A Companion to Wolves is a stand alone collaboration by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. Sarah Monette’s “The Doctrine of Labyrinth” series is currently my favorite book discovery of this year, and Elizabeth Bear’s dark mythological tale of faerie, Blood and Iron, was also excellent so I was very much looking forward to this book. Although I did not enjoy it quite as much as either of these separate works, this tale steeped in Norse mythology still had me riveted and turning the pages.
As the oldest son of a jarl, Njall is to become jarl himself one day. This changes when a man and his wolf come to visit Njall’s father to ask for his oldest son to join the wolfheall, a society of warriors and wolves bonded to each other to better protect the people from trolls and wyverns. Due to the homosexual practices of the men within the wolfheall, Njall’s father refuses to give his son as a tithe, even though the wolfheall needs young men around Njall’s age to train and there are not many fit lads in the village of the right age. Fascinated by the wolf and aware that it is his duty to defend the people, Njall agrees to join the wolfheall even though he is frightened by the stories he has heard. Njall’s father tells him he is sixteen now so it is his decision but tries to persuade him to stay.
Njall travels to the wolfheall where he and a few other boys begin to train. Once the new litter of wolf pups is born, the young men must begin to get to know the pups and let them each choose one of them to bond with. It soon becomes apparent that Njall will be chosen by Viradechtis, who will one day be konigenwolf (queen wolf) of her own pack. As a konigenwolf, Viradechtis will be choosing her mate and Njall’s partner, who will be her mate’s companion. Njall finds this idea unpleasant, but he is very attached to Viradechtis and joins the wolfheall as Isolfr (each man changes his name when bonded). Since it is obvious that Viradechtis will one day be queen wolf, many attempt to win the favor of Isolfr and his wolf. Meanwhile, the troll threat increases and the wolfheall is very busy battling the creatures.
Even though A Companion to Wolves was written by two authors, it reads as though written by one. It keeps the same voice throughout the story and the writing flows well.
The story is told from the third person perspective of Isolfr, who is an interesting character. His tale is a coming of age story, as he learns about it means to be dutiful and to believe in his own point of view instead of what his father has taught him. Isolfr has to discover for himself what his own perspective of the world is and what it means to be a man or woman in the patriarchal society in which he lives. Minor characters are not fleshed out nearly as well as the main character, but the strength of Isolfr and Viradechtis, whose flashes of thought are often amusing, make up for this.
The society and politics of the wolfheall are also an intriguing aspect of the story. The animal companions in this story are not cute little pets – the wolves truly control rule within the wolfheall and the humans mainly follow the lead of their sister or brother wolf. The dominant trellwolf female chooses the male who will lead with her and determines both human leaders by deciding who to bond with and selecting the person bonded to her new mate. It can be a rough society; it’s not all happiness and fun. When a female wolf is in heat, life in the wolfheall can get particularly brutal as the male wolves fight for the female. There are some rather intense sex scenes as a result (between the humans in addition to the wolves since the human companions to the wolves copy their companions, Pern-style), so those who are offended by sexual content that is not watered down should not read this book.
The one complaint I have about this book is that the names can be very confusing. Partway through the book, many of the character’s names change once they join the wolfheall and these names all have some variation of ‘olfr’ or ‘ulf’ in them. It can get hard to keep track of the minor characters since many of their names are similar and their personalities are not terribly unique to begin with.
A Companion to Wolves is an engrossing animal companion story about growing up and becoming your own person that manages to avoid many of the common fantasy tropes about animal companions.
Other reviews (which were influential in my choice to read this one):