Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Completed 12/28/2019, Reviewed 12/29/2019
This was a very peculiar book. It was a bit reminiscent of the “Dragonriders of Pern” series, but with wolves instead of dragons and set in a Viking like culture. Instead of threads, they fight trolls and instead of it being an honor to be in this wolf community, it has fallen into disfavor. What was most peculiar about the book was that there is a lot of m/m sex, but there is almost no gay content. The characters are mostly straight, or maybe bisexual. Because the men are psychically bonded with wolves, both male and female, the men have sex with each other when the wolves do. So if you’re expecting a m/m romance, this is not that book. It is sexual politics with no sexuality.
The plot however was simple but interesting. Njall is the son of a powerful landholder who is heir to his father and sexually active with women. One day a member of the wolf community comes with his companion wolf and demands that the father, Gunnar, tithe his son to the community as is the custom. Gunnar is adamant that he will not for two reasons. First, the community has fallen out of favor because the troll threat has greatly lessened, and second, because of the rumors of the man on man sex that happens. However, Njall is dramatically drawn to the wolf, disobeys his father and joins the community. There, he takes a new name, Isolfr, and pairs with a she-wolf who is destined to be a queen. Together they fight a new wave of invading trolls.
Then it gets sexually weird. When his she-wolf goes into heat, the male wolves become sexually aroused. The same goes for the human companions of the wolves. When the she-wolf chooses a mate, the associated human companions also have sex. The thing is, Isolfr is basically straight and is not interested in man on man sex. However, because he is driven to a sexual frenzy by his wolf-sister, he accepts the passive role, actively participating in it, but at the same time wishing it were over. He never bonds with his sexual partners. In fact, he is promiscuous with the women who work in the community (in traditional women’s roles) and even fathers a child with a local woman. I was a little uncomfortable with these scenes. While there is consent, it is a bit dubious. Isolfr and others bonded with she-wolves accept their duties as their companions, but they are not necessarily gay or even bisexual. It made for some uncomfortable reading.
Another problem I had with the book is that there are a lot of characters, human and wolf, and they all have difficult, unfamiliar names. There is no real differentiation in the names of each type, except that some of the men have “fr” at the end of their names. I found it very confusing. I often didn’t know who was a man and who was a wolf. And the charater development of the minor characters is not that great. So it was tough to tell who was through much of the book.
The best things about the book are the world-building and the trolls. The world-building is quite extensive, being a Nordic-like culture with references to the Nordic gods and the complexity of the social structure of community. The trolls are pretty cool and even they have a social structure and some humanity, though that is not made evident until late in the book.
I give this book three stars out of five for the world-building and the trolls. It is a highly readable book, though the myriad of names slowed me down some. The complexity of the wolf social structure and their companions was really well done. I think I could have given this four stars if it weren’t for the sexual aspect.