Review: A Companion to Wolves by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette

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A COMPANION TO WOLVES is definitely for-adults-only fantasy, as it contains lots of violence and gore and sex.

In this fantasy world, trolls make trouble for the men who lived in the North. Hence, they have wolves and men bonded to them (called wolfcarls) who fight the trolls and keep peace in their respective territories. In exchange to keeping them safe, the keep has a duty to the wolfheall (where the wolfcarls live) in terms of a tithe, which include food, etc, and most especially boys, during a time when a female wolf is about to give birth. They need the boys in order for the pups to bond with.

When the story begins, Vigdis (the female wolf) and her brother Hrolleif (the wolfcarl) visited the keep to ask for tithe-boys, as Vigdis was about to give birth. The jarl’s heir, Njall, couldn’t contain his curiosity (even after his father told him to hide) and he was compelled by something in Vigdis’s eyes to come forward. When given the choice, he chose to go to wolfheall, for his honor, as the keep has a duty to the wolfheall, which his father is trying shirk, as he couldn’t bear for his son to be a wolfcarl. Not only because he’s the heir, but because of the stories and rumors of “unnaturalness” about the goings-on at the wolfheall that is circulating among the wolfless men. Njall (later named Isolfr) would go on to bond with the konigenwolf Viradechtis (alpha female wolf). And when Viradechtis’s nature would demand something that’s different from Isolfr’s, would he regret his choice? Would he decide to leave and go back to his father?

But then, the trolls are leaving their homes and going south in great numbers, a circumstance unheard of, wreaking great havoc along the way and leaving villages and wolfhealls in ruins. Even if all the wolfhealls band together, they might not be enough to stop the trolls…

Being a romance junkie, I require romance in all my fiction reading. However, after finishing A COMPANION TO WOLVES, I was surprised to realize there’s no romance, and yet the story captivated me. If there’s a romance, I’d have to say it’s between Isolfr and his wolf, Viradechtis. I find Isolfr to demonstrate growth in character over the course of the story, if in nothing else, then in the use of the words “She’s [meaning Viradechtis] worth it.” He first spoke the words when he was a lad, when he had merely an idea of what he would have to go through as her bond-brother. When he experienced the reality of the open mating, the words are harder to speak; or, it could be said that those words held a more profound meaning, weighted down as it were with his experiences and the knowledge that he would willingly go through them again, for Viradechtis.

This book is also heavy on testosterone. There’s hardly a main female character, not counting the wolves. And because Isolfr is heterosexual and wolfcarls don’t marry, hence, he has lovers among the thrall-women and in the village, though none feature prominently as to be a permanent fixture in his life.

Another controversial scene I want to highlight, also as a warning to those who should not read it if it’s a trigger for you, is the open mating scene. There are two, but I’ll tackle the one where Isolfr is the one undergoing it. In an open mating, the female wolf in heat could be mated with several wolves, and this is mirrored by their brothers. Because the men and their wolves are so closely bonded, when the female wolf is in heat, the male wolves are affected as well (knowing they’re the potential mates), and the men will also feel what their wolves are feeling. Hence, for Isolfr, who’s heterosexual, having several men top him, especially when some of the men weren’t kind, is unbearable. Reading about a character who has multiple sexual partners is not new to me, but in such cases, the character is willing. In this book, it was hard to read that scene, especially when you read that Isolfr wanted it to be over soon. While it was natural for Viradechtis to mate with several wolves, for Isolfr, it was like and it read like gang rape.

And while I was uncomfortable reading it, it did open my eyes to see how victims of rape must have felt during and after the violation.

The open mating concept is not new to me; I first read of it in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern Series. In her books, the concept is that the strongest male dragon gets to capture and mate with the queen dragon, thus ensuring a strong bloodline. So, while there’s the open mating concept, there’s only a one-to-one mating pair.

Anyway, there’s lots of violence in this book as well, in the fight against the trolls and wyverns. The authors didn’t spare their characters; anyone could die. Well, maybe not Isolfr though. There’s some humor too, to serve as counterpoint to all those violence, and I like how the authors make the wolves sometimes seem almost human, with certain human foibles.

Overall, the authors presented an original and different story from those in the genre. Certainly well worth a read.

Rating: 4 stars

The Romance Review

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Summary:

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.

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