Black Wolves: The hearts and minds of Elliott’s characters are wonderful

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Black Wolves by Kate Elliott fantasy book reviewsBlack Wolves by Kate Elliott

I’m not going to spend much time summarizing the plot of Kate Elliott’s epic fantasy Black Wolves. I don’t think I could. Black Wolves (2015)is the first book of a series, also called BLACK WOLVES. It is 780 pages long, and the story spans nearly fifty years (although there is a large gap in the timeline). It involves a nation called the Hundred, which sits on the northern border of a large, powerful empire. It involves the murder of a king, the crowning of another, and a dynastic dispute between two queens. It involves a shift away from indigenous beliefs to a state-sponsored religion imported from the Empire — and a corrupt priesthood. It includes people from various cultures who have come to the Hundred at various points in history, and the “demons” who inhabited the country first.

And that’s not really telling you very much of anything.

Black Wolves is filled with intrigue and suspense because much of it is a “palace intrigue” story. It’s filled with spycraft, battles, quests, adventures and magic. People’s loyalties are constantly in question, and people are not what they seem. Regardless of which point-of-view character I was following, it became clear that no one had the whole story.

Rather than write a global review I’m doing to discuss three particular characters. By doing this I am largely ignoring the character we meet in the very first pages, Kellas, who seems to be the main character even though this is a mosaic novel with lots of stories being told. Kellas was a Black Wolf, a secret warrior/intelligence gatherer for King Anjihosh. The Black Wolves were disbanded and disgraced when they failed to stop the assassination of King Atani, Anjihosh’s son. Kellas is called out of retirement when King Jehosh, Atani’s son, (did I mention the fifty-year thing?) needs help to ferret out a conspiracy in his court.

While Kellas is a well-written character with a story — and secrets — of his own, he is in many ways a standard epic fantasy character, and I want to devote some time to the ones who aren’t standard. There are three in particular where Elliott chooses the “flip the script,” and it’s done in a consistent, plausible and unobtrusive way that adds to the pleasure of the book. In my case it was only later that I started seeing some of the trope-subversion. I also chose these three because one of the themes of Black Wolves is that of the value or worth of a person in a society, and these three each struggle with the issue of “worth” in different ways.

We first meet Danarrah when she is a young child, the daughter of King Anjihosh. Then the story leaps forward forty-four years, and Princess Danarrah is in her fifties, the aunt of the king. If the Hundred allowed women to rule, Danarrah would probably be queen, because her father Anjihosh raised her to be exactly like him. Danarrah is smart, strong, strategic and self-disciplined. She is blunt; she is perceptive. She wants power. Normally in epic fantasy the desire for power is only given to the villains, but Danarrah is someone who knows she can be highly effective, and she chafes under the restrictions that don’t allow her to fully use her abilities. As a reeve, one who has magically bonded with the giant eagles, she has achieved one heart’s desire, and as a marshal of a reeve hall she has risen to a role of leadership. That position is threatened by the incursions of the state religion, led mostly by the younger of her great-nephews.

If Danarrah-as-marshal were written exactly as she is, but male, she would be a familiar fantasy character: the stocky, late-middle-aged grizzled warrior, the highly competent professional, who has plenty of snark, uses his authority to talk over anyone who disagrees with him, and has enough ruthlessness to do what must be done. Danarrah is all those things and female. Throughout Black Wolves she taunts her adversaries; she interrupts fools who she believes are wrong; she says and does the necessary thing. Other characters, mostly (but not all) male, are off-balance around her. She is of royal blood, so they can’t quite dismiss her, but it’s clear some of them want to. It’s also clear to the reader that at least one prince has missed an opportunity by ignoring her … although, by the end of this volume, that may have changed.

Danarrah is also a person; still filled with anger and grief over the murder of her brother King Atani; still lonely in command; still swept up in the moments of joy and magic in her relationship with the giant eagle. She has periods of despondency and despair, and despite her blunt tongue, there are also scenes where she keeps silent and fumes later, in private, over injustices. Danarrah has shifted her instinct to command entirely to the reeve hall she controls, and when the reeve way of life is threatened she does whatever must be done to protect it. Danarrah’s sense of worth is connected to her heritage, her competence and her integrity. She does not fall for flattery but she is susceptible to appreciation. Family is important, and it’s possible that she herself does not realize how wounded she is when she understands, near the end of the book, what big secrets her beloved older brother Atani kept from her. She succeeds by using her considerable will power and her skills. While I imagine the choices she makes near the end of this volume will have some tragic consequences in future books, I don’t question or doubt the reasons she made them.

Sarai is from an immigrant culture, the Ri Amarah. The humans in the Hundred call them “Silvers,” meant insultingly, because the men wear silver bracelets, and also because the Ri Amarah are good with trade and money. They are seen as clannish and secretive. (Draw your own conclusions about similarities to a culture in our world.) Sarai is smart, strong, with an analytical intellect and a scientist’s curiosity. She is a mature adult but is treated as a child, a girl, in her family, because females are not considered “women” until they are married. Sarai is a reminder of her mother, who shamed the family by her actions, and therefore Sarai is unmarriagable. She studies botany and herb-lore with her aunt who is not considered a woman either, and she is intensely curious about the mazelike spiral carvings called demon coils. When Sarai’s clan sees a chance to gain influence in the royal court, by marrying a Ri Amarah woman to a penniless aristocrat, Sarai seizes the opportunity, intent on making her own destiny.

Things do not go quite as expected. The marriage goes forward and Sarai gains a place at court, but all too soon she figures out that she is a prisoner there, a pawn, and that even her own family won’t help her. One possible ally, her husband Gilaras, is in greater danger than she is. With no physical power, no weapons, and no legal authority at her side, Sarai is forced to use her intellect to survive and keep Gil alive.

Romance novels frequently show the poor aristocratic woman married off to the lusty merchant or sailor (or pirate) to bring the family money; here, that trope is reversed. Sarai is the one from the moneyed merchant class. The love story of Sarai and Gilaras works because in short order they both realize they are outcasts, devalued in their own families, being used for what they can bring to the families who discount them. Once Sarai is isolated in the royal compound, only her strength of will and her hope sustain her against the cynical, casual cruelty of the royals around her. She knows she is a person, not just a piece on a game board.

Gilaras is the other half of that romantic pair, the youngest son of a disgraced aristocratic family. Gilaras’s father, Seras, murdered King Atani and was killed immediately after. Everyone believes that Seras was being controlled by the demons. In retaliation, the new king, Jehosh, ordered that every one of Seras’s sons be castrated in front of their pregnant mother. Gil escaped only because he wasn’t born yet. He bears the resentment of his brothers, the disdain of the populace and his own unresolved rage at his regicide father. Strangely, despite the family disgrace, Gil’s Uncle Vanas escaped blame and castration, and is a close confidant of King Jehosh. Somehow, this makes things worse. Gil is rudderless, drinking heavily and engaging in high-risk stunts and tricks that make it seem like he has a death-wish. When we first meet him he is going out of his way to be unpleasant. He understands that with this marriage he is nothing more than a key to the court. Being rebellious Gil, he takes an action that is considered scandalous by his social group, only to find that Sarai, far from being shocked, is curious about him and sees him as a person.

Two things wake Gil out of his morass of self-contempt, and the first is Sarai. He realizes that she is like him, outcast within her own family, and he dares to believe that she actually enjoys his company. The second thing is that Kellas gives him a mission that might provide Gil with a sense of purpose.

While the arranged pairing of Sarai with Gilaras closely reflects American-British history in the early 20th century, it flips the script of the romantic love story. Basically, Gil is the sex object, and the romance springs from the fact that his partner sees him as more than an object. While Sarai grows to love Gil and pines for him, she is not defined by her marriage, even as she fights to keep it alive.

Out of the vast number of characters and the many interconnected plot lines, these were the stories I held most closely as I read Black Wolves. All of these characters’ lives intersect and all of their actions have an impact on the story of Kellas and the mystery of the demons. In the last fifty pages, revelations fly at us like autumn leaves on a storm wind. This is not a fault of pacing; the facts are revealed at the right time and place. Much is revealed, some is resolved, and much is ready to launch the next book.

By the way, the forty-four year jump from the first eighty-seven pages to the rest of the story was a risky, risky move and Elliott made it work.

I gave Black Wolves four and a half stars. That was a hard decision; for its imagination and the depth of character this is five-star book, but at 780 pages, I did think information was rehashed more than it needed to be and some scenes moved slowly. I got tired with the endless plates of food; I started noticing every time rice balls and something sprinkled with ginger showed up. I don’t think the food itself was a problem, I think the sameness was. In a long work where, as a reader, I had a lot to keep track of, this began to act as a distraction. For those two somewhat picky reasons, I gave this 4.5 stars.

Black Wolves is the first Kate Elliott book I’ve read and it won’t be the last. I am committed to this series and I will seek out her other works. Her visual descriptions, her worlds, and the hearts and minds of the people who inhabit those worlds are just wonderful.

Published November 2015. An exiled captain returns to help the son of the king who died under his protection in this rich and multi-layered first book in an action-packed new series. Twenty two years have passed since Kellas, once Captain of the legendary Black Wolves, lost his King and with him his honor. With the King murdered and the Black Wolves disbanded, Kellas lives as an exile far from the palace he once guarded with his life. Until Marshal Dannarah, sister to the dead King, comes to him with a plea-rejoin the palace guard and save her nephew, King Jehosh, before he meets his father’s fate. Combining the best of Shogun and Vikings, Black Wolves is an unmissable treat for epic fantasy lovers everywhere.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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One comment

  1. Wonderful review, Marion! I got bogged down in a few stretches of “sameness,” as you call it, and I ended up setting this aside in favor of some shorter books. You’ve inspired me to get back into it, though!

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