Night of the Wolf by Alice Borchardt
(HarperCollins Voyager, £6.99, 502 pages, paperback; published 5 June 2000.)
This is a first for me, a werewolf book. Although the lycanthrope myth contains a fascinating central concept -- the thin line between human and animal -- that is certainly worthy of exploration, with the old werewolf being such an overused and abused figure in movies I have to admit to avoiding any treatments I have previously encountered in written format. So what did I find on picking up Alice Borchardt's Night of the Wolf? Thriller or dog's dinner?
Well, for starters I discovered a fairly gripping historical fantasy. The book opens in a mountainous region of Gaul, at the edge of the expanding Roman occupation. Maeniel is a wolf with a penchant of becoming a man and seducing human females, one of whom he falls in love with: Dryas a female warrior employed to track him down. Unfortunately the Romans get involved in the form of merchant family, brother and sister, Lucius and Fulvia, and from there the characters chase each other south to Rome. When Caesar and Cleopatra enter the fray the stakes become immeasurably higher. All good stuff.
Except it's really two stories that don't quite meet in the middle. In the second half of the book Maeniel becomes a subsidiary player as Lucius takes centre stage to face the might of Caesar and Rome itself. In the end it's not really a werewolf story at all but a historical potboiler. I finished the book wondering what it had actually been about.
Worse than the shoe-horned plot, though, is the prose. There are a number of love stories incorporated in the book, and it is easy to see that the scenes of intimacy were the author's favourite parts to write, so florid and enthusiastic are they. For example: 'The surging tides of desire wiped the memory from his mind. In his arms he had a woman naked, helpless, and compliant, more than willing... starved for the attentions of a man. He could explore this body, an unending engine of mad delight, a heap of flowers yielding new colors, fragrances, textures, and vivid emotion with every experiment suggested by an imagination, driving hands, lips, and sex.'
Under the weight of such dense aggregations of words, Night Of The Wolf is at times a struggle to get through. It could easily have been a third shorter had a little more editorial guidance been exercised.
Not for me, then perhaps, but there was enough story to keep me reading. As for my fear of werewolf books... well, I'm afraid this story could have worked as well with the lycanthrope element removed entirely. There just wasn't enough originality here to convince me werewolves can be fresh and exciting. You know what they say: once bitten...
Review by Neil Williamson.
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© Neil Williamson 6 January 2001