- Benjamin Percy
- Grand Central Publishing
- 544 pp.
- Reviewed by Susana Olague Trapani
- June 24, 2013
Werewolves, coming-of-age, and political allegory: disparate elements that mix successfully in this latest novel from Benjamin Percy.
It’s humiliating: werewolves, long the tough guys of the supernatural world, have lost their place to glittery vampires pining over teenage girls. So thank goodness for Benjamin Percy’s newest novel, Red Moon, which restores werewolves — lycans, in the book’s term — to their rightful place in the paranormal pantheon. Percy not only reminds us that werewolves aren’t wilting wallflowers willing to play second fiddle; he allows them humanity and agency, leading to a complex, intense saga that imagines an alternate history and provides contemporary political allegory.
Red Moon opens with violence. As we meet teenager Patrick Gamble, he is traveling to live with his mother while his father is deployed to the Lupine Republic, a “lycan-majority state” bordered by Finland and Russia where U.S. troops have maintained a presence for decades thanks to the Republic’s uranium reserves. Lycans, humans infected with the “lobos prion,” live worldwide but view the Republic as a homeland. Long regulated in the U.S. by laws that enforce strict medication and monitoring to keep transformations at bay, discriminated against and enraged at the continued occupation of the Republic, a group of American-born lycans turns to terrorism. They begin with a set of coordinated attacks, a clear parallel to 9/11. Patrick survives one of these terrorist attacks onboard his flight.
But Percy’s lycans don’t come in a single stripe. Claire Forrester is a high school lycan senior looking to fly away, too. On the night of the attacks, she’s considering her choice of colleges, and she hopes to move as far away as possible from Wisconsin. Her father recommends the lycan-centric William Archer University in Montana, but Claire wants to fit in with non-lycan society. Her future plans are disrupted when government agents burst into her house and gun down her parents. She flees, transforming to do so, and sets off into the world much earlier than she expected.
Though the novel devotes time to Miriam, Claire’s aunt and a disillusioned lycan revolutionary, and Chase Williams, a Tea Party-esque candidate for the U.S. presidency, Patrick and Claire are the heart of the novel. The strength of Percy’s work is his development of these two characters as they come of age amidst of a changing, violent world. However, readers should not be fooled by Patrick and Claire’s age at the start of the novel: it’s not a story meant for young adults.
The book is a saga of a country descending into a madness of its own creation. Percy’s lycans are infected humans, after all, not supernatural creatures. Lycans are subjected to second-class treatment that any reader whose ideals of freedom and free will are intact will abhor. Yet the initial air attacks, followed by other violent acts, accelerate the nation towards turmoil. The political allegory provides a sharp, critical view of the trade-offs inherent in protecting a country’s citizens while remaining true to the spirit of equality that supposedly underlies the United States.
When the radicals of each side gain power, all ideals are tossed out the window. Yet even then, these radicals are complex characters who never descend into cartoonish villainy. Where a reader may sigh and think Bush/Cheney when considering Stephen King’s antagonists in Under the Dome, Red Moon’s Williams — aided by his resourceful and loyal Chief of Staff Augustus Remington — is a subtler political adversary. Despite his anti-lycan stridency (“Extremism in the face of extremism”), Williams has his own demons to battle. Percy’s handling of the opening attacks and the building of the country’s paranoia after the event bring to mind the heightened panic in James Hynes’ Next — fear is the reaction to any event, a loss on how to proceed when something terrible happens, and the unease that sets into the narrative when the characters realize that perhaps the worst hasn’t happened yet.
Written in the present tense, Red Moon has a fast pace that never falters throughout the nearly 600 pages of the novel: a testament to Percy’s talents and the strength of the story. We become invested in the struggle to decide how life will continue after the first salvo is shot in this war. And when the titular red moon finally does appear, that life shifts from its precarious balance to the beginnings of all-out chaos. Why beginnings? No spoilers but, while Percy provides a satisfying ending, he’s also set the perfect stage for a sequel.
The book’s blurb states that the story is about the battle for humanity. But Red Moon does something deeper than pit good against evil: it asks us to consider what is humanity, what is dignity, what is equality? Percy’s written a book that reflects our unease with the universal other, and our ability to ignore a person’s innate humanity when humanity shouldn’t be in question. Both the oppressed and the oppressor thrive on anger and hate, and their collision causes an explosion of inhumanity. Therein lies the truth of the novel — in any society, this kind of horror is all too real and possible.
Susana Olague Trapani is an associate editor for the Independent.