Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Review: Allison Moon, Lunatic Fringe (Allison Moon, 2011)

This is the third of four reviews of recent female werewolf fiction. You can read the others here:

Part 1: Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon

Part 2: S.J. Bell, Bonds of Fenris

Part 4: L.L. Raand, The Midnight Hunt

Cover image Lunatic Fringe is a debut, self-published novel by Allison Moon. It tells the story of a young, naïve girl named Lexie Clarion, who leaves home to study at Milton College (in “rural Oregon”). As soon as she starts at university, she is confronted by an apparent werewolf threat, invited to join “The Pack” (a self-styled radical feminist group), and finds herself attracted to a mysterious woman named Archer. Lexie’s loyalties are divided when she realizes Archer and the Pack have a troubled history.

Archer’s supernatural status is signalled early on – the genre trope of oddly coloured eyes is deployed to this end – and there is no ambiguity about the type of supernatural creatures peopling Lunatic Fringe. So, it’s not difficult to work out that Archer is a werewolf. This is not a criticism, however, as I think we’ve all reached saturation point with the ‘guess what type of supernatural being the sexy stranger is’ plot. I liked knowing where I stood with Archer.

The werewolves in Lunatic Fringe are of a somewhat confused type. As is common in contemporary fiction, they are a mixture of European tradition and pseudo-shamanism. In a rather exposition-heavy passage, Archer explains the origin story of the werewolf. This origin had real potential, as it sought to weave together ideas of lycanthropy with gender construction. Unfortunately, this potential was not exploited fully, and the resultant explanation was rather implausible and very US-centric (i.e. there appears to have been no history and no werewolves until the colonization of the Americas, which jars a little if you are familiar with the history of werewolf literature and lore).

There’s always a danger of confusion when writers bring together too many different traditions in werewolf fiction – the same is true for vampire fiction. The disparate ‘types’ of shapeshifting don’t always gel particularly well together. Unfortunately, this is true of Lunatic Fringe. While some werewolves are ‘infected’ (and I will give a big thumbs up for the method of ‘infection’ – no spoilers, but it’s a piece of Northern European lore that is rarely used in twenty-first-century fiction), others are born werewolves, and yet others are the ‘original’ werewolves. These creatures are all so different that Moon has to insert numerous ‘lessons’ imparted to the heroine, and this becomes rather confused and almost incoherent in places. That one group of werewolves are called the “Morloc”, with the apparently unintentional resonances, added to the problem.

Sadly, ‘confused’ is probably the best adjective I can think of to describe Lunatic Fringe. Plot-wise, there is far too much going on. The story jumps between a coming-of-age tale, an erotic romance, a thriller, a horror story. Each of the threads would have made a good plot for a werewolf story, but they have become rather tangled together. The ending is very rushed, bringing the disparate storylines together in a hurried denouement that does not completely make sense and seems to contradict some things that have come before.

One of the problems with the ending, without giving too much away, is that, while I was invested in Moon’s Archer, I really did not like her heroine Lexie. I said above that Lexie is naïve, but I’m not sure she’s not just ignorant. I found her views on gender and sexuality to be a bit unappealing, if I’m honest, especially her insistence on calling every ‘butch’ woman she meets ‘he’. The first time this happens is in a flashback to Lexie’s childhood, in which she remembers “Wes” her father’s colleague in the forestry service. Wes wears flannel shirts and “rough work pants”, so Lexie calls her by male pronouns – even when corrected by Wes’s friends and colleagues. As a young student, Lexie encounters “the second of such women”, Mitch, and insists on calling this woman by male pronouns as well.

When Lexie enters in a sexual relationship with Archer, she assumes the role of the old-fashioned romance heroine, lying back and being ‘awakened’ by her lover. In the consummation of their relationship, the reader is given page after page of Archer doing things to Lexie (some of which is very graphic, which jars a little with the tone of the rest of the book), but we never get to see Archer’s perspective. We never see Archer having an orgasm (though Lexie reflects on Archer’s enjoyment and her own ability to give her partner orgasms later) and the lack of mutuality in their relationship makes Lexie’s final decision seem cruel to say the least.

Of the supporting cast, the male characters are underdeveloped and veer towards stereotypes; however, it is the “Pack” that are more frustrating. Referring to themselves as “feminists” and all, without exception, lesbian and promiscuous, this group of women are, in fact, caricatures of female sexuality. Their version of feminism is misandrist essentialism, and their version of lesbianism is more reminiscent of heterosexual porn than lesbian erotica. At the first “Pack” party that Lexie attends, for example, the young women discuss whether or not to play “Truth or Dare”. Renee doesn’t want to: “The whole point of Truth or Dare is to mack on the people at the party. I’ve already slept with all of you. Where’s the excitement in that?” (p. 62)

Nevertheless, I will say that the presentation of the “Pack” did redeem itself in Chapter 11. In this chapter, the women’s pretence at being a feminist group slips, and they carry out a brutal murder. I thoroughly enjoyed this chapter, and would have happily read a whole book with this version of the characters. I could not get behind the “Pack” as a group of spoilt and entitled rich kids claiming moral high ground, but I was very taken with them as a bunch of sadistic and sociopathic killers (yes, yes, I’m aware that reveals a lot about me and my tastes…)

Perhaps I would have enjoyed Lunatic Fringe more if I had liked the central character more. If I had found Lexie more sympathetic, the plot tangles would have been easier to engage with. I did, nevertheless, like the character of Archer. The presentation of this character hinted at much more complexity and, as a result, she elicited more sympathy from me. In a novel of this type, which is character-driven, it is very difficult to enjoy the plot when you dislike the heroine. The same story, told from Archer’s point of view, might have felt very different.

Much as I wish I could say differently, Lunatic Fringe is not the greatest werewolf novel I have read. It lacks the punch and coherence of many of its peers, and its central character left me cold. However, it is not the worst either. Fans of werewolf fiction might enjoy the version of lycanthropy presented, and there is plenty of sex and violence for those who require that in their fiction. It’s a fast read, with a twist ending, and – whether or not you like her – a genuine dilemma for the heroine.

For more information about Lunatic Fringe, please visit the author’s website.

Part 1: Catherine Lundoff, Silver Moon

Part 2: S.J. Bell, Bonds of Fenris

Part 4: L.L. Raand, The Midnight Hunt

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