A Companion to Wolves
Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Didn’t I promise you review archives? I’m as good as my word (most days), so here’s the first installment of my review consolidation project and the third installment of Blogmas 2020: a review I first wrote in 2013 for a book I wish I’d never heard of. No, really. It’ll be fun.
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Njall felt something uncomfortable twist in his belly. Perhaps sometimes it was wise to listen to a woman. Not that he would have to learn, unless he wasn’t chosen. Wolfcarls did not marry. But for a woman’s voice to speak reason when a man’s counseled cowardice – there was shame.
And now, if I’ve still got you, on to the story. A Companion to Wolves focuses in semi-epic length on the trials and tribulations of a teenaged boy named Njall, who lives in an ill-defined region that the authors have decided to call the “world of the Iskryne.” This is not, they tell us, actually Earth, but a rather lazy amalgamation of several Earth cultures, where the names and vocabulary are chosen “by ear” from Norse, Anglo-Saxon, and a handful of other Germanic languages that they couldn’t be bothered to name. In practice what this means is that the characters are running around a world that is like Earth, but is supposed to be some weird kind of fantasy land where men can talk to wolves and gang rape is a socially acceptable activity. It’s a bum deal for Njall, but it’s just the beginning.
In the beginning, Njall is an impetuous 16-year-old who wants to be treated like an adult. This doesn’t really change throughout the book – he gets older, but almost no one takes him seriously – but he does manage to impress Vigdis, a dominant female wolf (konigenwolf) from the local wolfheall (a walled compound that houses a number of men and their wolves), and is taken away from his family to learn the ways of the wolf-men. While there, he partners with a young konigenwolf-to-be named Viradechtis, starts training to become a pack leader despite having zero leadership skills, and changes his name to Isolfr. Apparently this has something to do with ice, but whether it’s based solely on his looks (“like snow, like ice”), or whether the reader is expected to know the full significance of the name without further explanation, is never made clear. Whatever the case, Njall – now referred to as Isolfr – spends the next several years with the wolfheall, during which time he fights trolls and wyverns, gets completely disowned by his super homophobic father, has a daughter with a local woman, participates in a war against the main troll settlement in the north, consorts with elves, and has unwilling sex with men. By the time he’s about 20, he’s managed to accrue a harem of lovestruck male suitors, none of whom notice his extremely obvious distaste for men. In the meantime Viradechtis grows old enough to choose her own mate (in lieu of having the usual free-for-all with a handful of males from the pack), and then things really get screwy.
Having witnessed one group mating and survived another, Isolfr is quite understandably worried about his prospects, as he finds the whole thing distasteful. Viradechtis, who has spent quite a bit of her life flirting with and encouraging fights between the male wolves who surround her, is only expected to pick one mate, but instead chooses two. This means that Isolfr, as Viradechtis’s partner, is stuck with two semi-permanent fuckbuddies, Skjaldwulf and Vethulf, who are both men. Skjaldwulf is somewhat aloof but gentle and kind, but Vethulf is an arrogant, bad-tempered tightass and I kind of liked him because he thinks Isolfr is a thoughtless idiot – which is all very fine, but it’s still not enough to keep him out of Isolfr’s pants.
Throughout the book, it’s explained that the wolves and their men are connected by a “pack sense,” which seems to function like a local area network: they can’t exactly read each other’s minds, but they can share information with each other, both on purpose and by accident. The pack sense also extends to emotions, mainly either murderous rage or mind-bending lust. Thus, because of the pack sense and the lust shared by a wolf and his/her human partner, the wolf-men are compelled – and there’s just really no nice way of saying this – to fuck the shit out of each other at the exact same time that their respective wolves are mating with each other. (They all get very horny when a female comes into heat, and there are no wolf-women. What’s a guy to do?) A man partnered with a female wolf is traditionally on the bottom, which is bad news for the determinedly straight Isolfr, though once they get started he consents so fast you’d think someone had slipped him a roofie. He’s even able to enjoy the sex, which seems a bit odd, given that he spends most of his waking moments dreading Viradechtis’s mating season, and which somewhat undermines his point that he doesn’t appreciate being gang-banged by a bunch of men. This is not consensual by any definition. The men who bed Isolfr have his permission, sort of, for those fleeting moments when he’s so horny he can barely think straight, but they would never have had it under ordinary circumstances. That’s the bottom line, but it’s a distinction that the wolf-men don’t seem to appreciate: the gang bang is mandatory, whatever Isolfr may say, and is well documented in several steamy, multi-page sex scenes. And it’s not even necessary.
At a certain brutal level, the mating system is not difficult to understand once you get past the What the fuck am I reading? reflex. But here’s what I don’t get: why is it necessary? Men can’t have babies; it doesn’t increase the wolf pack’s population, or even add anything to the plot. It’s a side story at best, and a rather tedious one, besides which it’s inconsistent with the rendering of the pack sense. Even when their wolves are in a blinding rage, the men are generally able to keep their own tempers under control, and thus can keep their wolves in check; the wolves, for their part, are completely unaffected when the men carry on romantic affairs. They don’t live or die in sync, so why are they so inseparable in this one particular aspect? Despite the rampant troll-killing and some vague rambling about courage and honor, the book is basically a 302-page excuse to write gay rape scenes, while Isolfr, the woeful hero at the epicenter of this lustful maelstrom, wrings his hands and frets that he’ll seem “weak as a girl” if he screams. I don’t know which is harder to take, the culturally mandated rape or the studied misogyny that pervades the book. Isolfr’s greatest fear seems to be that others will think him “womanish,” and he mentions several times throughout the narrative that he has no real regard for women’s opinions. This improves somewhat after he meets a handful of mountain elves, the most progressive species in the book, but he still hasn’t learned much by the end, despite being partnered with an incredibly strong-willed female wolf for a good 90% of the story. He tries so hard to be a strong, independent man for the duration of the book, and by the end of it he finally manages to convince Skjaldwulf and Vethulf to treat him as such. But is he really?
If you can read all this and still say with a straight face that Isolfr is the model of Viking(ish) masculinity, then consider this: before he even fully steps into the role, he finds himself comparing his job as second-in-command to his mother’s job in his father’s house; his intrinsic value is mostly linked to his apparent good looks by both friends and enemies alike; he has to be rescued from a jealous, besotted admirer, who forcibly kisses him before being chased off by Skjaldwulf; he whines to Skjaldwulf and Vethulf that he’s “not as pretty as [he] was” shortly after receiving an ugly face wound; and he actually contemplates apologizing for not being beautiful, despite not wanting them to be attracted to him. (Regarding that besotted admirer: Isolfr, you have a very large axe. Why the fuck didn’t you use it?) He is also the target of moronic, condescending advice. On the eve of his first group mating, he’s instructed not to fight with the men who will be “mating” with him: he’ll only get hurt if he fights. It’s the same kind of useless bullshit that gets handed out to women by well-meaning idiots, made even more useless by the fact that Isolfr actually will get hurt very badly, whether he struggles or not.
Perhaps it’s because of this that Isolfr, usually so prickly and slow to acknowledge his own innate weaknesses, lapses on occasion into an almost unnatural helplessness. It’s no mystery why nobody takes him seriously, as he stumbles and blushes and splutters his way through the book. He’s combat-trained and he regularly fights trolls, but somehow he’s very poorly equipped to deal with, say, overly aggressive advances from another member of the wolf pack. If Skjaldwulf hadn’t happened by, would he actually have been able to defend himself? Based on his faltering attempts to reason with his assailant, it seems unlikely. Although he flares up whenever someone accuses him of being pretty, takes offense at insults that aren’t really insults, and even beats the stuffing out of a fellow wolf-man whose malicious teasing finally goes too far, Isolfr is either unable or unwilling to defend himself when it really counts. Learned helplessness, perhaps? It seems like a pretty stupid thing to be teaching to someone who battles trolls for a living. The book’s one saving grace is its surprisingly endearing wolves, but even these aren’t enough to squeak me past the dubious ethics of the wolf-men. It’s true that Isolfr could leave at any time and thus be spared all future matings without repercussion, but, in doing so, he would have to part with Viradechtis, which he is unwilling to do. His self-deluding assertion that “[Viradechtis is] worth it” only makes it worse: the annual gang bang is the price of his acceptance within the wolf pack, and, in stating that his wolf is worth the costly admission, he both validates and perpetuates a highly toxic culture. Not once throughout the entire book does he question the necessity of the man-on-man mating ritual, despite being up to his neck in pointless sexual violence. I have read reviews suggesting that Wolves is a parody and is not intended to be taken seriously, but, if this is indeed the case, it’s a serious misfire.
I wish I could say it gets better, but it really doesn’t. To Isolfr’s dismay, both Skjaldwulf and Vethulf turn out to be (1) in love with him and (2) insanely jealous of each other, and they squabble and bicker and sideline him so much that he finally runs away and goes north to beg a caveful of hostile elves to join them in their quest against the trolls. He then sits out the final battle, so we never actually see what happens, which would be disappointing if it weren’t so bloody obvious that the mating scenes are the point of the book. But the whole thing begs a rather pertinent question: which is more incredible, Isolfr’s easy acceptance of the wolf-men’s more toxic customs, or the fact that I actually finished the book? Or is it more incredible still that Companion is only one in a series of three? And how can I get my hands on the other two? (Kidding.)
In complete fairness, this isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read; that dubious honor belongs to an even trashier book that didn’t have cute wolves. A Companion to Wolves wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been, but, while I wouldn’t go out of my way to toss it into a volcano, I’d rather not waste my time on a series whose first installment can be summed up in four words: I’d rather read Twilight.
When writing book reviews, I normally provide a link to the book’s goodreads page. I have not done so here because I do not wish to encourage anybody to read this book. I have also decided not to categorize this book as LGBTQIA because it adds nothing positive to LGBTQIA literature.