A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this book because I was doing a couple of reading challenges; one to read speculative fiction by “new-to-me” female authors, the other to read LGBTQ related speculative fiction, and this book qualified for both lists and I thought the cover was intriguing. You can find the list of LGBTQ speculative fiction that I’m referring to at: https://www.worldswithoutend.com/list….
I have read nothing by either Sarah Monette or Elizabeth Bear so this was a completely new experience for me. I could not tell where the writing of one ended and the other began. I’m not sure if that’s their style under normal circumstances or if I just can’t tell because I’m not familiar with them. But I thought it worth mentioning because I find this can be a factor in co-written books from time to time.
I was going to save reading it until I was finished the current Honor Harrington novel I was working on, but I started it when I couldn’t find the HH book and then just never put it down. So it grabs you right away and keeps you turning the pages to find out what happens next.
Isolfr is the son of a Jarl (a nobleman like a baronet, who owns a keep and is responsible for a protectorate) who is chosen to join an order of warriors who bond with a creature called a trellwolf, which is a giant, considerably more intelligent and sentient wolf who is the natural enemy of trolls. Or rather, the sending of sons in tithe to the order is demanded as one of many feudal obligations, and Isolfr’s father tries to keep him out of sight to avoid having to send him in tithe; partially because Isolfr is his father’s heir, and partially because he does not approve of the order. The wolfcarls (the men who have bonded to wolves) are known to mate when their wolves do, and he is offended by this and strongly disapproves of it, though some family history complicates the matter as well. When Isolfr chooses to disregard his father’s commands and fulfill his household’s tithe as requested, this sets the two against each other in a conflict that rapidly becomes central to the book as the trolls, for some reason, stop venturing into the territory of men in warbands and start coming down in force.
Veteran readers of speculative fiction will be reminded of the bond between Anne McCaffery’s Pernese dragons and their riders, and between the Companions and the Heralds of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar novels. Perhaps some of you do not remember, but of the five types of dragons, the golds and the greens were female. Because women were forbidden to ride any but the golden queens in their feudal society (and also forbidden to go into combat because the queens would become sterile if they chewed firestone, which gave dragons the ability to breathe fire,) green riders are male. But dragons have mating heats, kind of like wolves, which overwhelms the telepathic/empathic bond between the dragons and their riders, and so since green and blue dragons tend to mate, green and blue riders tend to be gay.
This is not a central part of the plot in any of the Pern novels as I can recall, but I can see its influence on Monette and Bear, and this situation *is* central to the plot of “A Companion to Wolves,” with all the headaches of prejudices, interrelationships, status, and so forth; especially since, in this cold world out of Norse myth, women are forbidden to be warriors, and so a band of wolves and bonded humans contains only men. To make matters more complicated, Isolfr bonds with an alpha bitch, bringing a whole host of unique problems and concerns, and he, of course labours under the prejudices acquired from having been raised by his father. Other reviews have cited numerous consent issues. They’re not wrong, so that’s a trigger you may wish to stay away.
However, I have done a fair bit of research into wolf packs and how they interact because their social structure is interesting and complicated, and I was playing in a role-playing game of werewolves, so I wanted to understand how humans, dealing with the instincts of wolves, might act. I wish I’d read this book. Watching the characters struggle with exactly that problem makes for a fascinating read. The alpha bitch is the central authority and social glue of a wolf pack, so a man bonded to such a wolf finds himself filling the same role in their world, regardless of his youth or his personal wishes.
The world in which this takes place is beautifully realized. This is a world out of the Poetic Eddas. It is far to the North — far enough that there is a midnight sun and snow most of the year. Norse religion is the faith of the culture; people wear Hammers of Thor into battle for protection and make prayers to Othinn and Freya. Younger sons go a’viking to make their fortune so that they may provide for a future wife. And there are trolls and svartalfar and trellwolves. People who know anything about Norse culture and mythology will cheer these beautifully-realized mythological creatures, which are far closer to traditional stories than most works of fantasy literature I have read.
If I might make one small criticism of this book, it is clear that the authors are not fighters. They do not realize the fight scenes in the sort of detail that satisfies someone like myself, who has a little bit of martial training. Like when reading a Mercedes Lackey novel, many of the fights happen off-camera, partially because that’s just not the story that the authors want to tell. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like they are confusing or anything, it’s just that they lack a certain technical detail. This does not extend to an understanding of the circumstances and tactics around war, however; here they perform admirably. And the aftermaths of the fight scenes are brilliantly realized. These writers go where the story takes them. They do not blink in the face of things that might make people uncomfortable, from bloody war and the wounds it causes, to the bedroom. Then again, I understand that modern editors are often not interested in the fine detail of the fight scenes, so perhaps that’s an editorial choice and not an author’s one.
Another minor criticism is that the cast of characters gets out of hand. Because much of the plot is about interconnecting relationships and politics there is a whole host of people and wolves with unfamilar-sounding names introduced, and there’s no clear convention that names the wolves any differently than the wolfless people, though most wolfcarls (but not all!) use the suffix “fr” at the end of their names. The writers seem to have been aware of this, and they try to mitigate it by making a list of characters, whether they are wolves or people, and what their group of affiliation is at the beginning of the book, but I found I had to consult it frequently and it slowed down the action and pulled me out of the story more than I cared for.
Also, the slightly-sudden wrapping up of a lot of loose ends may rankle some at the end of the novel. I accepted it at the time but in retrospect, some of it feels a little rushed. Then again, much of it happens because of the pressures of war, and that I can understand.
As a veteran reader of speculative fiction, I must also give a deep bow of respect to Monette and Bear for their beautifully realized aliens. Their sentient non-humans are not humans in funny suits. They do not think like humans. Many of them do not even really think in words, such as the wolves. And yet their intelligence is clearly communicated. They apply particularly deft hands to this aspect of their craft.
As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I would definitely recommend it. It’s the first in a series of three books called the “Iskryne” series. I’m sure I’ll look for the rest of them.
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