Imagine a fantasy world on par with that created by Tolkien for his Lord of the Rings books, and then take away the orcs, elves, dwarves, etc. and throw in a werewolf. And some werelions. Oh yes, and whilst you're at it wererats, werefoxes, wereboar and even a wereshark. Add to this a huge amount of writing talent and the end product is Wereworld: Rise of the Wolf by Curtis Jobling, the most exciting fantasy story I have read for years.
I imagine that many readers will make the same incorrect assumption about this book that I made: i.e. it is about a werewolf so therefore it must be a horror story. I couldn't have been more wrong - yes, there are some pretty nasty moments throughout the book, but this is truly a traditional fantasy story, although the kind I feel would still have great appeal to horror fans who claim that they "don't do fantasy". The main title, Wereworld, is the big clue to this books genre, for that is exactly what Curtis Jobling as created - a whole new world where the ruling elite are the werelords, all of them shapeshifters, and all able to turn into their own particular animal. Some of these werelords belong to long and magnificent dynasties, others have fallen from grace and now serve the more powerful shapeshifters in some way or another.
Like all great fantasy writers Curtis Jobling has not just created a world for his story, but in Rise of the Wolf has has also created a back history, elements of which he reveals teasingly as the story progresses. This left me completely torn in two as a reader - dying to know how the events of the story would unfold, but also desperate for the action to be put on hold so that I could find out more about this incredibly original fantasy world. This made for perfect reading in my opinion - the pages kept turning and the chapters flew by long into the night as I became totally immersed in the story. This man really knows how to tell a story!
As you can probably guess from my praise so far, the world building is one of the huge strengths of this book, but a well-built fantasy world does not on its own make a great story - for that you need believable characters who readers will grow to love and hate, and Rise of the Wolf is certainly not short of these. First up, there is Drew, a farm boy who lives a simple life with his parents and brother. He is most definitely a mummy's boy, his father very obviously favouring his brother, with whom Drew has very little in common. But he is happy. However, one night something happens that finds Drew on the run, wrongly suspected of a heinous crime committed by a hideous beast, the like of which Drew has never before seen, and so begins Drew's epic journey of discovery. For he is the only remaining werewolf, last in a long line of an ancient royal line, but also a threat to the power of the land's ruler - the evil and merciless werelion King Leopold.
For many authors it can be quite a challenge just to create one or main characters that will pull the reader into their world. However, along with world-building the other gift that Curtis Jobling has as a writer is that of character creation as his fictional world of Lyssia is populated with myriad colourful characters that somehow all manage to stick in the memory of the reader, whether they have appeared in chapter after chapter, or have only made a fleeting appearance in a couple of key scenes. Some of them will make your laugh, some of them may make you cry. Some of them will most definitely pop up in a nightmare at some point in the future, I am sure. The beautiful thing about the whole werelord concept is that as readers we have pre-conceived notions of the personalities that various animals might have, and then when reading about the werelords in their human forms we automatically associate those traits with them. This helped me create very vivid pictures in my mind of what these various characters looked like, thus making them all the more memorable. Sometimes when reading large scale fantasy stories populated with vast numbers of characters I find myself having to stop and remind myself who some of the main characters are; in Wereworld this did not happen even once.
This really is the kind of story that could get reluctant readers hooked on books, although a degree of confidence when reading is needed. I know a good number of academically able boys whose parents despair because they supposedly find book boring, and would rather be playing on their X-Boxes, PS3s, and so on. Having just equipped myself with an iphone 4, and wasted a great deal of time playing with games and apps, I wonder whether I would have read as much if all these fab gadgets had been around back then. What I do know is that Wereworld is one of those books that would have pulled me away from those other distractions and had me enthralled from the first page until the very last, leaving me hungry for the next instalment.