A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
So let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Conventional wisdom always seems to think that two (or more) people cannot co-operate to produce a single coherent piece of writing. Supposedly, the professionalism that writers routinely bring to bear when they write on their own deserts them when they write in a team. This is an intensely annoying assumption. It completely ignores the reality that many writers do actively collaborate. Further, many more may actually assist a writer to produce a work. There are these teams of “helpers” who are thanked on acknowledgement pages of novels for reading and commenting on early drafts. Then there are the agents and those mysterious people called editors who also seem to get involved. Adding more people on to the byline (where journalists insist on their multiple acknowledgements) is neither here nor there.
So here is yet another example of a seamless piece of writing by two (youngish) writers. If you gave this text to anyone, they would never know that two (more more) people had been involved.
And the book itself? Well, we are back in the symbiotic relationship between “man” and “his” animals. One of the more detailed examples of this theme is the accumulated work of Anne McCaffrey in the Pern novels, but Monette and Bear avoid the somewhat saccharine approach and deal with pack animals rather than lone dragons. Both rely an early imprinting system where relatively newly born dragons/wolves are paired with young apprentices. After that, they diverge somewhat dramatically.
However, to be convincing, a culture must be reasonably coherent. Here we have an essentially human-based society living in small settlements that is threatened by trolls and (their familiars) the wyverns. The defence is to build fighting teams of men and wolves that, acting with intuitive or telepathic mutual understanding, produce co-ordinated attacks of fang, claw and axe usually accounting for their enemies. For this to work, there has to be a steady feed-through of young apprentices who fill out the ranks of these teams, bonding with newly born wolves as and when they are born.
The leader of one settlement, Lord Gunnar, is deeply prejudiced against the way in which the packs live their lives. This is a man who is dependent on the packs for the survival of his small community, yet is fundamentally opposed to their lifestyle. This does not ring true. This is a vertical pre-feudal society in which the military literally and metaphorically are the top dogs (sorry, couldn’t resist working that in). When the wolfless are always under the protection of the packs, their status would be high and nothing would be allowed to disturb the smooth flow of new recruits. Their “street cred” would be high and their reputations impeccable. For a leader with the power to shape opinion and potentially undermine public support for the packs to be so deeply prejudiced is not sustainable.
Every generation of every human community would be reared to venerate the packs and to long for the chance to be picked as an apprentice. Nothing would be allowed to interfere with this. The youngsters would play the local equivalent of “cowboys and indians” with all of them longing to feel some of the telepathic ability so critical to the success of the pack. It seems that every human has the potential for this telepathic linkage, but some are better at it than others. All leaders would always have to be seen to support the system. This whole element feels like a random plot device to allow the authors the chance to explore the theme of homophobia. It is too artificial and, in my view, actively detracts from the flow of the novel.
Now we come to the “controversial” part of the book. Socially, the packs are matriarchal, the svartalfar have gender equality, and the wolfless human communities are those scenarios much beloved of authors where the men are the figureheads and women have influence behind closed doors. The effect of the bonding between man and cub is to produce a form of telepathic link between the two. Thus, when the wolves get interested in sex, the linkage so convenient to co-ordinate battles, becomes inconvenient for the men paired with the rutting wolves. They find it difficult if not impossible to avoid sexual activity of their own. This is actually quite interesting but, again, all the punches are pulled. This is all written as a novel of discovery. The young Njall comes over as completely naive (in part explained by the homophobia of his father Lord Gunnar) and no-one really prepares him for what is to come. Then, it is so repetitive. None of it reads true as the men find themselves thrown into and out of relationships depending on the preferences of their wolves.
Then we have all this unexplained telepathy and other magical abilities in the novel. Njall turns out to be an ace telepathist and can transmit over major distances to warn the pack of danger. He also seems to have interspecies powers of communication as well. But here we come to yet another serious problem. The trolls are obviously intelligent and live in well-organised communities of their own. This is not a clash between humans and an unthinking enemy. It is the equivalent of prehistory’s supposed war for dominance between the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals. Yet no-one seems to try talking to them. Their immediate reaction upon meeting is to kill each other. Assuming that Njall’s ability is not uncommon, why is there no curiosity about the enemy? Why is there no attempt to negotiate some kind of truce? Why must everyone fight aiming for the extinction of the other all the time? It is all the more strange because there is the usual oral history tradition passed down through the songs/sagas. There are all kinds of interesting snippets of information about some things, but very convenient gaps about others.
I could go on but you’ve already realised my poor reaction. I grew really bored as this went on. Instead of developing the characters and exploring the cultures in a credible way, I was left with the feeling that these two ladies had decided to write a book to provoke and offend Americans (who generally seem less tolerant of sexual diversity than the rest of the world) and threw in lots of perverse sex and a few random battles as the sticks and carrots to get their readers to the end. It’s a real shame because, with more intelligence, this could have been a good book.
The real story is about gender not sexual roles. These are culturally defined. So young boys growing up in the settlements would want the glory of defending the community and be prepared to pay the price required. This would all be documented within the pack culture. There are too many men and wolves wounded or killed in these sessions as it is. Unless there was some form of training, management and accommodation between the species, this could never work over the longer term. It is only written this way because the writers want a shock quality to the narrative. They have subordinated the exploration of gender roles for the purposes of what — titillation, provocation?
Then we come to conventional human sexual politics. Njall finds an accommodating local girl in his own settlement and produces a daughter. The status of his partner within the community is never mentioned. One view would be that she gains in status because she beds a wolfman. If they produced a son, he could join the pack and both partners would gain status as adding to the defensive wall. That they produced a daughter is inconvenient because girls don’t do any of the fighting. What would the status of such female offspring be in the community? Would they be more desirable as adults because they carried the genes of a wolfman?
Presumably the telepathic linkage that is so strong wolf to human is less strong human to wolf because the wolves are only in heat (and so interested in sex) at certain times of the year. Whereas humans are fertile all year round. Interestingly, the village girl is not unhappy to give up her daughter to be raised as Njall directs (so much for the maternal bond). This is thematically mirrored by the reproductive cycle of the trolls which appears to be hivelike, and the lack of specific gender roles in the svartalfar. Motherhood is treated rather dispassionately in this book which is slightly odd because it is written by two women. The extent to which the wolves are jealous of the human partners is also not really explored. Or perhaps that explains why there are no women around the pack camps.
In our own culture, men only really talk about what it means to be a man when something goes wrong. There is a considerable volume of fiction and non-fiction dealing with erectile dysfunction and its consequences. Men, its seems, are poor fragile beings that collapse emotionally when their sexual abilities fail. They stop being proper men. This is the “macho” culture. In the wolfworld, men are required to swing in a number of different ways, so exploring their sexuality would be interesting. I found Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” particularly illuminating. It’s a shame women with more modern sensibilities are not prepared to confront the same kind of issues today.
For the sequel, see The Tempering of Men. My other reviews of work by Sarah Monette: Corambis, The Bone Key, a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.
For three novelettes in the New Amsterdam series by Elizabeth Bear, see Seven for a Secret, The White City and ad eternam. The books in a new trilogy are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky with Book of Iron an associated novella. There’s an excellent collection Shoggoths in Bloom.