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A Companion Of Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

01/12/2008. Contributed by Sue Stewart

Buy A Companion Of Wolves in the USA - or Buy A Companion Of Wolves in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 336 page hardback. Price: $24.95 (US), $28.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1816-9.

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I may as well say it straight out: I loved this book. Being hooked on the legend of 'The Binding Of Fenris' from an early age probably helped. I've always loved stories with icy, snowy settings, too, but that wasn't the whole of its appeal. Not by a long way. This is a remarkable piece of work. Original, compelling, lovingly told and beautifully crafted.

The story's protagonist is seventeen year-old Njall, who is expected to inherit his father's position as leader and protector of the manor and holdings of Nithogsfjoll. It's a nice plan, except that his father is not the village's only protector. There are also the Wolf-brethren or Wolfmaegth to consider. These men live and fight alongside huge wolves, acting together as one pack.

For all that, he is utterly dependent on them to protect his land and people from the trolls and wyverns that are the greatest threats to their safety. Njall's father has no love or respect for the Wolfmaegth. Their traditions of bonding, so at odds with the conventional marriages and couplings of hall life fill him with horror.

Each manor is expected to send boys who are of age to the Wolfmaegth that protects it whenever a new litter of cubs is due to be born. The cubs then choose their human packmates from among them. Njall's father doesn't want his son and heir to be included in the process but, of course, things don't go as he wants. What he's heard about the Wolfmaegth frightens him, but Njall is so fascinated by the wolf that accompanies Hrolleif, the foremost member of the Wolf-brethren, to his father's hall that he is unable to stop himself.

Njall is not only discovered but Hrolleif shames his father into saying that he will be included in the tithe. Njall feels that it would be shameful for the lord's son to hide away when other boys of the village are being sent to the wolfheall but more than that, he secretly wants to be chosen.

It's a great tale, eventful, insightful and challenging. I stayed away from other reviews (not easy) because I wanted to come to it as 'clean' as is realistically possible and see what it was about for myself. I'm glad that I did because that lack of foreknowledge added to the book's impact. That's why I'm trying not to put in spoilers but for those who need to know, roughly, what the book as a whole is about, it's about love and bonds between children and parents, between the human pack and the wolf pack and between the men of the Wolfmaegth. It's about where duty lies and what love and honour actually are and how they are often very different from what you may have been told they are.

It's fascinating, but it's not a book you can speed-read. One of things that makes this world so powerful is the consistent use of Germanic terminology and names, but it's also a weakness if you're impatient like me. There's a dramatis personae and that's a very big hint: learn from my mistake. Take it. Lists of names without context may be dull, but the study will repay the effort.

If you don't, you will have to check, 'Wolf? Or man? Is that wolf bonded to him or him?' while you're reading. If you're familiar with Old Norse and Old German their inherent meanings may guide you, but I'm not and I almost wrecked the flow of the story. I haven't read any of Monette's other work yet, but Bear habitually likes to make you work for your treats, which is fine. I just wish I'd remembered, I could have saved myself a lot of confusion.

It's a measure of the book's hold that the annoying pauses to check didn't put me off, though I've binned books for less. Luckily, this one has everything or as near as makes no difference. It's well-written, original and exciting with action of the kind that sends you pelting headlong into the melee, wondering what happens next. (Fight scenes! With trolls! Giant snakes! Axework and swordwork and ravening wolves!) There are twists and turns, hopes and hazards, heartbreaking moments and triumphant ones.

All in all, it was a delight. Definitely not one for the bin. It's a keeper.

Sue Stewart

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