Markus Heitz is a prolific, German, fantasy author who has been doing quite well here in the Netherlands. A lot of his books have been translated in the last few years and new ones regularly appear. His best known work is probably Die Zwerge, which has been released in English translation by Orbit in July as The Dwarves. Personally the current trend to give every fantasy race their own series doesn't really appeal to me so I decided to try another of his works, that as far as I know, has not been translated into English yet. Ritus, the original appeared in German under the same title, is marketed as a fantasy thriller here. No idea what they mean by that. Personally I think of it more as a horror novel.
Ritus has two main story lines. One part of the story is set in 18th century France, where a mysterious wolf is terrorizing the Gévaudan region. Despite the best efforts of men like Jean Chastel the beast will not be caught. Dozen fall prey to it and the king of France has offered a great reward for the man who kills it. Unfortunately for Jean, the beast they are hunting is no ordinary wolf. In one of the confrontations with the animal his sons Pierre and Antoine are bitten and start to exhibit aggressive behaviour. For Jean the hunt for the beast becomes more desperate as it becomes clear his sons are turning into werewolves. There is a cure but time is running out fast.
The second part of the story is set in 2004 in various places in Europe. Eric von Kastell and his father are hunting werewolves like their family had done for centuries. At the opening of the book one particularly nasty creature has kidnapped Eric's father and an attempt to liberate him turns into a massacre. Eric will have to go on without his father. What's worse, a large part of his research is destroyed as well. Eric's world is turned upside down when he finds out he has a sister in France who claims part of the rather large inheritance. Eric ignores her and dives head on into his work, on the trail of a werewolf in St. Petersburg. There his path crosses that of his family's worst enemy, a werewolf who doesn't make mistakes, a werewolf Eric's family has been hunting for centuries.
The historical part of this novel is obviously based on the legend of the Beast of Gévaudan. This legend has been material from many books and movies, one of the more notable being Brotherhood of the Wolf (or Le Pacte des loups if you prefer the French title). Hetiz has done quite a bit of research on the Beast, Jean for instance is a historical character. No doubt he has taken some liberties with the material to suit his story but there is historical backbone to it. I thought the historical part of the novel was the most appealing part of the book. Jean is a man who has lost his faith in the church after his wife died. He's moody, short tempered but has a good heart and a strict sense of responsibility. This sense of responsibility is the source of one of the conflicts he faces, what to do about his obviously dangerous sons. An interesting character.
The 2004 part of the story is a lot more problematic. Heitz keeps a lot of details about Eric hidden. What we get to see is an obviously traumatized man, perhaps not fully human, who redirects a part of his fear and anger by creating pieces of modern art. A lot of his scenes are a sting of chases and fights, they are action packed but his past and the origins of his hunt are not revealed (although the name might be a clue). Possibly Heitz is saving that for the sequel Sanctum. Eric has another dark part of his personality. Besides werewolves he hunts women. His sexual conquests are described in some detail and it is clear that these are lust only (and therefore not particularly exciting to read). His trail of bodies and destroyed rooms makes you wonder how Eric has managed to evade the authorities for this long, as well as how he pay for an obviously very expensive lifestyle. In short, where Jean is brought to life, Eric develops all the depth of a hero in a third rate action movie.
I'm also not thrilled by the end of this book. I was aware that there is a sequel but the ending is still quite abrupt. Jean's story reaches a point more or less natural point of closure, Eric leaves us on a rather unsatisfactory cliffhanger.I guess the project is still salvageable if he pays some more attention to Eric in the next book but all things considered I am not terribly impressed with Ritus. Still, if you are looking for a fast paced, action packed and not too challenging read on werewolves you could do a lot worse than this novel. I'll see if I can still find a copy of Sanctum for review in the local book store, it may already be out of print. If I can get my hands on it I'll try to review it later this year.
Author: Markus Heitz
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Translation: Marcella Houweling
First published: 2006