The Tempering of Men is the second book in the Iskryne series co-authored by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. The first book is A Companion to Wolves, which began as a fun parody of the concept of animal companions and evolved into a novel. A third book, An Apprentice to Elves, is supposed to be released in 2013. The Tempering of Men was released today as a hardcover and an ebook.
Since this is a review for the second book in a series, there will be spoilers for the first book. If you want to read about A Companion to Wolves instead of spoiling yourself reading about its sequel, that book review is here.
The queen wolf Viradechtis has selected her mate and her human companion Isolfr’s helpers in a rather unconventional manner – by choosing two mates and therefore two men to lead the men of the wolfheall. While the three wolves are quite fond of each other, this choice ends up being much more problematic for the three men bonded to the wolves. Vethulf and Skjaldwulf could not be more different. Vethulf is hot-tempered and outspoken while Skjaldwulf is quiet, introspective, and slower to speak his mind. To make matters worse, both of them are quite taken with Isolfr despite the fact that he has no romantic interest in either of them. When the two must go out to war together against the trolls, they’re pushed together by their wolves. They may even be starting to put aside their differences once they’ve succeeding in destroying the trolls, but will it last or is it just a temporary reprieve due to the tragedy of war?
The two will need to learn to get along, especially as the wolfheall is facing an even tougher challenge then the foes they’ve faced: the possibility of becoming obsolete. The wolves and their warriors have always fought against the trolls, but now that they’ve vanquished them, there’s concern among the various wolfhealls about whether of not they’ll be useful anymore. While there will always be threats to men, the wolves are not concerned with being conquerors or the wishes of wolfless men.
When a godsman comes to the wolfheall wanting to record the account of Isolfr’s vision of Freya, he invites Skjaldwulf to journey back with him, thinking he will appreciate their extensive archives. After thinking about it, Skjaldwulf believes it may be worth taking a look through to see if there is any knowledge that will help the wolfhealls plan for the future. He considers the offer, and when one of the brothers of the wolfheall decides to leave to help his trueborn sibling against an attack, Vethulf arranges for them to travel together with the godsman. When traveling south Skjaldwulf learns more of this army and is prominently involved in the decision on how to respond to the threat, beginning the process of stepping into his own new role and possibly changing that of the wolfhealls.
After finishing The Tempering of Men, my first thought was that it was just as enjoyable as A Companion to Wolves. I found it had a slower start, but by the end I was really enjoying it. Since rereading parts of both books and letting it sink in a little more, I’ve decided that while the sequel is certainly worth reading and had a greater number of well-rounded characters, the first book worked better all around. It was easier to become immersed in and I preferred the focus on just one main character for a novel of this relatively short length. Also, The Tempering of Men did feel like a middle book since it isn’t quite resolved by the end and much of what did happen is setting up a bigger story.
It did take me a little while to get involved in The Tempering of Men and really want to find out what happened next. There seemed to be a larger frequency of Norse names to stumble over for a bit, and it took some time to get going, partially because there were three main characters to focus on instead of just one. While the previous volume was mainly about Isolfr, this book shifted him to the background and moved his two wolfjarls, Skjaldwulf and Vethulf, and Brokkolfr, another man bonded to a female wolf, to the forefront. By focusing on Isolfr and his experience with becoming a companion to a wolf and eventually a leader, the first book served as an introduction to this world.
In contrast, this book is about three seasoned wolfcarls, albeit ones that need to adjust to new roles within their community. Skjaldwulf and Vethulf have already been bonded to wolves for a while, but the two have been thrust into leading men by the choice of Viradechtis. They have to come to terms with their new duties, competition with each other, and preparing for the wolfheall to change with the trolls gone. Brokkolfr’s part of the story mostly involves a discovery he makes while exploring one day, but he too is learning to step into new responsibilities as he counsels Isolfr – and puts it upon himself to tell him hard truths that he may not want to hear. He certainly admires his wolfsprechend and finds a lot to commend about him, but there are some cases where Brokkolfr sees Isolfr’s discomfort with aspects of his role getting in his way when it comes to preparing other men bonded to female wolves. This book is arguably just as much about the characters and their growth as it is any events, and of the three, it’s mostly Skjaldwulf’s story. He’s the one who takes it upon himself to instigate change and makes the most difference in the end.
This would not be a Bear and Monette book if there was no emphasis on gender and sexuality, although they are part of the story rather than exposition on issues. Since it has moved away from the coming of age story and introducing a new boy to what it means to be companion to a queen wolf, there’s less emphasis on mating in this one. I thought this was a good choice since it’s covered pretty thoroughly in the first volume and it might seem excessive if it was also prominent in this book. That’s not to say it’s ignored, but like Isolfr, it’s more in the background and comes up less. Also, many of these men are gay, combating the stereotype of the “manly” Viking warrior who lusts after the buxom lasses. That’s not to say the authors went the route of deciding every man in this all-male society was gay, either. Some of them still prefer women, and some of them even have children. This creates a new layer of conflict since one of these men is Isolfr, who is coveted by many (and whom Skjaldwulf desperately wishes didn’t seem to prefer women).
I also found it interesting that they included a woman who became heir to her father, a war leader, because he had no sons to be his heir. For all intents and purposes, she became a man – dressing like one, acting like one, and always referred to with male pronouns.
The Tempering of Men is different from A Companion to Wolves. While the latter was more of an introduction to the world through the eyes of a young person being initiated into it, the new installment is about more experienced members of the society. It’s a bit more epic in feel with more main characters and some questing. I appreciate the fact that it does take the story in a new direction, but I also found the first book a little bit stronger just because it was easier to pick up and become immersed in. Plus these are not very long books, so just having one main character worked a little better, although we do know some of these characters going in so it’s also not by any means a bad choice to have more than one main character. It also had a middle book feel since the things that did happen seemed like they’d be more important in the next book. While I enjoyed it very much, I did enjoy the previous book a little more; however, it has not at all dampened my enthusiasm any for more books set in Iskryne.
My Rating: 7/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.
Reviews of other books in this series: