Book Report: A Companion To Wolves by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

December 26, 2008 at 1:24 pm (Books Galore) (, )

Spoilers under the cut; this novel contains m/m sex.


Oh, mainstream m/m original fiction. How I love thee. As a brief synopsis of this book, the wolfcarls are men bonded to giant fighting wolves, and they keep the villagers safe from the trolls in exchange for a tithe. This tithe includes new young men who may in their turn become wolfcarls. Njall Gunnarson (who later becomes Isolfr) is a nobleman who chooses to be tithed because there are no other available boys, despite his father’s displeasure. The book is a bildungsroman in that it details Njall’s passage from boy to man to leader as one of the wolfcarls, but it also deals with the sexual and moral implications of a man being bonded to a bitch and of forming telepathic bonds with animals period.

The setting is very Norse and feels authentic (despite the, you know, giant telepathic wolves). The language is spot on, especially if you keep mentally pronouncing all the j’s as y’s, as I did. The characters are interesting and well-rounded; Isolfr in particular I was rooting for the whole time and had no quibbles with. His friends and opponents were interesting as well, though it’s very much Isolfr’s story. The wolves are distinct as well, all of them characters in their own right.

But even more interesting than this epic Norse giant wolf setting is the sex. :D Yeah, you were waiting for that, weren’t you? The sexual politics are very interesting, because all wolfcarls are male, and the mating with the bitches is mirrored in the mating of the male wolves’ brothers with that of the bitch’s. It’s interesting to see how the wolfcarls are accepting of this and have protocol in place to make the experience as untraumatic as possible (though I suspect there’s not really any way to truly prepare someone for taking 5-7 cocks in a row), and how the mating doesn’t necessarily reflect on the wolfcarl’s preference aside from that—it’s the wolf’s influence through the bond between wolfcarl and wolf, after all. Isolfr in particular seems to prefer women when his wolf’s not in heat and influencing his decisions (though he doesn’t seem to mind men too much, even without the wolf to influence him), and this is perfectly acceptable: the wolfcarls understand that it’s the wolf who determines who tops and who bottoms, and not the wolfcarl. This isn’t to say that wolfcarls may not carry on relationships aside from what’s necessary for mating, and this is acceptable too, as far as I can tell. Wolfcarls may not marry and have families, after all. Those who bond bitches (or at least konigenwolves) seem to have a greater expectation to bottom, but then as Hrolleif (another man bonded to a konigenwolf) says, the wolfcarls bonded to the konigenwolf’s consort(s) may be taught (wink, wink).

Isolfr himself is very interesting. Being bonded to a konigenwolf, he technically has the wife’s role in the wolfheall (hall where the wolfcarls live), in that his role is to mediate conflicts between the wolves and between the wolfcarls, and thus keep things running smoothly. His is the role of pacifier, and while he may not lead the fighting, his is the important role for keeping the peace in the pack (this is not to say that he doesn’t do any fighting period). It’s not the konigenwolf’s consort(s) who rule the wolves, but the konigenwolf herself; for all that he has the “womanly” role, Isolfr is the one with the real power. And it’s interesting to see how he deals with this, how he gets uncomfortable when he realizes other wolfcarls are uh, courting him and his wolf, in preparation for the time when he leaves to form a wolfheall of his own. It’s interesting to see his observation on how other wolfcarls are starting to think of him as an object of sexual desire, thinking about how it’d be like to have him beneath them. And how this causes others to view him as well; at least one figure doesn’t seem to quite get or accept the divide between what Isolfr’s wolf wants and what Isolfr himself wants.

The sexual implications of bonding a bitch are fascinating to read and speculate about, and how those implications in turn affect and reflect the wolfcarls’ attitudes towards homosexual sex and relationships. And, because it has to be said, the sex isn’t the most explicit in the world (oh fanfic, you’ve ruined my innocence FOREVER) but it’s pretty hot all the same. Despite the sex being influenced by the needs of the wolves, it’s not nonconsensual at all; once Isolfr finds out what bonding a bitch entails he’s given opportunities to leave the wolfheall and back out, but makes the conscious choice to stay—even after witnessing a mating firsthand. For the wolfcarls, to bond a bitch and have to bottom isn’t a reflection of the man’s virility or masculinity or anything: it’s just the way things are, and the man is no less or more than any other wolfcarl bonded to a male.

Interesting also are the gender politics, the differences in gender equity between the three main races in the book (human, troll, and svartalfar). I suspect they’d be more interesting to someone with greater knowledge and more invested interest in the area. The three races in the book represent three different extremes; the humans are extremely patriarchal, the trolls are extremely matriarchal (in fact their society bears a great resemblance to a bee hive of all things, given that the queen is the only one who is fertile and males live only to mate with the queen) while the svartalfar are more or less equal (having no word for female and their warriors being split fifty-fifty), though they do give authority to those who are smiths and mothers and are at least matrilineal. Isolfr’s exposure to these cultures (and the culture of the wolfcarls, I suppose) seems to broaden his view of male and female roles; in the beginning he seems to buy into the rigid male/female divide that characterizes the human culture (when he starts out, he uses the phrase “womanish” as derogatory and undesirable), but as time progresses he seems to open up more (given that he himself is more or less the perpetual bottom, due to having bonded a bitch), until he grows frustrated at the realization that Thorlot, a skilled female blacksmith, will never really be a blacksmith in her own right and will always be defined as someone else’s wife, daughter, mother, sister. It’s a long arc of growth, and a good one to see in Isolfr.

TL;DR: totally a recommended read. Characters are awesome, plot is interesting enough, setting is unusual and immersive, and the sex is hot.


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