Animal companion stories generally have bored the ever-living hell out of me. The warm, fuzzy rug-to-be scampering about the feisty, determined kiddie, communicating in telepathic human-like speech, almost invariably leads to the sort of saccharine-loaded "adventures" that even those who love the worst of Disney's treacly cartoons would find to be too much like a Care Bear/Barney the Dinosaur kiddie slash flick. It was with a profound relief when I learned that the genesis of this collaborative effort between Elizabeth Bear (Blood and Iron, Whiskey and Water) and Sarah Monette (Mélusine, The Virtu, The Mirador), A Companion to Wolves, was an attempt at a novella designed to satirize and to explore the problems of such animal/people stories.
A Companion to Wolves is set in an arctic-like environment. The humans have lived there precariously, depending upon a special elite force of men called wolfcarls who have managed to forge a strong telepathic bond with trellwolves (who themselves are different from the rather neutered friendly neighborhood forest wolf) in a bid to stave off yearly invasions by trolls and wyverns. However, being a wolfcarl is not without its consequences. Being bonded with a wolf means that one ends up getting involved with the wolfcarl paired with another wolf when the two wolves decide it's time to make the beast with two backs. And yes, Bear and Monette bring "teh ghey" in this story, for those of you who are rather squeamish about overt sexuality of any sort.
But this is not an expanded fantasy version of an erotica website. Considering the dynamics of the trellwolf/human bond and the hierarchal structures that develop around the konigenwolves (the queens), A Companion to Wolves has a load of power conflicts and struggles packed into its 304 pages even before the main character of Njoll/Isolfr is introduced. But via the limited third-person PoV (we are given insight into only Isolfr's thoughts, not those of the other characters), the reader gets a very intimate look into the interplay of these latent forces that will drive the story.
As a tale, A Companion to Wolves is mostly a coming of age story wrapping itself around the core of the original satire of the animal companion story. The wolfcarls are forced to adapt to the ways of the wolves and communication is not a very easy thing to accomplish, as each partner in the bond has his/her own take on what is most important for the pack. Add to that the growing disdain that the "wolfless" have for the wolfcarls, and there are many layers to what might on first glance appear to be a rather short and self-contained story. I found this rather tense and antagonistic relationship between the wolfcarls and the "wolfless" to be one of the better parts of the story, especially as it relates to Isolfr's strained relationship with his father at various points in the story.
Bear and Monette manage to merge their styles here to achieve a consistent narrative flow. It was a bit odd reading a Monette story that did not have a first-person PoV, but the limited third-person PoV did work out well. Isolfr and his fellow wolfcarls were intriguing characters, but outside of Isolfr, not much really was revealed about them, their origins, and their motives. This was a weakness in the story, this sense that certain things were glossed over, perhaps being saved for possible future collaborative efforts in this setting. But this is a minor complaint in what I found to be an excellent story of maturation, growth in worldliness, and an exploration of how power structures develop and are maintained. I would recommend this highly for those who are fans of Bear and Monette's previous works and also for those who are "open" to reading about relationships that might be outside the "norm" for multi-volume fantasies.
Release Date: October 16, 2007 (US), Hardcover