Glen Duncan is not a coy writer. This book, it turns out, is about the last werewolf in the world. His name is Jacob Marlowe, and he’s an obsessive journal-keeper. So we get to read his story in chunks, as he has time and safety to set them down.
And, because that’s the structure, the reader never gets to feel safe. Yes, this book is a first-person narrative. Usually that wraps the reader in a security blanket: it’s all right, he’s still talking, he must still be all right. The Hunger Games trilogy tried to yank that warm shawl away by writing in the first person but also in the present tense: she’s all right now, but will she still be okay in five minutes? It didn’t work, of course. We knew Katniss would get through. We just didn’t know how, or who else would survive with her.
Duncan claims the best of both worlds. He grabs the warmth, the personal engagement that’s only possible in a first-person telling; but he insists on also keeping the tension that goes along with third-person. The reader has to wonder with terrifying regularity if she’s holding Marlowe’s last words.
If I’m talking so much about the structure and style of this novel rather than the story it tells, it’s because it holds so many surprises that it’s almost impossible to say anything about the actual plot without setting off a spoiler-bomb. And I don’t want to do that. You should read this book in as much ignorance as possible. Do not skip ahead, even a little.
Duncan is absolutely adept at camouflaging Chekhovian guns-that-must-be-fired so they look like harmless pieces of driftwood littering the landscape. The result is a story with an incredibly tight weave. Every plot twist, every bit you learn about Marlowe’s terrifying world, builds organically on everything that came before. At the same time, nothing feels overworked, and the surprises manage to surprise every time.
A few things I can say about this book without ruining the story for you:
1. Duncan grapples head-on with the money aspect of how someone manages to be immortal. I absolutely adore Buffy the Vampire Slayer (own all seven seasons on DVD, rewatch them incessantly), but it drove me absolutely NUTS that they never dealt with Angel and money. How the bleep was that guy paying for that cool leather coat? Heck, how was he paying rent? Or for his pig’s blood? It wasn’t until he got his own series that the writers starting nodding in that direction, but it still wasn’t anything like rigorous.
Glen Duncan, on the other hand, is the Jane Austen of werewolf novels – if your werewolves are inconveniently immortal, that is, and Duncan’s are. Immortality is always inconvenient when the world expects you to be a good sport and die at some point. Sure, you won’t die of old age – but you still have to eat. I’m not giving anything away when I mention that Jacob Marlowe was fortunate enough to inherit wealth as a mortal. He explains in fascinating detail how he managed to hold on to that when he started outliving everyone around him. Yes, I’m a nerd, and yes, this is the kind of thing that makes me happy as a reader.
2. The sex in this novel is really well written. We’ve all seen, and cringed at, the other kind.
3. The universe is also beautifully crafted. I couldn’t find a single loose thread, and believe me, I was looking for one.
4. This novel is brutally, but not egregiously, graphic. I’m antisocial, and usually read during at least two meals a day (as well as tea and the period after dinner I like to call “I think I’ll have a little chocolate now,” which my son and my husband, who’s violently allergic to chocolate, take as a hint to leave me alone and let me read, already). This is usually the kind of novel I wouldn’t dream of having next to my plate. I want to enjoy my chocolate, and gore tends to get in the way of my pleasure. It’s a tribute to how compelling this story is that I couldn’t put this down even during breakfast – though I did sometimes have to fast-forward a bit during some of the grittier fight scenes.
5. Glen Duncan really knows how to kick a moral compass around. Is Marlowe sympathetic? If, or when, he is, is he sympathetic because you like him in spite of himself, because you’re compelled by his story, or because so many of the people who consider themselves good guys in this story are so much worse? Just when it feels as if you can’t forgive him – and by extension yourself if you keep reading his story, because it starts to feel as if you’re condoning amorality – Duncan throws another complication into the mess.
6. Glen Duncan is also quite willing and able to kick a reader’s heart around. This book is as brutal in that respect as it is when it comes to blood and gore.
Weirdly enough, in spite of the fact that I’m giving this book such a high rating, I may not read the sequel I rushed to get from the library before I even finished this volume. I’d give away too much by even hinting at why. If you’re dying to know, you can ask me in a comment and I’ll answer there. For here, suffice it to say that I was riveted by this book, but if I want a sequel, I’ll probably be content to imagine one of my own.