A Companion to Wolves (Tor, 2007)
A new book by Elizabeth Bear is something I look forward to. A Companion to Wolves, a collaboration with Sarah Monette, presented me with a rich and intriguing fantasy world, and a couple of frustrations.
The settlements of men in the world of the Iskryne are beset by many things, mostly the cold and, even more so, trolls, who swoop down from the northern mountains to raid and destroy. The villages and keeps are defended by the wolfhealls, halls wherein reside warriors bonded to the great fighting trellwolves, who alone can stand against the trolls and the wyverns who sometimes accompany them. Njall Gunnarsson, son and heir of the ruler of the keep at Nithogsfjoll, is sixteen and, over his father's strong protests, is given in tithe to the Nithogsfjoll wolfheall to become a wolfcarl, one of the warriors who defend the keep and its villages. His father's misgivings are not unfounded: the wolves and men are closely bonded, in thought and feeling, and the uses made of boys and young men are not something that Gunnar approves of. Nevertheless, Njall goes to the wolfheall where, in due time, he is bonded -- not only to a fighting wolf, but to a konigenwolf, a bitch who will in time form her own pack and, with Njall, whose name is now Isolfr, found a new heall.
The attacks of the trolls are becoming more frequent and more serious, and Isolfr is among those who discover that the trolls themselves are beset by the svartalfar, who delve in the northern mountains. The story unfolds around the quest for a final solution to the troll problem.
As mentioned, the universe here is a fascinating one, drawing heavily on Germanic folklore and set in a grim, cold, unyielding world that reflects the dark cast of Norse mythology. The society envisioned is coherent, if somewhat undeveloped, except in the case of the wolfhealls and their politics. The narrative is fluent and absorbing, the characters engaging, the storyline moves along briskly. And yet I wasn't as enthralled as I should have been, I think.
I almost never say this about a novel, but this one could be longer. Much longer, in fact. It feels like a sketch. There are some indicators here that I think bear me out.
Names. Now, I am a fantasy veteran, having been through everything from Lord Dunsany and LOTR through Michael Moorcock, Glen Cook and Steven Erikson, and just about everyone in between (not to mention recent engagements with Wagner's Ring, Beowulf, and Volsungasaga), and weird names hold no terrors for me, whether derived from Celtic, North American, Vedic, or Nordic sources or simply made from whole cloth. They're part of the package (and, to be perfectly honest, part of the appeal). Here, however, I found myself lost in the sheer number of names for which I had no time to create identities in my own mind. Suddenly there's a battle and I am not fighting trolls but a flood of names, not knowing in most cases if they are wolves or men. (It doesn't help that all the tithe-boys we meet early on change their names when they bond to wolves.) It's distressing to be in the middle of a highly charged scene and find oneself saying "who are these people?"
I also have a bit of a beef about the portrayal of the relationships among the men of the healls. Those between the men and their wolves are fully rendered, but among the men themselves there seems to be nothing of any depth that becomes real. Njall/Isolfr's attitudes are colored by those of his father and hinge on the sexual relationships inherent in a situation where men are bonded to either male or female wolves, and even when confronted with the reality of another possible dimension in those relationships, Njall/Isolfr doesn't really register. It's not until almost the very end of the book that he even considers the possibility of loving the men he is tied to. If it were an internal struggle of some sort that formed a subtext to the story, that would make sense. Even if it were a matter of Isolfr making an accommodation to something for which he has no enthusiasm (and we're never really asked to believe that), there would be a rationale to it, but as given, it's more of a null territory and deeply unsatisfying.
One might also comment on the role of women in this story (not that I expect every fantasy by a woman to be a feminist tract), which is fairly traditional until we run into the svartalf Tin, who becomes Isolfr's ally. She is a journeyman Smith and a smart and savvy politician, from every indication. In fact, it is through her that Monette and Bear leave an opening for a sequel: Tin and Isolfr hatch a rough plan for his daughter that may very well involve a revolution in the place of women in human society, but that is something that appears to be a future part of the story.
In spite of my complaints (and I do really feel that if more room had been left for development, those would vanish), I did enjoy this one and I'm looking forward to any possible sequels. Very much so.
Elizabeth Bear is online here.
Sarah Monette is at Labyrinthine.