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.

City of Bones, Cassandra Clare; or, I apparently think Oscar Wilde had the werewolf gene

Recommended by: Darla at Books and other thoughts

Many spoilers to follow, but you can probably guess them while you’re reading anyway.

City of Bones is all about a girl called Clary who witnesses a most unpleasant murder and gets drawn into the wild and wacky world of demon-slaying.  Turns out her mother used to be a demon-slaying badass chick, but left that life to pursue normalcy as a single mum.  Clary has a steamy crush on one of the demon-hunters, Jace, and they have banter and sexual tension; there’s a wicked guy called Valentine (it was hardcore with the three-syllable names in this book, incidentally: Jocelyn, Clarissa, Jonathan Christopher, Isabelle, Valentine, Lucian.  Damn.  Apparently in the world of demon-slaying you must have a three-syllable name or be doomed to blandness.) who wants to murder children and rid the world of even the niceish half-demon hybrids like werewolves and vampires; and the quiet, sensitive (two-syllable name) guy is gay.

I don’t know if this was the most predictable book of all time, or if I was seriously clever while reading it.  I think it was a fairly predictable book and I was a teeny bit clever while reading it.  Because I guessed every single plot point in this whole entire book.  And with a sense of dismay and resignation at the inevitability of it all.  It was like this one time I was taking a practice GRE English Subject test for fun (don’t judge), and there was a section where you had to say what book each passage came from, right?  I looked down at one passage and saw the word “swain”, and I immediately felt very resigned and thought, “Oh, Lycidas.”  I don’t know why (though I was quite right) I should have known this, particularly from the word swain, since I read Lycidas once two years ago and thought it was tiresome.

Well, City of Bones was much like that.  Like when nobody said anything about Jace’s real name?  I was all, Oh, he’s her brother.  J.C.  Cute, and could not one bit support their romance because I was too busy being squiffed out by how dismayed they were going to feel upon discovering they were siblings.  And when Hodge told her about his curse, being confined to the Institute?  I knew straight away he was a vile betrayer.  And when I got to the bit at the end where it’s revealed that Valentine is Jace’s and Clary’s father, I sort of thought, Well, yeah, we’ve known that all along.  But then I glanced back through the book and realized that no, we hadn’t.

Never mind all that.  Here is the strange bit.  Clary has a substitute father-figure called Luke, and she’s eavesdropping on a conversation Luke’s having with the bad guys, and they call him Lucian.  I immediately thought, Oh, okay, he’s a werewolf then.  Which, you know, as a deductive process – that doesn’t make any sense.  They’d hardly mentioned werewolves at all up to that point, there hadn’t been any clever hints about the full moon, yet indeed it proved that he was a werewolf.  I did a mental census in my head of Lucians I can think of, and here are the results:

Lucian the Greek satirist.  I don’t know anything about him except he did satire and was from Assyria or Akkadia or something else with an A.  I never took Greek, so if he wrote about werewolves, I don’t know about it.

Lucien the librarian from The Sandman.  Nothing there.  Man doesn’t look a bit like a wolf.

Lucian Holland, son of Merlin Holland, son of Vyvyan (yes, really – that’s what happens when Oscar Wilde gets to name you; the other kid was named Cyril) Holland, younger son of Oscar Wilde.  This one seems the most likely for associations, to be honest, since I forgot the librarian’s name was Lucien until I was buying books online yesterday evening, and since I have never read the Greek satirist.  Evidently my brain believes that Oscar Wilde’s great-grandson is a werewolf.  Who knew?

City of Bones wasn’t terrible.  It wasn’t well-written, and the story wasn’t very original, but it was interesting enough for me to either get the next two out of the library any time I happen to see them there, or to read their Wikipedia entries to find out what happens.  Possibly both.  And it was funny in bits, but not that funny.  So oh well.

As a sidenote, I was enchanted when Clary made reference to a button she had that said Still Not King – I remember those!  Turns out it’s the same woman – she wrote the Very Secret Diaries and now City of Bones.  Thinking about the Very Secret Diaries snaps me right back to high school, when all those movies were just coming out, and how tim found that thing about Legolas Greenleaf, he da man, and made it into a haiku:

When you ask “Who da
man?” I say wit’ conviction,
“Legolas da man.”

And how we all went to see Fellowship in a massive group and my friend cried and cried and cried and cried after Boromir’s death, and I felt concerned that her wracking sobs were preventing her from enjoying the touching Frodo-Sam scene, so I whispered a number of consoling things about what a jerk Boromir was anyway and how we would assuredly see him in flashbacks, before she managed to convey to me through her tears that she was weeping hysterically for joy at Frodo and Sam’s beautiful friendship.  And how Nezabeth and I watched this one bit of the Fellowship extras DVD every time we felt depressed about our Logic homework, this one bit where Viggo Mortensen told a story about his boat and the body double for Frodo.

Mm.  Nostalgia.

Lonely Werewolf Girl, Martin Millar

I was very skeptical about Martin Millar. I heard about Martin Millar from Neil Gaiman’s website, because he (Neil Gaiman) wrote an introduction to The Good Fairies of New York extolling its manifold virtues, so I got it from the library because I liked the title. I didn’t expect much out of it. The last time I trusted Neil Gaiman’s opinion, I read four books by Jonathan Carroll and hated them all desperately. (Yes, the obvious question is why did I read four of them then, and the answer is, I’ve no idea, it was long ago and I can’t remember. I think I hoped that the previous ones were just flukes and I would soon come to love Jonathan Carroll – like when I first read Diana Wynne Jones’s books and hated them – but that never happened.) So I didn’t think I was going to like Martin Millar either.

But I was so, so wrong. Martin Millar is a delight. I want to give Martin Millar a hug because his books please me so much. The Good Fairies of New York was charming, and they found a flower.

Lonely Werewolf Girl is better, however. Which is partly because it’s longer, so there’s more of it to charm me, and partly because all the threads of subplots come together really nicely at the end. It’s about a werewolf girl called Kalix who is very, very dysfunctional and the youngest daughter of the royal MacLannach werewolf family, and all the dreadful and exciting things that befall her family. There are many subplots. They dovetail beautifully at the twins’ gig when the werewolves have a great big knock-down-drag-out. It’s all very impressive.

The thing about Martin Millar’s books, at least the two that I’ve read – which is definitely not enough to qualify me to state this opinion about Martin Millar’s books generally, but is also not my fault because I live in a city in the Deep South where despite the surprisingly wonderful public library system there is a dearth of contemporary British fiction – is that he is very fond of that traditional British humor mechanism in which everything goes spectacularly to hell. In fact I read a study one time that said that British people love sitcoms like Fawlty Towers where things start from a point of order and then descend into chaos, whereas American people – something else that I don’t remember. Anyway, this kind of humor sometimes gives me stressful feelings, but with Martin Millar, I have faith that everything will iron itself out.

Besides which there is just something very sweet about this book. And Good Fairies. They make me want to go enjoy other sweet things, like the Brownings’ letters to each other, and that episode of Angel where he first has little baby Connor and defends him from the vampire cults, and that episode of Buffy where she gets an award at her prom and it always makes me cry, and that book we had when I was little about the persnickety old lady who learns valuable lessons about love from a little Christmas angel. Which, um, may not have been what Martin Millar intended when he wrote it.

Edit to add: I discovered Martin Millar’s blog, and it sounds like he does a lot of reveling in the joy that is Buffy. (Like me.) A man after my own heart.