Gaie Sebold's Babylon Steel by Lizzie Barrett
The Weeks that Were

Review Round-up: The Werewolves of Genre

Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, Allison Moon's Lunatic Fringe and Benedict Smith's The Pack - three 2011 werewolf releases. Are werewolves the new vampire?

The Last WerewolfIf Glen Duncan is to believed: absolutely not.

In The Last Werewolf, Jacob Marlowe, werewolf, is as thoroughly un-vampiric as possible (both in the classic and modern interpretations of the monster). Marlowe is a visceral, passionate, animal - filled with a  pungent predatory aggression that permeates his every action. The problem is, he's all musked up with nowhere to go. Marlowe's the last of his kind, and has spent the last two hundred years coming to terms with this morbid fact.

Mr. Duncan's book focuses on Marlowe as the animal-man - both superhuman and subhuman, a sort of walking Id. That alone would fill the pages of a dozen books. (Marlowe, in fact, keeps a fairly detailed journal. I'm surprised it hasn't been optioned by Starz.) He fucks and eats and smokes and fucks and fucks a bit more (there's a lot of fucking - not lovely passionate sparkle sex, but panting, sweaty mounting).

But, after two centuries, now what? Marlowe's tried indulging himself and reforming himself, and all variations in-between. But even the lustiest animal eventually tires and he's become a very old dog indeed.

For the most part, The Last Werewolf follows Marlowe as he makes this final journey - grief, anger and, ultimately, acceptance. Marlowe's quest, such as it is, is to pick his own time and place, to make his death meaningful, and not an act of senseless nihilism. The Last Werewolf is alternately beautiful and hyper-real; poignant moments interrupted by exploding viscera and passionless humping. The combination excels in this lycanthropic context as Marlowe himself oscillates between world-weary, philosophical roue and feral beast. The book stumbles briefly at the midway point when, unwilling to keep the book's conflict completely internalised, Mr. Duncan throws in an extra layer of external conflict. Galvanised by something to fight, Marlowe leaps, head-first, into a far more traditional and predictable novel.

A beautiful book (in every sense of the word), I'm sorry The Last Werewolf didn't linger more on Marlowe's initial, emotional journey. Not every battle has to be external, and Marlowe himself carried enough conflict to keep the book interesting without additional help.

Lunatic fringeAllison Moon's Lunatic Fringe keeps with the sexy, but focuses on a different aspect of the archetype: the pack mentality. Lexie Clarion is a local girl in a small Northwestern town. She's been raised by her dad and is more comfortable outdoors with his hunting buddies than with her (so-called) peers.

Lexie receives a scholarship to a nearby university and is suddenly thrown into a completely new pond. In high school, she at least knew where she fit in (or didn't). Now she's the sole 'townie' at a ritzy liberal arts college. Everyone around her is well-heeled, well-educated and well-travelled; Lexie's never been further than the Oregon Zoo. 

Lexie is on her own, supposedly adult, supposedly competent, but really, college is no better than high school. The boys have their own codes and behavior and the girls have their own mystifying pacts (and packs). Lexie doesn't know who she's supposed to be talking to and, when it comes down to it, she's too shy to say much anyway. Ms. Moon captures the face-burning agony of the first days of college exceptionally well. It is all about fitting in - and not on the rational level, but with some mysterious pheromone where things somehow click. It has nothing to do with look, dress, hair or even conversation - everything comes down to a subconcious empathy that makes people fall in together.

Of course, it isn't all intangible. Not only is there the whole level of werewolfery going on, but a few fairly explicit sex scenes showcase the physical impact of the college pheromones as well. Lexie's confusion about where and how she fits in is exacerbated as she begins to seriously consider her own sexual identity for the first time. Like The Last Werewolf, Lunatic Fringe is not for the puritanical, but, for the most part, keeps the eroticism relevant to the characters and not merely prurient. (Wolves n' sex. I guess I could've predicted it.) 

Lunatic Fringe is a pretty foxy romance and an excellent exploration of groups and identity, both of which make it a strong debut from Ms. Moon. It does suffer somewhat for its plot-related ambitions. Lexie pads quietly into the "chosen one" role by the book's final pages, and the dozens of loose threads in her life (her classmates, her father, her lover and her missing mother) are all a little too neatly connected. Ms. Moon does some limber textual acrobatics to get everything tied up, which takes the focus away from the book's strength: Lexie's empathetic longing for a community to call her own.

The PackBenedict Smith's The Pack breaks the cycle - as a YA novel, it is entirely sex free, focusing more on lycanthropy as a metaphor for adolescence.

Emily is going through all the pains and pressures of the teen years. Her best friend is more popular than she is, and has wildly different priorities. Her family doesn't understand her. Her grades are starting to tumble. Boys are looking at her in strange ways.

Emily is also wrestling with physical and mental problems that go beyond acne and sulking. She's getting... fuzzy... and even having hairballs. Plus, she's experiencing blackouts. Her family is worried and her friends think she's "sick". Theoretically, when Emily learns the truth behind her problems, she should be overjoyed. She's not going insane: she's a werewolf. There are others out there that can guide her through her changes. 

Unfortunately, the others aren't so friendly. Emily runs afoul of an ambitious werewolf pack that needs her for some mysterious reason. Rather than having the opportunity to adjust gently, Emily's thrown headlong into werewolfery - kidnapped, manipulated and then made an accomplice to their ambitious schemes. Like a child's concept of adulthood, being a werewolf seems to involve a thousand codes and secret rules, none of which are ever clearly explained. Add in adolescent crushes and feral bloodlust, and poor Emily is a-swim in a soup of confusion and conflict.

Like Lunatic Fringe, The Pack is at its best when it focuses on Emily's character development and how being a werewolf impacts her (already exhausting) teenage life. John Milius said in a recent talk at the BFI that werewolves are interesting because they're "victims": ordinary people possessed with uncontrollable urges, making them both pitiable and self-loathing. Mr. Smith deftly connects the dots between lycanthropy and adolescence, with poor Emily caught in both maelstroms.

The latter half of the book is given over to a more straightforward adventure - Emily's confusion about who she is gives way to questions about what she's doing. Taken in by the rest of the titular Pack, she's forced into action before she understands her associates' motivations. Figuring out the various werewolf schemes makes for an adventure that's easy to follow, but there's the sense that Emily is never really a true actor in her own life. The ultimate chase scene (tautly written) helps give Emily a little well-deserved control, but The Pack begs for a sequel - one in which its newly empowered heroine gets to turn the tables for a change. 


The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan is published by Canongate and available pretty much everywhere.

Lunatic Fringe by Alison Moon is published by the author and can be found at a variety of bookshops and purchased directly from the author's website (be sure to check out the awesome t-shirt range).

The Pack by Benedict Smith is published by the author and can be found on Amazon.