I originally bought this book after I saw it reviewed on Boing Boing. To tell you the truth though, I didn't need a positive review in order to want to buy it - the title alone was enough to sell me. (And don't read the reviews on Amazon.com, btw: they give away the twists in the story, because amazon customer reviewers are little shits sometimes even when they're leaving 5 star reviews...I'm really glad that I didn't read them before I read the book).
What it's about:
The story itself is about a 13 year-old horribly disfigured boy named Myron, who was adopted after he was found at the side of the road with amnesia. One day, he's attacked by a school bully, only to black out and then wake up naked, surrounded by the tattered remnants of his clothes, next to a severely injured bully... what follows is Myron's discovery that he is an "immortal lycanthrope" (therianthrope). Basically, for each animal that exists, and has ever existed, there is one immortal individual who can, at will, change into a human if they want. It appears as though Myron is stuck in his human form - though he doesn't know which animal he is, because he doesn't know how to consciously change into it. Only an immortal therianthrope can kill an immortal therianthrope... so, when Myron discovers that the Lion is gunning for him, he's got something to fear.
The book actually turns the genre a little bit on its head though, with Myron deciding that he must be the Chosen One, and announcing it to most everyone he meets, while assuming that he's about to go on an adventure like the heroes of his favourite books. Through the course of the book, he discovers that adventures aren't really all they're cracked up to be. The book is VERY bloody and not at all forgiving, nor do things get wrapped up in sunshine and rainbows... it really does turn the genre a bit on its head, and refuses to bend to the usual rules. The "Immortal Lycanthropes" are just as bad as humans, if not worse, when it comes to being ugly - which is a huge theme of the book. (The inside flap of the book starts with quote: "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."
The Quality of the Writing:
I'm not actually sure what age-group the book is meant for, besides maybe a vague "teens" - whatever that means. But basically, if you're a fan of Lemony Snicket, you'll like this book. Seeing as Hal Johnson is by all evidence a pseudonym/nom-de-plume, the book could have very well been written by Snicket/Handler. It's very much in keeping with his writing style in A Series of Unfortunate Events, in that:
1)The narrator of the book is a secondary character in the book that tells the story after having researched the journey of the main character (though he also sometimes interacts with the main character and affects the story-arc directly).
2)The book is filled with weird secret societies being weird and ridiculous.
3)The book has a wonderful mix of humour, sarcasm, and philosophical discussion disguised as humour and sarcasm.
So, you get fun sentences such as this:
"Marcus Lynch did not invent customized pornography, but he ate the man who invented it, and thereby cornered the market."
As well as paragraphs that actually tackle the problems of immortality as it relates to morality, such as this:
"I would like to draw a character sketch of me. But the truth is that most people's characters can be identified best negatively, by the things they haven't done. And there is very little I haven't done[...]. The modern age, temporarily and psychotically, values experience above all else, and my life would sound appealing to moderns, but they forget how many bad things there are to do. Murder, slaving, probably genocide - if you waited around long enough, you'd end up doing them too. There is very little anyone can avoid doing forever, there are only things you can put off until you die. Sure, I've gone a hundred years without killing anyone. I can do a hundred years in my sleep. But try doing a thousand..."
(The whole next two pages is a really brilliant comment about morality as fashion that I loved, but I didn't want to copy ALL of it out - you guys will just have to read the book.)
The writing in the book isn't quite as refined and precise as Snicket though. The pace is a bit uneven in places, and in the paragraph I quoted above, I actually edited out an errant comma in one of the sentences. By the end of the book, I HAD actually guessed Myron's animal-form before it was revealed, but I think I might have been lucky... or I knew what I would do if I were writing the book, and the author and I just think alike. Judging by the reviews on amazon (which you shouldn't read until after you read the book!) people were generally taken by surprise.
All in all, a very enjoyable and quick read. I'm a sucker for therianthropes of course, so I might be a little biased - but I'm also a sucker for books that are fun without talking down to the audience, and use ridiculous premises to talk about morality, the turning of history, and the existence, or non-existence, of innocence.