CLASSIFICATION: In the publisher’s press release, Promise of the Wolves is compared to Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear and Richard Adams’ Watership Down, neither of which I’ve read. So for me, I was reminded of The Lion King — if the movie had been set 14,000 years ago in southern Europe and starred wolves, ravens, humans, and elkryn instead of lions, meercats and warthogs — Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, and White Fang and Call of the Wild by Jack London. Because of some violence and death I would rate Promise of the Wolves PG, but like Harry Potter it is a YA-styled book that can appeal to adult readers just as much as a younger audience. Recommended for lovers of animals — especially wolves and dogs — anthropomorphism, and mythology.
FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 335 pages divided over two parts and 20 chapters. The main plotline, set 14,000 years ago, is narrated in the first person via the she-wolf Kaala. The two prologues, set 40,000 years ago, and the epilogue are in the third person via the she-wolf Lydda. Promise of the Wolves is the first book in The Wolf Chronicles trilogy, and while the novel doesn’t end on a major cliffhanger, it does leave many questions unanswered.
June 3, 2008 marked the North American Hardcover publication of Promise of the Wolves via Simon & Schuster, while the UK version was released July 7, 2008. The lovely US cover art is provided by Honi Werner. The second installment, Secrets of the Wolves, was released on August 2, 2011.
ANALYSIS: “According to legend, when wolves had just become wolf and when humans were not yet human, a wolf named Indru met a human. Both were very hungry and both were leading their packs in search of food. Against all logic and sense, Indru invited the tall-standing creatures to join his pack in play. Eventually they lay down together and slept, and when they awoke, they awoke changed, some say their souls intertwined. The wolves then taught the humans secrets of the wolf clans, and before long the humans were changed. They grew stronger, learned how to control fire, developed new tools, and decided they were better than other creatures and that all other creatures should serve them. The wolves refused, and humans and wolves fought. This caught the attention of the Ancients — Sun, Moon, Earth and Grandmother Sky — and when they saw what the humans were doing, they knew that these creatures would threaten the Balance. So they decreed to the wolves and humans of the world that the time had come for them to die. But Indru begged for the life of wolf and humankind and the Ancients listened, agreeing to give humans and wolves one last chance as long as the wolves made a promise — a promise that their children and children’s children would keep: To forever shun the company of humans.
For years upon years, the wolves did their best to keep Indru’s promise, but try as they might, they could not stay forever away from humans. Time and time again they came together, and each time Sky grew angrier and pulled them apart. Then, many years later, long after the time of Indru, a youngwolf hunted with the humans and taught her pack to do the same. In doing so, she caused a great war. That’s when the covenant of the Wide Valley was born:
1) To keep away from humans as much as possible.
2) To never kill a human unprovoked.
3) To protect their bloodlines and mate only with wolves inside the Wide Valley.
Any wolf who did not obey this Covenant would be killed or banished. Any pack that did not enforce the rules would be wiped out. To break the Promise with the Ancients, would mean the destruction of wolves and humankind…”
Into this setup we have Kaala, a forbidden mixed-blood who would have died like her littermates if not for the intervention of Greatwolves, guardians of wolfkind. From here, Promise of the Wolves is basically a coming-of-age tale that chronicles Kaala’s maturation from pup to youngwolf. Like a coming-of-age tale, Kaala undergoes rites of passage — surviving the summer journey and the first winter, swimming across a river, the first hunt, et cetera — makes both friends and enemies, and suffers under the tyranny of adults, all while trying to become an official member of the Swift River pack. Of course there are some significant differences with this setup, the most obvious being that the entire novel is told from the perspective of a prehistoric wolf. So instead of dealing with such common themes as popularity, drugs, sex, or proms, Promise of the Wolves is about survival and the pack — “The good of the pack outweighs the good of any one wolf. Pack is more important than life, more important than the hunt.” — although prejudice, jealousy and family issues are familiar enough.
Promise of the Wolves is also reminiscent of a traditional fantasy epic. You have Kaala, with a white crescent mark on her chest and her Outsider blood, who is essentially the ‘chosen one’ out of prophecy, “born to either save or destroy her people.” Additionally, the novel is steeped in mythology; there are fantastical elements like ghosts; and let’s not forget that most of the animals in the book — including wolves, ravens and elkryns — can talk and think like humans, and in some cases, can even communicate with humans.
Writing-wise, Promise of the Wolves is penned with grace, intelligence and passion. The prose is charming and accessible; the character of Kaala is likeable and well-rounded, her narrative voice is alive; the secondary characters — including Kaala’s friend/potential lover Ázzuen, the raven Tlitoo, the spiritwolf, and the human TaLi — possess distinguishing qualities and are solid; the plot moves along at a steady clip and offers more than a few surprises, especially regarding the legend of the wolves, the Wide Valley, and the Greatwolves; and you can just tell that writing the book was a joyful experience for the author.
Now much has been said about the historical/scientific research that has gone into the writing of Promise of the Wolves, and I thought Hearst did a wonderful job in realistically capturing pack mentality, hunting, and so on. I particularly liked the relationship that she developed between the wolves and ravens. That said, the author does take a guarded approach — mating season, for instance, is never broached apart from one humorous remark — and because the wolves talk and act so much like humans, it’s sometimes hard to think of them as wolves…
A lot has also been said about how the plot is based on co-evolution, “a scientific theory that wolves, and later dogs, made humans the dominant species by teaching us to hunt cooperatively, hold territories, and form complex societies.” Definitely intriguing, but I have to admit that I didn’t know about that connection until I had finished the book and read about it in the press release ;) To me that’s a good thing. It means that Hearst is interested more in telling a good story than bombarding the reader with scientific study, etc. I did catch the subtle ecological messages, but that was probably because I had recently watched “The Last Winter”, a film about nature striking back at man.
CONCLUSION: I’ve always had a soft spot for dogs and other canines. In fact, I’ve written before about my dog Roosky — a beautiful half-Siberian Husky/half-wolf crossbreed — and some of my favorite books growing up in Where the Red Fern Grows, White Fang, and Old Yeller. So even though Promise of the Wolves plays it a little safe, borrows from recognizable fantasy and coming-of-age conventions, and leaves many issues unresolved, I was completely charmed by Dorothy Hearst’s debut and look forward to completing The Wolf Chronicles.