Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
Aug 31st, 2017, 11:59 am

TITLE: Black Wolves (Black Wolves Trilogy #1)
AUTHOR: Kate Elliott
GENRE: Fantasy
PUBLISHED: November 3, 2015
RATING: ★★★★★


Black Wolves is set in a land known as the Hundred, which is one assassination or murder away from falling apart. Noble factions split between three princes, two queens, and the King jostle for control in the capital of Toskala, while outlaws and bandits sow anarchy throughout the land. In order to prevent the kingdom's collapse, Marshal Dannarah, aunt of the King Jehosh, seeks out Kellas, former captain of the elite military unit known as the Black Wolves. However, the Black Wolves were disbanded and their members fallen from favour when they failed to protect the last king: Dannarah’s beloved brother, Atani.

But Dannarah knows Kellas’ worth, knows what a man like him can do. And she needs a man like Kellas to make sure that her nephew Jehosh survives the storm that is about to fall across the Hundred - because if Jehosh falls, then the land will fall into chaos.

I picked this novel up primarily because of its setting. The real world has so many beautiful places and cultures to choose from; surely the cultures of fantasy novels are not all copies of medieval England, France, and/or Germany? And while I realise that there are novels that are set in the fantasy equivalent of ancient Scandinavia, or Renaissance Italy on occasion, I still hanker for something completely non-European and deliberately seek such novels out.

Fortunately, the setting of Black Wolves contains nary a whiff of Western Europe. Instead, the Hundred is more reminiscent of Southeast and East Asia, while the neighbouring Sirniakan Empire is more akin to the Turkish Ottoman Empire in Istanbul, or the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus. Though Elliott does not go as in-depth as Tolkien on the landscape (for which I and many other readers are grateful, I am sure), the author does breathe life into the setting through its people and their respective cultures. From the cloistered, claustrophobic life of the women’s quarters in the palace in Toskala, to the customs of hospitality that apply to rich and poor alike, all the way to the marks that people of the Hundred wear on their skin: all of them build the setting for the reader and place him or her within it. It has a way of sucking the reader in, without impeding the flow of the narrative - something I appreciate greatly, since it has been a long while since any book had the power to pull me in as deeply and as thoroughly as this one does.

The characterisation is also another reason why this novel is so enjoyable to read. In keeping with the standard set by many epic fantasy novels currently available, the story is told from the perspective of a handful of characters, specifically: Kellas, Dannarah, Sarai, Lifka, and Gilaras. Much like the books in A Song of Ice and Fire series, each of these characters has their own, individual plot lines, but those plot lines cross and intertwine in various places before branching off again. It is through their eyes that the reader gets a sense of what is going on in the Hundred, and from there is able to put the grander arc of the plot together.

Of those five, however, my personal favourite is Dannarah. The reader is first introduced to her while she and her brother are still children:
“…the children’s expressions have a charm that can coax a smile from a condemned man. The older is a handsome boy of about eight years whose smile lights his face like fire. The girl, a little younger, has piercingly intelligent eyes and a robust laugh. She is winning, but the boy finds the turn of play funny rathe than upsetting.

“Who is that, Papa?” asks the girl, looking up. “Is that the man who climbed Law Rock? Grandmother says you have to kill him because he broken the law and defied you. mama says he should live for being bold.”

“He is already dead,” says the man. …

The boy’s eyes widen as he stares at Kellas. “Is he a ghost? But he can’t be a ghost because people can’t see ghosts. Only demons can see ghosts.”

“Who told you that?” The man’s cool voice has a pleasant timbre, but its tone makes Kellas shudder.

“Thinwit,” says the girl disdainfully to the boy. “You promised not to tell.” She turns an acute and fearless gaze on the man. “It isn’t fair if you get mad at someone else because Atani talks too much!”

The image of a self-confident, sharply intelligent girl is reinforced not a moment later in the same chapter:
The voice that had broken into his thoughts belonged to Lady Dannarah, now much older than the little girl he’d seen that long-ago day. With the brash energy of a person very confident in herself, she hurtled up the steps of the pavilion in advance of her brother, who was lagging behind to adjust the sash of his tunic.

She registered Kellas seated to the left in a lattice of afternoon shadow. Her gaze lingered a little longer on him than was appropriate for a girl of fifteen being raised in a palace whose women followed the restrictive customs of the Sirniakan Empire where her mother the queen and been born and raised. With a jerk of her chin she snapped her head around to address her father. “You have heard the news, have you not, Papa?”

“I should wait with Mama,” said Prince Atani as he paused beside his younger sister. At sixteen he already had the graceful, assured carriage of a young man, nothing gawky about him. “She asked me to sit with her. She said the vultures are circling.”

With a heavy sigh Dannarah glanced upward at the wheel of red poles that held up the felt roof as if she expected the gods to agree with her impatient scorn. “Mama means Grandmother is the vulture. They’ve never gotten along. Grandmother bullies her, and Mama cowers.”

While her brashness and intelligence make Dannarah an appealing character to readers such as me, what I like most about her is that she is far from perfect. While the aforementioned traits and her immense self-confidence are appealing traits, they are also potential flaws. Anyone who barrels through life the way Dannarah does is bound to make mistakes - not least of which is abusing her power as the daughter of one king, and the sister of another:
“My lady, there is nothing for me to forgive.”

“I’m trying to say that I am sorry for what I asked of you. I was too young to think of it as taking advantage, but I understand now that you could not say no.”

“I kept your secret, Lady Dannarah. King Atani does not know.”

“My father knew.”

… “Considering everything, I’m surprised your father did not kill me many times over.”

“Maybe…he foresaw all the many uses to which you could be harnessed.”

Dannarah had always valued plain speaking, and a crude joke.

“Harnessed? Is that meant to compare me to an ox?”

She laughs so delightedly that guards look their way. “No ox… Not as I recall it. A very satisfactory bull for the year you put up with my whims.”

To his horror he flushes, for the conversation makes him feel all over again all the different ways in which their clandestine relationship had been an awful idea. Not that she demanded that particular service of him after the one year. In a way it wasn’t really her fault. The seventeen-year-old Dannarah couldn’t have understood the ramifications when she demanded that [he] become her first lover.

I think this moment, and the others that refer to Dannarah’s affair with the character I have deliberately not mentioned in this extract, is interesting because it shows that she is not a perfect character. Though the reader meets her as a child and then as a teenager, by the time of the story’s “present” she is forty-something years old: a woman with a great deal of experience in her life, and one who has made a great many mistakes - and continues to make them, as the rest of the novel will show.

I am all for strong female characters, especially if they are in their forties and older, but a “strong female character” is not and should not be defined by her perfection: first and foremost, she should be human. And since being human also means being flawed, it pleases me that Dannarah is far from perfect, and yet also capable of learning from her mistakes - or not, as the case might be.

Another thing I particularly enjoy about this novel is that it deals with court intrigue - that is to say, it makes court intrigue the novel’s central plot, while simultaneously executing it very well. A lot of fantasy novels tend to make court intrigue a secondary plot, focusing instead on quest-like journeys or on epic set-piece battles while the scheming and backstabbing happen offscreen, so to speak. While quests and war can be appealing too, I do still find myself wishing to read more stories that put the intrigue plots more front-and-centre, instead of relegated to the sidelines.

In Black Wolves, however, court intrigue is at the heart of the plot: time and again the characters are forced to deal with situations that arise, not out of battle, but out of the tangled skein of conspiracies being spun out of the palace in Toskala, and sometimes in other places and other times, as well. And as more and more truths are revealed, the characters attempt to react to those revelations in the correct manner - though of course, what is and is not “correct” tends to vary from character to character.

The themes tackled in this novel are another reason to read it - and why I look forward to reading the rest of the books, as well. There are many, of course, but I am most keenly interested in how the novel plays with themes related to colonisation - in particular, how a coloniser’s culture can be far more effective than war at subduing a colony’s people by killing off their native culture. It is a running theme throughout the novel, but this excerpt illustrates it best:
“The Hundred is not Sirniaka!”

“Not yet.”

“Do you think it will ever become part of the empire? We are separated from the empire by a high mountain range. They can’t easily attack us.”

“Does it matter if we become the legal subjects of the emperor if, in the end, the customs of the empire creep in and smother the traditions of the Hundred?”

“… Would you want your gods to be forgotten and a foreign god to take their place? Would you want your grandchildren to become Sirniakans in all but name? To forget all the customs and songs and relationships you take for granted?”

Another theme of great interest to me is of intentions and their consequences. Throughout this novel characters make choices: choices that they say they make “for the good” of something or someone. And yet, as the reader progresses through the novel and the reasons for those choices are revealed, he or she begins to wonder: Are these choices being made because they really are “good”? And if they are, then for whom? For that matter, who gets to decide what is considered “good”? “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a tired old cliche, to be sure, but as with all cliches there is a grain of truth to it, and this novel is the perfect illustration of it.

Despite all of these positives, though, this novel does have one (admittedly minor) flaw: the narrative flow.The novel starts in the past, and then suddenly jumps forward to a “Forty-Four Years Later” that is the novel’s “present”. The shift can be a bit jarring, especially since it happens only six chapters into the book and the reader has only just gotten to know two of the novel’s primary characters, thus forcing him or her to adjust to viewing those same characters as entirely different people. It is the jarring shift that caused me to put aside this novel when I first tried to make a start on it last year, and it was only with a driving focus to finish that I was able to move past that hurdle this year. I understand that the jump was made for reasons that are relevant to the plot, but I do wish that it had been done a bit more smoothly, so that he sudden change in time and place is not too shocking.

Overall, Black Wolves is an epic fantasy that is immersive and - if the reader is able to push past the initial cognitive speed bump caused by the narrative time-skip - immensely compelling. The characters are wonderful to read about, featuring a cast dominated by women who are truly strong: strong in that they are not only capable, but also because they are flawed. There are also interesting themes at play: themes to do with colonialism, power, and the many nuances and complications associated with intent. It is a long read but is very much worth the reader's time and attention. The next book cannot come out soon enough.
Aug 31st, 2017, 11:59 am