by Oisin McGannFratricide is one of the most unnatural of crimes. But for the Wildenstern family it's almost a tradition, an expected way for male members to advance. There's something very odd indeed, something downright unnatural, about Nate Wildenstern's kin.
Ancient Appetites is set in Ireland after the Famine, or at least a certain version of Ireland. Wild creatures known as engimals, a mixture between engines and animals, are loose in the countryside. Nate and his cousin Gerald are hot on the trail of a feral motorcycle known as the Beast of Glenmalure.
Nate is a bit of a big game hunter, having travelled to Africa to capture wild engimals. These creatures are partly responsible for the Wildenstern family's extraordinary wealth, thanks to their success at hunting and trading them.
It's this wealth that ensures the Wildenstern family doesn't live by the rules that apply to everyone else. When Nate's elder brother Marcus is killed in a "climbing accident", suspicion falls on Nate, since he has a lot to gain from this death. But Nate isn't worried about going to prison for a crime he's innocent of, since punishment is for peasants. His more immediate concern is the need to find the true killer before he strikes again.
Nate's family is blessed with unusual health and longevity, thanks to their ability to use gold to speed up their natural healing. It's easy to suspect this bloodthirsty, unnatural family of having some sort of vampiric ancestry, particularly after the bodies of four of their ancestors are uncovered accidentally. But Ancient Appetites manages to avoid such a cliché.
Francis Noonan, a stablehand who lives in overcrowded poverty, represents the other side of the coin. His father wants his help to rob the Wildensterns, and though Francis has reservations he feels he has a duty to his father. When it comes to Ireland after the Famine it would be hard to write a book that didn't mention class, and it's an important theme throughout this novel. Characters come to a growing awareness of the injustice that surrounds them and the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
McGann may be writing for an audience of young adults, but he deals with the social issues covered by this novel without talking down to his readers. He touches on the position of women, homosexuals and coloured people without once letting up the pace or becoming preachy. Ancient Appetites is a highly entertaining story which moves from whimsical to deadly serious without skipping a beat. It's certainly an original book, brimming with inventiveness and colourful characters.
Don't allow the curious engimals and characters like the childish and pathologically bubbly Tatiana lull you into thinking that this novel is lightweight and trivial. Scratch the surface and you will find iron at its heart. All the same, this novel is a delight to read, a maelstrom of adventure from one of the most promising new writers to emerge this decade.
Review © Ros Jackson