Saturday, January 02, 2010

Book Review: A Companion to Wolves

When my 72 year old grandma handed me A Companion to Wolves (Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear, TOR 2007) she said, "Tell me what you think as soon as you read it." Of course, I didn't notice it's a TOR book immediatley, so assumed it was a Native American storyline (as that's often what Grandma likes to read). Instead, I found a retelling of Norse mythology concerning men, trolls, dwarves, and wolves.

The basic plotline is the classic teenager-grows-up theme, with young Njall at the center of the conflict. Son of a local lord, Njall is the heir to his father's hall but chooses instead to become a tithed payment to the local Wolfheall, and is summarily disowned by his father for reasons not quite clear to him. The wolfmen and their trellwolves are the sole defenders against trolls, who descend from the mountains to burn villages, slaughtering and sometimes eating the inhabitants.

As they are an all male warrior society, each Hall requests tithes of teenage boys to continue their line, in turn protecting the "wolfless men." They have created a separate warrior society devoid of women other than the wolf bitches in the pack. After Njall bonds to a queen bitch puppy, Viradachtis, he realizes the reason his father was so against him becoming a wolfbrother wasn't because he'd been heir: it's because wolf bitches don't bond with women, but through the mating process their bonded are at the sexual mercy of the brothers of whichever wolves mate with the bitch.

Njall, whose name changes to Isolfr when he becomes a bonded wolfbrother, is essentially the new presumptive princess of the pack: as bondmate to a Trellwolf Queen, he'll be half of the founding pair of a new pack and a new hall. He faces not only the battle trials of campaigns against the trolls and wyverns attacking in frightningly increasing numbers, but also the prejudices of wolfless men and even members of his own hall for being bonded to a female and taking on that role in mating.

While A Companion to Wolves is an interesting an fresh twist on the legends of trellwolves, trolls, and man in ancient north lands, there are some licenses taken and clear failures in research that throw the reader out of the story.

The authors have based their story on canine Pack structure and mentality, but then ignored the most basic Pack laws when creating their society. There's no such thing as an "open mating" in a wolf pack: an alpha female mates with an alpha male, period. Also, an alpha pair mates for life. The ways the authors handled the Alpha's matings displayed not only a clear lack of knowledge about any canine pack, but also seemed like a poor excuse to add in as many versions of gay male sex as possible.

The individual sex scenes were rather daring in subject matter, since graphic sex between men is rarely in any novel, they were written in an emotional way that gave the participants more depth than just the hard-bitten warriors they have to be in battle. In the polar opposite of those moments, the group sex scene was shockingly brutal and read more like a bad porn fantasy. The whole episode was inaccurate from a wolfpack standpoint, and from a sex standpoint it seemed more for shock value than anything else: it actually knocks the reader out of the story entirely.

The external conflict of invading trolls and wyverns driven from their caves from another, powerful source known only to Isolfr, is a skeleton story. The battle scenes are bland and generalized with very little action, so it becomes more of a background to the Isolfr-coming-of-age plot. All of his wild adventures with fantastic creatures feel rushed and skimmed over, but they do provide significant character developement for Isolfr himself. The other characters, including Isolf's wolf, his eventual mates, even the village woman he visits regularly are all two dimensional and underdeveloped.

In its entirety, the story felt cropped and too focused on the sexual issues of the protagonist instead of his growth as a full person and leader. If the two plots had been melded a bit more the story would've read more like a fully developed tale, and wouldn't have had the gaping holes in research and design that make the reader stop and wonder what's going on.

Overall I liked the premise of the novel and finished the story, but if I saw the sequel on a shelf I'd pass it up for something more complex, which is exactly what I told Grandma when I was through.

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