Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review: A Companion to Wolves, By Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

I have read many books that would have been great if only the author had been a little more skilled, but I think this was the first time I’ve read a book that was bad, but made enjoyable in the hands of two really great authors. Because seriously, I think it took every ounce of talent and skill that authors Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monnette possess between them to keep this book from being a ridiculous mess.

Set in snowbound northern land all that stands between men and trolls are the- well, crap. I can’t remember what they’re called. Wolfen-something. Or was it something-wolf? Wolf dudes. Men who bond with enormous wolves and use that bond to take down the ferocious trolls.

This highlights the main problem with this book, or at least it was for me. The names! I don’t think I’m a lazy reader, I’m more than willing to put in a bit of effort to keep track of things, but I had no chance of keeping all the characters in this book straight. They’ve all got really long Norse inspired names that I could barely pronounce, and a bunch of them are only different by a few syllables. And it doesn’t help that a few chapters into the book a bunch of the characters turn around and change their names! Argh!

And here is where the author’s skill that I was talking about comes into play. Because by name alone I had no idea which character was which, but I was able to keep them all fairly straight because their actual character was so well written, as was the way the protagonist (Isolfr, one of the few names I remembered, because it was short and the only one that started with an I…) reacted to and interacted with them. I’ve not read anything by Elizabeth Bear (yet) but I know from Sarah Monnette’s books that she is fantastic at creating distinctive characters so I have to assume that this was her influence. It kept me reading when I otherwise would have been tempted to give up.

I initially picked this book up because I’d heard it provided a more realistic take on the common man-anirmal-bond trope, a look at what such a bond would really entail. Having now read the book I don’t think it does this- or at least I don’t think it doesn’t it in a well rounded way. Instead what the book really delves into is what sex would be like for a man bonded to an animal, but it just skims over everything else. Personally I think Robin Hobb offers a more realistic and thorough take on this kind of bond in the Farseer books- she might not explore sex as deeply, but nor does she focus on that one aspect to the neglect of others.

The sex scenes in this book run the gamut from sweet to brutally graphic and confronting, and in this it has to be said that Bear and Monnette have not shied away from the darker possibilities of a man/animal connection. There is a lot of discussion of what does and doesn’t constitute consent, and it does make for thought provoking (if at times uncomfortable) reading.

Something else that is explored with deft skill, although very much in the background, are issues of gender. I liked how this was handled in a subtle way. It's not the focus of the book, but nor does the book simply ignore the question. Considering the cast is almost entirely male, I thought this was impressive.

Ultimately this is a very readable book. Despite its heavy themes the pages just fly by, and while I think it has too much substance to be called popcorn fiction it certainty has a lot in common with that genre. I will definitely be picking up the next book in the series (I’d thought this was a stand alone so I was pleased that there even was a “next book”) and am interested to see where the authors take it.

I bought this book

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