A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
While I don’t care for N. K. Jemisen’s fiction, her musings on speculative fiction as a genre are usually worth a look. So when she mentioned A Companion to Wolves in passing in a post on the possible feminization of epic fantasy, I investigated further. While the “companion animal” idea smacks too much of supermarket paranormal romance to me, the fact that Monette and Bear were brutally deconstructing it grabbed me. I love deconstruction, especially in speculative fiction. I was expecting something along the lines of The Magicians (but with spirit wolves!)—what I got was something much more.
I love it when that happens!
A Companion to Wolves is set in the far North, where the only defense between the people and the trolls are the wolfcarls—warriors bound to wolves, who live in a maligned society of their own creation. When the wolfheall comes to collect their tithe in Nithogsfjoll, the jarl’s son Njall is enthralled by the wolves, despite his father’s vehement protests. Njall is taken into the fold, renamed Isolfr, and bound to a female wolf, the future alpha Viradechtis. But even as Isolfr struggles to find his place in the wolfheall, the trolls are growing restless and more violent, until there can only be one answer—the wolfcarls and the common folk must band together to destroy the trolls, once and for all.
You know, for a book whose cast is principally composed of hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-loving male warriors who are spiritually connected with enormous wolves, A Companion to Wolves’ central theme is certainly femaleness in its infinite variations—being coded as female (as Isolfr is), the way patriarchy demeans femaleness, and the role of females in perpetuating culture, to barely scratch the surface. (I say “female” here to specifically refer to being female sexed. Memory tells me some transmen appear in the sequel, The Tempering of Men, which introduces a whole new and very welcome angle to explore these issues.) Isolfr’s father is against him joining the wolfheall because he might bond with a female wolf and thus be sexually submissive to the men bonded to his wolf’s mates. In a way, it reminds me of Kushiel’s Dart, which also explores how being submissive sexually does not make one weak. (The two books also tastefully render sex scenes that might overwhelm a delicate constitution—the mating rituals of the wolfcarls are, in a word, brutal.) But A Companion to Wolves goes further. Isolfr occasionally thinks of himself in comparison to his younger sister as other wolfcarls court him and his wolf for the chance to lead the wolfheall he will one day found with Viradechtis, he experiences childbirth alongside her, and, most importantly, every other culture Isolfr encounters is a matriarchy. As Isolfr comes of age, he must also learn to negotiate and recognize female power in contrast and comparison to the male power he is so familiar with. I really wasn’t expecting this, and I was absolutely blown away by it.
Monette and Bear’s worldbuilding is quite interesting—the heavy Norse influence (complete with consonant-laden names) is refreshing, as is the culture of the wolfcarls. Like most deconstructions, the authors have merely taken the concept of the companion animal to their logical extremes. Isolfr and Viradechtis occasionally blur identities, the mating rituals of wolves are mapped onto men (no women are bonded to wolves, but this seems more a societal construct than a fact), and the wolfcarls have a difficult time integrating back into “wolfless” society. The wolves don’t speak the language of men; Isolfr is floored when Viradechtis, late in the novel, constructs an extremely simple sentence. Rather, they have a low-level telepathy that allows them access to a hive-mind (variations on which pop up through the novel). It’s beautifully thought out, and I look forward to seeing it expanded in The Tempering of Men. (Finding out there was a sequel after a breathless few hours of reading the novel was amazing.)
I’ve not read Monette or Bear before, so I can’t comment on who seems to have more creative control, but the writing is fantastic, with leanings towards the epic. The action scenes are often rendered briefly, placing the focus more on Isolfr’s personal struggles, which become more and more important as the novel progresses. I was a bit thrown by the inclusion of some modern language in an otherwise ancient setting—for instance, when Isolfr considers the motives of a snappish wolf, he concludes that he wants to “get laid”, which runs too modern for me. The characters can also run a little too close together; while Isolfr and his compatriots are well-drawn, the complex names had me confusing characters for other characters. This gets dicey, since wolfcarls change their names once they’re inducted into the brotherhood, and gets worse when Isolfr and Viradechtis begin to think about selecting a more or less permanent mate. A character list would have been much appreciated. Still, I can’t fault them too much—they’ve given me Tin, a character whom I won’t spoil you for, but whom I am seriously thinking about going as for Halloween. (Dear Lord, another costume for 2012? I need to settle down.)
Bottom line: For a novel about a bunch of burly Viking-esque dudes bounded to wolves, A Companion to Wolves sure is about being female (or being coded as such). The exploration of gender issues is brilliant and the worldbuilding is quite interesting, even if the naming conventions can get very murky very quickly. Highly recommended.
I rented this book from the public library.