A COMPANION TO WOLVES by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Tor, 2007, 326 pages, 978-0-7653-1816-9, Hardcover, $24.95
Now, I like Sarah Monette’s work, as every single person who knows me will testify while rolling their eyes (possibly in a good-natured way, possibly not, depending on whether or not they went on a car trip with me directly following my reading of The Virtu), and I like what I’ve read of Elizabeth Bear’s work as well (which is to say, I’ve read Carnivale and a few short stories but haven’t had the opportunity to get much further yet). This book is no exception, and certainly these two authors make a formidable team, but that doesn’t stop me from having the following thought:
Oh my. What do I say about this book?
That’s a harder question to answer than you might think, and not because I didn’t enjoy the story. I did, very much in fact, but there’s a lot to think about here that makes tackling a review a less than breezy job.
A Companion to Wolves is set in a northern country where winters are difficult and the threat of invasion by trolls is imminent. Standing between the settlements and these trolls are the wolfhealls, where men bonded to trellwolves fight to protect the people of the villages in return for new young men to bond with the newly born wolf pups.
Isolfr, formerly the son of a jarl (a leader in one of the villages), has recently been bonded and begins learning what will be expected of him as a member of the pack. Discovering what it means to be paired with a wolf, particularly a female wolf, is a difficult realization to come to terms with, but Isolfr is convinced that belonging to the pack, and being brother to the wolf Viradechtis, is more than worth any sacrifice he must make.
Now, before I tell you what you will probably like about A Companion to Wolves, I’m going to tell you what you might not like about it because, frankly, I’m tired of reading negative reviews based on flimsy bias and not on the actual story (and if I hear one more person throw around the word “fanfiction” as a derogative term, I’m likely to come out of my seat). This book tackles a couple of difficult themes that some may not want to read about. So, rather than gloss over that, I’ll just put it right out there. If it’s not something you care for, you can back out now.
If you’re even the slightest bit squeamish about violence or sex (or violent sex), this probably isn’t the book for you. Sure, most readers of fantasy can get by the hacking and the killing. That’s often expected and, for some, the action sequences make all the difference. Of course, if you want to stop and consider that you’re essentially reading about genocide, well…. I don’t know, maybe that doesn’t matter to you, and it’s not as if it isn’t a common fantasy trope.
The sex, on the other hand, is more likely to put some people off, and I know of more than a few readers who will let its presence completely overshadow all other elements of the story. Particularly in this case, where not only are there situations between same-sex partners, but also because of the nature of the interaction. There’s a thin line here between what some will consider an element of the story and what some might consider unnecessary to include in the novel. That’s going to be a matter of personal perception. I find, reading various reactions to the book, that some feel strongly against it while others aren’t affected by its inclusion at all. Consider your opinion before you commit.
For my part, I feel that the impact wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t written the way that it was. And as far as the sex goes, sure it functions as a plot element, but there isn’t that much of it, in my mind, which is why this schism between readers baffles me.
Now then, in terms of the story itself, there’s a lot going on in less than three-hundred pages. The battle with the trolls is, of course, at the forefront of the story, leading the actions and reactions of the characters. But beyond that, there’s Isolfr’s coming of age story and the ongoing, almost political struggle within the pack groups themselves. Isolfr has his work cut out for him in dealing with the situations both within and outside of the wolfheall.
Despite all this, the story feels streamlined. It gets where it needs to be with efficiency, I think. And while some parts could have been elaborated upon had the authors chosen to do so, nothing comes off as forgotten or half-explained. And one must remember that Isolfr is new to many of these experiences, so having him as the narrator does mean that some things must be left unsaid for now. My only personal curiosity is how Isolfr’s relationship with the wolfjarls progresses, but should the next installments come to be, as I’ve heard they might, then this curiosity may well be satisfied.
If one thing proved a problem for a while it was the character names. Not only were they a little difficult to begin with, but many of them changed part way through the story. Add to this the plethora of wolf names to remember and associate with human names, and I was quite frantic for a couple of chapters.
But if this is my only complaint, then I’m doing all right. In fact, the names became much easier to remember as I progressed in the story, and associating the names of the men and their wolves as pairs rather than singulars became instinctive as well.
In fact, I grew to be very interested in the characters even beyond the confines of the story. I shouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. If handed a stack of novels and asked to take a guess at the authors, I could easily pick out any story that Monette had a hand in — if only because I’d be thinking about that novel’s characters for weeks after I’d finished reading it (to the dismay of all my friends yet again). That I’ve fallen in love with Isolfr, Viradechtis, Frithulf, and the rest of the cast is a mark of how individual they’ve become to me.
As a final note, I should point out that I’d be very interested in seeing someone tackle an essay about the gender hierarchies in this story. It’s a curiosity to me that humans in the story are entirely a patriarchal society with women in the submissive role, and yet every other cultural structure seems to have a matriarchal basis. Even within the wolfheall, whether it’s clearly obvious to the characters or not, the koningenwolf (or queen wolf, for those unfamiliar with the story) is largely in control of what happens within the pack, and even among the bonded men. It’s a curious problem that I should like to see explored, even if only as a thoughtful musing.