Title: The Wolf
Series: Under the Northen Sky #1
Author: Leo Carew
Beyond the Black River, among the forests and mountains of the north, lives an ancient race of people. Their lives are measured in centuries, not decades; they revel in wilderness and resilience, and they scorn wealth and comfort.
By contrast, those in the south live in the moment, their lives more fleeting. They crave wealth and power, their ambition is limitless, and their cunning unmatched.
When the armies of the south flood across the Black River, the fragile peace between the two races is shattered. On a lightning-struck battlefield, the two sides will fight – for their people, for their land, for their very survival.
Two sides. One victor.
Do you ever read a book that feels familiar, but is still entertaining? The Wolf is precisely that type of book.
It’s the first book in a planned trilogy, and the debut novel for author Leo Carew; adventurer, explorer, Arctic guide and currently training to be an army doctor. (When he’s not living a year in a tent on Svalbard or on an abandoned island in the Outer Hebrides.)
The book begins with war. The social climber Bellamus has, though connections and intrigue, managed to convince the King of Southdal to break the truce with The Black Kingdom in the north. The Anakim, superior in strength and fighting skill, meet the southerners at the floodplains anticipating victory. However, their overconfidence makes them predictable, and they’re outwitted by Bellamus clever tactics, resulting in the death of their leader, The Black Lord. His son Roper, the young heir apparent, orders a retreat, a move extremely humiliating for the proud Anakmis.
The book then centers around three major conflicts.
Roper’s political maneuverings to keep the title of Black Lord when his right is challenged by the ambitious Uvoren.
Bellamous scheming to continue the war against the Anakim, and in doing so, gaining more power for himself. (I do think Bellamus true motives are still a mystery and something that will be revealed as the series progresses.)
The conflict between North and South, much of it centering around Bellamous and Roper trying to outwit each other in battle.
This is the type of book where almost everything feels familiar or reminds you of something else you’ve read. But not in a way that it feels like a carbon copy. There is a personality in the writing, the author has a voice.
I think much of the familiarity can be explained by the story using well-known or recognizable images, names, symbolism, and storytelling.
The world he’s created is a perfect example. Albion is not only the name of this fictional world; it’s one of the earliest known names for Great Brittain. The map itself is reminiscent of today’s Brittain; it’s almost an exact copy. The south, Suthdal is—unsurprisingly—located in the southern part.
The Black Kingdom begins somewhere around the city of Leeds and continues up into Scottland. There’s also a country right around where Wales is, as well as the outlines of part of Ireland and the coastline of Continental Europe. The author also uses recognizable names like Saxon, Frankish, Iberia, etc.
Understand me right, I don’t see this as a problem. The recognition puts an interesting spin on the story. According to the author, the idea behind the book was, what if more than one race of humans survived the ice age?
With that question in mind, Albion doesn’t so much become a fantasy world as an alternate version of our own. That feeling is amplified by the lack of magic, elves, monsters, and other typical fantasy elements. Honestly, this is more alternate history than fantasy. This is our world, with a twist.
A negative aspect of this type of worldbuilding is that, without any help from Google, I can name at least one or two other Albions. One of them in a book I read not that long ago, (The Aeronaut’s Windlass, I talk about it HERE).
I’m guessing that number would increase if you’re actually from somewhere within Great Brittain. It’s not really the author’s fault that it’s a well-used name, and considering how he built his world, it isn’t a bad one, but it is nonetheless well-worn.
Another aspect that’s well-worn is the use of North and South as opposing sides in a conflict. What feels unique—at least to me—is the idea that the people of the North and South are not only culturally different but have evolved into different human races.
The people of the South are reminiscent of us, while the Northen people are long-lived, large, with bone armor underneath their skin that makes them extremely tough and resilient.
These physical differences aren’t examined in detail, but the impact on the culture is apparent. However, once more, it’s all very recognizable. The south is all sunshine, feudalism, elitism, with courts filled with political intrigue, beautiful clothes, inadequate rulers, and unfaithful, scheming Queens. The North is clan-based, stoic, hierarchical, harsh, warlike, strong, and gray. They reject comfort and frivolities, and all want to die gloriously in battle.
By now, it sounds like I didn’t enjoy this book. I want to stop and say that I did. I liked it! I marathoned this entire book cover to cover in one day.
As for the structure, the novel is set in three parts, Autumn, Winter, and Spring. It’s split between opposed POV’s following the main protagonist and antagonist. Despite the split narrative, this is more Roper’s story than Bellamus. Most of it centers around a military campaign in the North, which puts the spotlight on the Black Kingdom and the Anakim, with most of the side characters being Northerners.
This is a novel focused on action, not people. The character descriptions are basic, and there’s not a lot of individual personalities. Some of that can be explained by the Anakim culture, but not all of it. The characters are well-defined, you can easily tell them apart, but besides the two main characters, and one or two side characters, there’s no apparent internal motivation.
One perfect example is the description of a character’s marriage. As in many fantasy/historical novels focused on intrigue, there’s a political marriage. They marry, and a few sentences later, these two strangers wake-up after their wedding night and everything is fine. There’s no examination of feelings or awkward moments when they’re trying to get to know each other. From one page to another, they go from strangers to a committed power couple.
Which conveniently leads me to my only major issue with this book. The women. Because this is such an action-oriented book focused on men in battle, and because it’s so shallow when it comes to the individual personalities, the female characters feel very cliché. There’s the conniving, selfish southern Queen, and then there are the proud, baby machines of the north.
The author does, to some extent, try to give women a role and purpose, mainly the northern ones. He describes them as political players and guardians of knowledge and history. But they’re basically wombs on legs who proudly enter arranged marriages for the good of the family.
The be fair, the female characters aren’t worse than many other (fantasy) books, and some might think me double standard when I’ve defended the misogyny in the Witcher books. The difference is that here, I don’t understand why. Do the northern women have bone armor as well? Are they as resilient? Is it only in comparison to the northern men they’re physically weaker, are they bigger and stronger than the southern men? If not, why? It appears to me that these are questions that it never occurred to the author to ask. It’s a patriarchal society just… because.
I guess I’m just a bit disappointed.
This book literally reimagines the evolution of the human race, or in this case, races. Is it really so hard to imagine that at least one of them would go down a cultural path that doesn’t result in misogyny?
To end on a positive note, the best part of the story, and what kept me interested despite its shallow characters, was the action. The psychological, intellectual, and tactical battle between Roper and Bellamous is excellent. As is the intrigue within The Black Kingdom.
There are some fantastic battle scenes, and they’re treated reasonably realistic. There are no glorious fantasy battles. People get frightened, they’re brutally maimed, there’s confusion, swords are heavy. The fights happen in waves as the soldiers get so exhausted the fighting is temporarily halted.
That realism is continued outside of the battlefield. The fighting is halted during the winter. There’s a whole subplot surrounding refugees and how they impact the power struggle among the Anakim. The author shows the massive undertaking of a military campaign during medieval(ish) time, with all that entails in terms of supplies, wagons, the vulnerability to the elements, how slow it is.
The action is where the story shines. If that’s enough to keep you interested is a matter of personal preference.
The Audiobook is narrated by Matt Addis. It’s one of those performances that, in hindsight, I don’t particularly remember. Nothing about it stood out. But, it was a narration that was so comfortable that I without any difficulty could listen to the book for, I think, thirteen hours without pause. (I’m a fast reader, and I got so impatient to know how it would end that I read the last hundred or so pages).
I think it takes a genuinely skilled narrator to accomplish a performance that gives the words life and the characters personalities but doesn’t overshadow the story. Now, two months after finishing the book, I remember the story, not the voice that read it.
The Wolf is a good story. Not flawless, but if you like action-packed fantasy/historical novels, you’ll probably enjoy it.
The lack of depth in the characters, especially the few female ones, was the main downside for me. But in this case, the action and the over-arching story made up for that.
I believe that many of the characters have great potential, Roper and Bellamus are already enjoyable, if a bit flat. As for the female characters, I hope the next book will prove me wrong, that there is a place for them in his world that’s not as one dimensional, and lacking in thought, as it feels right now.
When reading the first novel in a planned series, especially by a debut author, I judge it by if I want to read the next one. In this case, I do. The second part of this trilogy, The Spider, is set to release on June 27th (2019).
As with most things, it’s hard to find something that ticks every box. This story has both good and bad, but in this case, the good things compensate for the areas that I feel are lacking.
This is a good story, but it’s not as unique or polished as some claim it is. The book has gained a lot of praise from well-known names, claiming the author to be the new big name in fantasy. I think Leo Carew is a good author; others might think he’s excellent. I think this book is worth a read, I had a good time listening to it, but The Wolf doesn’t reinvent the genre. Give it a chance, but take the superlative praise with a grain of salt and approach it as a debut novel by a debut author.
My Rating: 6.5/10
On the next installment of Under the Northern Sky Reviews: The Spider
Unless credited, all images displayed on this blog are either mine or Copy Right Free and released under Creative Commons CC0. They are available for free at one of or more of the following places: Max Pixel, Flickr, Public Domain Archive, Pixabay or Gratisography.