The phrase "previously on..." has become quite familiar to American TV audiences. Whether you're devoted to Battlestar Galactica, to Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, you need to be able to catch up to a narrative when you've missed an installment or two. Novelists were there first, of course — the notion of a chain of novels focusing on the same characters goes back to Trollope and Proust - but it's less common to find a recap at the beginning of a book.
Luckily for readers, the publisher has tacked on just such a recap page at the beginning of the latest installment in Anne Rice's "Wolf Gift" series, so before you plunge into The Wolves of Midwinter you'll learn the history of San Francisco journalist Reuben Golding. Namely, that he's been bitten by a strange wild animal and undergone what Rice calls "the Chrism," or the sea-change that turns him into a werewolf. In this way he becomes a member of a near-eternal clan of similar folks known as the Morphenkinder.
That's one of the good things that come of Reuben's monstrous transformation. The Morphenkinder do very well in garnering interest on savings over a couple of hundred years or so. Reuben has been doing okay as a writer for a San Francisco daily newspaper, but as a long lived bitee he's going to acquire a lot of cash and property over the many years of his existence.
There are a few difficulties, as you may imagine. When the change comes over him — and even in volume two of the series he's still not completely certain of how to handle it — he grows long hair and fangs and claws, and suffers a big hankering for human flesh. But for all the hair, claws, and hunger, Rice's Man Wolf, as she calls him, has a lot of affinities with a comic book super-hero. He solves nasty situations — kidnappings, and other similar dire events — by changing into his wolf form to track down the perpetrators and devour them, right down to just about the last rib. If you're into running with the wolves and hearing about all the tasty human bits they chomp down, this can be a lot of fun.
This second volume opens a bit quietly, and seems almost bland compared to the rough justice of the first book. Reuben has moved to the fictional town of Nideck Point — where he was bitten — and dumped his mean-spirited former fiancee for a more understanding human woman who herself is toying with the idea of converting to wolf. He tries to smooth things over with his family, especially his poet father Phil and his brother Jim, a priest (to whom he has confessed his new state in the privileged exchange of confession).
Since it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas while all this is going on, the Morphenkinder cook up a mid-winter festival in rainy Nideck, long descriptions of which seemed so fussy that I was ready to pull the plug on the entire enterprise. Fortunately Reuben soon goes a-hunting, and in one wolfen caper actually gets the elders of the Morphenkinder to lope along with him so that together they make a midwinter feast of the flesh of a lot of terrified criminals.
As I recap all this from the second volume — trying not to spoil it for you, of course — I've tried to keep wolf puns to a minimum and stop short of making fun of the theology-lite discussions among the Morphenkinder, Reuben, and the band of forest folk (don't call them elves! They're quite sensitive) who roam the winter woods around Nideck. That's the fussy part.
But there's also a tussle among the Morphens over a plan for human sacrifice, some rough sex wolf-style, a lot of human meals to go and a neat plot turn at the end that increases Reuben's sense of family. The dialogue now and then seems a little stilted, but it becomes quite clear overall that from her Jesus novels to this new pagan series, Rice herself seems to have undergone quite a transformation.
My own hope of heaven (or not) aside, I'd much rather see her band of werewolves tuck into a gang of outlaws and devour them — right down to the last hair follicle — than read moon-struck passages about the way a Man God turns water into wine. I confess that I really enjoyed watching Rice create yet another world of strangeness and transformations along the lines of her greatest achievements, and I'm awfully glad I got in on the ground floor. But if I had to play catch-up I would.