Black Wolves by Kate Elliott (Book Review)
It has been a while since I’ve done any reviews, largely due to the fact that I’ve barely read 10-12 novels in the last one year or so. Far cry from my regular 9-11 books a month before that. Just been a long period of “don’t really care, just want time off, too much work, ugh” and so on. Getting back into reading hasn’t exactly been easy since it is as if my reading mojo is gone. But thankfully, I’ve started to turn it around of late, and one of the books I’ve had the pleasure of reading recently is Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves.
Black Wolves is the first novel in the trilogy of the same name. It follows a multitude of characters in a (low) fantasy setting and deals with the ruthless politics of a kingdom forged by the sword and inherited by weaker successors where the loyalties of good men and women are commodities. It is a very different kind of novel than I usually read, but I have a fair amount of experience with Kate’s diverse works, and Black Wolves doesn’t disappoint. It is a fun and entertaining read, though it could have used some trimming here and there to be a bit more brief.
We start off with an introduction to one of our primary characters, a Captain Kellas who is in service to King Anjihosh and is currently doing some undercover work in order to root out traitors within the ranks of the local township forces. We also get an introduction to one of the main threats of the novels, demons who bewitch men and women to do their bidding and can read their minds and their history. It is a bit of a shocking introduction, but does its job very effectively since there are immediately several questions raised and your interest in the story takes hold as a result since you want to know the answers. Kate spends the rest of the novel elaborating on the answers to these questions, though we never really get the full picture, as some mystery is reserved for the sequel.
I’ll admit, Black Wolves is a daunting novel to read, not the least because of its length, but also because there is such a huge cast. And that was problematic for me. All these characters have to be introduced a few at a time, and most of such introductions spend time reviewing the characters’ histories and their motivations for what they do. It can get tiresome at times, especially when part two of the novel skips to 44 years after part one, and the time jump is very disorienting. A lot happens in these intervening years and much of what happens in parts two and three is a direct result of the (oft-unsaid) events that happened in between.
But, once you start to dig deeper into the novel, the world of The Hundred starts to take on a more coherent shape. The Hundred is the name given to the land ruled by King Anjihosh and his successors, the King himself an exiled prince of the neighbouring Sirniakan Empire. There is a wonderful political tension in the novel all throughout, and we see some really devious and even evil political stratagems being employed. No one character has it easy. Kate writes a brutal war of succession that draws the entire Hundred into its purview and tests the lengths that traitors and loyalists alike will go to ensure that their factions win.
And one of the best things about Black Wolves is that there is no clear delineation between good and evil here. The complex politics of The Hundred necessitate a mixed world-view and morality for all characters we get to see, whether that be Captain Kellas or King Anjihosh and his successors or Marshal Dannarah or Arasit or any others. A complex fantasy is definitely something that I’m interested in reading, and Kate Elliott delivers on that. There are hints of deep theology, a fascinating world made up of unique cultures which are derived from non-Western real-world cultures, a generational conflict against natural forces, and tons of subterfuge of all kinds.
Some of the characters such as Lifka, Gilaras and Sarai felt a bit incidental to the story, included only to pad out the story with some more action, and that grated on me for a while. These characters took too long to gel together and, if I’m honest, even bored me to a certain degree. I enjoyed far more the scenes from the perspectives of Kellas and Dannarah, who are both essentially retired soldiers who have given decades of service to the land they call home. It isn’t often in fantasy fiction that your protagonists are above the age of 50, and that provided a wonderfully novel element with Black Wolves. And it isn’t as if Kate ignored the rigors of old age either, for both these characters are quite cantankerous with their age, and show it, if only to make others uncomfortable. Delightful stuff.
There is a lot to like about Black Wolves, and I certainly recommend reading it. It is a very different kind of fantasy than we usually get, especially since it isn’t about grand battles between good and evil, and is not the typical western variety either. Kate has presented a nuanced world with mixed moral tones, and that’s something worth reading, for sure. The only real barrier to full enjoyment is the epic length and the huge cast of characters, which can really get confusing at times.
More Kate Elliott:
- Spiritwalker #1: Cold Magic (Review)
- Spiritwalker #2: Cold Fire (Review)
- Spiritwalker #3: Cold Steel (Review)
- Guest Post: “Cold Names“
Posted on September 20, 2016, in Book Reviews, Review Central and tagged 2016 Reading, Black Wolves, Book Review, Captain Kellas, Demons, Epic Fantasy, Fantasy, Kate Elliott, King Atani, Low Fantasy, Marshal Dannarah, Non-Anglophone Fantasy, Non-Western Fantasy, Orbit Books, Review, Review Central, Women in Fantasy, Women In Fiction. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.