Monday, 27 October 2014

Review: The Beast Within by Jane Jensen

Jane Jensen's The Beast Within is a novelisation of the 1990's video game Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within. Game tie-in novels are known to be rather low quality reads, but - to my utter surprise - The Beast Within ended up being the exception to the rule. The story takes place in Bavaria, Germany, where Gabriel has moved to live in a castle that he's inherited from his uncle alongside the title of Shattenjager - Shadow Hunter.

Gabriel gets tangled in a new case when the townspeople call upon him to hunt down a beast that has killed a young girl. While the authorities believe that the killing was done by two wolves that have escaped from a nearby zoo, the villagers believe that the killer is a werewolf and the shattenjager is the right person to hunt it down. Gabriel visits the zoo in Munich and his suspicions are aroused by the behavior of the zoo's zoologist, Doctor Klingmann. He soon finds himself joining a mysterious hunting club with a strange philosophy. In the meanwhile, his assistant Grace delves deep into history and the details of the death of Gabriel's ancestor who was trying to save the life of Ludvig II of Bavaria. Soon the fates of Ludvig, his protege Wagner and Gabriel begin to intertwine...

Jensen's plotting is superb and she manages to mix historical details and characters - Ludvig II, Richard Wagner - into a mystery resolved in the present day. Details of Ludvig's life are revealed slowly and with purpose, mixing reality with werewolf fantasy, and the character comes to life on the pages of the novel - perhaps even more so than the protagonists of the tale. Descriptions of the palaces that Ludvig II constructed are similarly evocative. And all through the tale, the plot offers twists and turns that keep the readers glued to their seats until the grandiose finale. It may not be a literary masterpiece, but it is a very entertaining mystery novel.

Jensen's concept of werewolf is grounded strongly in traditional folklore. She actually combines many of them, including witches turning into wolves, on the history books of the shattenjager, which makes for an interesting read all in itself. The werewolves are not mindless killing monsters as in many modern tales, but more complex creatures - some people learn to control their beast while others lose their minds completely. They are described as monstrous wolves, larger than the natural variety.

Overall, I found The Beast Within very engaging and a veritable page turner, but I must admit that it might not be as accessible for someone who hasn't either read the first novel or played the game. Gabriel's and Grace's relationship was introduced in the first part and it is not explained again in this one - rather it moves forward as both characters continue growing. It is still readable as a stand-alone novel, though, and is definitely one of the better werewolf novels that I've encountered. It is a shame that there's no fresh reprint of it available.