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Bad Wolf, Good Book
by Quentin 'Cubist' Long
©2005 Quentin Long -- all rights reserved
Book: Corpus Lupus, by Phil Geusz (180 pp)
Publisher: Raccoon's Bookshelf
Price: $12.00 for comb binding w/ color cover graphics

What it is

Let's get one thing straight right away: Corpus Lupus is not a nice story. It's nasty, unpleasant nightmare-fodder, and you'd have to be insane to think of it as something frothy and disposable with which to while away a few idle hours. Reading Corpus Lupus for pleasure would be "like going to a funeral for the ride", as Heinlein said of vacationing in the Soviet Union.

The world of Corpus Lupus is one in which magic works -- necromancy, to be specific. Any competent necromancer can gain a significant amount of Power from the act of killing another human being, and that Power can be applied to any number of feats that violate the strictures of mundane Reality. Had Geusz' necromancers so chosen, they could easily have taken control over all political structures everywhere in the world; fortunately, they realized the consequences of acquiring this control, and (more importantly) recognized that those consequences would be bad. Thus, the world of Corpus Lupus is very like the world you see outside your window. The vast majority of mundane humanity has little contact with such magical phenomena/creatures as exist; the world map includes America and other familiar nations, with geopolitical relations roughly the same as in the Real World; necromancy is a recognized and (extremely tightly) regulated profession; and so on.

Geusz' viewpoint character is a homicide detective named Lawrence Jerome Highridge Jr. Larry has spent 20-plus years on the force -- and he's also a werewolf. Given his druthers, Larry would prefer to live as mundane an existence as any lycanthrope possibly can; unfortunately, Larry, being a veteran cop who (like any other werewolf) is largely immune to magic, is all too often assigned to cases involving fun things like human sacrifice and black magic. And during the course of the novel, Larry gets sucked ever-deeper into the 'mystical world', at ever-greater personal cost...

Having provided a spoiler-free summary of the novel's setting and main character, I will now get the negative comments out of the way, so that I can close with the good stuff.

The bad news

Corpus Lupus only has one significant flaw, and it's a doozy: Geusz' narrative voice. If you've read more than two stories by Geusz, you'll recognize this voice immediately, because he uses it for everything he writes. Its distinguishing characteristics are old-fashioned (if not positively archaic) sentence structure and phraseology; general avoidance of contractions; and punctilious adherence to the smallest niceties of grammar and spelling. This narrative voice is not universally undesirable -- far from it; it works very well indeed for, among others, Geusz' TBP stories about Phil, the lapine animorph SCAB counselor -- but it simply isn't appropriate for this story. It's a case where the style in which a work is presented, is very much at odds with the substance being presented.

Putting it bluntly: If you're writing about a werewolf who has more than two decades' experience investigating nasty murder cases, you should not use a narrative voice that might as well have been explicitly designed for a fussy, stick-in-the-mud, middle-aged English professor with tenure. It's a credit to Geusz' skill that he makes this ill-fitting narrative voice work as well as it does here; the style/substance conflict is largely ignorable throughout most of the book. Even so, there are a few spots where the mismatch between form and content simply cannot be overlooked. For instance, it comes as a shock when a lycanthropic, 20-year-veteran homicide detective indulges in effete, polysyllabic Latinisms in the privacy of his own internal dialogue. Likewise, it reads very oddly indeed when the innocent (if not downright virginal) language of Geusz' narrative voice is pressed into service for this same character to lament his own loss of innocence...

Given the empirical fact that Geusz does use the same narrative voice for everything he writes, it's hard not to conclude that he believes himself incapable of any other. I think he's wrong on this point. It would be one thing if Geusz, like H.P. Lovecraft, were content to only write about characters that are well-suited to his specific narrative voice -- but Corpus Lupus demonstrates that Geusz has wider aspirations. Geusz' 'One True Narrative Voice' is a self-imposed limitation on his writing talent, and I can only hope that he one day decides to stop handicapping himself in this way.

The good news

God knows how, but Geusz does a good job of world-building -- capturing the 'ambience' of his fictional setting. I say 'God knows how' because while Geusz is perfectly happy to provide any quantity of functional details, i.e. those which are directly relevant to the plot, he's exceedingly reluctant to provide any details that are merely 'chrome' or 'flavor', i.e. those which only help the author to 'flesh out' his setting. Were I to adopt such a policy myself, I'm certain my writing would suffer greatly; Geusz, however, is clearly made of sterner stuff.

How the hell does he do it? I have no idea. I just know that Geusz does do it, and rather well, too. The action in Corpus Lupus moves between 'mundane' Earth, at least one altered state of consciousness, and three distinct alternate planes of existence, and no serious reader will have any trouble whatsoever distinguishing any pair of them.

Geusz does a good job of providing distinctive personalities for his characters -- quite a feat, since the reader sees them all through the strongly-tinted filter of his One True Narrative Voice.

The climax of Corpus Lupus is literally world-shaking. Don't think you can guess it beforehand; I certainly couldn't. Geusz plays fair with the reader, laying out all the relevant facts ahead of time, in what could be a textbook example of 'hiding in plain sight'.

While Corpus Lupus is not an overtly political novel, its theme -- the acquisition, use, and consequences of using Power -- is one which can't help but resonate with any reader who follows current events. Which is as it should be: Just how much difference is there between the use of ritual sacrifice to gain Power, on the one hand, and the use of military force to reshape international geopolitics, on the other? In Geusz' view, there is no fundamental difference -- just a different set of special effects. His necromancers are as one with any nation's organized military; they are vastly powerful and influential, and they have a (carefully defined and circumscribed) license to kill.

Do you think anybody with a license to kill would have to be at least a little bit... off... as compared to 'normal' citizens? If so, Corpus Lupus agrees with you. The Power Geusz' necromancers have gained through their gray arts, the acts they must perform in order to gain that Power, the things literally inconceivable to mundanes which that Power allows them to see and experience first-hand... all of it leaves very deep scars indeed in every necromancer's soul. This is another parallel between Geusz' necromancers and mundane military; while the former may not use the specific phrase 'post-traumatic stress syndrome', they are -- must be -- intimately familiar with the condition so named.

Do not be fooled by (thankfully rare) scenes of waist-deep gore; Geusz does not revel in blood and slaughter. At most, he thinks there are moments when blood and slaughter may, regretfully, be necessary in order to prevent worse. In the world of Corpus Lupus, controlled killing is a wretched business for anyone to be in, and everyone should be damned glad there are people who, knowing what sort of scars that business is going to gouge into their souls, nevertheless choose to sacrifice their own personal happiness so that others may live in peace.

The bottom line

When all is said and done, Corpus Lupus isn't a book you want to read; rather, it's one you need to read.

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