The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
Change is something that comes hard to the majority. They grow comfortable with the status quo. They understand its rhythms. For the most part, they know how to survive its perils. Even an invitation to discuss change can seem a threat to the order of their lives. That’s one of the reasons why some societies or groups slowly curl up and die. For, no matter how much the majority may wish the world to pass them by, there’s always a bigger picture and, unless they modify their attitudes and behaviour to accommodate the newer realities, everything can be lost.
So here we come to The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. This is the sequel to Companion to Wolves which I thought uninspiring. You might therefore wonder why I should continue the saga. Indeed, having finished this volume which is now intended as the second book in a trilogy (nothing is worth writing unless it can be drawn out to interminable length as a trilogy), I’m faced with the same question. My optimism has been thwarted (yet again) as what could have been quite interesting themes were trampled into the mire.
This takes us back to the issue of change. We watch the combined forces of the humans, their wolves and the svartalfar wind up the campaign against the trolls and then the authors pose the question, “If all the trolls are gone now, what use are these warriors?” This is, of course, what every country asks of its standing army when the immediate enemy has been vanquished. Most of the rank and file conscripts happily lay down their weapons and pick up the ploughshares. They never wanted to risk their lives fighting and are grateful it’s all behind them. But there’s always going to be a hard core of professionals left on the shelf. In a developed country, this is less of a problem because governments can develop extended training programs and play war games. If they get too feisty, troops can be sent to fight in neighbouring states or in a good cause. This thins down their numbers and keeps them manageable. But before nation states emerged, there was less civil infrastructure and so most of the best fighters became mercenaries and drifted from one campaign to the next.
For authors, describing this drift into obscurity is not the stuff of bestsellerdom. The public want upbeat stories of heroism. This means they must fight and, in most cases, win or lose valiantly. Except killing off the major enemy at the end of the first book doesn’t exactly leave you overflowing with new enemies to fight. So this is always going to be slow going as our warriors get into a little local policing and go exploring. Except, about halfway through, we do get the emergence of the new threat. If you want a historical parallel, this is the equivalent of the Roman Army expanding its Empire ever further north. So an advance expeditionary force makes a probe into our heroes’ country and this involuntarily gives one of their number the chance to weigh up the newcomers’ potential. His reaction is to summon a grand council to discuss all the different Northern groups coming together to fight the common foe. This sets up the third book for the barbarians to defend their territory against the theoretically superior armies of Rome (Rhea for these purposes). Since the Rhean army seems to lack supernatural help, this will be a war of attrition. The invaders have superior technology, better discipline, numerical superiority, and better lines of supply. They can blockade the north and wear down the resistance.
Meanwhile, back up north, our heroes discover there’s a svartalfar community on their doorstep. This gives us a better chance to view this race and to evaluate their powers. Also of potential interest is a cave system that might permit a large number of warriors and their wolves to live securely as and when General Winter decides to take the field. As countless invaders have discovered when trying to conquer Russia, the local forces are aided by the weather with the two seasonal rasputitsas flanking the winter itself. If you add in supernatural powers to communicate over distances and manipulate stone, the Rhean forces could be in for a rough welcome.
Except all this potential interest is lost as the pace is lumberingly slow. As in the first volume, I confess to giving up on trying to keep everyone’s name straight. I just don’t care enough to try remembering all these vaguely Norse names along with all the terminology of their culture. I can’t even be bothered to keep track of all the wolves and their human symbionts. At least the sex is toned down for this volume. We don’t have the same overt partying between the men and/or their animals. If that’s what turned you on the first time round, you’re going to find this disappointing.
So, unlike Companion To Wolves which we could broadly classify as a coming-of-age story with a fairly linear story as the trolls get mobilised, The Tempering of Men is a slightly sprawling story as different pieces are moved into place for the battles expected in the third volume. I grew increasingly bored and almost certainly will pass on the third volume. As a final thought, I even think the jacket artwork by Cliff Nielsen is twee rather than in any real sense frightening. When an artist is lining up to show a wolf confronting a troll, it would be helpful to make the man caught between them look interested in a fight.
For books by Elizabeth Bear, see A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette), Shoggoths in Bloom, The White City and ad eternum. For books by Sarah Monette, see The Bone Key, Corambis and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.