The Short Version: After a horrific attack on three planes by lycan terrorists leaves only one young man alive, the United States turns rancid with hatred for those infected with the disease. A small group of separatists continue to strike at the government while two teens find themselves caught up in a struggle far larger than themselves. In a stunning allegory for our present, Ben Percy drags werewolves and horror writing into the realm of the literary.
The Review: Is it a strange thing to consider that a werewolf novel might, in fact, be the best 9/11 novel written so far? Or at least that I’ve read, so far – I’m sure there are more evocative and beautiful pieces of literature dealing with the events of that day… but I can’t say I’ve seen one that presents such entertainment while also delivering on the allegorical front.
Much has been made, as it was when Colson Whitehead wrote his zombie novel (also a work of socio-political reflection), of a “literary” author “slumming” it in genre fiction. I hope, sincerely, that this novel helps put to rest some of those ridiculous and inaccurate terms – because while this is a vicious and bloody novel involving people who transform into wolf-like humanoids (wolfmen moreso than werewolves), it’s also a really rather searing look into our own xenophobia, into the future of infectious disease, and into the politics of fear. I had no idea, going in, that the novel was going to base itself so strongly in our reality but I’m so glad that it did.
The terror attack that opens the novel – which I’m pretty sure I once saw in an episode of Fringe, by the way – has such strong symbolic resonance that I’m sure it could turn a reader off. Three planes, simultaneous events – even so far as one crashing in a field. But this is a world in which Islamic fundamentalism isn’t even a concern. Percy takes that single inciting event for the great struggle of the last 12 years and flips it on its head: the ‘villains’ are literally just like us – except they’ve been infected with a disease. I mean, he even drives it home when a member of the military mentions that the intractable US occupation of the Lycan state has its roots in when the US provided the Lycans with weapons to fight the Russians. The Afghan parallel couldn’t be more obvious – and really, the whole novel is brilliant social commentary. Although I do worry that a casual reader might almost miss the forest for the trees, getting so caught up in the well-wrought story that the underlying meaning glides past.
Percy takes on a heap of issues here and some of them he deals with better than others – I think the weakest plot is Chase’s – he’s the plain-talkin’ governor-then-Presidential candidate. This isn’t much of a spoiler, it’s mentioned on the flap synopsis, but he gets infected and is trying to hide it from the world as he’s running for and then taking office… and while there are interesting echoes of Presidents Bush and Bartlet, Chase never quite feels fully realized. He’s there to serve a purpose as opposed to being a part of the story – and while his story was interesting, it didn’t feel as developed or interesting as Patrick’s or Claire’s.
Our star-crossed lovers – people’ve brought up the Romeo & Juliet angle and I honestly think that’s a bit much, although on a basic level they’re not wrong – certainly have the most to do and find themselves as ordinary people at the center of extraordinary events. It may be something close to a twist too far to discover that Patrick’s father was more involved in the lycan struggle than Patrick knew – but it mirrors the revelation about Claire’s family, just coming far later in the novel. We see them on ‘either side’ of the dividing line between human and lycan but they embody the gray area that’s the reality of that line – they’re the ones who show that human beings are complex and cannot be defined by a single trait.
Speaking, though, of a twist too far: I take a little bit of an issue with Part III of the novel. Up to that point, we’re looking at a world that seems remarkably like our own: the threat of insurgency in our own borders, the rampant paranoia, all of that stuff. It all felt relatable, for better or for worse. But (and I won’t say what the twist is, exactly) when Ben moves the novel into more speculative and apocalyptic territory, I think the work suffers. The final Part moves altogether too swiftly towards its conclusion – as though an editor said “hey, listen, you have to wrap this up one way or another” and so everything sort of converges in a slightly too-fateful way. The trigger is a strong one – and Mr. Percy terrifyingly points out a potentially major flaw in our national security scheme – but the aftermath just feels a little flat compared to the rest of the novel.
Percy’s writing, by the way, is wonderful. He maintains a slight detachment but in a pulse-steadying way – to put it more metaphorically, the blood is spurting all over the place but he makes sure that you never get it on your shoes. He manages to slip in smart moments of real life – a description by Patrick of Malerie sounds exactly like a high schooler might describe the dangerous girl he’s seeing – while also ensuring that you know what the scene looks like… before dropping all of that realness into a boiling cauldron of adrenalin and horror.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I really wish, for the sake of the excellent allegory at play here, I could give this book 5 stars – but the final hundred pages, especially the ending itself, feel like a bit of a letdown from the rest of the novel. Not terribly! It’s still very well-written, the action is exciting, the characters are still great – but it just feels too simple for a, to that point, very complex book. And it’s the complexity of the rest of the book that really makes this worth reading – I mean, who’d’ve ever thought a werewolf novel would be the 9/11 allegory that finally works?