Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Book Review: Lunatic Fringe by Allison Moon

Lunatic Fringe by Allison Moon is a original and interesting werewolf story. It is also complicated, deceptive, frustrating and mystical, and if you aren't paying attention, details can fly right over your head, and just as you start accepting a situation it twists around and changes. I had to read it twice before I could even decide what to say about it. And it makes it a little difficult to summarise the plot, as some of the better bits are major spoilers and really change the context of earlier events.

It's a thinking lesbian's werewolf story.

Essentially, it follows teenaged Lexie as she moves away from home to go to College for the first time, where she gets swept up in pack politics and a feminist group out to protect people from the evil men werewolves. She finds them a bit overwhelming, but feels an instant attraction to one of the girls. And then a tree crashes through her room, and a mysterious woman called Archer turns up to take the wood, and Lexie, away. And then it gets mystical. Also soulmates happen.

The goal posts changed a lot in this story. Enough that it is difficult to summarise. Is this a political-issues-parody? A coming of age and finding yourself story? A fantasy werewolf novel that was sidetracked by the characters individual issues? The characters all knew different things, kept backgrounds and details hidden, and poor Lexie wanders through the middle, finding everything out the hard way. And everything she learns, changes whatever happened before.

Lexie is a gawky, only child, whose mother was fey and lovely and abandoned her as a child, and whose father is kind and ordinary, but spent years on his back after an injury. She spends much of the time insisting she's not shy, she simply doesn't have much to say to people, but for the first part of the book, thrown into a world of new people, she acts classically shy (later as she finds her feet a bit, she stops being shy and starts being closer to how she represents herself).

The main characters are all women, as are many of the supporting characters. The only three men that get much of a role are Lexie's father, as her concerned and loving father; Duane, the smart, nice, overachieving African-American kid who got a scholarship along with her and makes her feel inferior by simply existing, and an abusive, misogynist jock, who dominates his own personal harem of adoring guys and clashes with the Pack regularly.

From the summary, and from the first couple of chapters or so, I expected a story something like this: naive country girl goes to college and gets swept up/rescued/bitten by the Pack, a group of women dedicated to protecting the campus from rampaging evil male werewolves, all the while juggling their intricate love lives and classes. This isn't that story. That story may well be the back story of the Pack, but it isn't Lexie's story. Lexie's story barely features her classes, has her wary of the Pack's attempts to adopt and indoctrinate her, and scared off by Blaire's ultra-feminist ranting. On the other hand, she admires and is flattered by their attentions, and finds herself very attracted to their ideals ... and them.

Transgenderism/ being genderqueer is an undercurrent as much as lesbianism, feminism, racial conflict and mysticism are.

One really interesting element of werewolf history was that the original werewolves were hermaphroditic shapechangers, who took human form to protect themselves. And then there's Mitch, part of the Pack. Lexie shyly asked the androgynous and gentle Mitch how they preferred to be called, and they replied that they didn't mind either he or she (with an implication that they preferred 'he' - but we don't get explicit clarification of whether Mitch is transgender or just doesn't feel like a specific gender).

One of the first signs that Blaire was over the top and not necessarily the 'hero' of the story was after Lexie checked with Mitch and then referred to Mitch as 'he' while talking to Blaire. And Blaire frostily corrects her and informs her that 'there are no men allowed in the Pack'.  It's a real 'whoa' moment, one of the first major ones where you have to stop and reevaluate, because everything up until then has been indicating 'acceptance', and feminism and human rights and trying to make sure you don't judge people.

The types of werewolf were confusing - there were the original, real, werewolves, who were not actually limited just to human and wolf forms and mostly gone (with parallels to Native American history and being driven out by the white man); there were the purebred werewolves who are wandering around biting people, and there are the halfbreeds who are the newly made, confused ones.

I have no idea what the difference between the purebred and the 'original' werewolves was, or whether they had lost the ability to shape-change into other creatures or just didn't use it much.

One thing that stood out is that the sex is quite one sided throughout the entire book. Archer is the initiator, in control, and the one who actually 'does' everything, while Lexie is essentially, a pillow queen. Young, innocent, and worshipped, while her much more experienced lover does everything. It is very sexy, and features the only example of fisting in non-erotica I've come across. Relax, it's done well. There's just a moment of 'wait, did they just do that?'.

This actually reflected their relationship quite well - Lexie is the young, inexperienced, girl, who is just trying to discover herself and what she wants in life, somewhat overwhelmed by Archer, while Archer knows what she wants, and what she wants is Lexie. It gets quite overwhelming, but luckily, the characters realise that and it doesn't turn into one of those "you will get together and be happy because I'm writing a romance, damn it" stories. This is the soul mates trope done realistically and well.

This is a love it or hate it book. Or possibly, a 'this is fantastic' or 'WTF' book. It covers so many subjects and 'isms' that you could write several essays on it. It has so many plot twists that any decent review must be half spoiler. It has over the top stereotypes, lampshading, irritating characters, a bloody confusing plot that mostly makes sense in hindsight, frustrating twists and turns, and half finished and unexplored concepts.

It is a slightly confusing book, as so many things are going on - and the characters are often as confused as we are. Secrets, lies, mysteries, opinions are all revealed or changed throughout the story, so if the fervent feminist ranting or the 'we are one with nature' or the 'one true love forever' is getting on your nerves, wait and see what happens next, as it's usually turned on its head. It is a book that rewards rereading.

It is good, and I enjoyed it! But I did spend a lot of time trying to deconstruct or deliberately ignore some of the more fanatical declarations or handwaving. But, as I mentioned, this was often wasted energy and there were emerging layers to the characters that make their actions increasingly complex, parodical or deceptive. I think the only person who really nothing more than the over the top stereotype he appeared was the abusive jock.

It ended in a classic set up for a sequel, but I'm really not sure how it can follow - I can see an overall 'path', with Lexie going out to discover herself, but I cannot imagine easily how to give it the same feel, the same level of depth. But there's enough left unexplained and enough potential for growth, that it could work. You'll just have to read Hungry Ghost to find out how the author did it.

Lunatic Fringe is available from Amazon as both a paperback and an eBook, as is the sequel, Hungry Ghost

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