Title: A Companion To Wolves
Author: Sarah Monette, Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor Books (Tom Doherty Associates, LLC)
Cover Artist: Mary A. Wirth
Amazon: Buy Link A Companion to Wolves
Length: 302 pages (hardcover)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
A Guest Review by Feliz
Summary Review: This engrossing animal-companion fantasy novel about the coming-of age of a young warrior might not be for everyone due to its sometimes brutal explicitness.
**** WARNING: This book contains scenes of violence and on-page dub-con sex between multiple partners ****
The Blurb: A Companion to Wolves is the story of a young nobleman, Isolfr, who is chosen to become a wolfcarl — a warrior who is bonded to a fighting wolf. Isolfr is deeply drawn to the wolves, and though as his father’s heir he can refuse the call, he chooses to go.
The people of this wintry land depend on the wolfcarls to protect them from the threat of trolls and wyverns, though the supernatural creatures have not come in force for many years. Men are growing too confident. The wolfhealls are small, and the lords give them less respect than in former years. But the winter of Isolfr’s bonding, the trolls come down from the north in far greater numbers than before, and the holding’s complaisance gives way to terror in the dark.
Isolfr, now bonded to a queen wolf, Viradechtis, must learn where his honor lies, and discover the lengths to which he will to go when it, and love for his wolf, drive him.
Let me say in advance that this book is not primarily a romance, even though it ends with the hero in what I’d call a loving relationship. The bond between Isolfr and his wolf, Viradechtis, is every bit as important as the different relationships between Isolfr and the other wolfbrothers as well as between Viradechtis and the other wolves. Mainly, though, this is a very well-crafted “classic” fantasy tale about epic battles against mythical forces with heroism and cunning, about friendship, love and loyalty and about a young man finding his place in his world.
Imagine a world very alike to Old Iceland, populated with trolls and wyvern snakes, giant fighting wolves and humans who resemble the vikings of old. There are Earls, and villagers, and there are the wolfcarls, warriors who are mythically bonded to giant wolves and can converse telepathically with their wolves and with each other. The wolfcarls defend the humans against the trolls, beings so powerful only the united forces of men and wolves can defeat them.
Njall is the eldest son of an earl. When the wolfjarl, the head of the wolfcarls, claims Njall as part of the thrall, the earl objects – not only because Njall is the heir, but also because the earl despises the customs and manners of the wolfcarls who are known to lie with other men.
There is indeed this catch to being a wolfcarl, that they are all men, but some of them are bonded to female wolves. When the wolves mate, the men will also have sex, which means that the ones bonded to female wolves will be taken by the others.
As the young nobleman nevertheless chooses to join the wolf-warriors, his father disowns him, claiming that a man who is ready to lie down for another man can’t have no worth and no honor. Although Njall agrees with his father on this – he’s been brought up to the same moral values, after all – he can’t not heed the call of the wolves, determined to serve his duty in defending his people. With most of the wolves being males, what are the chances that a female wolf will bond with him?
Yet, that’s exactly what happens. Bonding with his wolf-sister Viradechtis, Njall changes his name and becomes Isolfr.
Even knowing what it means to be bonded to a female wolf Isolfr takes comfort from the thought that his wolf sister is worth everything – until he witnesses the violent reality of the mating ritual for the first time. It doesn’t even help that Isolfr experiences pleasure under the considerate guidance of other wolfcarls; his deeply ingrained feelings of shame and dishonor are hard to overcome.
Isolfr almost breaks under the necessity to give himself to other men. But then the trolls come upon the humans, and the whole world as Isolfr knows it threatens to be destroyed. Isolfr realizes his place in the world and his worthiness as a man has nothing to do with whom he surrenders to, but everything with the reasons why he does it.
This book was different for many reasons, and I can see why some may find it difficult. Particularly the sex scenes might be bothering people. Without being outrightly raped, Isolfr isn’t always entirely consensual when it comes to having sex with other men (although he gets to be the active part, too, and indeed finds pleasure in the act). But the world he lives in is violent and cruel, not only to Isolfr, but in general, and the forceful mating rituals fit the setting.
The way Isolfr grows into his role – as his wolf sister is destined to become a pack leader, Isolfr will be a leader of men, too – and finds his place in this very different and complicated world is part of the magic of this book.
Not one single time did Isolfr act out of character; he was entirely plausible and so were the other men – and the wolves who are personalities in their own rights. The wolves are just “human” enough to make it plausible for them to bond with men, but they always remain animals. No pathetic fallacy, the wolves are cruel and single minded and living in the moment like true animals.
The worldbuilding was fantastic, totally transporting the reader into it. The story itself, with the deadly threat of the trolls forging an unlikely alliance out of men, wolves and mountain smiths (elf-like creatures of great power), was solid, well crafted fantasy, nothing new but original enough to be exciting.
I had some minor issues, too. For once, most of the names suddenly changed after one third of the book; there were a lot of names, and most of them quite complicated AND quite similar since most of the men are named “wulf” in some way or the other (- olf,- olfr, Wulf-, Ulf-…) while the wolves bear random names from which not even the wolf’s gender is always easy to detect. The name and character list on the first page was actually very necessary. For another, there were many vaguely “nordic” sounding words strewn in, and while most of those were detectable from context, they were often tongue twisting monsters like “wolfmaeghtthing” or “wolfsprechend” and not that easy to memorize. A glossary would’ve been helpful.
Although the battle ended as foreseeable, the war wasn’t yet won. The story felt open ended, particularly on Isolfr’s part. His development wasn’t finished; although he’d made some kind of peace with his role in the wolfheallan, he was still struggling with the sexual implications this entailed.
(There was a sequel released only recently, “The Tempering Of Men”, in which hopefully the open threads will be connected in the end)
A Companion To Wolves is a personal favourite which I’ve read several times since its release in 2007. It’s a compelling, suspenseful book, recommended for everyone who loves good, well – crafted fantasy. Once again, it isn’t for the faint at heart though; people who take objection to dub-con and violence might chose to pass on this.