Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Companion to Wolves - Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear

This originally started out as an attempt to mock the "people with animal companions" fantasy sub-genre, and then turned into something so fabulous that they decided to publish it and I'm so glad they did. Humans bonding with dragons or wolves, and then being affected by their companion's emotions...especially mating urges...has been done. It is really easy to do badly. Monette & Bear do it really well. Rolled up into a great fantasy story is a critique of society's attitudes towards sex (specifically homosexuality), and gender roles.

Usually in these sorts of stories people who bond with animals are very highly thought of. Also, in fantasy stories there is a tendency towards gender equality, especially with the whole bonding with animals thing you like to have female animals bonding with females, and males with males, so the whole "mating frenzy" thing works out in a relatively palatable way. Here, the wolves are fighting animals, the female wolves are the leaders of the pack, only men bond with wolves, and the wolf-halls are viewed practically with contempt - who would want to live with animals? Yet, they used to fill a vital role in protecting villages from the trolls, who now haven't been seen in a generation, so there is grumbling about needing to have them around, especially when they show up to collect young boys in the hopes that they will bond with the wolf-pups.

Having only men bonded to wolves allowed them to put in what is basically a rape scene without the usual attendant baggage of "poor weak woman who just can't cope with sex". You also wind up with a man, who is definitely interested in women, in a position of having to have sex with other men (which he has been brought up to think of as abhorrent), and coming to realize that sex doesn't have to define you, and that there are many different faces to love. I kept imagining what the book would be like if Isolfr (the main character, who happens to be bonded to a dominant female wolf) were a woman, and it would have masked the issues as women's issues rather than something which would be difficult for anyone to cope with.

This was a fabulous story, definitely intended for adults rather than children, one of those amazing books that helps you to look at the world in new ways. The only problem is with the character names. There are tons of characters, their names are all Norse-sounding, and far too many of them end in fr and are hard to distinguish. Also the young boys change their names once they bond with a wolf, so you have to keep track of what someone used to be called. Then there are the wolf names, and you need to track which wolf is bonded with which man. I think re-reading it will be no problem, but the first time through was pretty rough.

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