Benjamin Percy's supernatural novel is audaciously complex and hauntingly composed.
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A lesser writer might have made this plague the product of some sinister government bio-weapon project, but Percy isn't interested in ersatz monsters; in his world, those carrying the Lobos infection have been side by side with us for centuries, manifesting as Native American "skinwalkers" and as a fragile "Lycan Republic" gouged out of the Russian-Finnish border after the defeat of Nazi Germany. A certain level of self-control can keep a lycan from transforming, while prejudice keeps lycans a suspected class: the civil rights movement of this world involved lycans, and in the era paralleling our own, mandated blood tests and medications are among the legal restrictions on the minority. And the US military, in a mordant echo of recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan, are engaged in a long-term slog to bring "order" to the Lycan Republic.Skip to next paragraph
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Feared but tolerated, lycans largely hide their natures, though some take family outings to Canada to let the wolf run free, while resentment on both sides builds. And the first live lycan that we meet – the one sporting that bony grin – is putting in motion an act of all-too-familiar terror designed to jump-start chaos. The main intelligence behind such plotting is a lycan leader named Balor, whose scariest attribute is not his shapeshifting but his charismatic ruthlessness. Meanwhile, his opposite numbers in the were-hating community (racist skinheads tattooed with silver bullets, plus assorted governmental allies) play along with apparently equal relish for bloodletting. The radical lycans unleash further destruction, described with an unflinching, gore-drenched specificity, on their former neighbors, sowing fear and death via both car bombs and claws. The nation spirals into panic as anti-lycan sentiment boils over.
Although the story shifts to take in multiple points of view, heroes and villains alike, it largely unspools through the experiences of three people: Claire Forrester, a young lycan turned into a fugitive when shadowy forces appear at her suburban home; Patrick Gamble, a teen who has lost his mother to the infection, and his father to the war in the Republic; and Chase Williams, a maverick politician and former soldier, whose own infection with the virus becomes a secret that must be buried as he aims himself at the White House. Claire (whose family is, it turns out, deeply enmeshed in the Resistance that led to the current terror) is captured by lycans of psychotic cruelty and rescued by her intrepid aunt, Miriam, a woman of courage and pluck who herself becomes their target – and a fascinating character in her own right. Patrick, meanwhile, escapes death in the initial attack only to confront far deeper horrors as a soldier in the Republic. And as Chase rides the mounting wave of civil unrest to a political summit, he becomes the embodiment of brutal repression, even as he finds the call of the lycan within to be increasingly seductive. Through all of this, Balor is planning a truly irrevocable, global transformation, a variation on the fabled zombie apocalypse.
These strands of the ensuing page-turner are carefully braided, though sheer coincidence has to be used to splice some of the threads in the book's final act. But the book's ability to capture our jittery state of "see-something-say-something" in its fictional mirror makes "Red Moon"'s few plot contrivances more than forgivable. And Percy – whose previous novel "The Wilding" proved his eye for both natural beauty and psychological chasms – ballasts his nightmare with a poet's more natural magic. In one scene, as Patrick faces an unknown threat in the dark, he "retrieves the baseball bat and strangles his hands around the grip and swings open the door and steps into the dark throat of the hallway." Fear, this book reminds us, is a beast that's always hungry.