Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A Companion to Wolves, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

A Companion to Wolves
Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Tor: 2007

There is no good reason why I avoided A Companion to Wolves for so long, except that the idea of “companion animal fantasy”, even one which twists the sub-genre as much as this novel was reported to have done, simply did not sound appealing. Even so, A Companion to Wolves is co-written by Elizabeth Bear, so there is only so long I could put off reading it.
I should never have waited so long.

A Companion to Wolves is set on a cold, low tech world. Men live in towns ruled by their Lords, but the towns are in constant peril from trolls and wyverns. Protecting the towns are the wolfcarls, men bonded to wolves who form the first and last line of defense for the towns. This is a harsh land. Towns are called on to tithe a number of their young men to join the wolfcarls, but the lord of Nithogsfjoll orders his children to stay behind closed doors when Hrolleif comes for tithe. Njall disobeys his father and inadvertently comes to the attention of Hrolleif, and then defies his father further by honoring the tithe and travelling to the wolfheall to see if he might bond a wolf.

One of the primary concerns of Gunnarr, Lord of Nithosgfjoll, is that his son will bond a female wolf and thus have to “lay down” for all the men of the hall when it is time for the wolves to mate (and, as far as Gunnarr knows, all the time). Gunnarr may have some of the mechanics correct, he has missed the soul of the wolfheall by a mile.

There would not be much of a story of Njall does not bond to a wolf. He bonds the konigenwolf pup Viradechtis. A konigenwolf is a dominant female wolf. They are rare and destined to be the leader of their pack. This means that Njall, now called Isolf, will be the brother to the wolfpack leader, and the human mate to the male wolf which mates with Viradechtis. It’s a little complicated, but makes perfect sense as Monette and Bear tell the story. The short explanation is that the konigenwolf is the dominant wolf and leads the wolves of the pack. The human male who is brother (bonded to) to the male wolf that mates with the konigenwolf is the human leader of the wolfheall. Trust me, it makes sense.

The wolfheall is, mostly, an alpha male society and A Companion to Wolves is extremely male heavy. The warrior society of this harsh, cold land necessitates this fact.

This may be part of what was my initial turnoff which led me to avoid A Companion to Wolves for almost two years – the whole “gay companion animal novel” thing, though to be fair, if a novel could be described as a “hetero companion animal novel”, I wouldn’t want to read that one either. The thing is, such a limiting description is unfair and inaccurate. Oh, Gunnarr’s fears are partially correct, but at the same time everything fits the world which Monette and Bear have created. Nothing feels forced, and as Isolfr tries to feel his way, the reader gets the same introduction as Isolfr.

The expectation with all the alpha-maleness would be that A Companion to Wolves would be overwhelmed with hard-headed, harsh maleness. Arrogance. The wolfheall has some of that, but these men all need to live, work, and fight with each other in close quarters. There are friendships, and within the friendships there is a surprising tenderness.

Most surprising is just how sexy a novel A Companion to Wolves is. I’ve no clue what the intentions of Monette and Bear were in this regards, but several passages were hot and touching (at the same time), others were painful, but my reaction upon coming to the conclusion was that there was a good deal of sexiness to the situation and storytelling. For all the brutality that A Companion to Wolves contains, and given the role of the wolfheall in protecting the towns there is a lot, there is tenderness, grace, and beauty to be found within these pages.

This novel, which I avoided reading for so long, is easily one of the best novels I will have read this month, and even though it is only January, I expect it will be one of the best novels I will have read in all of 2009. It’s damn good.

It is also worth noting, now that I hopefully have talked everyone into reading this damn fine book, that Monette and Bear have just recently sold two sequels to A Companion to Wolves. When I first read that post I wasn't too excited, beyond the fact that I like Bear's work and don't want her to starve, but now that I've actually read the first book....ohhhh yeah. Bring them on! I have only the vaguest guess as to what An Apprentice to Elves might be about, and I would guess that A Reckoning of Men would suggest that bad things are to come (which is good for the reader), but I really don't know.

It's okay. I can wait.


Kristen said...

Great review! I loved this book, too. It was one of my favorites I read last year. I had not yet seen that Monette and Bear were going to write two sequels although I knew that it was a possibility. That's fantastic news!!

ediFanoB said...

I'm impressed with your review.

The book is on my to buy list for 2009 beside some other Elizabeth Bear books.

Joe said...