Friday, May 13, 2016

Review: Black Wolves by Kate Elliott

First, I need to get this out of the way right up front: Black Wolves by Kate Elliott is one of the most extraordinary epic fantasy books I’ve ever read.

Got it?

Good, because that is a very important perspective that must be understood, especially as I dive into what is undeniably a rambling, unfocused review that says little about book plot and probably says more about my own relationship with epic fantasy than anything else. Feel free to move along knowing that as I said above, Black Wolves is extraordinary and I cannot recommend it enough.

Still with me? Good.

The aspect of Black Wolves that makes it so extraordinary (get used to this word, as I will keep using it), is the scope of its ambition. Black Wolves embraces the full history of epic fantasy, converses with it, moves into interrogation, then subversion, and spits it back out as something new. And this is done in every aspect of the book.

The beauty of this approach and the shear skill and will Elliott wields to pull it all together makes for a reading experience more fulfilling than any I can recall in recent years. For one thing – I literally had no real idea of just where the story was going to go. There were too many options – I could see a vast array of possibilities, and then Elliott would go in a different direction, bring in a new reveal. It was absolute fun and entertainment – yes, as I will discuss soon, this book has a lot of serious and important things that it does, but that fun and entertainment is never lost. The reader is cheering the characters, invested and rewarded. The dark, grim nastiness of the book, it’s interrogation with more than just itself, but an entire genre and those writing it today, are present without ever losing that critical enjoyment of reading, the investiture of the fan. It’s a bloody brilliant maneuver to see succeed.

Black Wolves takes on many of the most common thematic elements of epic fantasy – colonialism, religion, role and execution of government, class system, war and its consequences, violence, gender roles, racial/ethnic tensions, inspirations from non-Western societies, and many more. Any one of these aspects could become quite a lengthy discussion, along with a few that I didn’t mention.

Many reviews and discussions of Black Wolves have (rightly so) devoted time to discussing gender, and to a lesser degree, age, aspects of the book. Black Wolves is full of strong women with agency, which is becoming much more of the standard to achieve rather than an exception to the state of genre, so I won’t focus on that too much (others have already done this and much better than I can anyway). The aspect that I enjoyed and felt was more fresh was the inclusion and focus on older characters. An aging, retired spy/soldier and a Princess who has grown into a commanding role in a corps of specialized soldiers who bond with and fly giant eagles (which, is really cool in of and by itself). It’s rare for older characters to play more than an aging sage, mentor, monarch, etc. – and when they do, it’s very often that they will be killed off early in the series. So, it’s refreshing that arguably the two most important characters in Black Wolves are long past their youth. And I would certainly speculate that it takes an author with a long history in the genre to make these characters work so well.

It’s also nice to see that every single character in this book has its flaws – there simply isn’t anything universally likeable or unlikeable about any of them. That is a difficult balance to pull off. But, I’m not going to go into any detail of this beyond this mention that characters a fully rounded people and never an encyclopedia entry.

As I’ve matured in my own reading journey through the years, I’ve become far less focused on battles, world-building, and other such details of fantasy books. Often what really gets me excited is fully developed political maneuvering and all of the unpredictability that come from a multitude of intelligent, motivated people all working to further their own interests within and beyond the constraints the world places on them. In Black Wolves we have all that through a King, his wives, his sons and daughters, and a few other, more mysterious groups. Throw in the cultural/colonial appropriation and re-write of history and things get very interesting indeed. As I said above, this creates a mystery and unpredictability of the narrative that keeps tensions high, even as the book drags a bit in the middle.

And this brings us to perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Black Wolves, one that occurred to me much more in retrospect than while I was too busy simply enjoying the book: change. Cultural change to be sure, but Black Wolves is more than just an epic fantasy thriller wrapped around a period of monumental cultural change. To a degree (in my opinion, a large degree), it’s a meta commentary on the cultural change that the entire SFF field is going through. And it’s brutally unapologetic in this interrogation as it revels the change of today and those to come. Change is messy: it’s messy in Black Wolves, I suspect it’ll get messier in the sequels to come, and cultural wars facing genre today, while overall moving things into a much better place, are too often cruel, disheartening, disgusting, tortuous, as they leave countless casualties in their wake. Black Wolves is an answer of perseverance to all that. As I’ve hinted at above, it takes an author who has been too often on the receiving end of a brutal patriarchy for her entire career to seize the opportunity of this time and celebrate the possibilities of the future, all the while shouting ‘Fuck You’ to the haters. Bloody brilliant I say.

As I have now repeated said, Black Wolves is an extraordinary epic fantasy that can be enjoyed on many different levels. One does not have to see the meta interrogation of genre if one doesn’t want to – it can be enjoyed as a great, fun book to read. And, one can enjoy it for other reasons than I focused on in this review. This book is the real deal and a shining example of what can be done. Simply put, the best thing I can say in this review is: READ IT NOW!

And I figure I should get out a few final details that some may find important and/or helpful. Black Wolves is the first book in a planned trilogy. It is also set in the same world, though many years after the events of the Crossroads Trilogy. Black Wolves is the first book by Elliott that I’ve read (and it certainly won’t be the last), so it can easily be enjoyed with no knowledge from the first series, though I predict that knowledge from that series may enhance some aspects of one’s enjoyment. Anyway, do not let this book pass you by.

Crossroads Trilogy

Spirit Gate: Amazon
Shadow Gate: Amazon
Traitors Gate: Amazon

Black Wolves Trilogy

Black Wolves: Amazon


Fence said...

Loved this book so much. So much.

hadn't thought about the meta commentary aspect though, that's interesting. Will have to think some more about it

Neth said...

It's possible I'm reading too much into it, but I really don't think so. It fits so well with the book and what it does as well as some the discussions I've seen Elliott have about the book.

Mike said...

I'm kinda curious as to why this book is compared to Shogun so much? I haven't read any of her stuff, so, I am kinda curious..

Neth said...


I have not read Shogun (in spite of it being on the shelf for well over a decade), so I can only speculate on the comparisons. My guess is that it's rather simply that Black Wolves is an Asian-inspired setting with lots of parallels to Imperial Japan. Throw in the focus on Imperial politics and a large cast of characters and it's an obvious marketing move to compare it Shogun.

Kate Elliott said...

I'm always hesitant to comment on reviews because I hold to the theory that reviews are for readers, not for authors. Also it is kind of awkward to thank someone for writing such a positive review. :)

Anyway, I wanted to say two things:

1) you are not reading too much into it, not at all. I'm at a place where I do indeed have a lot to say about the history of a sub genre I have read and loved my whole life. And I strongly appreciate you discussing this aspect in the review.

2) Mike: the Shogun comparison is the publisher's. I wouldn't have made it not least because I have in fact never read Shogun. And I don't think I saw the miniseries either. I probably wouldn't have made the Marco Polo tv show comparison either but I think both are meant to suggest to readers that the book won't be set in a medieval Europe inspired setting? otoh, I still haven't come up with a pitch that satisfies me. Two readers suggested "Jane Austen's Persuasion meets Dragon Age" which I find amusing and not misleading but still doesn't quite encompass the story. I have to admit the new "pitch" culture of book description makes me want to weep lol

Neth said...

Hi Kate,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting - I generally enjoy hearing an author's perspective on such things. And I am pleased to have my interpretation of the book confirmed.

I'm looking forward to the sequel!


Unknown said...

Just read this amazing new YA fiction on Ganesha - Part 1 of the Temple Wars series - I think everyone should check it out! Temple Wars


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