Today's book review is A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear.
This is a standalone novel. It contains frank discussion of male homosexuality.
This is a story of war, bloody battles, and heroic deeds in a world drawn from Norse mythology. It's a story of humans bonding with intelligent wolves. Most interestingly and originally, it's a story about going beyond traditional gender roles to find what's important about being human. The first of these means the story is heavily flavored with odd terms and names that I had trouble keeping straight. The second is something that a lot of people are probably getting tired of, but I have to confess it's a trope I really enjoy. It's the third area, though, that will make the book interesting to some people and troubling or disgusting to others. The trellwolves' sexuality is quite different from that of real wolves; it grated on me how much the authors got wrong until I told myself that this was a different species in a different world and I shouldn't expect them to be normal wolves. Trellwolves have two very short heats a year, and when they go into heat, the humans go mad with lust. And the humans are all male. Except for the human/wolf groups, the culture is as homophobic as any on earth; the conflict is obvious, but the characters who manage to get past it have something to teach those earthly cultures.
Some layers of this story were annoyingly predictable, but it has enough layers to remain interesting. The world isn't entirely comfortable, but it still sucked me in and wouldn't let go. There are strong reasons many readers won't like this book, but they're actually fairly shallow. The reader who can stand another special-bond-with-special-animals book and can also deal with men having sex with men should find something deeper to like.
9 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- SPOILERS ****
As the book opens, Njall Gunnarson is spying on his father, the jarl, who is trying to hide him from the emissary from the wolfheall. The village owes a tithe of teenage boys to the wolfheall. Njall is the only boy of the proper age, and Gunnar doesn't want to give him up. Njall is spotted by Vigdis, the emissary's wolf, and thus caught. He decides that his honor requires him to honor his village's obligation against his father's wishes. At the wolfheall, he bonds with Viradechtis, a konigenwolf, and takes the name Isolfr. Female cubs are rare, and the alpha females are more intelligent and give their bondmates stronger telepathic abilities, so Isolfr is lucky -- but he also has to submit to anal sex with any mate his wolf takes. He tells her she is worth it, but after her second mating, where she takes many males, he is traumatized -- but he still loves her enough to stay.
While this drama is unfolding, so is the war with the trolls. The trolls are the traditional enemy that the wolfheall defends the rest of the people against, and there are far more trolls than usual. So many, in fact, that the humans fear they will be overrun if they just continue on defense. So they all band together -- including a levy from Isolfr's village, after Isolfr manages to shame his father into joining the fight -- and take the fight to the trolls. The fight in the underground warrens of the trolls is ugly, but they appear to be winning. Isolfr and Viradechtis discover, deep in the warrens, tunnels that are different, and encounter the svartalfen. These secretive creatures who seem to be a mix of dwarves and elves reveal to Isolfr that the reason the trolls are coming south in such numbers is that the glaciers are advancing, which is pushing on the svartalfen, and the svartalfen are in turn pushing on the trolls. But the svartalfen don't want anything to do with the humans -- in fact, the only reason they're talking at all is that they respect the konigenwolf -- and they swear Isolfr to secrecy. They also realize that, while they've cleared out these warrens, an army of trolls has gone the other way, so they run back. Viradechtis goes into the heat where she is to choose her consort. The fight is down to Vethulf's brother Kjaran and Skjaldwulf's brother Mar, and it appears that one of them will have to die to settle it, when Isolfr begs that there be no more death and Viradechtis, unprecedentedly, chooses both. The war is going badly for the humans, and Isolfr prays for help and receives a dream in which he and a svartalf vanquish the troll queen. On the strength of the dream, he goes back north, leaving a very pregnant Viradechtis at home. Frithulf and his brother Kothran help him to sneak away, and then Kari, his brother Hrafn, and Vigdis, another konigenwolf who lost her bondmate, join them, or they wouldn't have made it. The svartalfen give them the cold shoulder, but Tin, the alf Isolfr met before, agrees to help. They kill the great troll queen and now have the svartalfen in their debt, so the badly injured Isolfr returns with an army at his back. He expects his wolfjarls to be furious with him, but eventually manages to accept that they're worried for him because they love him. They are mopping up the trolls when Isolfr comes across a female troll guarding a single troll kitten. The troll manages to communicate that the kitten is the last potential queen, the carrier of the racial memory of this whole lineage of trolls, and all of their knowledge will be lost if she dies. Isolfr has seen enough in the warrens he's fought in to realize that the trolls have their own civilization, and despite all his anger over all the damage the trolls have done, he can't bring himself to kill this one, so he lets it go.
Finally, Isolfr bargains with Tin to send the daughter he sired with a woman in the town to be apprenticed as a smith with the svartalfen, because they both realize that their peoples will be at war with each other in a few generations if they can't find a way to build some bridges.