“A shameful fact about humanity is that some people can be so ugly that no one will be friends with them. It is shameful that humans can be so cruel, and it is shameful that humans can be so ugly.”
So begins the incredible story of Myron Horowitz, a disfigured thirteen-year-old just trying to fit in at his Pennsylvania school. When a fight with a bully leaves him unconscious and naked in the wreckage of the cafeteria, Myron discovers that he is an immortal lycanthrope—a were-mammal who can transform from human to animal. He also discovers that there are others like him, and many of them want Myron dead. “People will turn into animals,” says the razor-witted narrator of this tour-de-force, “and here come ancient secrets and rivers of blood.”
Apparently the used copy I bought off Amazon was an advanced reading copy, so I am wondering if anything changed from ARC to final version. As a librarian, it delighted me to find actual typos in an ARC, proof that a process does exist.
I would have loved this book as a kid. I only “like” it as an adult. I discovered it when it was reviewed by BoingBoing. I let it sit on my shelf for a long time after I bought it because it looked very…young adult-ish when I got it in person. But don’t let the cover deceive you. It deals with adult subject matter — but in a way that is safe (?) for kids and through methods they could understand.
The story is narrated in a monotone voice and with dry humor. Kind of unreliable, but also factual. Turns out to be a character in the story. That kind of thing.
The story centers around beings who can turn into animals. Wait, they are mammalian animals that, thousands of years ago, realized they could turn into humans. They don’t know why or how. Like us, they just are. And they cannot die unless killed by another Lycanthrope, which seems pretty Highlander-esque but also very this-ish too. It’s The Jungle Book meets Highlander, honestly. And there’s even an equal amount of Scott-ish-ness (hyphens purposeful). The main villain doesn’t have a lot of motivation for why he does what he does, but I also argue he’s not the main villain. There is no main villain or even real hero in this story. That’s what makes it so good.
But oh wait, they aren’t really Lycanthropes. That word is really more of an eponym that’s meant to represent more than just wolves. It’s the “colloquial” term, as one character says. In the past, some were worshiped as gods. Now they’re aware of each other and think Myron is the newest of them all — perhaps even “the chosen one.”
There is only one of each animal (don’t worry about how evolution makes that messy, though it’s touched on in the book). And there’s a badguy lion who wants to kill our main character, Myron, just because. Myron is a disfigured little boy — rather, he looks like one. Who knows what animal he really can turn into? And when the ‘thropes do turn back and forth, they end up naked — it’s not like watching the eye-roll worthy moments of Hulk in short-shorts (though it is a bit for the gorilla…).
The story plays out in a world where secret societies like the Illuminati and alchemists are real, where anarchists attend Lycanthrope-hosted conferences, and the gods probably exist because they are called on a lot (?). Just go with it. I also learned about a secret society called The Nine Unknown Men, which, not gonna lie, threw me off a bit because the story assumes you would know about them. But kids probably won’t. It’s not a big deal but it would have been nice to have known their rumor beforehand or have the story explain them a bit better. I thought they were something Johnson made up.
It’s all told so directly and without flourish that it makes it realistic. Time is handled very well — the forgetfulness of the immortal beings, the way they explain the world (while all having a slightly different view of it). Along the way Myron meets a communist con artist who is also a gorilla. A moose who loves cheese and shuns society. And a bearcat who ghostwrites for a living. (Can you tell who the narrator is?).
Myron is knocked unconscious “entirely too many times” (as he puts it) in order to speed things along. However, this is not a fast-paced tale. The plot isn’t want keeps you turning pages, it’s the mystery and the narrator. I loved the voice and the meta-ness of it all. It helped carry the morally-grey subject matter. There are long conversations with immortals over their life stories. There is a lot of death. There is a lot of unrealistic things that seem so plausible when put into this story.
The way indignity is handled in the book is also something I would like to talk about, but I don’t know that I have the energy to research character backstories. Just know it ties into the evolution comment above, and that wherever the animals are from, their human bodies look like the people of that land. Unless they are older than the people of that land. It’s complicated and messy, just like defining who and who is not indigenous.