper change from across the playground.) He joins them for a night out, and wakes up naked in a forest in New Jersey … oh, and his jerk boss that fired him turns up dead in a neighboring town, apparently mauled by a wolf. Hmmmm.
Meanwhile, there’s a subplot about Olivia, a thirty-something single woman who decides to take a wild chance and goes home with this mysterious guy, Michael, she meets at a bar. There’s just something about him that she can’t resist: the way he bosses her around, is physically rough, and then dismisses her when he’s had enough for the night. Yeah, it sounds like a totally abusive relationship (even to Olivia’s friend) and she just can’t get enough of it. And this Michael guy? Guess what: he’s the leader of this pack of dads.
You can kind of see where this is going. But Simon can’t. In fact, despite the fact that between his story and Olivia’s you know that Michael is a werewolf, that fact isn’t really revealed until about three quarters of the way into the book, as if it’s this big surprise. Surprise! And you get people in the book who, despite being told that somebody is a werewolf, despite watching somebody change into a wolf right in front of them, dismiss the idea and go on living their oblivious lives.
The book is sort of a male power fantasy — like a trashy romance novel for guys, and not in a healthy way. It’s about women who complain about not having enough sex, and a change that makes Simon and the others strong and fast and virile (and hairy). Suddenly he has friends, he can satisfy his wife, and he goes from being a vegetarian to wanting meat all the time. Oh, and he’s suspected of murder, so there’s that.
Having just come from reading the beautifully-written Angelmaker, it was a pretty rough transition to The Pack, which relies on cliched dialogue and stereotypical husband-and-wife dynamics. While I thought the idea of a New Yorker stay-at-home dad werewolf was a fascinating premise, the execution really didn’t live up to it. I know that Jason Starr has a sequel coming out soon, but in my opinion this is one pack I have no desire to join.
Now here’s a werewolf book with a curious pedigree. Though you may not have heard the name Curtis Jobling before, you’re probably familiar with one of his projects: Bob the Builder. Yep, Jobling is the designer of the TV show, and has also worked on puppet painting for Mars Attack and A Close Shave. But apparently, aside from teaching kids conflict resolution and cooperation, Jobling has a thing for middle-grade fantasy fiction. Can he write it? Yes, he can!
Ok, sorry. That’s the last of the Bob the Builder jokes, I promise.
[Note: some minor spoilers ahead.]
Wereworld: Rise of the Wolf is set in the kingdom of Lyssia, a land where there are were-beasts of all sorts: wolves, bears, lions, foxes, snakes, and so on. The therianthropes, as they are known, are also the ruling class of Lyssia: only noble blood has the ability to shape shift.
Drew is a poor farm kid living near a remote seaside village, and he knows little of this history. But one night, a vicious beast breaks into his house and kills his mother — and Drew himself changes uncontrollably into a wolf himself. When his father returns, finding Drew bent over the dead mother, he is convinced Drew is the killer and attacks, forcing Drew to flee into the woods.
Eventually, of course, Drew learns more about his own nature — for one, that the farmer and his wife weren’t his real parents. The kingdom of Lyssia, under the rule of King Leopold (the lion), is suffering, and everyone suspects that Drew is the fulfillment of a prophecy: a warrior hero who will free them from Leopold’s brutal reign. But Drew isn’t so sure: he’s just a kid, not a leader, and he just wants to get away.
Jobling did a good job of setting up the world, and the idea of were-beasts as rulers is one I hadn’t seen before. As with The Pack, these were-beasts don’t change with the moon, but can release the creature within in times of strong emotion. Drew, being a wolf, does have a particular attraction to the full moon, but it’s not necessary for his transformation.
The writing is a little awkward in places — not terrible, but not thrilling, either. It falls pretty squarely in the realm of middle-grade fiction that is fun to read for the action and plot, but not for its high literary merit. It does take a little time for Drew to finally transform for the first time, which really sets the story going, so the first chapter is a bit slow, but once it gets going there’s plenty of action and drama. The story so far does follow the traditional “hero’s journey”: an ordinary kid discovers he is, in fact, not ordinary; he loses his family (through death and exile); he learns more about his own abilities. There’s the expected dramatic showdown between Drew — a noble with a heart for the people — and King Leopold the tyrant, and while the story does end on a happy note, it’s definitely setting up for further conflicts in the next book.
There are three Wereworld books already out in the UK, though book two, Rage of Lions, is just coming to the US in June. If you’ve got kids who are into fantasy, have them give Wereworld a go. It’s a good mix of the traditional pre-industrial society with shape-shifters, and looks like it could be the start of a very fun ride.
Okay, so here’s the werewolf book written for literature snobs (like me). You know you’re not reading a light novel when the word ontological appears on the first page, non-ironically. The Last Werewolf is like that. (There’s even a soundtrack!)
Of the three werewolf books here, this one is the closest to the traditional mythos: werewolves change at the full moon, and getting bitten by a werewolf is what turns you into one — as long as you don’t die. You have to use silver to kill them, whether it’s a bullet or a blade. There are vampires in this book, too — somewhat traditional as well: immortal, wooden stake through the heart, some of them can fly, sunlight can kill them.
Jacobe Marlowe is somewhere around 200 years old — although werewolves aren’t immortal, they do live for a very long time, and look pretty much the way they do when they were turned. And, as the title suggests, he’s the last one. When the book opens his friend Harley is informing him that the only other known werewolf has just been killed — and this leads to some existential angst on Jake’s part. He’s been around long enough that he’s just not really interested anymore. He’s pretty much ready to just wait until the next full moon and let WOCOP (World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena) hunt him down and put him out of his ennui.
The reason there are so few left is that, for a while now, nobody has been surviving werewolf bites, so there haven’t been any new ones. Also, there’s the problem that there aren’t any female werewolves. Harley, an old man by now, has been Jake’s cover for much of his life: he serves as Jake’s mole in WOCOP, and arranges false identities and convoluted trip itineraries to keep Jake hidden. After all, if you change once a month and have to eat humans each time you do, that’s a lot of dead bodies to cover up.
The Last Werewolf is a bizarre hybrid: yes, it’s paranormal horror fiction. There are werewolves and vampires, violence and gore and sex. (Definitely not for kids.) But it’s also highbrow literary fiction: Duncan’s a masterful writer who can weave a tapestry of words when the need arises, and then pierce it with the crudest language. Although it’s a fantasy, you find yourself really drawn into the “reality” of Jake’s situation — the logistics of being a werewolf for so long, the weariness of continuing to run and hide from the Hunt. The literary allusions he makes are numerous and wide-reaching, and I’m sure I missed many of them. Jake’s sense of humor is understated and very British, and as he narrates the book (this is purportedly his memoir) you really get to know him well, warts and all.
There are, of course, twists. It wouldn’t be an interesting book if Jake rolled over and died at the next full moon, would it? But I’ll let you discover that for yourself. Ultimately, it wasn’t just the plot that held my attention (though you will want to know what happens next) but Jake’s voice and the way he tells the story.
As bizarre as it seems, I find myself recommending a werewolf book. I’d been told that The Last Werewolf wasn’t a typical werewolf book, and it sat on the shelf for over a year before I finally picked it up and started reading it (enough time that it’s now out in paperback). I really should have listened sooner.
Note: Post updated to include the UK cover of The Pack.
Disclosure: GeekDad received review copies of these books.