I don’t usually do book reviews here, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I’m not up on the latest releases — I’m always scrambling along a couple of years behind. For another, it’s just easier to put out a list of books on a theme with short descriptions for each.
But I recently read one that I loved so much that…well, I finished it and immediately flipped back to the beginning to start again. (I’ve only done that once before.) I’ve been avoiding writing this because it’s difficult to put into words why I loved it so much, but I have to try.
The book is A Companion to Wolves, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. Both of them are solo writers as well: Bear is a prolific writer of all sorts of speculative fiction, while (to date) Monette has published one four-book fantasy series and a couple of anthologies. I haven’t read all of their stuff, but I heartily recommend both of them to anyone who will listen.
With A Companion to Wolves, they take several well-worn fantasy tropes — telepathic animal companions, small groups of magic-users living apart from regular society, young protagonist drawn to magic despite disapproval from his family, society under siege from magical beings — and twist until the tropes are fresh again.
If you love these tropes, don’t worry. They’re not warped until they’re unrecognizable; rather, they’re treated with reverence. Monette and Bear clearly love these kinds of stories too. They just want to know what makes these tropes tick, what happens when they are really, thoroughly explored.
They’re also interested in running quickly through the obvious to get to the interesting stuff. So yes, the young protagonist — Isolfr — is drawn to the magical sub-society, leaves home, bonds with the coolest animal, and faces opposition from some of his new companions who have been there longer. That’s all a given. What about the real questions that arise from this setup?
For example, the telepathic animals in question are wolves. They live in a pack, they act like wolves (as opposed to humans in wolf form), and most pertinent to the themes of the story, they mate like wolves. Without going into detail, this isn’t an easy path for their human companions to walk, especially for Isolfr, who was raised to believe that the wolf-bonded men were unnatural in their inclinations, but who can’t bear to reject the she-wolf — the “queen wolf”, destined for leadership — who has chosen him as her own.
(Don’t worry. It’s not as unnatural as you might be thinking. Remember how telepathic animal bonding stories work?)
Against these themes of coming-of-age and questioning of sexual identity, the bigger story that plays out is the society-under-siege plot. In this case, the society is more or less pre-Christian Scandinavia, if you squint, and the danger — the reason the wolf-bonded men exist — is from marauding trolls and wyverns from the north. Winter encroaches, the danger grows more grave, and Isolfr is put to the test.
But there’s more. I won’t spoil it, but this is one twisty book, with some masterful plotting and worldbuilding. As a writer myself, I wish I knew how the authors pulled off some of what they did, because wow.
Monette and Bear also do a truly fabulous job of showing the close friendships that develop among the men, making the wolves feel like wolves (and, at the same time, companions worthy of love and respect), and differentiating among a large cast of characters. Their sentence-level writing is beautiful and evocative without calling too much attention to itself — unless, say, you happen to know a little something about this stuff, in which case you might want to drink it all in on multiple levels.
A Companion to Wolves is the first in a planned trilogy. The second book is called The Tempering of Men, and I’m saving it because sadly, the third book isn’t out yet. I wish it were. I can’t wait to spend more time in this world.