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Monday, October 15, 2007

"A Companion To Wolves" by Sarah Monette + Elizabeth Bear

Order “A Companion To WolvesHERE

On one side you have Sarah Monette, a John W. Campbell-nominated novelist/short story writer whose bibliography includes The Doctrine of Labyrinth series (Mélusine, The Virtu, The Mirador reviewed HERE) and the 2003 Spectrum Award-winning short “Three Letters from the Queen of Elfland.” On the other side you have Elizabeth Bear, the 2005 John W. Campbell Award winner for Best New Writer and prolific author of the Jenny Casey trilogy (Bantam Spectra), “Carnival”, “Undertow”, “Whiskey & Water” (Roc), and numerous short fiction. What happens when you put the two together? You get a pretty special pairing whose collaborations include “Ile of Dogges” (reprinted in Gardner Dozois' Year’s Best Science Fiction for 2006), the forthcoming "Boojum" short story (Fast Ships, Black Sails, edited by Jeff & Ann VanderMeer) and the novel “A Companion To Wolves”.

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 & wyverns for enemies; and Norse culture/mythology as a major influence in the naming of characters, places, & things, the northern setting, and the religion (Othinn, Ragnarok, Freya, et cetera). Of course I should have known better. While I haven’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 & relationships, and the more matriarchal gender roles practiced by the trolls & 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 & 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 & 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 IsolfrNjall’s chosen name—by her side. Learning the ways of a wolfcarl, developing friendships & love, submitting to the passions of the heat, regaining the respect of his father, et cetera, 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 & Elizabeth Bear’s swift return to the world of Iskryne

10 comments:

Calibandar said...

Well I bought it along with God's Demon, I think I'll like it but the story sounds like it could have been fleshed out a lot more, which makes sense if it is a 300 page book. It has a lot to cover and that is not a large pagecount for such a book.

Looking forward to it.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

I've been interested in this one for quite a while :) Glad to hear it's as good as I hoped!

When I get my selection catalogue from Tor, I'll request this one :D

Thanks!
~Chris
The Book Swede

Robert said...

Calibander, well I'll be interested to see what you think. The authors do spend more time in certain areas than others, but if they do return to the world, which is a possibility, then they have several directions they could go...

Chris, hope you get a copy soon :)

beans69 said...

Your description of how the wolves communicate is reminiscent of Perrin in the Wheel of Time series.

Katie said...

I'm going to have to read this one.

Kendall said...

Great review; I was pretty sure I would get this, but you helped cinch it. Also, it's good to hear it's accessible. I haven't read Bear, but I've read & loved Monette's 3 Labyrinth books. Each of Monette's Labyrinth books is more accessible than the last, IMHO, so this one must be quite accessible. ;-)

BTW Monette won a Gaylactic Spectrum Award; the name comes from the Gaylactic Network, which founded the Awards. Sorry to nitpick. (Also, there are other awards with "Spectrum" in their name.)

Robert said...

Katie, hope you get a chance to pick it up :)

Kendall, thanks so much for sharing. I think you'll really enjoy this if you liked Ms. Monette's other books, and I appreciate the clarification about the Spectrum Award. I actually wasn't aware of that...

RD Solange said...

I read this book in one sitting today. Your review pretty much mirrored my own thoughts on the story.

I would actually read a 2nd story in this universe, but only if the multitude of people in it were pared down to a minimum. ;)

Robert said...

RD, thanks for sharing! Glad you liked the book :) I guess we'll have to wait and see if there's a follow-up...

Anonymous said...

I loved the first book of Melusine but was perturbed as the likable, strong and streetwise main character turned more and more into a helpless masochist during the remainder of the series. Same thing happens in Companion with Wolves - somewhat strong young man ends up blushing his way to the end with mild protests against the gangbanging he is subjected to. Disturbing trend of self-victimization in both. And it seems that as the sexual preoccupations of the characters increase in both the series and Companion, their actual characterization suffers, the plot drags out, and the story becomes a sad drone.

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