Review: The Tempering of Men

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

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I really loved A Companion to Wolves, which sets out to deconstruct the trope of spirit animals and ends up exploring what it is to be female or female-coded in a patriarchy. Deep dark truths in speculative fiction: kind of my whole deal. It made my top ten list of last year, so when Memory told me there was a sequel, I was over the moon. Of course, my excitement was tempered (oh, come on, I get one pun, surely?) by the fact the only library copy I had access to was at my hometown library, so I couldn’t immediately capitalize on my delight. And hey, the last installment is expected this year, so perhaps the wait was more luck than delay…

The Tempering of Men follows the fortunes of the wolfheall newly founded by Isolfr and Viradechtis, the Konigenwolf (or Queen Wolf, to the alfar) to whom he is bonded. In selecting two mates, Viradechtis has forced Isolfr to have two war leaders—the experienced and sardonic Skjaldwulf and the hot-tempered warrior Vethulf. The trolls have been effectively exterminated—but if there are no trolls, what need does the world have for the wolves who fight them? But the future of the wolfhealls is a question for after the Northmen deal with the latest threat to their shores: the impending invasion of the Rhean Empire.

A Companion to Wolves followed Isolfr as he became the leader his bond with Viradechtis destined him to be; The Tempering of Men follows, instead, the community that he builds. The novel alternates between the viewpoints of Skjaldwulf, Vethulf, and Brokkolfr, a man with a sister wolf whose original wolfheall was killed by trolls. It’s a little odd, to no longer be able to get inside Isolfr’s head, but it also lets us see how others see him—inscrutable, capable, and hard to approach. But these other characters are just as fascinating. Skjaldwulf, who was a skald before he was bonded to a wolf, starts the novel seeking a new place for the wolfhealls and takes up a monk’s offer to visit his community’s archives; he ends by uncomfortably batting away the idea that their society as a whole might be the problem. Brokkolfr’s story is mostly about discovering a lost colony of svartalfar (elves, for those playing at home) near the wolfheall, and Vethulf deals with the realities of being a wolfheall in a world without trolls—being at the beck and call of wolfless men. If they think you’re useless, they won’t give you their sons, and your way of life dies.

It’s kind of a brilliant segue into a second book in a trilogy, actually; if A Companion to Wolves introduced us to this world, The Tempering of Men shows us this world as it’s falling apart. Monette and Bear’s great strength in this series (tentatively called The Iskryne World, but c’mon, we can do better!) is its worldbuilding. It’s clearly deep, but it’s also done with a light touch—much of what we learn about the lost svartalfar colony comes out in a game of questions between Brokkolfr and an svartalf, played as a game of honor. Like Kushiel’s Dart, these novels qualify as a sort of alternate history—the Rhean Empire is obviously based on the Roman Empire, and the Northmen, obviously, on the Norsemen. With the introduction of new cultures, the worldbuilding opens up in an entirely different way, and gives us a lot of opportunities to see humanity translated across cultural barriers. Skjaldwulf is briefly imprisoned by a Rhean scouting mission, and forms a bond with a Brython slave girl named Otter that’s very touching. And gender continues to be examined. We’re introduced early to Fargrimr, a wolfless man who is a “sworn-son”—a girlchild who, after the biological sons are invalidated as heirs, is declared male. I was hoping for more to be done with gender, given the brilliance of A Companion to Wolves in that regard, but the focus has broadened to questioning their society as a whole. A little disappointing, but only disappointing my expectations, not in execution.

What’s actually disappointing is the fact that Monette and Bear fall into a common trilogy trap—The Tempering of Men doesn’t function as a novel unto itself. Well, technically, yes, it does. There is a climactic-by-designation moment at the right spot and, in a way, the novel can be about Skjaldwulf and Vethulf realizing that their relationship is more than co-war leaders, but they’re separated for much of the novel and don’t want to think about their relationship. But, for the most part, this book is just getting the table set for An Apprentice to Elves. As much as I love reading about this world and how these men and their wolves negotiate their lives, I’m still left desperate for the next book—to finish this book’s story instead of getting another story. (The latter, of course, is the good kind of desperate for a book.) After the soaring glory of A Companion to Wolves, this structural misstep is disappointing.

Bottom line: The Tempering of Men focuses on the struggle of a community to redefine themselves after their defining enemy is eliminated, with the threat of invasion by faux-Romans to have one of the war leaders question his very society. The worldbuilding expands gloriously, but, alas, the novel falls into the trilogy trap of having your second installment only serve to set up your third, instead of serve as its own story on top of doing that. That’s disappointing, but this series is definitely still worth it.

I rented this book from the public library.

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