Book Review: "The Wolf Gift" by Anne Rice

I don’t remember the last time I felt compelled to write a review for leisure. Leisure, course, meaning I wanted to write it for myself (and you) and not for a publication or website in particular (because I've totes worked for publications, man). It feels just right that it's "The Wolf Gift", Anne Rice's newest novel and first real dip into the too-fucking-small pond of werewolf fiction. "The Wolf Gift" left me torn in many ways, and I'm sure putting my toughts down to words will help me sort them out.

I don’t think I had ever wanted to love a book as much as I wanted to love this. As a die-hard fan of werewolf mythology and fiction, the announcement of “The Wolf Gift” seemed to good to be true—and you know what they say about ‘too good to be true’. I got my claws on the book literally the instant it was on sale.

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, but this might not be something for which I can fault the book. You see, I’m very picky when it comes to werewolves, especially in literature, and there’s a very specific set of ‘rules’—rules seldom followed—I demand in order to consider it a great werewolf story.

“The Wolf Gift” tells the story of a sophisticated young man called Reuben who becomes involved with a mysterious woman called Merchant. After spending a night together, Reuben is attacked by a wild beastling (spoiler: it’s a werewolf) that passes on what is later referred to as ‘the wolf gift’. Reuben seems to thrive during his recovery from this attack—he grows muscular and taller, grows longer wilder hair, and finds himself in possession of a new kind of life in more ways than one.

Here’s the thing: “The Wolf Gift”, during its first half, has a very clear ‘superhero origin story’ feel to it, and it’s because that’s precisely what it is. When Reuben recovers, and he finally becomes a powerful monster capable of both great violence and deep thought—as he keeps his rational mind while in werewolf state—he becomes a superhero. This isn't a wild comparison; it's exactly what he becomes, except his costume is biological and mystical. He's pretty much the most violent and savage superhero the world has ever seen, but still a powerful beast who can literally smell evil and has an inescapable instinct to destroy it and only it.

So here’s my main problem with “The Wolf Gift”: it presents an idealized form of lycanthropy. It’s indubitably cool, but ultimately shallow and rather uninteresting, bereft of any really profound exploration of what it means to be a werewolf. Part of the reason why werewolves are interesting is because of the bittersweetness (I’m copyrighting this word) of the whole affair. Oftentimes the werewolf is portrayed as a tragic victim of circumstance that has no place in this world and will most certainly die in the end. Other times, like here or in “Twilight”, lycanthropy is portrayed as the most awesome thing that can ever happen to someone. Lycanthropy in these stories has absolutely no drawbacks—you just gain super powers and a rocking body.

How are these stories exploring the base side, the animal instinct, and the primal urges of humans—something that’s both feared and admired in modern culture? They’re not. Reuben doesn’t experience negative side effects or any real dangers as his lycanthropy progresses—it just becomes easier for him, and he accepts it almost immediately. Never is he in danger of losing his humanity or rationality, thriving on violence, feeling guilty over his animalistic tendencies, discovering negative changes on his personality, detaching himself from the world and facing crippling loneliness, or even hurting a loved one—the werewolf’s biggest fear.

Reuben’s biggest fears are reduced to being discovered as “The California Man Wolf” (as he becomes known by the media, who goes ape shit over Reuben's murders), being taken away by evil scientists for research, and some red-tape nonsense about an inheritance I won’t get into because honestly it was very boring.

I must admit though that there’s a scene near the end which indeed seemed like a total nightmare for Reuben—a situation any werewolf would be terrified to find himself in — but even that doesn’t come with the consequences one would expect; not for the character or for the plot.

The story seems to purposefully avoid conflict. Reuben’s decaying relationship with his girlfriend Celeste, his best friend who for some reason is barely ever on-page, and his family, are barely touched. Halfway through, Reuben faces the expected but welcome appearance of someone who also has the wolf gift, and isn’t happy with Reuben’s actions. However even this conflict is resolved almost immediately and uninterestingly.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.

But then, there’s the scenes in which Reuben changes. While the story may be plodding and even boring with ‘human’ Reuben, it comes to life when he changes into his wolf self. Rarely have I ever read scenes that excite me like the ‘feasting’ scenes did. One in particular finds Reuben-wolf going to hunt for the first time through the massive California redwood forests. The beautiful descriptions of nature and the titillating idea of animalistic power were proof that there’s great poetry in violence and brutality. Reuben’s thoughts as he ripped suckers apart and fucked shit up—official lycanthropy terms—were profound and enlightening.

This applies to almost every transformation scene—and thankfully, there are many—as even his superhero antics have a beautiful brutality to them. With every change, every kill and every ecstatic run through the forests and city streets, I never wanted him to change back and, when he unavoidably does, a reader can relate to his cold longing.

I’m left wondering why the story didn’t focus more on these hunting/feasting scenes, as it’s when the story truly became art, and not a ‘Marty Sue’ fantasy peppered with interesting thoughts about God (God, of all things!) and minor moments of drama that resolve themselves in easy and boring ways. I can’t say the novel ends anti-climatically because there’s literally no real climax. It just simply ends—if on a beautiful thought that made me smile—and we’re done with Reuben. For now, at least; hopefully Rice sees in Reuben a new Lestat, and we are treated to several of his adventures.

I realize this review has turned more into a descriptive rant about what I expect in a werewolf novel (writers, take note) so it might have read more negative than I intended. Truth is that “The Wolf Gift” is a novel that does everything it had to do, if to a bare and mediocre minimum, yet excels brilliantly in some unexpected areas.

Though it’s not a great werewolf story, it’s definitely a book that, even if only for a select group of scenes, has to be read by every werewolf reader.
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About The Damn Beast

Pre-op trans-minotaur, sci-fi/fantasy/horror author, metal singer, videogame journalist, pop culture blogger. I also lift heavy things and put them down again repeatedly to occupy more space.
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