Title: A Companion to Wolves (Iskryne #1)
Author: Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear
Length: 320 pages
Heat: 4 – Spicy & Smutty
Sex Frequency: 2 – Few and Far Between
Keywords/Tags: Dub-Con, Group Sex Scenes, Sagas/Eddas, Warriors
Rating: Me Like
A Companion to Wolves is the story of a young nobleman, Isolfr, who is chosen to become a wolfcarl — a warrior who is bonded to a fighting wolf. Isolfr is deeply drawn to the wolves, and though as his father’s heir he can refuse the call, he chooses to go.
The people of this wintry land depend on the wolfcarls to protect them from the threat of trolls and wyverns, though the supernatural creatures have not come in force for many years. Men are growing too confident. The wolfhealls are small, and the lords give them less respect than in former years. But the winter of Isolfr’s bonding, the trolls come down from the north in far greater numbers than before, and the holding’s complaisance gives way to terror in the dark.
Isolfr, now bonded to a queen wolf, Viradechtis, must learn where his honor lies, and discover the lengths to which he will to go when it, and love for his wolf, drive him.
I have wanted to read this book, the first of a trilogy, for quite a while and I’m really happy that I finally sat myself down to read it. I don’t think that it is without some problems, but overall I was very pleased and wrapped up in the story.
The first 25% of this book is a little daunting to read. Right away you’re plunged into a world with a large cast of characters whose names, for most of us, are hard to pronounce and keep track of*. So I’ll give a little rundown of the setup:
Njall is the first son of Gunnar, the jarl of the settlement of Nithogsfjoll, who has recently not been tithing boys to the Wolfheall. Though Njall has been entranced with the wolves his whole life, his father has some deep rooted hatred towards the group of men and wolves that fight to keep the wild trolls and wyverns away from the settlements. It is a precarious arrangement, both rely on one another to keep their people safe, but Gunnar would not have his heir given to the men for what he considerings unnatural purposes. Still, at 16 years of age Njall can make his own choice, and he chooses to become a wolfcarl, never marry, fight for the safety of the people, and bond with a wolf.
I first noticed this book as continually shelved on GoodReads as m/m or gay, and I think that may be a bit of a disservice to the book and to readers. Though probably only for their own purposes, I think that readers of m/m romance or gay fantasy might not entirely know what to expect with this world, where concentrating on any definition of the sexual acts within is beside the point. This is something that Isolfr (previously named Njall) deals with throughout the story, biased by his father’s perception of him. The culture of the Wolfheallan is based on the bond between the men and wolves. Isolfr frequently remarks in the first part of the story that he’s thinking as a wolfless man, because most of the time, the wolf is the dominant part of the pair. He has to completely restructure his way of thinking as he is immersed in a world that is governed by animal behavior. The men are no longer quite men, just as the wolves are no longer quite wolves.
This is the basis for understanding the sex and mating in the story**. The political structure is complex and is the basis of the story, even most of the story (sans trolls), especially in the beginning. This wasn’t difficult for me, but then I also knew, going into reading this, that this wasn’t really m/m (but maybe a little gay — more on that later). I actually liked the beginning and middle more than I did the end of this story, perhaps because I liked that political maneuvering that Isolfr has to find his way through, bonded to Viradechtis, a konigenwolf, a queen wolf of a queen wolf meant to rule her own Wolfheall. I had heard from some readers that the dub-con sex bothered them, but this was the key for me understanding why the social structure is the way it is, and therefore I didn’t have any problem with it.
I’ll leave the rest of the story up to each reader’s individual interpretation, without, spoiling it. I did feel as if the story wasn’t quite complete. It has the feeling of a book that was meant to be a standalone story but wasn’t quite finished. It is now a trilogy, with the last book to be released sometime next year (hopefully!) and my understanding of that might change with the second book. Still, while I felt completely spelled by the creation of the world, I can’t say that I felt the same way with the war against the trolls. I feel like it is a wonderful setup for more, but something about the events in this book, which seem complete and whole, felt disjointed and a bit unfocused for me. I think my feelings of discontent may come from the pacing, which is very stop-start (short scenes of action with longer passages of narration), or the disconnect between the social worldbuilding of men and wolves that seems to take primary place, then the war with the trolls, which could have been a bit more interwoven for me to feel as if they were peaking at a simultaneous pace.
I think I’m perhaps most looking forward to reading the sequel, The Tempering of Men, because of the relationships between the men and wolves near the end of the book, which really seemed to be going places. Now that many of the original relationships have been cemented, there’s room for a lot more growth. Likewise, Isolfr, who is named after his icy nature (something I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with, honestly) is changing and growing in ways that are further removing him from the other men and wolves, and I’m very interested to see his progression throughout the series.
I honestly feel like my criticism of this book is really nitpicky. I still loved it and couldn’t stop reading. There’s a really high level of craft with these two authors. While this is the first book that I’ve read by either of them, it won’t be the last, and I already have two more books (one by each) lined up to review here in the next few weeks. First though, I don’t think I’ll be able to hold off and wait to read the sequel in this series until the last book is released. So look for the review of The Tempering of Men to come soon!
*There’s a Dramatis Personae in the back of the ebook for those of you, like me, with that format. It wasn’t until I was totally confused that I thought to look for it.
**I will warn some readers though that it is pretty rough. I understood it, but others might not.