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Book cover art by Daniel Dos Santos (left).
Review © 2009 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Creatively, Patricia Briggs is a follower, not a leader. So when she took a running long jump onto the already-crowded urban fantasy bandwagon with Moon Called, it came as about as much a surprise as an on-air tantrum from Bill O'Reilly. These days, you'd think anyone with at least two typing fingers could write a book about werewolves, vampires, and the rest of the Universal monster movie stable roaming modern America, and then just sit back and count the money. With the ground already laid by Kelley Armstrong, Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison and all the rest, even a midlister like Briggs could be confident of fair success.

Thing is, in Moon Called, Briggs may very well have found her métier as a writer. The book is probably the best thing she's done in her career to date. She feels at home in the urban fantasy realm in a way she never seemed to in her traditional fantasy. The plot never lapses into that casual disdain for narrative logic that plagued some earlier work. Her heroine, grrl-mechanic-cum-shapeshifter Mercedes Thompson, is no Mary Sue, at least not obviously so. The story itself is told with a straight face, without taking itself so seriously that the entertainment is bled out of it, or falling into the de rigeur self-impressed snark that writers who have watched too much Buffy think is holy writ.

No, the premise is not original in the least little bit. (Shocker: Werewolves and vampires? Been done, kids.) But Briggs seems to find a storytelling sweet spot simply by working within the template of a commercially established genre, without the added stress of having to blaze too many of her own trails. If you're more predisposed than I am towards the whole urban fantasy fad, then you'll want to notch the rating upwards.

Where Briggs does put her stamp on the series is in the level of research she's done on actual wolves, their pack behavior and social heirarchies, and then convincingly translated that to her werewolf packs. In this novel's America, while the fae have already been "outed" to the general Muggle population, the werewolves' existence is still a barely-kept secret, known to many in the government and military, but with the population at large mostly oblivious. Alpha male werewolf pack leaders have a hard time controlling their inner beast when in human form, if confronted by another alpha, or even a dominant wolf who may pose a risk to their leadership. The act of transforming is a painful one, and not necessarily reliant on the full moon (many will change when enraged, like the Hulk), though werewolves do draw magical mojo from the moon. Though a person can conceivably enjoy a much longer lifespan if they survive the transition from humanity to lycanthropy (which takes a hell of a lot more than a simple bite in Briggs' world), most new werewolves will die within a few short years, due either to their inability to control their lupine rage, or in dominance battles with other weres.

In all, Briggs really has thought through her concept here, and with the story's strong focus on character, it helps the novel's success enormously. I dug the way that, in their human lives, her werewolves pass for the most normal of citizens: volunteer firefighters, school teachers. Though I will say that making one gay and throwing in a lengthy scene where Mercy has a heart-to-heart with his upset boyfriend does kind of rub our noses in the obvious (like, hang-a-neon-sign-on-it obvious) metaphor between her werewolves' secret lives, and the secrecy with which gays have had to "pass for straight" to fit in to society.

Still, the story is a satisfying little mystery that begins when a newly turned werewolf, a young boy named Mac, turns up looking haggard at Mercy's garage asking for work, with an alarming story about being forced into his lycanthropic state by nefarious parties doing shady experiments with drugs on captive werewolves. Concerned for his welfare, Mercy alerts the local pack leader, Adam, hoping he will admit Mac into his family. But when Mac turns up murdered on Mercy's porch, and Adam himself nearly killed and his human teen daughter Jesse kidnapped, it's obvious something is rotten in eastern Washington.

Given my reservations about the premise, I found myself enjoying the book just fine. Only one scene around the middle, a visit to the local vampires for some information that predictably doesn't go as smoothly as planned, felt obligatory, though I suspect my "meh" reaction to it has much to do with an innate dislike I have for vampire fiction to start with. (You've noticed the lack of Charlaine Harris and Laurell Hamilton reviews here, haven't you? There's a reason for that.) I have always been entirely immune to the presumed charms of vampires. Not being a teenage girl, for one thing, there is nothing about their imagined sexual attraction that comes within a country mile of me. And as monsters, I consider them mostly kitsch. They are the product, not of the great archetypes of classic myth, but of an obsessively religious culture immersed in the notions of sin, guilt, punishment and salvation.

Werewolves, I suppose, are a little more interesting, in that they can represent the struggle to control a violent nature only kept in check by the veneer of civilization. In male characters, they can also — if too obviously — mirror the delicate balance between healthy and repressed sexuality, and strong or weak socialization. Briggs introduces all of these ideas to one degree or another, resulting in some solid, sympathetic characterization.

Yeah, we critics can overthink these things, and let them get in the way of our enjoyment of what is, after all, just meant to be a fun, escapist read. I do think that's what Moon Called is, and I'm happy to compliment Patricia Briggs on overcoming my doubts about her skills from some of her earlier work, and turning in a reasonably tight little tale I could appreciate even though I'm not the biggest fan of this stuff. The characters are appealing and not nearly as cliché as they could have been; the suspense engaging if not nerve-shattering; the secrets and surprises, when they come, clever and believable. It works. And it will have the truly ardent fans of urban paranormal fantasy howling for the next installment.

Followed by Blood Bound.