By Sarah Guan
Anne Rice, the original queen of vampire fiction, crosses to the other side with her latest book, “The Wolf Gift,” a werewolf novel set in the contemporary Bay Area. Twenty-something-year-old Reuben Golding, a rising star at The San Francisco Observer, is rich, handsome and idealistic, an English Ph.D. dropout with dreams of becoming the next great American novelist—a protagonist with whom many Stanford students can surely identify. He is assigned the story of a magnificent mansion recently put up for sale by the beautiful Marchent Nideck, the niece of its vanished owner, the brilliant explorer Felix Nideck.
Reuben rapidly grows enamored of both the house, filled as it is with Felix’s books and artifacts, and of Marchent, who unexpectedly and rather improbably decides to bequeath the property to him, on the basis of a day’s acquaintance and a one-night stand. That night, Marchent meets a violent end at the hands of her jealous younger brothers; Reuben is narrowly rescued by a large, mutant wolf. He is hospitalized for injuries sustained during the attack and emerges with lycanthropic powers and a compulsive bent for vigilante justice, as he hears the voices of the afflicted in his head.
Reuben becomes embroiled in a sort of double life more typically seen in comic book superheroes. At night, he transforms into an avenging angel of a werewolf, rescuing the defenseless and enacting his own brutal retribution upon their attackers. By day, he reports on the activities of the vigilante known to the public only as “the Man Wolf,” a rather unoriginal moniker from Reuben’s own pen. He juggles the conflicting goals of hiding his new alternate identity from those closest to him; holding down his job, where he struggles to produce new material on the Man Wolf for a ravenously curious public without exposing his own web of lies; and learning to master his newfound powers and violent instincts. As he looks for materials on lycanthropy in the Nideck house, Reuben realizes that Felix Nideck and his lost companions are still alive, tracking his every movement.
“The Wolf Gift” is a meticulously crafted urban fantasy, where the practical and scientific details have been carefully considered and seamlessly drive the story forward. One of the most compelling plot lines revolves around Reuben’s mother, a well-respected surgeon, who is desperate to figure out why her son has changed. Convinced that science holds all the answers, she is led straight into the clutches of a sinister specialist with suspicious connections to Felix’s disappearance. The various characters’ vacillations between scientific skepticism and belief in werewolf lore are generally well handled, including convincing crises of faith between Reuben and his brother Jim, a Catholic priest. This thoroughness hurts Rice in the larger picture; she has a slight tendency to telegraph her plot twists, usually by providing too much background information about characters withholding secrets. This loss of suspense, however, does not significantly diminish the reader’s enjoyment of the novel, as “The Wolf Gift” is closer in genre to action-adventure or supernatural thriller than to mystery.
In “The Wolf Gift,” Anne Rice marshals the trademark fascination with folklore and superstition that has so captivated her fans for decades, especially as her protagonist delves deeper into the enigma of the creature he has become. Her rich world-building is occasionally overshadowed by Reuben’s superhero-like exploits and his subsequent brooding over the blood he has spilled, but he is otherwise a likable enough protagonist that his bouts of melodrama and existential crisis are easily overlooked. Combined with Reuben’s Spiderman-esque vigilantism, “The Wolf Gift’s” immersion in the shape-shifter mythos makes for an entertaining, page-turning read and an appealing treatment of a popular motif.