I mentioned this one in my May Releases post:
….as the new arrival I was most excited about and I went straight to it after spending a couple of weeks dedicated to reading new Military Science Fiction titles. My instinct was right. It was a very satisfying read in so many ways.
I have an approach to evaluating new books – laid out in my “Ancillary Justice post:
It lists up the critical criteria I use to inform my decision about a book’s “worthiness” or “literary value” – not always related to the amount of fun I have with a book. I read a lot of Science Fiction and Fantasy and – as I’ve said before – I usually find something to enjoy in most of the titles I read.
Having said that, however, some new titles stand out – you know as you read them that they’re going to have staying power, that they’ve pushed the boundaries in a really fascinating or compelling way, that they’ve introduced a novel concept that you know you’ll see in the work of other writers in future years. After reading “The Wolf” by Leo Carew – first in a new series called “Under The Northern Sky” and thinking about it in terms of those 4 criteria – I’d have to say that this represents a resounding “Maybe”!
I found the writing to be quite good – it was a well crafted book. It’s sparse where it needs to be and rich when Carew wants to touch you, force you to feel something or make a judgement. The world and history and culture that he’s created are well-designed and extremely interesting. The contrast he’s created between the two peoples at the heart of his story and the emotional and intellectual connection to the structure, values and traditions of the Anakim society – the people of the North – he allows you to establish – were – for me – pretty compelling. It was very easy for me to develop a deep appreciation for the Anakim in the collective sense and at the same time judge individual actors – those that failed to live up to the standards Carew writes into the heart of Anakim culture – quite harshly. He allowed me love the nation but despise many of it’s citizens.
I also enjoyed the story as a whole – but there were weaknesses. The book is divided into 3 parts – Autumn, Winter and Spring – and I found the transitions a bit cumbersome. I thought the introduction of the plague in the second section did little to contribute to the overall narrative. I understand what Carew was trying to do – give Roper an opportunity to grow as a ruler and develop a unique connection to and empathy with his people – but it wasn’t as well done as it could have been and wound up being more of a distraction for me than anything else. The Kryptea – the secret society of assassins – was introduced but only as a bogeyman – not a critical component of the story – likely there to be used in future volumes.
There were other small bumps and warts but no serious problems – first novel stuff – which is nothing compared to what he did right. When you juxtapose those negatives against the way Carew paints his picture of the Anakim people, society and culture and uses it to drive the story – the way he teases you regarding the outcome of the book’s second pivotal battle and the return to the Hindrunn – the steps behind Roper’s path to power – securing his allies and destroying his rival’s supporters – I felt there was far more good than bad – enough so that the story really grabbed me and pulled me along.
Finally, the book was full of truly fascinating characters that you wind up wanting to know even better – Gray, Price, Tekoa, Keturah, Uvoren – even Bellamus – Roper’s foil and primary Sothrun antagonist – who in many ways turns out to be the most interesting character in the book. The only character that I found to be disappointing in any way was Roper himself – the new Black Lord – The Wolf. It’s not that Carew doesn’t make him likable or that you ever come to see him as anything but worthy – it’s just that he seems less real – less substantial than those who surround him – and the author gives me very little in the way of back story that allows me to believe he’s capable of becoming the Leader he turns out to be in Part 3 – Spring.
By way of example – Gray and Pryce and Uvoren – who they are and what motivates them – are easy to relate to and accept. Roper…not so much. As you first come to know him – early in the Autumn narrative – during the Battle of the Floodplain and it’s aftermath – he’s presented as weak and slow to understand what’s happening around him. I’m willing to believe that he learns and grows but I really needed to see into his past – to get a feel for a personal history that would allow me to accept the man he ultimately becomes. I couldn’t help but think that Carew missed an opportunity to flash back to episodes in Roper’s past – when he was training at the Haskoli – glimpses of courage or intellect or charisma – that would ease my acceptance of his growth and transition to manhood and leadership.
Even Bellamus – his opponent – is easier to accept and believe – his political skill – his leadership – his motivation – all grow out of a backstory that hangs together. You come to like and buy into Roper based on his actions but you never really know him the way you do all the other fascinating players in the book. When I compare him to Paul in Dune – who you admire and support and understand due in part to your admiration for and influence of his father, his mother, his retainers – those who have trained him – Roper feels almost empty – not fully formed – to me.
Beginning to end – that’s why this feels like a Maybe to me. I did really fall in love with the Anakim – their culture and way of life – the way all of that is reflected in so many of the secondary characters described by Carew – but I don’t completely connect with Roper. I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to anyone – I really enjoyed it – but I just can’t tell yet whether this series and the world in which it lives – has that “worthiness” it needs to become a classic. I guess that’s up to Carew and what he does in subsequent volumes.