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Thursday, February 2, 2023

Wolfeater by Anthony Mitchell (reviewed by Matthew Higgins)

Order Wolfeater over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Anthony Mitchell is the author of several stories set in the world of Domanska. He lives on the Wirral with his family, and their dog, the mighty Thor. By day he works in IT, but by night he can be found in a world of swords and sandals, working towards his next novel.

You can find out more about both him and the world of Domanska at his website:

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: All things die. Eventually.

Found as a child by the war-hungry tribe of the Grey Crow, Radok has forged himself a legend as the mighty Wolfeater; a warrior feared by all. Yet even legends can die, and when he finds himself inflicted with a fatal disease, Radok sets out on a quest to face his gods and ask them the one question only gods can answer: what was the meaning of it all?

With him goes Nyana, the blind eight-year-old girl long held in his care, who has her own question for the gods: what next?

They are hunted by friends and enemies alike, some desperate to preserve the natural balance of things, others hungry for revenge. Against them are set a pack of savage cannibals, a blood-thirsty monster, and the servant of a raging god.

But if the pair can do the impossible, if they can touch the Blackstone, it could change the destiny of their people… and with it, the fate of the world.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Wolfeater is a rare delight. This SPFBO 7 semi-finalist took me on a completely unexpected journey in which I had no particular preconceptions. A storm of emotions, this character driven tale spellbound me as it wove its characters deep inside my heart. A touching tale mostly focused on the bond between father figures and their adopted companions, it spoke of life, death, and everything in-between. The best way to describe it is as a fantasy version of ‘The Last Of Us’ set within a frozen wasteland, and just like the Last of Us readers are sure to shed a tear by journey’s end.
‘Sleep is death. That was the first rule of the Whitelands, and Senya clung to it like a drowning woman cling to a piece of driftwood.’

With these first lines, the book had me already hooked; it absolutely deserves a far wider readership than it already has. I seriously was not sure what to expect going in, except that it’s a Nordic-esque wasteland, there are gods, and it involved a dying quest for answers. Little did I know it would cover an array of topics such as grief, mortality, the cycle of life, religious fanaticism, and revenge and the way it can gnaw away at you. This book absolutely blew me away, especially with Harry Cole’s understated narration, which I highly recommend.
I think a lot of the power in this book came from its simplicity.
The narrative is compellingly humble,  following the exploits of Radok the Wolfeater, and Nyana, his blind companion, as they attempt to cross the icy plains of northern Domanska seeing the enigmatic Black Rock. In pursuit of Radok are both members of his own tribe seeking to stop him, and the girl Senya accompanied by her uncle Mikilov in her quest for vengeance. But one thing is clear, Radok will die one way or another, he just needs answers from the gods….and perhaps even a miracle.
Having the plot be rather stripped back allows the freedom for Mitchell to work his character driven magic. You may think this story is about the quest for the black rock, but actually it’s rather about relationships. The relationship between new life, and the slow lingering pull of death; between father figures and their quasi daughters.
Radok is a captivating invention of a character. He is the sort of typical gruff natured veteran, and a leader of the Grey Crow tribe. But he is also refreshingly human. That’s what makes this work so well, that these characters are so easily relatable despite being quite removed from our own world experiences. Radok actually was brought as a young child from the other tribe, the Valor, also known as the Wolves, and he has served the Grey Crow gods ever since. So, one can understand his sense of anger and injustice, when after a lifetime of serving the gods of his peoples’ enemy he is left to slowly die of lung disease. It feels cruel, and so his quest for answers from the gods feels necessary. I was quickly invested in it, wanting to hear what the gods had to say for themselves.
On the other side, in the Valor tribe, we have the girl Senya, whom in grief driven rage is seeking the Wolfeater so she can have her vengeance. Mikilov, her uncle, accompanies Senya, as she sees it to help her achieve her vengeance. But Mikilov’s true role is to save Senya from the suffering of a revenge fuelled heart. She thinks revenge will satiate her pain, but the journey along the way will change Senya, and it takes a beautiful course by the end of the novel.
Part of what made the story so compelling was this contrast between Mikilov and Senya, and Radoc and Nyana. Nyana is Radoc’s blind companion, a young girl whom he tasks himself with protecting, she too seeking the Black Rock. Both relationships were so intimate, and so heart-warming, completely making the novel what it is. Their relationships are the heart and soul of this book. They are not just the typical ‘ gruff man-young energetic child’ formula you can often find; Anthony goes deeper within to explore some of the rich themes I mentioned earlier.
Now, as antagonist for our tale we have a Grey Crow shaman known as Talaq. Talaq is an interesting character to write about, falling into a very theatrical villainy at times. However, his character allowed us a deeper insight into religious fanaticism and opened the world of the gods to us. A lot of the exposition of the religions comes through aspects involving Talaq, and so he does provide a vital role, even if one could see him at stages as the token antagonist.
The religions themselves were a fascinating concept, carrying on this theme of mirror imagery between the two tribes. The Grey Crows follow a faith known as the seven, which involves seven deities who speak on the wind, Talaq being one of those who can hear and interpret those messages. There is also an eighth deity known as the black wind, a sort of false trickster god who meddles in the affairs of the other seven, tempting grey crows to follow dark and dangerous paths. The Wolves follow a different faith known as the great hunt, which is an almost ‘do what thou will’ approach to life, in the hope that when they pass onto the next life, they will be allowed entry into ‘ the great hunt’.
 What is interesting in the contrast of these two religions is the approaches of free and divine will.  For the Grey Crows they lead their lives following the will of the seven; the Wolves follow their own paths. Yet both are leading seemingly reasonable lives, only recently being impacted by the encroaching cold. And so, this leaves the reader with an interesting sense of balance between the two ways of life, something that I think is a very good life lesson indeed. As the stories eventually converge, the two tribes will learn more about their respective religions, and it was a really fascinating stop in their journey.
The religions are in fact the major draw of the worldbuilding in my opinion, however the whole world is also extremely well-constructed, with an elegant simplicity. For much of the book our characters are crossing a frozen wasteland known as ‘ The Whitelands’ and so there is not much example of life to be found there. And yet, I found it one of the more fascinating, vibrant worlds I have experienced because we are put into the characters’ worldviews. There is a sense of the natural world being alive and all part of the mysterious forces at work in the world. The river Velga feels so ferocious in its unstoppable force, the icy landscape itself just bringing its own sense of atmosphere.


(Art by Felix Ortiz & Typography-design by Shawn T. King)

As I said at the start, it really hits those ‘ the last of us’ vibes of an emotionally resonant quest across desolate landscapes. The only sign of human life here are the side characters we meet, such as the Empty Faces. These are a cannibal tribe living within the wastelands, and yet once you meet them, and with the way Anthony describes them, one can understand their worldview to an extent. They have these fascinating concepts of the cycle of life and death, and really left a memorable imprint on me.
It is in the pacing of the book that these character and worldbuilding moments all really draw together. Whilst there was the odd moment or two I thought the pacing was a little off, the overwhelming majority of the book had a very natural rhythm. It is a deliberately paced book, and yet it is not slow because this slew of character development  is always working in the background. We spend so much time building these relationships which grow deeply resonant and emotional. In the end it really does become more about the journey, than the destination. There are so many wonderful snippets of conversation I could highlight (and I wish I did on my kindle!), but needless to say, each moment just builds the many relationships that grew to mean so much to me. I haven’t even mentioned Jian and Tess, an LGBTQ+ couple in the midst of all this. I greatly appreciated seeing their romance add to the diversity of life in the world of Domanska.
Now, to return briefly to the pacing, it actually adds to this frozen wasteland vibes, where one almost expects time to go slower and movement to be more leisurely. Oh, for sure there are frantic moments of action, and the climax is suitably dramatic, but this sense of dying characters in a dying world is really well crafted.
Of course, no book is without a few flaws, and there were some minor ones here. As briefly mentioned before, I found Talaq to be a little on the moustache twirling side of villainy, however this was mitigated by his role in the story opening up the layers of worldbuilding to the reader. Furthermore, although I found the climax fitting and emotional, it didn’t resolve the plot as much as I would’ve liked.
 I thought the character’s endings were well crafted, and it is down to Anthony’s skill and well rooted characterisation that what could’ve felt a little twee, was in the end richly satisfying. However, without going into spoilers, there were quite a few threads left intentionally open, but I felt that I would’ve liked a little more of a hint at some of the answers for the future.

CONCLUSION: Overall, this book was a deeply emotional, and in some senses spiritual, introduction to the world of Domanska. It tells a timeless tale of life, death, and everything in-between, with a few fantastical twists along the way. If you miss the Last of Us, this will be a book for you. I have already purchased Anthony’s subsequent novellas in this world, and eagerly await the next opportunity to dive in.



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