The setting of Benjamin Percy's "Red Moon" — an alternative universe in which humans and lycans coexist — may seem unhappily familiar to anyone familiar with the words "Team Edward" or "Team Jacob."
Readers will also encounter teen angst, thuggery, interspecies love, domestic terrorism, torture and, upon occasion, tenderness and yearning. The movie rights have been sold and the novel's conclusion can signal only one thing: sequel.
But banish all thoughts of "Twilight" — Percy has something far more ambitious in mind: an intelligent, topical thriller that also serves as a social commentary on the culture at large.
Percy wants it both ways. And he has to some extent achieved it. The novel brings to mind 9/11 and the war on terrorism; the civil rights movement and the aftermath of 1960s radicalism; right wing nut jobs and left wing extremists, AIDS and eugenics.
The world of "Red Moon" mimics our own — with one major exception: about 5% of the U.S. is infected with lobos, which is "not a bacteria and it is not a virus… it is a prion... [they] come in multiple strains, like viruses, capable of producing different symptoms in different hosts. Mad cow disease is another common example, chronic wasting disease another." The infection spreads through sexual activity or scratching and biting. Transformation is forbidden in the United States; all those infected are required to medicate themselves, with Lupex, into complacency.
Most lycans live normal lives, but if the afflicted do not take their meds, rage or excitement can lead to an adrenal flood, the "equivalent to a towering dose of PCP." The feral behavior of the monsters that may emerge will not surprise anyone steeped in the werewolf mythology: "It is sometimes on all fours and sometimes balanced on its hind legs. … 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."
Three characters stand out in "Red Moon's" sprawling cast. Patrick Gamble is a teenager whose reservist father is deployed overseas to the Lupine Republic, necessitating a move to Oregon, where he will live with his mother. On his flight from San Francisco to Portland, a lycan transforms and attacks in the passenger cabin, leaving Patrick the sole survivor. The resulting notoriety is confounding as Patrick struggles to find his place at his new high school where boys play "Call of Duty: Lycan Wars" and students champion their anti-lycan beliefs.
Claire Forrester, a high school senior living in northern Wisconsin, is lovely and occasionally petulant — and she is a lycan, the child of leftist lycan parents who slam "their fists into their palms, speaking in earnest, almost pleading voices about how unfairly lycans are treated." Her condition makes her feel "as if she is at war with herself." Chase Williams is governor of Oregon, a good old boy who partakes of strip clubs, Trail Blazers games and sake bombs. The lycan attack on the Portland-bound plane affords him the political opportunity of a lifetime: the ability to mesmerize a terrified electorate with his anti-lycan pronouncements.
The paths of Patrick, Claire and Chase converge and diverge, as the lycan rebellion, the white supremacist reaction and the bloodletting grow in intensity. The resistance demands an end to second-class citizenship, forced medication, limited employment and blood testing. One of its leaders compares the movement to some familiar moments in history: "We're the leather-fringe revolutionaries fighting against the blood-coat British. We're the blacks boycotting the buses in Montgomery. We're the fist-pumping protesters who took over Tahrir Square." Ideology leads to kidnapping, mayhem and mass murder.
Claire and Patrick crisscross the country in separate journeys as they search for missing relatives, for a vaccine, for a glimpse of humanity amid the ruins. The action becomes nonstop and sometimes tiresome. But Percy's lead characters are engaging, and his underlying themes — beware the warmongers, the absolutists, the anti-intellectuals in our midst — are stunningly current. There are enemies among us, Percy cautions, and sometimes the enemy is us.
Grand Central: 544 pp., $25.99
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