I’ve been meaning to get back around to writing my book thoughts for a while (let’s not talk about how long) but reading Wagner the Werewolf has been an irresistible lure to let myself get dragged back into it.
In short, Wagner the Werewolf is a classic penny dreadful, written by a man who appears to have been fiercely progressive for his time but so personally unpleasant that nobody wanted to work with him. This man outsold Dickens in his time. Remember that all the way through this journey.
First things first, I thoroughly loved this book. I had an absolutely fantastic time from beginning to end, and gleefully shared various excerpts on my Twitter. There are about fifty different plots going on, the language is not so much purple as ultraviolet, and the only thing missing is the werewolf action. Wagner only changes about three times, and though he does kill people (and snakes, and swans) every time, it’s mostly from running into them really fast. Spoilers galore will occur below, you have been warned.
I don’t know where to start. The main plot is basically (haha, let me try to do this in less than a thousand words) Fernand Wagner, 90 year old shepherd in the Black Forest who was recently abandoned by his beloved granddaughter, has agreed to become a werewolf in an agreement with Yes-That-Faust, and lives a fun life as a hot young rich guy who turns into a werewolf on the last day of the month. He meets Lady Nisida, hot, deaf and mute, whose recently deceased father (the Count of Riverola) has alluded to a terrible family secret that only Nisida’s nice-but-dim brother Francisco is allowed to see on his wedding day. Nisida and Wagner hit it off immediately. Wagner’s beloved granddaughter Agnes turns out to have abandoned him to become the Count of Riverola’s mistress, and they also reunite. Nisida, not happy with Agnes having been her father’s mistress anyway, mistakes Agnes for a rival in love (Wagner doesn’t look old enough to have a granddaughter) and straight up murders her. This catches the eye of a bandit leader, who understandably thinks, This is the woman for me. Nisida is simultaneously pulling off a scheme to get her maidservant, Flora, away from Francisco, and has her kidnapped by some debauched Carmelite nuns. While this is going on, the Count of Arestino realises his wife is having an affair with a gambling idiot and the bandit lord who’s in love with Nisida is involved in a complex double bluff scheme involving some diamonds given as loan collateral and also Flora’s brother is making his fortune as a secretary in Turkey until he sees a pretty woman in a bazaar and becomes Muslim to marry her, and and and…
You cannot sum this plot up, it is insane.
There was a lot to chew on here – Reynolds goes on a pretty sharp rant about the double standard in adultery (married woman-style) in which the man risks and gives nothing and the woman is ruined, and he has about three talks about why Jewish people are people too, and the behaviour of Christians towards them is unChristian to say the least.
His take on race and Islam is probably more nuanced than I expected (there are surprisingly few consistently-evil villains – maybe the faithless valet Antonio is the only one – and honestly none in the Turkish contingent) but it is pretty orientalist, and Reynolds is quite happy to call it a primitive/savage religion (notwithstanding it’s younger than Christianity but WHATEVER, WHO’S COUNTING?). There’s a trio of buff Ethiopian slaves who put the fear of god up Alessandro/Ibrahim, but he brings that on himself. They’re portrayed as pitilessly morally neutral.
Nisida is probably the character with the most agency and the most active character in the entire story, Wagner included. Wagner gets to have Satan, Faust, various angels which appear while he naps and Christian Rosencrux, the founder of the Rosicrucians, helping him from the sidelines and telling him what to do. Francisco never has any idea what’s happening. Alessandro/Ibrahim is a pile of bad choices and bad-naturedly backing off when he gets a smack on the nose (which, let us not neglect to elucidate, means that a woman gets thrown into the Bosphorus). Stephano Verrina, the bandit lord, can’t quite keep ahead of the game. The Marquis d’Orsini is a garbage human, redeemed half-heartedly by his realisation that Jewish people are indeed people. He goes charging off to allegedly save a Jewish man who was arrested by the Inquisition because d’Orsini couldn’t keep his sword in his sheath, and utterly fails to do anything – the next time we see him the old Jewish guy is still locked up and all d’Orsini has accomplished is to get himself arrested as well. Giulia Arestino, his adulterous lover, btw, gets killed for her transgression, even though she was only found out because of d’Orsini’s endless gambling debts and his emotionally manipulative whining for her to pawn her wedding gift diamonds!
Nisida is always hustling. She’s planning and manipulating and using everyone’s underestimation of her to get things done.
She’s, er, not actually deaf or hard of hearing at all, by the way. At one point she kind of implies it’s all so she can spy on her father and his affairs, but the real reason is so she can protect Francisco from their father’s hatred of him – if people think she can neither hear nor speak, her presence in a room isn’t a threat and people will be looser with their secrets around her. And let me tell you, they are, all the way through this book.
A random thing I noticed is that despite Reynolds’s little interlude about the adultery double standard, it is always the women who are punished for it throughout the book (whether real or perceived) – Agnes is murdered for her perceived relationship with Wagner (Wagner lives a while longer till his curse is broken and he immediately ages into a husk), Calanthe is murdered for her adultery with Alessandro/Ibrahim (he gets stabbed by Calanthe’s brother at the very end, so he does get punished for this, but only after a successful life as Grand Vizier of all Turkey), the Countess of Riverola gets murdered for her perceived infidelity (her brother, who she was meeting chastely in secret, also gets brutally murdered for this to be fair) and Giulia gets racked to death by the Inquisition for her perceived part in the destruction of the debauched nunnery where she was placed by her evil husband after her adultery was discovered (d’Orsini gets off absolutely scot-free despite his considerable guilt in all this – he is I guess sad at having been locked up for a while, but he’s totally fine, gets to inherit the old Jewish moneylender’s considerable fortune, and lives a happy life as a Turkish prince. Truly, failing upwards.)
What was really cool to me was the moral greyness of pretty much every character. I said no one was really a complete villain, except Antonio, the Inquisition, the nuns, every sbirro, and probably the anacondas. These are all minor characters in the grand scheme of the story, though. There are times when we’re firmly on the side of every character, whether Nisida, Stephano Verrina the bandit lord, Alessandro/Ibrahim the traitor to his religion and country, d’Orsini the inveterate gambler. We’re also firmly against them sometimes as well. I really liked that.
I get that some people would not be willing to allow Reynolds his weird orientalism or the still-a-bit-off portrayal of some of the female characters and treatment of sexuality, or the religion thing, and that’s fine. These are all personal lines and I’m not going to dictate what people must be comfortable with. I will say that I didn’t get any eye-roll urges re: the ladies, and I didn’t feel like anyone was being particularly stupid at any point.
This book is simply a brilliant reading experience. It’s a batshit soap opera of the purplest prose, and I could honestly not have asked any more of it.