I spent most of this afternoon sweeping leaves in my grandmother's garden. Now that I've ranted and blogged, let me give you the text of the review I withdrew from SH due to not having time to make more edits.
The Tempering of Men,
by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. Reviewed as e-ARC.
Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear are well known for their individual works. Monette's Doctrine of Labyrinths
series (Mélusine, The Virtue, The Mirador, Corambis
) has been generally well-received, and Bear (who won the Hugo award for her short story "Tideline" in 2008, and again for the novelette "Shoggoths in Bloom" in 2009) has published over a dozen novels in a wide range of subgenres, most recently Grail
, the concluding volume of a trilogy set on the generation ship Jacob's Ladder. The Tempering of Men
is their second novel-length collaboration, after 2007's A Companion to Wolves.
A Companion to Wolves
had a profound impact on how I read fantasy. Written in a prose clear and pristine as ice-crystals in the frozen north of this Norse-influenced world's chill landscape, it was brilliantly successful on all its many levels: as a coming-of-age story, as a clear-eyed response to the problematic tropes of companion animal fantasy, as an examination of gendered roles, and as a story
, pure and exciting, filled with desperate heroism, self-doubt, and the courage of endurance. It expanded the boundaries of the possible -- at least for me.
And it took the "green dragonrider problem" of Anne McCaffrey's Pern books -- when your companion animal goes into heat, you go with her; but you're a man and all her potential mates are bonded to other
men -- and gave it a thoughtful and thought-provoking solution.
The Tempering of Men
is a sequel four years in the waiting. It shares its predecessor's lucid prose, and hits the same high notes of quality, but it's a very different kind of book.
A Companion to Wolves
comprised the story of Isolfr -- born Njall Gunarrson -- as he came of age in the wolfthreat (the great trellwolves and the men who become their brothers, who together defend the settlements of the Iskryne against the trolls from the north) and bonded to the konigenwolf Viradechtis, while trellwolves and men fought a war to the knife against an unprecedented migration of trolls. It was a story about a young man's growth in a world at war, and it was very much Isolfr's book.
The Tempering of Men
is not Isolfr's book, though he is a strong presence in it. Nor is it a book about war, though it's informed by the aftermath of one -- and later, the threat of another. It's a book that could stand alone perfectly well, but I also think it's a rather more rewarding read if you've finished A Companion to Wolves
opens with the end of the trellwar, with the storming of Othinnsaesc. We see this last action before the war is ended for good through the eyes of the wolfjarls Skjaldwulf and Vethulf, leaders of the Franangford wolfthreat, whose wolfbrothers Mar and Kjaran are mates to Viradechtis, and who both desire Isolfr.
"Vethulf and Skjaldwulf did not get along," the first chapter opens.
"They had almost nothing in common. Where Vethulf was red, Skjaldwulf was dark. Where Vethulf was sharp-tongued, Skjaldwulf was taciturn. Where Vethulf’s temper ran hot and savage, Skjaldwulf would brood and consider before he spoke or acted.
There was only one thing they could agree on, and that was Isolfr. And agreeing about Isolfr did more to increase the tension between them than relieve it."
The uneasy triangle between Vethulf, Skjaldwulf, and Isolfr lies at the heart of the Franangford wolfthreat, and The Tempering of Men
is the story of the Franangford wolfthreat
after the trellwar. Wolves and men must come to a new accommodation for the future, now that the original reason for the existence of the wolfthreats has been eradicated from the north. Vethulf and Skjaldwulf must come to accept each other and their roles within the slowly-rebuilding Franangfordthreat.
When a messenger arrives from the south, asking for the wolfcarls' help against a new enemy, an army of invaders, Skjaldwulf leads a small party to their aid. The wolfcarls have always fought trolls before, not men. The newcomers are stranger than any men of whom Skjaldwulf has ever before heard tell. Peril, capture and escape attend him, as well as the politics of jarls, godsmen and the Allthing -- out of which might emerge the beginnings of new role for the wolfcarls.
opens up the world of the Iskryne, and builds on it. From the godsmen of Hergilsberg to the jarls and settlements of the south, and from the invading Rheans and their half-Brythoni slave to the aettrynalfar, the 'poison elves' whose choice to shape living stone led to their exile from the svartalfar, Tempering
deals with a much bigger
world than its predecessor. Monette and Bear depict societies just as complex in their different ways as that of the wolfthreat, and do so without ever failing to acknowledge the connections and tensions between them.
At Franangford, in Skjaldwulf's absence, Vethulf will learn to interact with wolfless men without the other wolfjarl to temper his sharp tongue. And Brokkolfr, who survived the trollish invasion of Othinsaesc but carries the guilt of those he couldn't save, will not only make a new place for himself within the wolfthreat, but will also discover new, underground neighbours for the threat: alfar. Not the svartalfar whose alliance Isolfr won, but aettrynalfar, long estranged from their northern kin. Structurally, the three strands of the story -- Skjaldwulf, Vethulf, and Brokkolfr -- reinforce each other. Occasionally a section from each of their points of view ended on a cliffhanger that wasn't resolved until after the next point of view scene: done well (and it's done well here), this is a technique I enjoy, but some people might not enjoy it quite as much.
Monette and Bear, in their individual works, have a knack for writing real, believable, multidimensional characters. Their combined talents are displayed to full advantage here. Prickly Vethulf, navigating his responsibilities with defensive sharpness and moments of understanding; Skjaldwulf, at thirty-six old for a wolfcarl, with his unshakeable determination and thoughtful compassion; Isolfr, called Ice-mad, called Alf-friend, uncomfortable with the name of hero; Brokkolfr and Kari, whose explorations of an underground cave lead to the encounter with the aettrynalfar; Freyvithr the godsman, come to the Franangfordthreat to record Isolfr's deeds from his own mouth, whose understated sense of humour shines through; Fargrimr Fastarrson, a jarl's heir from the south and brother to one of the wolfcarls, who was born a jarl's daughter
; Master Antimony, the aettrynalfar master with his students and adopted children; Otter, the half-Brythoni slave of the Rheans who Skjaldwulf comes to adopt as a daughter: every character that walks through these pages has a personality and an implied history, and nearly all of them are fascinating.
The wolves don't steal the show as much in Tempering
as they did in Companion
, but Viradechtis, Skjaldwulf's Mar, and Brokkolfr's Amma are vibrant personalities. Amma, in particular -- a not-very-dominant she-wolf with a boundless well of affection and enthusiasm for human babies, wolf cubs, and baby animals of any stripe -- steals nearly every scene for which she's present. The trellwolves are both believably intelligent and believably wolf-like: a tricky line to walk.
I wish we lived in a world where I could pass over one of the more central elements of Tempering
without comment, as too unremarkable to require notice. As things stand, however, graceful, dignified and humane
treatment of explicitly homosexual relationships is still worthy of note.
Which is to say: Yes, there is gay sex in this book. It's treated with all the grace and humanity that one might expect from writers with Monette's and Bear's track records, and unlike Isolfr in A Companion to Wolves,
the viewpoint characters here during the occasional sex scenes prefer
men. The explicitly sexual scenes are touching and affecting, and integral to character development.
The authors haven't chosen to make homosexuality an unmarked state in the world of the Iskryne. Outside the wolfthreat, men screwing men is unusual, and potentially unmanly. Inside the wolfthreat, it's the way things are. And very few people will insult one of the threat's hardened warriors to his face about his choice of bed partners.
Particularly not when he has his friend the giant wolf beside him.
If there's one criticism I could make of The Tempering of Men
, it's that when I finished it, I found it left me wanting more. What will happen with the conflict with the Rheans? With the wolfcarls' new role? With the Franangfordthreat and the aettrynalfar? I found the conclusion to be eminently satisfying, but it didn't settle all the questions the story thus far had raised. This is a middle book, and it shows, a little. Another Iskryne novel is due out in 2013, however, and I expect it'll show itself fully capable of satisfying my curiosity on such points as "What are the aettrynalfar making in the cave with the broken cave ice?" "Does Kari's ankle eventually heal up?" and "How does Isolfr's father proceed to defend the Iskryners from the Rheans?"
The Tempering of Men
is an excellent book, set in a fascinating world. Quietly epic and strongly influenced by medieval Scandinavia, it's filled with interesting characters, complex relationships, and absolutely marvellous wolves.
I loved it unreservedly, and I recommend it without hesitation.