Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A COMPANION TO WOLVES by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear - Book Review

[Note: This review was originally published on on January 26th, 2011.]

Rating: 4/5 -  A satisfying read that’s worth every word.

  A Companion to Wolves

Author:  Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

Format: mass market paperback

Published: 2007

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher:  Tor Books

Landed in my hands: purchased myself

(from cover blurb):

“In a harsh northern land, the towns of men huddle close around the walled keeps of their lords.  Those keeps, in turn, look to the wolfcarls — men bonded to huge fighting wolves — for their safety, when the trolls and their wyverns come down from the icy mountains to prey on manflesh.

Isolfr is a young nobleman who is called to the wolf pack.  His father is hostile to the wolfcarls and refuses to send his sons, but Isolfr is deeply drawn to the wolves.  When the konigenwolf, Vigdis, comes to visit with her human brother Hrolleif, the young man chooses to disobey his father and answer her summons.


This was one of those books that made me sit up and realize the gaping hole that has previously been in whole "companion animal" fantasy sub-genre.  Totally an out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of thing until I read it and went, “THAT’S what’s been missing!”  To put it succinctly, it’s a psychological and sociological view on the influences of men on the wolf pack (and vice versa), as well as prickly questions of honour.

To be honest, I never would have stumbled upon this book if it weren’t for Brit Mandelo’s excellent post for the series Queering SFF on  I’m always glad to add titles to my To Be Read list, especially if it fits a niche that has previously sat empty.  That’s not to say that I haven’t read any queer fiction, it’s more to say that on my own I gravitate towards the mainstream, and I enjoy the opportunity to explore titles that are more obscure or for whatever reason are marginalized.

I loved the subversiveness of this book.  It grabbed the romanticized ideas of bonding with wolves and put a realistic slant on them.  These ladies obviously asked some hard questions and have thought their concepts through well, and as a testament to their skill, they’ve also delivered an engaging plot to accompany it.  It's a shame this book wasn't written earlier, and hasn't had the time to implant into the fantasy canon.

One thing I’m forced to question, though, is the authenticity of two women writing from the perspective of a young man.  To their credit, this didn’t stand out until I had finished the book, and that’s probably because everyone can relate to feeling alone, feeling in over their head, and feeling bitter that the right, moral answer doesn’t always align with what the heart wants.  I’d certainly be curious to hear a man’s take on this narrative.

A Companion to Wolves is a coming of age story — it’s the tale of how Isolfr becomes a man by being forced into hard decisions.  It’s not for everyone, and while I certainly don’t advocate censoring what people read, I do advocate age-appropriateness.  There’s a harsh honesty to the way this book deals with sexuality that requires a level of maturity in a reader, and therefore I’d recommend a parent be familiar with the content before handing it to someone under the age of fifteen.

This book loses a star only because the names of places and characters are at times difficult to follow — unfortunately, what aids in verisimilitude might distance some readers.

And the only other comment I have to make is more of an innate reaction to the use of the word "kitten" to describe baby trolls.  Maybe it's the cat lover in me, I don't know, but it twigged an extremely base-level knee-jerk disgust every time I read it.  Cognitively I can understand that the term was chosen because the trolls are the natural enemies of the wolves.  Wolves have pups, so it's only logical for the trolls to have kittens, in a cat vs. dog opposition.  But every time it came up, it gave me the heebie-jeebies, and this entire passage probably sounds like it's a negative critique of Monette and Bear's choice — it's not.  I was thoroughly disgusted by those baby trolls, and that's exactly what these writers were going for.  Good work, ladies!


  1. It was different, that's for sure. Definitely something that makes you think about the constructs we take for granted in fantasy.