Thursday, September 15, 2011

The World of the Iskryne

One reason George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire has received so much praise is that it brings a gritty and explicit realism to some of the tropes of escapist fantasy, without denying or denigrating the pleasures of a well-told story in a magical milieu. Readers who appreciate Martin's integration of adult themes and complex psychology into classic fantasy tropes should also enjoy Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear's A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men. Set in a milieu based loosely on ancient Scandinavia, these novels do for companion animal fantasy what A Song of Ice and Fire does for the epic variety. The result is an entertaining, intelligent series that, in addition to building a realistic non-modern world, reflects on the nature of human-animal relationships and on the ways in which societies create spaces in which atypical gender and sex roles can be tolerated.

A Companion to Wolves is the story of Njall, whose life as the son and heir of a local nobleman ends abruptly when he finds himself fascinated by a visiting trellwolf. Over his father's objections, he agrees to pledge himself to the local wolfheall, where men who've formed bonds with the giant wolves live when not defending ordinary people from the trolls who live in the northern mountains. Over the course of the novel, Njall, who quickly develops a connection with the bitch pup Viradechtis and takes the name Isolfr, learns the way of these wolfcarls, whose bonds with their wolves are more than a matter of pleasant companionship. The men share the sexual drives and behavior of their wolves, and in a society without women, this means that the heterosexual Isolfr must accustom himself to homosexual behavior, including the unavoidable brutality of open matings in which he'll be penetrated by several men in succession. But there is, of course, much more to the life of a wolfcarl than sexuality; Isolfr must also become a fierce warrior, able to face trolls and wyverns when they invade the lands of men. That ongoing conflict, in which Isolfr inadvertently makes a discovery that could change the course of history, provides a parallel narrative to his personal evolution.

That coming of age story achieves great emotional intensity because Bear and Monette write wisely and succinctly about a range of timeless issues, from ignorance about the ways of a new community to confusion over the true nature of honorable and ethical behavior to the mingled sense of fear, desire, and shame that accompanies sexual impulses one doesn't exactly want and can't control.  Never attempting to elicit cheap pity or create unearned pathos, the writers depict the painful process of coming to terms with the negative aspects of a way of life to which one aspires. For those capable of deep sympathy with Isolfr's situation, this can make for an intense, uncomfortable reading experience, which is, of course, a sign of the depth of the authors' insight.

Their work also, and without abandoning the particular social structure and expectations of the non-modern milieu, demonstrates the complexities of sex, gender, and authority in any society. All wolfcarls, regardless of their pre-existing desires (some are homosexual) and wolf-driven sexual behavior, must be and are strong and fearless fighters, ready to die, as indeed many do, in the defense of women and wolfless men. Their culture, influenced by the ways of wolves, can be harsh, taciturn, traditionally masculine. But, influenced by the deep sense of pack loyalty the bond generates and by the need to create a complete social experience within an all-male environment, it can also be gentle, nurturing, traditionally feminine.  The wider human culture also reflects certain recognizable ambiguities: although women are nominally powerless and weak, Isolfr's mother is a brave, intelligent woman, unafraid to exert influence through her powerful husband.  The customs of non-human species further complicate the novel's examination of these issues. In a mere three hundred pages, Monette and Bear lay out a world of remarkable nuance with obvious implications for the study of real cultures.

They also write some great action sequences. Fantasy novels can and should reflect on reality, but there's nothing wrong with the less intellectual pleasures of the form, and the small-scale battles in this novel are beautifully conceived and described, so that one can follow what's happening in detail without losing the intensity of the action.  The non-human creatures are also impressive, inspired by familiar myth but given striking details that could only have come from the present writers, at once awe-inspiringly alien and recognizable as intelligent beings with many of the same concerns as humans. Only the surface of their existence is scratched in A Companion to Wolves, but what Tolkien called the impression of depth is there in abundance.

The Tempering of Men provides a fascinating counterpoint to the earlier novel. Focusing on characters other than Isolfr, it shows how he's viewed from the outside, providing an especially vivid reminder that our internal dramas are not accessible to others, and that we may create impressions entirely opposite from what we mean. The new point-of-view characters also allow the authors to explore different aspects of the sexual and romantic difficulty wolfcarls can experience. But the most striking thing about The Tempering of Men is how it expands the milieu yet further, exploring the consequences of major events at the end of A Companion to Wolves and showing how large social transitions begin. New cultures, both human and non-human, enter the picture as well, and Bear and Monette even-handedly acknowledge the temptations they might offer to those strongly committed to their traditional existence.

The breadth of The Tempering of Men comes at some cost to its coherence. The stories of the three protagonists are closer to linked novellas than to balanced portions of a novel, and rather than telling a standalone story of personal and historical scope, the book begins one, ending at a turning point that may or may not be followed up in the further novel in this setting that the authors have sold to Tor. It's certainly clear that the evolution of the characters is, perhaps inevitably, incomplete. Despite this open-endedness, the novel remains compelling by dint of its thoughtful characterization and the new wrinkles it adds to an already complicated world.

Too often, exotic animals in fantasy novels are treated as little more than cool pets, to be coddled and condescended to. By taking seriously the behaviors of wolves and making their human companions equals rather than masters, A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men remind readers that all animals have societies of their own, that their behaviors may be more elaborate than our conception of their intelligence allows for, and that their relationships to humans may not work in precisely the ways we imagine. Whether writing about animals, humans, or invented species, Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear combine serious literary analysis with powerful storytelling in novels that show just how much the fantasy genre is capable of achieving.

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