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Unburdened ‘Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance’

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Debut novel an entertaining flight of fantasy fancy

When one hears the phrase “raised by wolves,” it triggers a certain feeling. It’s one of those ideas that feels old-fashioned – almost quaint. The argument could be made that it leads to stories that are by their very nature limited in the way that they can be told.

This means that when we meet young Weylyn Grey in debut novelist Ruth Emmie Lang’s “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance” (St. Martin’s Press, $26.99), there are certain expectations regarding how things will proceed. Instead, Lang takes us on a thoughtful journey of magical realism as we watch the life of, well, an extraordinary young man unfold through the eyes of those who cross his path and are forever changed by his presence in their lives – however brief it might be.

Weylyn Grey’s birth was extraordinary, marked by storms that were magnificent and unprecedented in their power. Orphaned at a young age, he took to the woods and fell in with a pack of wolves – a pack that took him in and protected him and raised him as one of their own.

But it all begins to change for Weylyn when he meets Mary, a young girl who gets swept into his orbit and winds up living with Wylyn and the wolves for a brief period of time – brief, but entirely unforgettable. The impact of their meeting spans decades – something that is both good and bad for them both.

A few years down the road, Weylyn is taken in by a local pastor and his family. While most of the man’s family is less than thrilled about the not-really-feral boy in their midst, his daughter Lydia quickly connects with Weylyn (as well as Weylyn’s uni-horned pig pal Merlin). But it all has to change when he somehow stops a tornado there on the plains of Oklahoma, displaying power that leaves him as an outsider once again.

On and on through the years we go, observing Weylyn as he moves in and out of assorted lives, drastically altering the outlooks of those he touches. Whether he’s hired by a small-town mayor to stop a hurricane or venturing into the wilderness alongside a wolf researcher or becoming a lumberjack who grows more trees than he cuts down, Weylyn moves through the world as an enigma that nevertheless deeply affects everyone he meets along the way.

All of this is rendered by way of a framing device that involves a young girl who stumbles upon an aged Weylyn living a hermit-like existence in the woods – an existence whose motives become all the more touching as they are clarified.

Relating the story of your hero through the observations of others is a risky proposition; it can result in a passivity that negates some of the reader’s potential empathetic and emotional engagement. That remove from the narrative’s central figure can cause real storytelling issues. However, “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance” largely avoids those issues, thanks to Lang’s clear and concrete representation of the relationship dynamics at play.

In Lang’s hands, Weylyn becomes a rare balance of star and subject. He is THE central figure in this story, yet all of our exposure to him comes through the experiences of those around him. By using the ripple effects of Weylyn’s personality and power, Lang tells a story that both shapes Weylyn’s character and is shaped by him. Yet he remains charmingly idiosyncratic throughout, with his eccentricities shining through.

The movement in time could have made for a confusing read, but Lang handles the narrative jumps flawlessly, quickly bringing forward the new perspectives in a manner that speeds things along without ever coming off as rushed. And when relationships are revisited as they are in the latter parts of the book … that’s when the story burns brightest, when Weylyn and those close to him are forced to reckon with the massive effect he had on their worlds and worldviews.

“Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance” has the feel of a fairy tale. It explores the magic of its world in an easy and natural way. Lang isn’t concerned with explaining the extraordinary – it’s enough to acknowledge and celebrate it. That attitude, more than anything else, is what makes this such a lovely book.

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