It’s all been very current around here lately, and although I’m desperately trying to reign in my impulse to post (because twice a week is really enough) I’m also conscious of things I said I wanted to review at the start of the year, and haven’t yet. Top of that list is The Wolf Within, which will always have a place in my heart, and deserves to be better known. Let’s start the show!
Title: The Wolf Within
Author: Pamela Belle
Series/Standalone: Book two of the Silver City Trilogy
First Published: 1995
Edition Reviewed: 1995
Awards: British Fantasy Society Award nominee
Price: N/A Out of print, but available from £4.57 (pb) and $10.76 on Amazon Marketplace at time of posting.
Read my review of book one, The Silver City, here.
I have to start with the cover art, as this is what originally drew me in. I saw it from across the library, and it called to me in every way, hitting all the right notes to capture my wombling heart. Cover art is so important. It has helped me to find some of my very favourite books and added to the atmosphere and feel of the reading experience. I value my Kindle, but one thing it truly does lack is cover art, and I think it’s a great shame so many ebooks skimp on providing eReader suitable art. I mean, just take a look at this:
Admittedly, the choice of colours for the typography is terrible. Although it does pick up on colours within the painting you can barely read that red title on that orange background, and that bright blue writing stamped right over the top of the ghostly wolf’s head in the sky is just awful. But the cover art itself is pretty good. I love that kind of sunset light. We see an arid, desolate landscape that somehow, despite its openness, manages to create a sense of claustrophobia – of encroaching night. You just know, looking at this image, that that ghostly wolf is going to be fucking over those two people in the foreground.
And let’s take a look at them. We have a hot Christian Slater look-a-like who seems in a pretty bad way, being watched over by a hot black lady. That snaking river in the background speaks of a journey – they’re going somewhere, and they’re all alone. And why does he look so fucked up? What happened to these people?
Now, I’m not going to lie to you, part of the reason this book jumped off the shelf at me is that the guy looked really hot. I must have been 14? 15? Well… sex sells. And sexy men with angst sell to 15-year-old girls. I wasn’t really in to vampires, but this was right up my alley. Plus, I was just starting to get really fed up by the way that all the smart strong women in Anne McCaffrey novels always ended up falling for even stronger men. You don’t know much about who that woman is on this cover, but you can tell just from how she’s holding herself that she’s strong, and it’s pretty clear that she’s the one who’s looking after him. AWESOME. Target demographic achieved.
Also, let’s not gloss over this, given the white-washing scandals of recent years: this is an inter-racial couple, and that black character still looks black. That stuff shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t be a big deal that there’s a black woman on the cover and she actually looks black – the cover itself isn’t making a big deal out of it, after all – but the world is what it is. Having read the book, it would have been equally representative if he’d been shown standing protectively over her, as so many fantasy novels do. Especially given the dark lighting, it would have been easy for the artist to maybe pale her out a bit and at least make her race appear ambiguous. But they didn’t. This is a cover that isn’t drawing on stereotypes for male/female relationships, and it isn’t assuming that I’ll be less likely to buy the book if, *gasp*, I know in advance that not all the characters are white. I like that about it.
I can’t tell if this cover was done by the same artist who did the cover for The Silver City, as my copy is the very same one I first saw in the library and later bought, and I think whatever credit there may have been must have been cut out, but it looks like the same style, and its equally worthy of praise. Well done to you, unknown artist!
Bron is a young boy with immense magical power. He was bred for it in a world where most people believe that magic can only be obtained through taking the drug Annatal. Under the control of the priestess D’thliss, his father, Ansaryon, a prince of Zithirian, was coerced into raping his sister, and Bron was the result of that union. Bron was raised by D’thliss in secret, as she used the boy’s power to enhance her own. She planned to overthrow the city, with the help of Ansaryon’s brother, Tsenit, and the fearsome warrior tribe, the Ska’i. Both D’thliss and the Ska’i worshipped the death god, Ayak, and D’thliss dedicated Bron to him as a small child. Realising Bron’s power, the Ska’i kidnap the child and his foster-brother, but in trying to force Bron to use his power for them, they kill his foster-brother, and Bron reacts with anger and grief. He kills them all.
This is the terrible secret that lies in Bron’s past. He’s taken to the beautiful hidden city of Sar Dyenyi to recover and grow up in peace with Ansaryon’s cousin, Kefirri, whom he loves and trusts. But he is haunted by what he has done, and by visions of the wolf god, Ayak, who tries to persuade him to use his power again. During a visit from his father, now King of Zithirian, Bron falls from a high tower and, in front of everyone, slows his descent with magic to save his life. Although their king is a sorcerer, magic has long been viewed with suspicion by the people of Zithirian and Sar Dyenyi, and it is clear that Bron can no longer stay in his mountain seclusion. Ansaryon takes him back to Zithirian to train him, making it known to all the people just what Bron can do, and, indeed, what he has done.
Bron has few friends in Zithirian, but he does renew his acquaintance with Herris, son of Kaydi, a leader of the resistance under Tsenit’s rule. He reluctantly accepts training in magic from his father and grows into a man. He decides to enter the Bridal Race – a test of endurance seen as right of passage in Zithirian – a year early, but as he does so, tragedy strikes. Part of the race involves swimming across the Kefirinn, the river that runs through the city. As Bron goes to cross he sees a large log that is being swept downstream, and which is going to hit a man he knows. He calls out to the man, but because of past rivalry, Gorseth ignores him. Bron goes in to save him, but is hit by another log, which he hadn’t seen following the first. Both of them die… except that Ayak is not willing to accept the death of such a prize as Bron, yet. He calls to Bron’s half-brother, Hommen, and guides the child to where Bron can be found.
Realising that Bron is still under Ayak’s control, and concerned for his other children, Ansaryon decides that Bron must be sent away – to his wife Halthris’s people. But Bron knows that this will not be good enough. He makes a plan in secret to escape the city, with Herris’s help – to head south in the hope of somehow finding away to the semi-mythical island of Jo’ami, ancient island of sorcerers. He hopes that once there he will be able to find help to free himself from the wolf within.
Bron’s journey is far from straightforward – there are no easy routes to Jo’ami, and as a young man travelling through strange countries on his own, Bron still has some growing up to do, which is somewhat complicated by his peculiar talents, and by Ayak’s constant threat. He travels through wilderness, finding the ruined city of Tyr. He passes through Kerenth, land of women, and unwittingly attracts the attention of the young ruler, Inrai’a. She wants him for her consort, but he is rejected by the goddess Sarraliss, who can see the mark of the wolf upon him.
At last he makes his way to Toktel’yi, seat of the empire, and most dangerous city in the world for Bron. Unlike Zithirian, sorcery is openly embraced in Toktel’yi, and Bron is aware that he would be very easily detectable if he should draw attention to himself with his magic. His magic makes him a prize in his own right, but he is also the son of the northern king Ansaryon. The ruthless young emperor, Ba’alekkt, has been looking hungrily towards the silver city, and to have Ansaryon’s eldest son in his possession would be a coup.
Bron finds work as a musician in the Golden Djarlek, and attracts the attention of the proprietor, Mallaso – that formidable lady you see on the cover with him. Mallaso is a former slave, captured in the Toktel’yan conquest of Penya, saving up her money in the hopes of one day retiring to Tekkt with her daughter, who is living there with a kind family under Mallaso’s pay, away from the dangers of the capital city. They begin a tentative romance, but when Bron reveals his magic in anger in the middle of the race day crowds, they are forced to flee the city.
Mallaso longs to rejoin her daughter on Tekkt, but Bron must still complete his journey to Jo’ami, and now the emperor knows he is alive and within the bounds of the empire…
Why do I love it so?
Come on, a hot man with god-like magical powers, cursed by a terrible thing he did in his past – when he was a child and didn’t know any better – who also happens to be a bastard prince (the fruit of an incestuous union, no less), forced to conceal his identity? You know why I liked this. Add to that the plentiful strong women, a rich world that unashamedly departs from the standard western fantasy tropes of faux-feudal Europe, a good mix of races, plus several gay characters to boot… this book really has a lot going for it beyond the fact that it hits my personal sweet spots. No wonder it was nominated for the British Fantasy Society Award.
Not that it’s perfect. The first couple of chapters really struggle under the strain of info-dumping as the author fills us in on the considerable back story of the first book. The nice thing about this is that it means you can jump right into The Wolf Within even if you haven’t read The Silver City – just as I did. On rereading, however, its somewhat torturous. Just take my word for it that things really, really pick up.
Bron is an intensely charismatic character. Even though we view most events from his point of view, he remains somewhat enigmatic in his quiet reserve. This is a person who has grown up with the burden of intense self-control and the knowledge of what could happen if he allows his guard to slip. He doesn’t make friends easily, as a result, and I’m not sure how well I could sustain a conversation with him if I were to meet him in real life, but as a character he’s deeply appealing.
Mallaso, although we don’t meet her until half-way through the book, is a wonderful character in her own right. So much more than a love-interest – full of goals and intense emotions of her own, many of which have nothing to do with Bron. In fact, it’s fair to say that he does nothing but wreak havoc in her life. As a former slave and prostitute she could have been the worst cliché of a whore with a heart of gold, but her past forms a rich tapestry that contributes to both her strengths and her sorrow. She is never ashamed of her sexuality, and it becomes an expression of strength when she performs the dances of her people. Here we see how erotic dancing can be integrated into a character and the customs of a people without reducing the performer to a sexual object (Mr Martin, take note!).
Of course I adored the tense moments of revelation as Mallaso learns more of Bron’s past, that he is a sorcerer, and then the extent of his sorcery when he reveals too much at the race course. This book is full of moments that tickled my Secret Identity Angst button, but it has many other wonderful moments besides. One hidden treasure is Bron’s discovery of the ruined city of Tyr. With the modern obsession of cutting out anything that isn’t integral to the action, I wonder if this would have made it past the editor’s cut. In many ways, this is ‘just’ colour, but it fills in the rich background of this world. And, I love a good ruined city. I love a mystery. I loved this.
Some of the best moments of the book occur further down the line from where I had to stop my plot summary. I would hate to spoil it all for you. In truth, I adore the ending. I am denied the opportunity to discuss the wonderful character of Al’Kalyek, Ba’alekkt’s High Sorcerer, and friend of Ansaryon from the first book. The interactions between Al’Kalyek and Bron, and Bron and Ba’alekkt, are compelling. The ending is haunting and satisfying.
Where The Silver City was over-long, The Wolf Within is tighter and stronger. The opening chapters are a little awkward, but I would urge you to read on – you will be rewarded. Where the antagonists of The Silver City lacked depth, Ba’alekkt is complex, terrible, and charismatic.
The wealth of different societies and cultures is also a joy. Belle is adept at evoking the atmosphere and feel of her different settings. On earlier readings, I was not overwhelmed by the depiction of Kerenth. I found Inrai’a childish and annoying, and the gender role-reversal a little simplistic, but on rereading, I found it more nuanced. Inrai’a is young and foolish, but not without strength. The exploration of sexuality and how we read sexual attitudes in terms of vitality and weakness also has some interest. In a land where a warrior class is not needed due to the protection of a goddess, it makes sense that the physical strength of men could be seen as suited to more menial, physical tasks, whilst women take care of the more cerebral business of ruling and politics.
This is a book with much to offer on top of a rollicking good story. It deserves to be rediscovered in the new millennium. Go find yourself a copy and have a read!