Thursday, 17 April 2014

Review: 'Red Moon' by Benjamin Percy

They live among us.

They are our neighbours, our mothers, our lovers.

They change.

When government agents kick down Claire Forrester's front door and murder her parents, Claire realizes just how different she is.

Patrick Gamble was nothing special until the day he got on a plane and hours later stepped off it, the only passenger left alive, a hero.

Chase Williams has sworn to protect the people of the United States from the menace in their midst, but he is becoming the very thing he has promised to destroy.

So far, the threat has been controlled by laws and violence and drugs. But the night of the red moon is coming, when an unrecognizable world will emerge...and the battle for humanity will begin.

I’m not generally a huge fan of paranormal fiction, but Red Moon – a dystopian, post-apocalyptic horror-thriller – isn't half bad. Set in something close to the present-day USA, the premise is that around 5% of the population are infected with Lobos, a prion that causes them to become werewolves, or lycans. Lycans – which are thought to have existed since around the 7th century – live amongst humans, but not as equals: most are feared and reviled, and a fierce political battle has been ongoing as to whether they should be treated as humans or second class citizens, people or dogs. Central to this debate is Chase Williams, a rebellious governor who has gained huge popular support due to his outspoken anti-lycan policies, which include forcing all lycans to sign a public register and declare their lycan status on all forms of ID. This sparks an escalating conflict between the American government and a small group of lycans led by the mysterious Balor, who will stop at nothing until the country belongs to the ‘superior’ lycan race.

The story is told from several characters’ point of view, the central ones being Claire (a lycan since birth who dreams of going to college and meeting boys), Patrick (whose father fought against the lycans in the great wars) and Chase, the aforementioned politician. Each of these characters start out being interesting and sympathetic, and the fact that they each have completely different backgrounds means we’re given varying insights into the social and political situation. Other point of view characters include Miriam, Claire’s kick-ass lycan aunt, and Neal Desai, a scientist who has been working with Patrick’s father for years to try and produce a vaccine against Lobos.

I said above that each of the main characters start out being interesting and sympathetic; unfortunately, for me, they didn’t really stay that way. Chase’s roguish disregard of everyone and everything other than himself was charming at first, but quickly became dull. Patrick switched from an insecure but likeable young man unsure of his place in the world to a flat and indistinct automaton. And, after her initial introduction, I found that I really didn’t sympathise much with Claire, and found her various shifts in personality (from her lack of emotion over her parent’s fates to her willingness to trust an entire fraternity of strange men to her sudden desire for revenge against her own race) to be very superficial and not developed thoroughly enough. This is partly a consequence of the many confusing time jumps, in which it’s often unclear exactly how much time has passed between events, resulting in seemingly unexplainable character personality shifts. Another aspect of the sequencing that jarred was the frequency of ‘fade to black’ moments, where the author seems to be building up to an exciting event only to suddenly end the chapter and have the character briefly recount the scene for us later, completely deflating the tension by insisting on telling rather than showing us what happened. I feel that, in this way, the author missed some crucial opportunities for making a good book great.

My major gripe, however, was something I just couldn’t get away from. As a general rule I absolutely despise books written in the present tense: I find them jarring, annoying and totally non-immersive. There are very few exceptions to this rule, and unfortunately Red Moon is not one of them. This, coupled with the occasionally confusing timeline, did sometimes seem to make the book a bit of a chore to read; however, I appreciate that this is entirely a matter of personal preference.

This may all seem a little harsh, but believe me, there’s also plenty to like here. The numerous scientific explanations of the Lobos infection are fascinating; I felt they were one of the novel’s strongest points, as they gave credence to the whole setup and occasionally had me sitting back and thinking, ‘yeah, this could totally happen!’. I mentioned above that I’m not usually a fan of werewolf stories, but the fact that the explanation for their transformation was scientific rather than paranormal made it a lot more palatable to me. Because of this I really enjoyed Neal Desai’s chapters, although unfortunately they are few and far between. He is easy to sympathise with, he has strong motives for everything he does, and the way he is coerced into joining Chase’s political campaign is really interesting. It’s just a shame he didn’t have more page time: I think the author really could have made something of him as a main character by focusing on his search for a cure. As it is, it never really feels like there’s that much at stake with regards to the vaccine, whereas I would have preferred to see this plotline built up a lot more.

I did like the plentiful amount of subtext in the book, which was fairly ‘in your face’ yet not too preachy. The author manages to sneak in plenty of astute political and social commentary and criticism, from the politicians who only care about tragedy in terms of how it affects their campaign, to the terrorists who are somehow worse because they’re lycan terrorists, to the ‘big brother’-style state of domestic surveillance, to the ongoing battle between the US and the ‘Lycan Republic’ that they occupy.  The beauty of the werewolf tale in general is that it works on many levels: as an allegory for race, social class, religion, you name it, it works. I think what I liked most about this particular use of such allegory was that it hammered home the point that there are bad people in every group, that it’s our actions rather than our race that determine whether we are human or monster, and that entire groups shouldn’t be demonised just for the actions of a few.

Serious bits aside, the other main attraction of the book is that lots of things happen. It starts strongly with an opening scene full of great tension and visuals, and continues with generally strong, fast pacing throughout. The action is plentiful, fun and bloody, and there are some brilliantly gory and memorable images: those that particularly stand out are the massacre at the hot springs, the lycan attack on the plane, and of course the grisly human larder in the secret base.  I have to say, though, it turns pretty bleak towards the end, although I think the author did well to avoid a clich├ęd ending (such as that in the movie adaptation of World War Z).  And, despite its bleakness, I have to say I really liked the post-apocalyptic turn towards the end, set mainly in the newly-created, lycan-inhabited Ghostlands following a nuclear explosion. But, while the ending is open for a sequel, the main point of the ending is that we don’t know what will happen to humanity: I think, as an ending, it has way more impact if the author keeps it that way.

My rating: 3/5

Click here to view Red Moon on Amazon UK

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