A Companion to Wolves: Monette + Bear = richly crafted fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear A Companion to WolvesA Companion to Wolves by Elizabeth Bear

When I first started A Companion to Wolves I thought it was just going to be another run-of-the-mill fantasy. I mean you had humans who bonded telepathically with wolves, trolls and wyverns for enemies, and Norse culture/mythology as a major influence in the naming of characters, places, and things, the northern setting, and the religion (Othinn, Ragnarok, Freya, etc.).

Of course I should have known better. While I hadn’t yet had the pleasure of reading any Elizabeth Bear, I have read and enjoyed Ms. Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinth books, which are known for being of a different breed. One of the most intriguing aspects about her series is the way she explores relationships and sexuality, both of which are carried over into A Companion to Wolves. Basically, the bond shared between the wolves and the humans is very intimate and closely follows the rules of a pack mentality. In other words, each ‘pack’ is led by a dominate female or konigenwolf, with the rest of the wolves and their partners falling into a hierarchical rank. For the humans bonded to the wolves, they are driven by the same primal urgings as their brothers or sisters. Nowhere is this more evident than when a bitch or she-wolf goes into heat. Since all of the Wolf-Brethren are male, mating season obviously introduces a number of interesting conflicts; not just among the wolfheall, but also with how the bonded are perceived by some of the wolfless.

While the sexual practices of the wolfheall was the most startling difference in an otherwise familiar fantasy tale, there were other variations that I appreciated. For instance, I liked how the humans and wolves communicated not by words, which is a common trope, but by smell and imagery — sun-warmed pine boughs, the scent name of the konigenwolf Viradechtis is one such example. I also liked the pack mentality which led to different takes on politics and relationships, and the more matriarchal gender roles practiced by the trolls and svartalfar (a dwarf-like race) though I thought the authors didn’t spend enough time in this area.

What I didn’t like as much were the names. There’s a whole smorgasbord of them, both wolves and bonded, and since a lot of them are similar, it’s kind of hard to keep track of who’s who even with the dramatis personae included by the authors. Plus, tithe-boys, potential wolfcarls, select a new name if they are chosen and that just adds to the confusion. Also, I was a little disappointed that the history behind how humans and wolves first started bonding with each other wasn’t explored in fuller detail, that the trolls were depicted mainly as monsters without any say on their part (except towards the end), and the svartalfar were almost as underdeveloped.

Of the story, it’s fairly conventional. Told in a third-person point-of-view, A Companion to Wolves centers on Njall, a boy on the cusp of manhood who becomes bonded to Viradechtis, a konigenwolf who will one day lead her own pack with Isolfr — Njall’s chosen name — by her side. Learning the ways of a wolfcarl, developing friendships and love, submitting to the passions of the heat, regaining the respect of his father, are all part of the more intimate storylines. The broader picture deals with the increased threat of trolls invading the wolfhealls’ lands, the dwindling numbers of the wolfcarls, and a race thought to be mere legend who hold the key to defeating the trolls once and for all, if Isolfr can discover the way.

According to Ms. Bear’s website, A Companion to Wolves originally started as a satirical novella on the “companion animal fantasy” subgenre, but eventually evolved into something much more profound. What Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear have done with A Companion to Wolves is taken a worn-out idea and breathed new life into it, delivering a richly crafted fantasy that is familiar enough to let readers feel right at home, while opening their eyes to a whole new world of possibilities. Because of its uncompromising sexuality, A Companion to Wolves is definitely geared more toward an adult audience and may turn off certain readers, but I thought it was easily the most accessible novel that I’ve read by Ms. Monette, and I think fans of Robin Hobb, Lois McMaster Bujold, Anne McCaffrey and of course the collaborating authors, should think highly of the book. In the end, I may have had a few quibbles with the novel, but it was nothing serious and I’m sure that I won’t be the only one clamoring for Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s swift return to the world of Iskryne.

Iskryne world — (2007.-2015) Publisher: A Companion to Wolves is the story of a young nobleman, Isolfr, who is chosen to become a wolfcarl — a warrior who is bonded to a fighting wolf. Isolfr is deeply drawn to the wolves, and though as his father’s heir he can refuse the call, he chooses to go. The people of this wintry land depend on the wolfcarls to protect them from the threat of trolls and wyverns, though the supernatural creatures have not come in force for many years. Men are growing too confident. The wolfhealls are small, and the lords give them less respect than in former years. But the winter of Isolfr’s bonding, the trolls come down from the north in far greater numbers than before, and the holding’s complaisance gives way to terror in the dark. Isolfr, now bonded to a queen wolf, Viradechtis,must learn where his honor lies, and discover the lengths to which he will to go when it, and love for his wolf, drive him.

Elizabeth Bear Sara Monette A Companion to Wolvesfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews


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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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