TITLE: At the Table of Wolves (Dark Talents #1)
AUTHOR: Kay Kenyon
GENRE: Historical, Mystery, Science Fiction
PUBLISHED: July 11, 2017
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
When I saw the blurb for Kay Kenyon’s At the Table of Wolves, first in the Dark Talents series, I admit to being a bit put off by the description calling it “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy meets X-Men”. I am sufficiently familiar with Marvel’s X-Men property and I have also read John le Carré’s novel so the comparison gives me a vague idea of what to expect from this book. But as I have said, such comparisons make me skeptical. Why use those two stories as points of comparison? How could this novel possibly contain elements from them both?
As it turns out, it is entirely possible, and the description is one of those instances when the comparison actually (mostly) holds true to the content. The novel is set in a version of our world in which certain people have come into strange, mysterious powers as the result of an event called the bloom, which in its turn is said to have been caused by the deep scarring of humanity’s collective psyche during World War I. These powers, called Talents, can manifest in a variety of ways, some of which can be useful if channeled correctly. And the channeling of those Talents is the main objective of Monkton Hall, a secret facility located deep in the moors of northwestern England, where people with Talents are tested and trained in the hopes that their gifts might be put to use in the event of another war.
Kim Tavistock is one such recruit. Her ability, called the spill, draws the truth out of people, even when they would much rather not have that truth revealed - which has made keeping friends rather difficult. Working at Monkton Hall makes her feel useful, however, especially with the Nazis on the rise in Germany. Kim suspects that war is looming on the horizon, and with England lagging a full decade behind Germany in Talent research, she knows her work in Monkton Hall is very important indeed.
However, the Nazi threat comes much closer to her than she ever imagined when her caseworker, Owen Cherwell, informs her that he thinks the head of Monkton Hall might be a spy, feeding information about England’s Talent research to the Germans. He asks Kim to help him uncover the truth by using her Talent and her connections to Yorkshire’s landed gentry to identify other Nazi spies and associates who might be helping the one in their midst at Monkton.
Kim accepts the mission, and as she delves deeper, she deals with Nazi sympathisers, a Nazi officer with uncanny charisma - and her father, whom she suspects is a Nazi sympathiser himself. Along the way, she uncovers a plot that is so terrible it is unimaginable even at the highest levels of national security - one that could render England’s chief defence against invasion, its “splendid isolation”, utterly useless.
As I have mentioned earlier, I was a little surprised by how apt the comparison of this book to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and to X-Men has been. Even more surprising, however, is that this book shares much more in common with le Carré’s book than it does with Marvel’s mutants. The Talents are an important part of the book, of course, and Kim’s powers definitely factor in, but the bulk of the novel is focused on actual espionage - and not of the flashy sort the reader may have encountered in James Bond films, but the more realistic sort involving secret meetings and gathering information and, above all, frustration and a great deal of waiting. Consider the following excerpt:
Kim held her ground. “But what are we to do?”
“I have to think. We’re stuck for the moment. Give me a few days to work something out.”
“I’ll contact you in a few days,” he said, blowing out the candle. They slipped through the door to the storage room. “Wait ten minutes, then leave.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Good work, Kim. You’ve accomplished a jolly miracle, you know that.”
“Thank you,” she said, not at all satisfied.
He left through the door to the south garden.
She stood there, wishing that she had urged him to hurry. To decide tonight. To come up with a plan now, not in a few days. But she had the distinct impression that she had just been relieved of her mission. Jolly good work. Well done, old girl. He had let her do the legwork, but when it came strategy, he was keeping it to himself.
Kim’s frustration is a recognisable one, mostly because espionage - real espionage, anyway - generally involves a lot of waiting. Good spies are intelligent and quick to make decisions, of course, but I think they must also be very patient. Sometimes it can take days, weeks, even months before any useful information comes into a spy’s hands, and in the meantime said spy must also winnow through mountains of useless information in order to find the one or two tiny golden grains of truly useful stuff.
The main bulk of the novel is focused on just that sort of “action,” if it might be called that, - which means that this novel is also very slow. I still remember when I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and how utterly glacial the pace seemed to me. However, while reading that novel I learned to appreciate the slow pace and how, in the hands of a good writer, it can be used to develop characters and create dramatic tension and a heightened feeling of paranoia. So the fact that At the Table of Wolves plays with a more realistic definition of espionage, instead of its more action-oriented, cinematic definition, was an unexpected but pleasant surprise.
However, it is also clear that the author of this novel is not quite in the league of le Carré, because though the slower pace is realistic enough, the way it is handled does not necessarily make for a pleasant read. To be sure, At the Table of Wolves goes by at a faster clip than a le Carré novel, but even then it feels like a slog at times. This is especially true in the novel’s first half, where it is much more about worldbuilding and setting up the plot for the climax and conclusion. Now normally a slow launch would not be much of a problem for me since I don’t mind it, but in general there must be a reason for me to enjoy lingering in that slower speed instead of getting right to the action. It can be anything, really: a fascinating world to explore, or a bunch of fascinating characters I’d like to learn more about, or even the careful buildup of various plot elements leading to something explosive later on. Unfortunately, those three aspects are only slightly interesting in the novel’s first half and only become really interesting in the second half onwards.
Another thing that does not help with this novel’s pacing is the abrupt way the story cuts to various characters. It is told primarily in third-person limited from different characters’ viewpoints, but those jumps from one character to another, especially when they occur in the middle of a chapter, are not as smooth as I think they could be. Oftentimes the reader will feel as if he or she is hanging on tenterhooks, waiting for the character to say or do something more conclusive only to be forced to switch to another character before that wrap-up can happen. I do not expect these wrap-ups to always be perfectly tidy of course; sometimes it’s best to leave things hanging in order to create tension and interest. That does not seem to be the case in this novel, however; instead, it feels like the author could not think of anything further to add to a scene and so decided to abruptly switch to the next one in the sequence. This leaves the reader feeling rather like he or she was teleported to another time and place with very little preamble, leaving him or her mildly disoriented and scrambling a bit for familiarity and sure footing.
The worldbuilding also has its own issues. The concept behind the emergence of Talents, in particular, gives me pause. The idea is that the bloom occurred because World War I was so violent and traumatic that it basically forced an emergence of Talents in an entire generation of people. The logic here is that if an event is sufficiently violent, tragic, and traumatic enough, it can cause Talents to come out in people who were touched by it. Which now raises an interesting question: why are Talents only discussed after World War I? If all that is needed is a violent, traumatic event, then surely many people ought to have Talents already. Should not colonised countries be teeming with Talented people, given how violent colonisation efforts were in those places? What about the American Civil War? Surely that was tragic and violent enough to cause the necessary trauma needed for the emergence of Talents, so why doesn’t Kim, who lived in the United States for a while, make mention of any Talented people there? There is an element of secrecy to having Talents, yes, with the possibility that Talented people were persecuted and then forced into hiding, but at the very least they ought to be a more commonplace topic than they are suggested to be in the book - especially since I truly think colonised countries would use Talents to strike back against their colonial masters. The fact that there is no mention made of rebellions raised by groups of Talented slaves or Talented Native American tribes in the United States or Talented Indians in India strikes me as a rather large hole in the worldbuilding, one that needs to be filled in as quickly as possible - preferably in the next book of the series.
Unfortunately, the above situation means the novel is not able to explore themes like colonialism and racism. While tackling Nazism is all well and good, especially in today’s cultural and political climate, the world could have been given so much more depth - and a much stronger thematic scaffolding - if the worldbuilding had been more carefully constructed.
As for Kim, the novel’s protagonist, it is not so much her characterisation that’s the problem as it is her interactions with her father. I shall not say anything further on that matter, since to do so would be to give away spoilers, but suffice to say that Kim’s relationship with her father is not quite as it should be, but that all they need to do in order to set things right is to actually tell each other the truth about what they have been doing behind the other’s back. This is especially true at the end of the novel, where a lack of candor between the two blunts what could have been a wonderfully emotional conclusion and instead turns it into something awkward. I suppose the author wants to leave a bit more room for tension between these two characters in the upcoming novels, but I firmly think that a stronger bond between father and daughter would make an excellent foundation for further character development and even plot tension, instead of the sad exchange at the end of this novel.
It is therefore unfortunate that these issues come into play so heavily while reading the novel because they weaken the novel so much as to overshadow its merits. The novel’s central conceit is utterly fascinating and makes for an absolutely intriguing setting for a story. Kim is an interesting character as well; her relationship with her Talent is fairly nuanced, and her attempts at espionage are painfully amateurish but expected given her lack of experience and training on that front. It was interesting to watch her try, fail, adapt, and try again, since it says much about who she is as a person as well as giving her opportunity to grow as a character. I also liked that she is a woman in her thirties and still single, focused more on her job than on finding romance - though of course it is her Talent that makes it hard for her to settle down. Still, it’s nice to read about a female character in the same age group as myself who does not let her lack of a romantic partner get in the way of doing what’s actually important, like fighting Nazism.
Overall, At the Table of Wolves is an entertaining enough read, so long as the reader does not expect too much from it. It has issues with worldbuilding and the overall pace of the story since the setting could have been better-constructed and the story could have been told more smoothly and with a tighter, faster pace. Despite these issues though, the story is interesting enough and the characters intriguing enough to encourage the reader to see things through to the very end. Whether or not that is sufficient to encourage he or she to pick up the next novel in the series, though, will depend on his or her tolerances.