Review: Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones

In my cynical old age, I’ve become leery of books about supernatural critters like vampires and werewolves. I don’t want to blame Stephenie Meyer, but she did kick off this whole, like, vampires-and-werewolves renascence1 that seemed like a good thing at the time but then reached a point where there was too much of it.

Problem is, this too-much-of-a-good-thing thing didn’t erase my fondness for new interesting takes on supernatural critters; it just made me skeptical that there was anything new under the sun. So when Tor.com promised me that Mongrels was a take on werewolves I hadn’t seen before, I was intrigued. Add to that my desire to like Blackfeet horror author Stephen Graham Jones, whose short stories have been JUST TOO HORRIFYING for me, and it was a marriage made in book heaven.

Mongrels

If your question is “how much cannibalism though?” the answer is “honestly? still less than in at least half the Stephen Graham Jones short stories I’ve read.” So, I mean, you know if that’s a thing you can handle or not.

Our hero is an orphan boy being raised by his aunt Libby and uncle Darren. They are both werewolves, and the boy just wants to be — if he hasn’t turned by his late teens, he never will. As the family wanders across the American South getting whatever jobs will keep the lights on and sending the boy to school for brief stints when it’s possible, he learns more and more about the life of a werewolf and — most often — all the ways a werewolf can be caught and/or killed.

If like me you are the kind of reader who enjoys some social commentary in your werewolf literature, Mongrels is the book for you. Though the rootlessness and ruthlessness of the ways Darren and Libby and their nephew survive arise from their werewolf heritage, there’s a lot in this story that just reads poverty. Food insecurity follows them across the South, although they are werewolves and can, given the right circumstances, hunt their own. The boy is given different identities in every state (and indeed, he lacks a name, leaving his true identity shrouded in uncertainty), in and out of school  depending on what the laws of the state will permit.

Mongrels is in some respects a picaresque, which is not my favorite type of book and kept this from being a forever-favorite. But it’s a take on werewolves that feels fresh and does not shy away from the utter creepiness of the transformation process. Despite the episodic nature of the storytelling, there’s plenty of emotional through-lines for you to sink your teeth into, plus an ending that yr extremely picky correspondent found satisfying.

QUESTION TIME: Would you rather starve than resort to cannibalism? Does your answer change if you are a wolf at the time? Also, are you tired of werewolves and other supernatural critters or do you rejoice in those stories endlessly?

  1. Sometimes I enjoy the British way of spelling “renaissance.” I hope you still love me even when I’m pretentious.
  • Jeane Nevarez

    Not tired of them, since I haven’t yet found one that I like and finish reading! (First attempt- long ago- was Steppenwolf- that didn’t work for me at all).

  • Stefanie@SoManyBooks

    Hmm, not sure I’d like this one but the husband might so I will have to tell him about it. As a vegan I am conflicted over the cannibalism thing. I suppose if the person were dead without assistance and there was absolutely no alternative I might but I am not sure I would be able to live with myself if I survive so I might not. I hope I never have to find out! Now if I were a wolf and snacked on a person, no qualms about that at all. I’m pretty sure the vegan wolf population is zero 🙂

  • Cannibalism isn’t something I can handle, but for those who can, this sounds great! I would rather starve than resort to cannibalism, but my answer may change if I was actually starving.

  • I put a hold on this book yesterday and you’re reviewing it today, it is clearly an omen. I must read it.

    I hope I am never starving enough to have to decide if I would/could cannibalize someone or not. My rational brain says that if I didn’t do a murder and I am in a situation of eat or die, I might have to eat, but then I don’t know how I would deal with the psychological repercussions. It’s a quandary.

  • Nishita

    I’m not sure this book would be for me. Not really because of the cannibalism thing, but werewolves signal (to me at least), an escapist, fun, maybe terrifying read. I am not all that big on social commentary and werewolves mixed together. I guess I like the conventional werewolf format.

  • Alley

    Hmmm yes, I think I could read this one. This sounds like a more interesting werewolf book than a romance one.

    Man, I have no idea what I’d do in a I’m-starving-and-my-only-option-is-cannibalism. Hope to not end up in said situation prob.

  • Not huge on werewolves; they just don’t do anything for me. And I like my vampires zombie-like and inhuman, not gorgeous and broody.

    To be perfectly frank, if my life came to the point where cannibalism was on the list of options to keep me alive, I would probably be on board. My opinion would be different if it involved actually killing someone, though, which I gather this book did, so I’d consider that a different scenario.

  • Christy

    There’s a fantasy series I like (though haven’t kept up with lately) that has werewolves in it – Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. Other than that, I don’t think there’s been any I’ve read that I’ve enjoyed. I was somewhat getting into Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf before just feeling really “done” with it 2/3 through so I never finished it. I’m not sure Mongrels is for me more for the picaresque aspect you mentioned – however, it is refreshing to read about a story with supernatural folks where the supernaturals were not made incredibly rich by it. Vampires and werewolves in most stories tend to be very wealthy, I guess because of the immortality aspect often associated with both types.

  • Pingback: Mongrels - Stephen Graham Jones()