Wolf’s Cub by Mackay Wood

January 9, 2011 at 3:20 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment
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Fantasy tends to be like historical fiction in that it psychologically recalls a certain time period. Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasies do this explicitly, of course, but A Song of Ice and Fire has the feel of Europe’s High Middle Ages and The Malazan Book of the Fallen has echoes of the early Roman Empire. Even “weird” fantasy like Perdido Street Station draws unmistakably from the experience of the industrial revolution in England and Germany. Still, like historical fiction, some periods are more popular than others. Wolf’s Cub takes a road somewhat less traveled by positioning itself in the western Europe of the Early Middle Ages.

This isn’t obvious at first, with the labored cod-medieval infodump in the prologue and the protagonist Prince Herric’s horror at having his engagement with the love of his life broken in favor of a treaty-sealing marriage with a child. Whatever reservoir of sympathy I might have had for hereditary nobility’s difficulties with arranged marriage has long since been exhausted by other authors, but Wood doesn’t end up making a huge deal about it. Herric moves on with his life because he’s got bigger problems: the unceasing raids by Viking-analogous northmen have brought Herric’s nation Athgar to the brink of collapse.

Although Wolf’s Cub is a vaguely Arthurian romance, the choice not to use the trappings of the elaborate monarchies of the High Middle Ages (the time when Arthurian legends got traction regardless of when the real Arthur, if any, might have lived) gave the story a pleasantly unique feel, at least for me. The monarchy of Athgar claims a direct connection to a mighty past, but it’s clear that while they live in the ruins of a magnificent civilization, the novel’s Athgarian nobility are a tiny warrior elite who have lost all the civic institutions that made a continent-spanning state possible. None of the pomp that I associate with medieval settings is present: the nobility is too busy with real combat to bother with stylized forms like jousting and dueling, the peasants are too close to dropping below subsistence level to levy in large numbers if at all, and with the low agricultural productivity cities and markets cannot be supported. This is a kingdom that, whatever its history, is in serious danger of collapse. Not to some dark lord, either, but to northmen sent raiding by population pressures at home.

This is still fantasy, so there is something of a dark lord in the picture. It seems the good old days were made possible by wise kings using wizards as a sort of civil service. But in the chaos surrounding the collapse and fragmentation of the old system, the wizards withdrew to a few mountain kingdoms and were persecuted whenever found in most of the small successor states. Athgar has its share of trouble with the neighboring wizard nations, but the question as to whether these wizards (thought to be irredeemably evil by a prejudiced populace) are really dark lords instead of rational political actors is a major concern of the Athgarian monarch given how weakened the nation has become due to the raiders.

I generally don’t read romance novels unless they are genre crossovers like Time Traveler’s Wife or A Civil Campaign, so I’m not really qualified to judge the romantic elements. All I can say is, I found Herric and his young bride to be sympathetic and believable. Unlike (I gather) typical romance stories, not only is their relationship is not really the center of the book but to a large extent it’s not even the center of their own lives. Perhaps their relationship is just a bit too understated, actually: the business of producing an heir is ignored (and not even discussed!) for quite a few years after it becomes possible, but I guess I can forgive the story this small anachronism.

Ultimately Wolf’s Cub is kind of hard to pin down, something that probably hasn’t done it any favors when it comes to finding an audience. It’s a character-oriented romance whose main character spends more time fighting battles than he does with his love interest. It’s a “gritty” fantasy in the sense that it takes place in a world of moral grays filled with bloodshed and difficulties, but its main characters are fundamentally good people whose lives are clearly destined to fulfill a prophecy of restoration. It’s also a book about the costs of war and the importance of peace that doesn’t try to shock the reader with descriptions of blood, entrails, and suffering. Finally, it’s a book that examines prejudice and the myths society tells about itself while also unironically portraying its protagonist as a hero. If there are other books along these lines (YA fantasies maybe?) I haven’t read them.

One final note: originally published in 1998 by a publisher who I believe went out of business, Wolf’s Cub and its sequel are back in print as ebooks. The death of the concept of “out of print” is the best part of the transition to electronic formats and I hope more authors do this as the market grows.

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