by Julia Kuttner
The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan
‘It’s official,’ Harley said. ‘They killed the Berliner two nights ago. You’re the last.’ Then after a pause: ‘I’m sorry.’
And that’s how Jake Marlowe discovers that he is indeed the world’s very last werewolf . Not that he wants to be a 9 foot killing machine every full moon, but two hundred years ago he was inadverdently ‘turned’ and has since satisfied The Hunger every month. He greets the news that he is next on the list with relief: he is tired of his immortality, of his victims’ souls clamouring inside him, and the very solitariness of his long existence . He will welcome his death at the hands of the son of one of his victims, now a high-ranking officer in WOCOP, an acronym for World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena – a modern version of the eighteenth century secret society The Servants of Light : yep, brave men have been fighting monsters for centuries, but Jake is tired of running and hiding; he will welcome his death at the next full moon. Or so he thinks, until his unerring olfactory senses pick up the irresistible perfume of another were – and a young female, to boot!
And what happens next is the plot of Glen Duncan’s wonderful novel. I have never read anything quite like this: rhapsodic, scholarly, subversive and screamingly funny, his prose veers from lyrical heights to obscene depths, all in the space of a paragraph. There are enough f’s and c’s to sear the eyeballs of a bishop, but the language whether high or low is all relevant to events that Mr. Duncan controls with superb precision and a brilliant knack for exposing society’s hypocrisies. By the end of the novel the reader is hoping that Jake and his lover survive – he’s unique, even if he does tear a hapless human limb from limb once a month – but all is not revealed until the very last page, and even then many questions remain unanswered but are ‘for another story’. I certainly hope so: Mr. Duncan (who looks pretty wolfish himself in the jacket photo) owes it to the reader to finish the tale, and even if he takes several books to do it, that will be fine by me. Highly recommended.
River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh
This is the second book of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. At the end of ‘Sea of Poppies’( Book one) the Ibis, a converted slave ship carrying indentured Indian labourers to Mauritius, is caught in a huge storm. Two condemned prisoners and three Lascars murder an officer, escape the ship and are thought drowned : the ship’s first mate is held responsible, not for the loss of life of those worthless monkeys, but for the danger that was caused to the main shipment, a huge cargo of opium on its way to the Chinese port of Canton.
It was cruel of Mr. Ghosh to leave the reader in such suspense, but ‘River of Smoke’ answers all the questions raised in the first novel, and presents us with a host of fascinating new characters to enjoy. There is a welcome reintroduction to some of the main protagonists of Book One, but some take a back seat as the action shifts from Calcutta to Canton. Mr. Ghosh writes of his characters with gusto and verve and it is nothing less than a delight to follow their adventures, framed against the background of Britain’s iniquitous embrace of the Opium Trade, all in the name of ‘free’ enterprise. Exhaustive research has been undertaken to present an authentic account of the everyday life and business in ‘Fanqui-town’ enclave of the fabulously rich British Traders: not permitted to reside in Canton itself, they nevertheless carve for themselves fiefdoms that ignore Chinese laws completely, believing themselves in their monumental arrogance to be above and beyond the control of the heathen devils. Chinese objections to the enslavement of their population to the poppy go unheeded until a powerful new High Commissioner is appointed by the Emperor – a scholar, an intellectual, a poet - and worst of all incorruptible, he takes up the cudgels on behalf of his people and engages the traders in the first battle of what is to become known as the British Opium Wars.
Mr. Ghosh’s meticulous attention to fact and his great gifts for imagery and characterization make this story a winner; my opinion after reading ‘Sea of Poppies’ was that he is a worthy successor to the great 19th century adventure novelists, and this still holds true with ‘River of Smoke’: when Book Three is read, I know that I will regret this great trilogy coming to an end. Highly recommended.
Hell to Heaven, and Heaven to Wudang, by Kylie Chan
For those among us who love the utter escapism of Fantasy novels, Australian writer Kylie Chan ticks all the boxes; she has combined Kung-fu action with Chinese mythology so successfully that there is a waiting list for each of her books – we just can’t get enough of Emma Donahoe, originally hired to be a nanny to the daughter of enormously rich (and handsome, naturally) Chinese ‘businessman’ John Chen – who turns out to be Xuan Wu, the Dark Lord, God of war and martial Arts, and through her love for him, Emma metamorphoses into the Dark Lady, champion of Good, and battler extraordinaire against demons and baddies of every stripe. Oh, it’s great stuff: the various deities she befriends or has contact with are a very motley and amusing lot with particular powers of their own, and they’re not above using their gifts for their own selfish ends; deals are constantly being made,then broken, but when the going gets tough, they are still loyal enough to rescue Emma from all sorts of ghastly situations – and there are many: she has variously been turned into a snake, infected with demon essence, burned to a crisp in an effort to get rid of it, and don’t forget an inadverdent dose of HIV – for heaven’s sake: this is more than Australian girls usually have to contend with on their OE ! It would be an impossibility to summarise her latest adventures, and anyone who would like to embark on these action-packed, mile-a-minute tales should start at the very beginning with the first book, ‘White Tiger’ (If you start in the middle you won’t know whether you’re Arthur or Martha or Wun Bung Lung), you won’t be sorry: Ms Chan will never win any great literary prizes - in fact at times her writing is shamefully clunky, but she can tell a bewdy-rippah story with the best of them. These books are the perfect airport or beach read: these books are FUN.