At the outset of Red Moon, Patrick Gamble, the teenage son of a single soldier, is having one of those mornings. You know:
A what the hell morning. His father is leaving his son, is leaving his job at Anchor Steam, is leaving to fight a war, his unit activated. And Patrick is leaving his father, is leaving California, his friends, his high school, leaving behind everything that defined his life, that made him him.
It’s enough to inspire violent fantasies in the mind’s eye of our protagonist, already unbalanced on the flight towards his new life in Portland, but though Patrick might feel “like punching through windows, torching a building, crashing a car into a brick wall, he has to stay relatively cool. He has to say what the hell. Because his father asked him to.” So he sucks it up. Lets his worries wash over him while he waits, as patiently as he’s able, for his turn in the toilet a few aisles back.
But the man who went into the bathroom a few moments ago doesn’t come out. Or rather, he doesn’t emerge a man, but a monster.
Of course he knows what the thing is. A lycan. He has heard about them his whole life, has read about them in novels, history books, newspapers, watched them in movies, television shows. But he has never seen one, not in person. Transformation is forbidden.
The lycan moves so quickly it is difficult for Patrick to make sense of it—to secure an image of it—except that it looks like a man, only covered in downy gray hair, like the hair of the possum. Teeth flash. Foam rips from a seat cushion like a strip of fat. Blood spatters, decorating the porthole windows, dripping from the ceiling. It is sometimes on all fours and sometimes balanced on its hind legs. Its back is hunched. Its face is marked by a pronounced blunt snout that flashes teeth as long and sharp as bony fingers, a skeleton’s fist of a smile. And its hands—oversize and pouched and decorated with long nails—are greedily outstretched and slashing in the air. A woman’s face tears away like a mask. Ropes of intestine are yanked out of a belly. A neck is chewed through in a terrible kiss. A little boy is snatched up and thrown against the wall, his screams silenced.
Patrick and the pilots are the only survivors. The pilots were locked up in the cockpit, unable to do anything to help, but at the very least protected. Patrick, however, had to play dead under a dead person while the lycan raged a hair’s breadth away.
When the plane touches down and the terrorist is taken care of, Patrick emerges a wreck. The media immediately declare him a hero, but he doesn’t feel like one. He feels… like fighting back.
In the aftermath of this ghastly attack—one of three staged simultaneously—Claire Forrester’s future hangs in the balance. She’s a lycan too, like so many Americans are in the milleu of Red Moon, but till now she’s taken her meds. Till now she’s voluntarily repressed the animal urge that rises inside her in times of stress. But when men in black storm her home and shoot her daddy dead because of long-since severed connections to pro-lycan protests, she can’t help herself. She changes… escapes… takes refuge with her militant Aunt Miriam.
Miriam, however, has problems of her own. She fears her estranged husband may be one of the monsters responsible for what the President calls “a coordinated terror attack directed at the heart of America.” She can’t be sure, but it’s certainly true that he’s fallen in with a bad lot: a cell of violent lycans who believe Miriam knows enough about their organisation to represent a real threat.
Together, then, Claire and Miriam work day and night to prepare themselves for whatever’s on the way. Making the most of the bad lot they’ve got, they practice transforming. They learn to carry weapons with them at all times. They board up the windows and doors with two-by-fours. They have a sense that something’s coming, you see. And something is. Something wicked.
Not unrelatedly, presidential candidate Chase Williams sees the lycan uprising as a powerful platform from which to ram home his campaign. He wants nothing more than to obliterate the lycan menace. If he has his way—and he very well may—everything will be different:
With the new year, all IDs will note lycan status. The lycan no-fly will remain in effect indefinitely. A database, accessible to anyone online, will list every registered lycan, along with their addresses and photos. Antidiscrimination laws will be lifted: it will be legal for a business to deny service and employment to a lycan […] in light of recent and repeated attacks.
Luckily, there are other, less repulsive perspectives. As the outgoing President stresses:
This is not the time to lash out at our lycan neighbors, who live peacefully among us and who are registered and monitored and, with the help of strictly prescribed medication, have forgone their ability to transform. Remember that to be a lycan is not to be an extremist, and I would encourage patience among the public while the government practices its due diligence in pursuing those responsible for this terrible, unforgivable catastrophe.
At the end of the day, of course, it’ll come down to the people. And what does America want more? War? Or peace?
Take a wild guess.
Red Moon is a real beast of a book: epic, ambitious, and unafraid to ruffle a few feathers—or hairs, I dare say. You have to admire Benjamin Percy’s earnestness, if nothing else. But never mind how crestfallen I felt at the end of the day… at this early stage, that’s hardly fair. Indeed, there are a fair few reasons to recommend this long and admirably involved novel. Percy invests heavily in setting, builds out his world reasonably believably, and though I would have appreciated a more global focus from the first, eventually Red Moon does move to pastures new.
Again to his credit, Percy takes his tale to some very dark places, turning in a number of truly terrifying sequences, the first of which—let’s call it Werewolves on a Plane—seems to set the scene for a potentially thoughtful and provocative novel. But it doesn’t, ultimately. This, we realise, isn’t that. There are several such set-pieces yet ahead, and some surprisingly graphic violence, but these fail to feed into the fiction, especially as regards the characters, in a meaningful manner. They serve solely to shock and awe, which indeed they do, at least until we see how isolated they are from the entire.
That said, the author’s willingness to lay waste to the world the book begins with pleased me a great deal. All too often authors, particularly authors of successful series, appear afraid of change: they become so attached to their creations that they simply hit reset at the end of any given text, reinstating some status quo. This is not true of Red Moon. Not by a long shot. Come the conclusion, almost everything is up for grabs, and I can get behind a little unpredictability.
Sadly, that’s exactly what the central characters lack. Unpredictability, spontaneousness—any real signs of life, aside some angst and a smattering of uglies being bumped. Claire and Patrick just didn’t convince me. From the former’s practically random changes of heart to the latter’s lack of reaction to the horrific thing he’s a part of in the first chapter, Red Moon’s protagonists struck me as comprehensively constructed. Made to order, one imagines, for the target audience.
It’s easier to buy into Percy’s adult characters, most notably Miriam, but the young leads are undeniably lacklustre.
What really ruined Red Moon for me, though, was the characterisation of the lycans as every bogeyman ever. Percy alternately casts them as terrorists, sex offenders, thugs ready to rape or mug or murder anyone who offends them; meanwhile there are white pride parallels and allusions to any number of real accidents, attacks and tragedies, not least 9/11, which Red Moon essentially retcons. It’s just too much.
Also not enough. But what there is, in whatever quantity it exists, is very much a mixed bag of good and bad. Red Moon begins with one of the most devastating sequences in recent memory, but by the end of the first section, it’s lost almost all of this early momentum. The one-size-fits-all apocalypse Benjamin Percy presents is ultimately too interested in endearing itself to readers from this part of the market and that to wholly win over a single segment of said.
Red Moon is published by Grand Central. It is available now.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.