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Friday, June 28, 2013

What I'm Reading: Red Moon

One of the hot books of this summer is Red Moon by Benjamin Percy.  It was being marketed as a werewolf version of Justin Cronin's The Passage which readers of this blog know I love.  In fact, Cronin even reviewed this thriller in the NY Times Book Review.

Red Moon is being hyped as a literary, supernatural thriller.  Back to yesterday's post, this is one of those examples of the blurring of genre lines to the point that no one is sure where this book should be classified.

And that is where I want to start with my review, even before I get into details about the plot because I think this is essential.  In my opinion, this novel has been marketed inaccurately. I mean, NYT Book Review?  Usually that is meant for literary books or the most literary of genre fiction.  Red Moon is not that.  And that's okay.  You need to understand the dominant genre appeal here and then you will match this book with the correct reader.

So, what type of reader would most enjoy this book? At its heart, Red Moon is a thriller in the most old fashioned, textbook sense. This is a great choice for fans of techno-thrillers [a thriller with a speculative element from plausible, but not currently possible science] more than fans of paranormal or literary thrillers.  I will explain as I begin my more traditional review now.

The setting of this speculative thriller is an alternate current America where a prion that spreads through blood, bites, or sex can make people part werewolf (or lycan as they call it).  In Percy's world, this has been going on for thousands of years.  Many of the world's lycan live in their own republic near Northern Russia.  Currently, the Americans have occupied the Lycan Republic with troops for many years, both for the citizen's safety and for the uranium.

Lycans who wish to live peacefully in American must be drugged so that they cannot change at the full moon.  They must submit to drug tests to prove they are complying.  As you see this is a dystopian set-up where lycans are going to eventually rebel. (It's kinda an obvious allegory)

The novel opens with a series of brutal lycan, terrorist attacks on airplanes (again, thinly veiled 9/11).  From there we meet our three main characters: Patrick-- the only survivor of the plane attacks, he is a teenager who lives with his National Guard enrolled Dad; Claire-- a law abiding lycan living a boring life in Wisconsin whose parents are killed by the authorities after the plane attacks; Chase-- the meathead governor of Oregon (where most of the action unfolds) with Presidential aspirations.

Patrick, Claire, and Chase narrate most of the book. Eventually their stories all collide.  There are a few other secondary characters who get to take a few turns narrating.  Percy strings the narrators together well.  Watching all of their stories work toward meeting up is interesting and will keep you interested for the 500+ pages [hopefully].

In true thriller fashion, chapters end with cliff hangers to keep you turning the pages, and although there is a lot of bloodshed along the way, the good guys win in the end [with a tiny bit of evil left to survive to maybe live another day in a sequel].  But unlike most true thrillers, there is a lot of time spent building the connections between all of the problems in the novel's world and our real life one.  This bogs it down a bit.  Also, unlike most thrillers, there is not the obvious hero to root for.  That is where the literary fiction designations start to come in.  Percy inserts symbolism and nuanced characters into what should be a straight ahead thriller filled with action.  Here the blending causes an identity crisis for the novel.

If you couldn't tell yet, I did not like Red Moon.  It dragged too much for me in the middle and the thinly veiled symbolism of our reactions to the Middle East, terrorism, AIDS epidemic, 9/11 and the current political landscape were so simple they annoyed me.  But the main reason I was not a big fan was that I read for characters, and I did not feel like Percy's main characters were developed well enough.  I got a little bit of their motivations, but never engaged with them for good or bad.  I felt like he relied on too many stereotypes. For example, I found Chase to be a flat caricature, and that is a problem since he is one of the main characters. Patrick and Claire never got their hooks in me either.  See my readalikes section below where I discuss why I think I felt this way and offer "better" suggestions.

But I could see many readers who love techno-thrillers who will eat this up.  Many people will also enjoy the mix of contemporary problems and concerns with the mythology and lore of the werewolf. Just make sure they know what to expect when you hand this hot book out to readers.

Three Words That Describe This Book: techno-thriller, werewolves, shifting pov

Readalikes:  While some fans of The Passage [mentioned at the start of this review] will enjoy Red Moon, I have a few more techno-thrillers with horror tropes and characters to suggest that I think are much better matches.

Red Moon is very much like Jonathan Maberry's best-selling techno-thriller series featuring Joe Ledger. I reviewed the first book in that series, Patient Zero, here, and wrote about the difficulty of classifying it here [includes comments by Maberry himself]. The switching of pov, the terrorism angle (only here it is scientifically created zombies instead of scientifically explained lycans), and a thriller pacing/story line are all present in the Ledger books.  You can access the entire Joe Ledger series information in detail here.

Much of what I have said in this review for Red Moon is similar to what I said about Mira Grant's Newsflesh series.  I call that one David Baldacci with zombies.  I think this trilogy would be highly satisfying to people who liked Red Moon. Click each title for a review: Feed, Deadline, and Blackout.

Please Note: in my opinion, the character development, plotting, and overall flow of the Maberry and Grant series are better than Red Moon. I think this is because Maberry and Grant are genre writers, while Percy is from the literary world.  He tried to do genre here, but it is not his natural writing style, and that shows, at least to me. For a better example of a literary writer trying to write a speculative thriller, click here to see my review of Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

If you want a nice long (500+ pages), speculative thriller like Red Moon, but, in my opinion, better because it was written by gifted writers who ply their trade in genre, I would suggest 11/22/63 by Stephen King or NOS4A2  by Joe Hill [titles link to my glowing reviews].

Finally there are some people who will read anything with werewolves.  This is an important appeal to remember for all horror and fantasy readers.  They have a creature they like more than anything else, and that is how they pick their books.  In my book I have an entire chapter on shape-shifters.  You can also click here to see what users on Goodreads have tagged as "werewolves." Also, click here for some of my thoughts on werewolves. I should probably also note here that I don't really like werewolf books, so that may have biased me.

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