A Companion to Wolves

by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: October 2007
ISBN: 0-7653-1816-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 302

Buy at Powell's Books

Njall is the elder son of a lord, raised to be heir in a world divided between the wolfcarls and the wolfless. Njall's world is the wolfless one, but the holding owes a tithe of sons to the wolfheallan who defend them. Wolfcarls are men bonded to enormous trellwolves, sharing lives and pack with their wolven brothers and sisters and fighting endless wars against the trolls and wyverns. However, they're also a culture apart, rumored to have unmanly appetites and sexual relations, strange and perverted, and not a respectable life for all that they might be necessary. When Hrolleif comes with his sisterwolf Vigdis to Lord Gunnarr and asks for the tithe, Gunnarr would rather angrily refuse. But Njall is caught by Vigdis's eyes and finds the idea suddenly compelling.

If this sounds remarkably like the opening of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight, you're right, and the similarity is intentional. A Companion to Wolves is an animal companion fantasy, commenting on and reacting to the long history of such fantasies in the genre. It's also a coming of age story for Njall, later Isolfr, and this is quite obvious at the start. The dislike between unbonded humans and the bonded, a journey away from home, the bonding to a psychic animal, the history of bonding, cultural clashes, and new politics and power dynamics based on the bonded animals are all present and deftly managed through the opening sections of the book. Pern is echoed perhaps the most clearly, but the pattern is well-trod ground.

But Monette and Bear are not writing just another entry in the subgenre. Warnings start on the first page:

She was big even for a trellwolf, and more, she looked tired. Her winter coat was shedding in hanks and clumps, like handfuls of dirty rags gray with srub-water, and he could see her ribs under the skin like sprung staves. Her midsection bulged with the promise of pups, and her heavy black nipples leaked watery fluid on the stones where she lay, infinitely patient, waiting for her master to finish his business with Njall's father.

(We'll forgive Njall this "master" business. As yet, he has no idea.) You don't get descriptions like that of Pern's dragons. Three paragraphs in, pregnancy and pups, sex (by implication), and unflinchingly honest physical description have already entered the story. And Njall is not an abused or misunderstood child needing a rescue. He's the heir, fairly content with his role in life, with a younger sister he loves and a good relationship with his parents. His feelings towards the wolfcarls are far more ambiguous and conflicted than the typical animal-companion wish-fulfillment story. This wasn't his dream.

A Companion to Wolves also tackles head-on some of the issues that Pern neatly sidesteps. This is a warrior culture modelled after Nordic and Germanic tribes in the far north of Europe. It's a hard life and the battles against trolls and their wyverns are constant and bloody. There is no utterly inhuman enemy such as Thread, no magic or psychic powers to move war to a more intellectual, less bloody stage. Njall is quickly hacking into the necks of trolls with an axe, or helping wolves savage a wyvern until someone can sever its spine. Combat throughout the book is shown in vivid splashes of blood, in moments of pain and confusion and rage, in flashes of ugly physical violence. It's not belabored, but neither is it skipped.

And, more difficultly, the rumors about the wolfcarls are not wrong. The wolfcarls, matching the warrior cultures on which they're modelled, are exclusively male. The wolves, of course, are not. This means there is none of Pern's convenient matching of sex in bonding. However, the emotional bond to wolves is just as strong (and far more intensely described). When one of the bitches comes into heat, there's an orgy of both sex and violence as the male wolves fight for precedence and then take their turns at mating. And their human brothers do the same.

The feelings of the wolfless towards homosexuality are strongly negative, and that's the culture Njall was raised in. He's nearly as horrified as his father by the idea of having sex with a man and considers it particularly dishonorable and womanly to be the one on the bottom. When he bonds with a female wolf, that's exactly what Lord Gunnarr most feared. But the alpha females, the konigenwolves, are the leaders of the wolf pack, and their brothers are therefore the ones who can keep peace and settle problems between the men as well. The brother of the pack konigenwolf therefore holds an odd position of power within a wolfheall, not the leader in war but the leader in many other respects. This puts Isolfr into a female role of peacekeeper and pushes him towards a role almost like a wife, but at the same time, Viradechtis, his sister-wolf, is dominant and will eventually lead her own pack. It's a role with some fascinating crossover sexual dynamics that plays with and questions the division between male and female roles in a society.

Isolfr (Njall after he has bonded with Viradechtis, since wolfcarls always choose a new name) struggles with this role for the entire book. It's the source of many of the most honest and uncomfortable challenges in the book and a wonderful subversion of the typical wish-fulfillment path these stories take. It's one thing to form a deep and abiding bond with your wolf, to know her thoughts and joys, and to always have her comfort at your side. It's quite another to have to learn how to cover yourself in lube to survive what feels uncomfortably close to an imminent gang rape while that same wolf is going into heat, happily teasing and toying with every adult male wolf in range and driving them into a sexual frenzy.

Dealing with mating is one of the most uncomfortable aspects of the book, but it's also one of the best. I won't describe Monette and Bear's treatment as tasteful, since that implies euphemism and well-timed scene cuts that would have undermined the honesty of the story, but neither is it exploitative. The problem plays out on camera, but every shock feels necessary to the story. It's a far stronger and more believable test of Isolfr's bond with Viradechtis than simple warfare. It's difficult, it stays difficult, it's not what Isolfr wants, and he learns how to handle it anyway. Viradechtis can't understand how he feels, but tries to anyway. And in the process, the story exposes and confronts social construction of roles, social construction of gender and sexuality, and the real implications of culture clash (which is never as simple as going to a different life that's better in every way).

The defining characteristic of A Companion to Wolves is this sort of unflinching honesty and willingness to incorporate all aspects of being human into the story. Family, loyalty, death, war, sexuality, birth (from several different directions), and religion are all woven into a coherent culture. It's messy, dirty, and occasionally gross and terrifying, which makes the moments of triumph and companionship all the more important. People die. Wolves die. The world moves on. And by the middle of the book, I stopped making Pern comparisons, however delightful it was to see assumptions questioned, and was just reading.

I've barely touched on the plot, since the first half of the book is mostly devoted to Isolfr's growth as a wolfcarl and his efforts to come to terms with his place in that world. But there is a deeper plot beyond that, one that fits naturally into the Norse feel of the world and which one can see as material for an epic. This book isn't that epic — it's too personal and too closely grounded in Isolfr's emotions — but the epic is underneath like a skeleton. And that plot introduces and then features the svartalfar, creatures who start the story as only myth and who become my favorite part of the book. Almost everything about them is a spoiler, so I'll say no more than to note they were what took this book from a very good story to one of the best fantasy novels I've read.

I finished this book a few days ago and can't stop thinking about it, and the image that sticks in my mind is one of the trellwolves playing with the reader. A Companion to Wolves plays with you, starting out in a familiar pattern and then hinting at something else. Drawing you into the forests and showing you a different world. Dangerous, sardonic, uncomfortably blunt, and sometimes just laughing, at you or with you. I can't read the tag line on the cover, "What lengths will you go to — for your honor and for the love of your wolf?", without laughing because it's both so accurate and so turned on its head here. I keep imagining one of the humans trying to explain Pern to a trellwolf and the trellwolf finding it hilarious.

There are two nits that I feel obligated to pick, in part because I was able to read past them but I think they may bother others more. First, I have no reason to doubt that the names here are faithful to their source, which in turn fits the book. But they're quite difficult to an eye trained exclusively in American English. I hit snarls of consonants like Hringolfr or Ulfbjorn and mostly gave up. I could extract a tentative pronunciation with work, but most of the characters stayed letter patterns rather than sounds to me. That slowed down my reading and made it harder for me to keep characters distinct. It's amusing, and symbolic for the whole work, that A Companion to Wolves has the Pern problem of unpronouncable names but arrived at it more realistically. But I still would have preferred to have name-sounds for the characters.

The second nit is a spoiler, so I'll touch on it only obliquely. At the very end of the story, it felt like the authors flinched on the problem of trolls. Not only is the reader reassured about a painfully hard decision with a bit of judicious mind-reading, but new world background is also introduced on the spot to provide an escape route. The problem is foreshadowed, and I don't have any better suggestions for how to handle its resolution, but it felt like a rare departure from the book's honest handling of consequences. I kept niggling at it afterwards; it felt like that decision should have been harder and more ambiguous.

Despite those nits, I fell in love with this book. I was quite surprised to do so, since I went in expecting a commentary on and subversion of Pern, something that sounded fun but not something that would grab and hold me. By the middle of the book, I was reclassifying it as a great fantasy in its own right. The end of the book was impossible to put down, simultaneously emotionally satisfying and draining, and adding some beautiful world-building and even more emotional resonance to a story that was already doing impressively well.

I don't know how many others will love the book as much as I did. Parts of it, particularly around sexuality, I expect to be difficult for many readers, and I must also admit that it doesn't go far afield from the standard coming-of-age plot. I'm also not qualified to judge how well it treats Norse and Germanic mythology; any infelicities there would have escaped me unnoticed. But it struck a deep chord with me, using the pure fantasy magic of psychic bonding with an animal in a way that feels thoroughly real and not just escapist. Highly recommended, and I will be very curious to see how others react to it.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-12-16

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