lip lit: the wolf gift chronicles
I feel I need to preface this review by pointing out that I capital-L Love Anne Rice’s early novels. Interview with the Vampire (1976), The Vampire Lestat (1985), Queen of the Damned (1988) and The Witching Hour (1990) are guilty pleasures that I return to, time and again, for their rich and frightening worlds where beauty is terror, sexuality is fluid and love and death walk hand in hand. As an avid fan of all things Gothic, I have huge respect for Rice, who taught readers to see the world through ‘vampire eyes’ and gave us monsters with fangs and feelings.
Understandably, when I heard about her latest series, The Wolf Gift Chronicles, I was eager to see if she could do for werewolves what she had for vampires and witches. In the first book of the series, The Wolf Gift, young reporter, Reuben Golding, travels to the remote Nideck Point, outside San Francisco, to write a real estate piece on an isolated mansion for sale. He is instantly enchanted by the lady of the house, Marchent, and the strange tale of her uncle Felix, who mysteriously disappeared some twenty years earlier. In the dead of night there is a break in. Marchent is killed, and Reuben would be, if not for the appearance of a monstrous wolf-like creature who slays the intruders and bites him, but saves his life.
With that bite, Reuben inherits ‘the Chrism’ and becomes one of the Morphenkinder—Ageless Ones with the ability to change into powerful werewolves at will. With his new ‘gift’ he finds he can hear innocent voices crying for help, and becomes the infamous San Francisco Wolf Man, rescuing the helpless and slaying evil-doers. He is helped in his quest to understand himself by the Distinguished Gentlemen—Felix and his friends who are also Morphenkinder and escape from captivity in an underground Russian lab to return live as a pack with Reuben in the house at Nideck Point.
In his travels Reuben also meets Laura, a beautiful woman who lives in the woods, and who, inexplicably, spies Reuben in his wolf form from her porch and invites him into her bed. Many awkward werewolf/human sex scenes later, she, too, comes to live at Nideck Point.
While this beginning certainly has the ring of classic Rice, it lacks the thrill of her earlier work. There’s a lot of expositional scenes in which the Distinguished Gentlemen gather before crackling fires at Nideck Point to explain their history to the ‘pups’ of the pack over endless, steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Such exposition is perhaps forgivable for the first novel in a series with supposedly complex mythology. However, the mythology of the Morphenkinder has a fatal flaw: they can only kill ‘evil’ humans. They can ‘smell’ the difference between ‘evil’ and ‘innocence’ and it causes them great pain to take an innocent life. In short, Reuben is even more of a wimp than Edward Cullen. Also like everyone’s favourite vego vampire, his treatment of women is incredibly demeaning. Though Laura is almost thirty and has seemingly managed quite well before Reuben enters her life, he treats her like an invalid child, carrying and cradling her everywhere. Given Laura is eager to accept the Chrism herself, I hoped she would become a more assertive character the second book of the series, The Wolves of Midwinter.
I hoped in vain. If The Wolf Gift was disappointing, The Wolves of Midwinter was a complete let down. In places it was difficult to understand how this novel had come from the same mind that dreamed up Lestat, Akasha, Lasher and the Talamasca. The characters are flat and rarely encounter conflict, while the plot narrates a series of incidents, but never builds to any real climax. There is simply very little at stake. Laura is given the Chrism off-page before The Wolves of Midwinter begins, and while Reuben is upset that she no longer needs him as her protector, her transformation is never a true site of tension. Instead, the Distinguished Gentlemen are celebrating Christmas! They are throwing an extravagant party at Nideck Point for the town’s folk, family and friends, and enjoying their own pagan Yule celebration in the woods. Preparations for the party stretch for some 250 pages, with the Distinguished Gentlemen occasionally taking a break from overseeing the servants—another immortal species whose sole purpose is to wait on more powerful Ageless Ones—with more hot chocolate and tales from the past. They are joined in their merriment by a group of benevolent spirits known as the Forest Gentry. The only dampener on the festivities is the return of Marchent’s ghost, although even this is a mere distraction from the all-consuming Christmas party.
Again, Rice’s treatment of women, when they rarely appear in The Wolves of Midwinter, is baffling. They are either malicious or passive, and all are ruled by the male characters. For example, it is revealed early on that Reuben’s ex-fiancé, Celeste, is pregnant with his child and doesn’t want the baby. The family pays her not to have an abortion and bullies her into marrying Reuben on paper, so that the child will be legitimate, and to hand the child over to Reuben at birth. Celeste is depicted as catty and hysterical when signing over the baby, before stomping off into the background of the narrative. We also learn that Reuben’s brother, Jim, entered the priesthood in guilt after severely beating his pregnant lover in a drunken rage. Aside from the cameo of a few malicious Morphenkinder she-wolves, the only other female character of note is the servant Lisa, who dotes on the Distinguished Gentlemen helping them dress and bring them supper as though they were infants. However, it is later mentioned, in passing, that Lisa is transgender. This is not further explored at this point in the series and seemingly has no bearing on her character, consequently reading as a crude attempt to tick all the politically correct boxes. There is also a token gay werewolf.
While both Wolf Gift novels are rich with Rice’s signature sensual language, they lack the page-turning tension and bite of her earlier work. Instead The Wolf Gift Chronicles read as cosy private fantasies that have yet to be worked into tight, tension-filled narratives. The Wolves of Midwinter in particular has the feel of a Christmas special, and given its pre-Christmas release, I can’t help but think that it was written with the silly season retail spike in mind—a huge disappointment from an author who was once a star innovator and a true Queen of the Damned.