Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Companion to Wolves - Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear


Be forewarned, dear reader - This could be classified more as a "rant" than a review. 

About the Book

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.

304 pages (Hardcover)
Published on: October 16, 2007
Published by: Tor

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I started A Companion to Wolves with high hopes. Both Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette are wonderful authors in their own right; so put together they should be a formidable duo. I was excited about A Companion to Wolves so I could see what two wonderful authors can accomplish when put together. At first I loved it, and then my experience quickly slid downhill.

The premise of A Companion to Wolves was appealing to me. It’s a book about a group of men who have to sacrifice quite a bit to bond with their wolves. They then spend their lives fighting to protect mankind from trolls. The premise alone promises a book that will be incredibly character focused and driven, and that was part of why I wanted to read it so badly. However, the novelty wore off fairly quickly and left me with a sinking sense of wonder, and not the kind of wonder an author wants the reader to feel. This kind of wonder was, “I wonder if this book has a point.”

The world building stand second fiddle to Isolfr, the protagonist; while this isn’t generally a problem in character driven books, it is here. The world building in A Companion of Wolves seems to sway between starkly realized and half-thought out. Due to this, the world the book takes place in isn’t incredibly reliable when the reader is trying to picture where all this is happening. It appears as washed out, gray and incredibly flat. The social structure is almost non-existent. The author’s drop in bits and pieces here and there about class, social standing, royalty, a nearby village and the like, but there is absolutely nothing within these cues that will make the reader feel the least bit curious about any of these social structures. In fact, many of them still make absolutely no sense to me at all and left me feeling amazingly frustrated with the world the book takes place in, as a whole.

Part of the reason for this frustration is due to language. While I realize that a made-up language is often important to world building, and can help fill the reader with a sense of time, place and culture, the language in A Companion to Wolves was interspersed so frivolously within the book that it bogged down the plot and pace more than anything else. The language, as well as the culture, is obviously borrowed from the Vikings, which isn’t a bad thing.

I don’t mind made up languages. Nor do I mind reading them in books. In fact, I tend to enjoy it. However, each page was filled to brimming with nonsensical words and names that all ended with “lfr” and completely blended together that it started affecting the plot, which, in the really language-intensive paragraphs, started to make absolutely no sense at all. There’s a line an author needs to draw between nicely peppering a book with foreign words, and filling it to the point where the plot is lost and starts making no sense. Furthermore, there are words which, I’m sure I was supposed to figure out what they meant as I read, which still make absolutely no sense to me.

This harkens back to my point about social standing and class. A perfect example of what I mean is one of the main characters in the wolf pack, whose title was something in this made-up language which I’m not even going to bother to look up again. I read the entire book without fully understanding, processing or grasping what this man’s actual position was within the pack because the name for his title was one of these illustrious words which looked just like every other word thrown at me in this fantastic language. Thus, I ended the book thinking, “I know he was an important guy, and I think I know what his role was, but I guess I’ll never be completely certain about that.” Whereas, if they had added a glossary of terms, or used less of their language throughout the book I probably would have been able to understand a lot more about character roles and the world as a whole. Thus, the washed out, detached and absolutely frustrated feeling I was left with probably wouldn’t have existed.

The language doesn’t just affect the world building, or my personal frustration level. It seeps into everything about the book, including characterization. Many of the characters paid for the incredible use of words that make no sense with their characterization. Even the main character, a character I am used to at least associating with on some level, came off as incredibly two-dimensional. This disappointed me, because the premise of the book promised an interesting look into the lives of men who sacrifice a lot to keep many people safe. Instead it turned into a washed-out, pastel look at a bunch of people ended up seeming exactly like everyone else in the book, and who were doing things that could have been interesting if I’d understood what they were doing.

It’s not all bad, however. There are plenty of glowing reviews to show that this book does have, and deserve its audience, though I can’t honestly figure out why. A Companion to Wolves left me with a sour taste in my mouth. In the end this is a book that could have been quite impressive, but due to paltry world building, the overuse of a made-up language that makes no sense, and two-dimensional characters, A Companion to Wolves is a 300+ page book which isn’t really about much of anything at all. It was a good effort by two authors I sincerely admire, but it just epically failed every mark I know the authors are capable of hitting.

1/5 stars

2 comments:

  1. Thanks, Sarah! you perfectly expressed what I felt reading this book : “I wonder if this book has a point.” The characters as well as the world building seem unbalanced and unfinished.

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  2. I agree with everything you said here. I just finished and wow... This book is listed on Goodreads as gay romance or at least many clueless reader's idea of gay romance and the main character is obviously anything but gay (He is not even bisexual he is however gang raped does that count as romantic these days?). In fact both writers spend a ton of time describing this gang rape or whatever they think they are describing as saliciously as possible. Then they write a main character who finds any of this homosexual interaction as highly distasteful and eventually just an out right painful chore he suffers through because his wolf is so so special or whatever. He then becomes the head wolfguy in this group of men he obviously dislikes and he is plainly emotionally distant with at best and emtionally abusive of at worst. But they all want him for his virginal straight boy emo sexiness or something.

    I just don't get it? Did they think this story was cool and edgy? What was the point?

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