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Black Wolves is the first book in a new epic fantasy trilogy set in lands of The Hundred, the same world that features in Kate Elliott's Crossroads trilogy. When the book opens, Captain Kellas, the man who long ago illegally climbed to the top of the impenetrable Law Rock without a rope, is hunting for a traitor among King Anjihosh's elite Black Wolves. Successful in his hunt, Kellas is summoned to eat with the royal family and from there becomes embroiled in palace life after the young Prince Atani disappears. Following Atani, Kellas is reintroduced to a beautiful woman he met briefly long ago. Turns out, she has mysterious connections to the palace. This meeting will change the course of his life, and potentially the lives of everyone in The Hundred, as it reveals long hidden secrets about the royal family.

Then, after 87 pages, Black Wolves abruptly skips ahead 44 years. Take a moment to digest the measure of Kate Elliott's mettle. She spends 87 pages settling the reader into her story; establishing the reader's connection to Captain Kellas, and encouraging readers to care about a particular cast of characters. In those 87 pages, she also re-establishes the connection fans of the Crossroads series had with Anji and Mai. Then she pulls the rug out from under everyone's feet by jumping 44 years into the future. In the process, she changes not just the time period of her novel but the makeup of the book's world. In that 44 year gap, which takes place in the blink of an eye for the reader, The Hundred undergoes extreme changes. Two main characters die. And, when the story begins again, it is told from an entirely new point of view; following the life of a (now grown) character the reader briefly met as a young adult in those early 87 pages. Captain Kellas doesn't become the centre of the narrative focus again until page 257. Allow me to express my admiration for Elliott's moxy.

After 87 pages, Elliott plunges her readers into a great deal of newness with no guarantee that they will be willing to follow her book over such a huge leap. And, if that wasn't enough for readers to handle, Black Wolves requires them to pick up information about those missing 44 years through a set of in interweaving, imperfect, and constantly changing points of view. The novel also incorporates a mystery story, which deliberately hides aspects of the past in order to slowly reveal the truth about an event which haunts The Hundred. Wait - there's more! Any readers unfamiliar with the Crossroads series must try to work out how this fantasy world works.

The world of Black Wolves contains among other things:
  • A sprawling family of royals and nobles

  • Who are linked by marriage or blood to three powerful regions

  • All of which are currently undergoing huge upheaval and political change

  • And between them contain three major religions - one with a polytheistic system of Gods and Goddesses

  • A law system patrolled by giant eagles of justice

There's a lot to take in is what I'm saying.

The novel is constructed from layers of detail that build up, creating an intricate world and story. As I said above, the book switches between multiple perspectives. And the book often drastically overturns the reader's idea of what kind of story they are dealing with. Just when you think Black Wolves is a detective story, it becomes a book about reestablishing political control, a romance, and then a story about undermining political control. Elliott's novel asks the reader to readjust their mindset many times after that initial 44 year jump forward.

In theory, all of this should slow the reader down as they pause to digest everything the book is showing them, and sort through exactly what story they're being told. However Black Wolves contains a strong sense of propulsion that compels the reader onwards. And overall, Black Wolves takes this most epic of storytelling ventures, and gives the reader smooth and easy passage through potentially confusing terrain. It is an incredibly gutsy creative project that encourages readers to pay attention and follow a winding, complex story.

The question I frustratingly can't answer is what technical components create the novel's sense of urgent compulsion. In theory it's not an easy read, and I've certainly been derailed by books with less complicated setups. Yet Black Wolves is probably one of the most compelling book I've read this year beside Planetfall - a book with an incredibly strong narrative drive. Even more confusingly, Black Wolves is built using the same devices and structure that can be found in the first book of Elliott's Crossroads trilogy. Spirit Gate also introduces a character only to rip them away from the reader, flash forward into the future and refocus on entirely different characters. Spirit Gate also introduces many characters and shows the story from multiple perspective. The two books are even set in the same universe and yet my reaction to Spirit Gate could not have been more different than my reaction to Black Wolves.

Renay and I read Spirit Gate together last year, and had mixed feelings about it. My own emotions swung between great excitement at the giant magical eagles of justice, confusion (Crossroads is big cast epic fantasy and I have a poor memory for names) and sadness that Marit, the older female reeve I really wanted to follow through the world of The Hundred, appeared to die in the first few chapters. I spent a lot of time snarled up in confusion while reading that book and I felt its length. Whereas Black Wolves just whizzed by.

So, what's the secret behind Black Wolves success with me? I cry sorcery! Alright, maybe it's nothing more than personal preference. When it came to Crossroads, I often found myself disappointed that I was often thrown out of the storylines I wanted to follow in order to tag along after men I was less than interested in. Black Wolves on the other hand contained character after character I wanted to spend time with. It should come as no surprise that Dannarah, royal daughter of King Anjihosh and sister to Prince Atani, was my favourite. However, I can honestly say there wasn't one moment in this novel where I wished I could move away from one character and back to reading about my favourites. And maybe that's part of Black Wolves technical strength - getting the balance of characters and page time just right.

While Elliot may know when to cut away from Dannarah for the good of the story, I could talk about her all day. Come on - Dannarah rides a giant eagle everywhere. She is worthy of a little admiration.

Danarrah is an older female reeve, described with an eye to her weathered and hardy physicality. When Elliott began Danarrah's storyline by describing her waking from a needed nap and 'wincing as her back tightened' I knew I was going to feel strong things about Dannarah. I just can't resist women written as characters who are both toughened and bitten into by physically demanding lives. As my devotion to Kameron Hurley's Nyxnissa so Dasheem indicates I am also very into female characters who have faced trials. The professional disappointment of being demoted from her position as Chief Marshall, by her own family, informs many of Dannarrah's actions and her general personality. She is world weary, cynical and sharp. She is also funny, friendly and passionate about her job (as her desire to reform the reeve halls shows). And I appreciated seeing how smart Danarrah can be, as shown when she eventually learns what has been developing in The Hundred.

By the end of Black Wolves, Dannarah has become a human conundrum. And I am dying to follow her into the next book in the trilogy. At the end of the novel, she does one thing I expected and one thing I did not see coming at all. These actions leave her in opposition to Kellas; a man she has been deeply connected with for much of the book. I found it fascinating to see the book set up that opposition, allowing its main female character to break with the main male character without being outright cast as a villain. Even though Black Wolves spends time establishing Kellas as a righteous force, Dannarah's story direction isn't automatically altered to fall in line with Kellas'. She has her own motivations; her own history. And this causes her to make her own decisions which send her life in a very different direction than Kellas'. It's sadly so unusual to see a female character allowed to disagree with a righteous male character and then go on to develop their own story.

Dannarah isn't the only fantastic female character who breaks from a main male character. Part One of Black Wolves re-introduces some of the characters from the Crossroads series but shows how their lives have moved on. Mai, a character that readers first met in Spirit Gate also continues to grow, despite her opposition to King Anjihosh. Anji may once have been her greatest love but political pressure has left him unable to marry her. Unable to have her, Anji hides Mai away and places her under permanent guard to prevent any other man touching her. And there she would stay in some novels; a tragic but inspirational spinster trapped under rose tinted, romantic glass. Forgotten and rarely to be mentioned again. Luckily, Black Wolves allows her life to continue to unspools for the reader to see. Mai's life initially alters because Anji's life does. However, this alteration is not the end for Mai's development nor does it influences everything that happens to her. This ability to imagine women once they diverge from the interests of male characters, and to actively continue to develop their stories for the reader, is all too absent in fiction.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Sarai and Gil - the big romantic pairing of Black Wolves and one of my other favourite parts of this book. Their marriage partly mirrors Jane Austen's approach to matrimony and partly plays around with it to expand on the freedoms marriage can offer. Gil, much like Elizabeth Bennett, is need of money in order to keep his family from ruin. Sarai's secretive clan have a great fortune and seek greater access to the palace. Sarai herself, like Anne Elliot from Persuasion wishes for freedom, and she dreams of access to the woman's life her clan denies her by refusing to let her marry among their society. When the two characters, and their families, enter into an arranged marriage they are all looking for a union which fulfills practical economic and social functions.

In another book, Gil might be an unscrupulous fortune hunter who imprisons Sarai and steals her money. And Sarai might find herself newly trapped by this bargain instead of freed. In Black Wolves, the systems surrounding legal access to Sarai's fortune prevents any abuse of her fortune by her husband. But really, there's never any danger of abuse. Like the marriages that take place between many of Austen's characters, it just so happens that this practically useful partnership quickly turns out to be a perfect love-match as well. Like several of Austen's characters, Sarai and Gil are able to have their cake and eat it; saving and freeing themselves while creating advantage for their two families.

Sarai and Gil are a charmingly upfront couple - honest, devoted and easy with each other. And I did hope they might be allowed to stand and fight side by side throughout the book. Thankfully, when they are inevitably torn apart, for the good of the book's drama and to allow the book to wander further afield, their characters only come more into their own. Gil turns a term of indenture into a chance to spy and aid a revolution. Meanwhile, Sarai fights incredibly hard to keep her marriage alive, and to assert her own will. Quick aside before I launch into praising Sarai - I found it so interesting that we got to see the perspectives of both Gil and Sarai once they're split apart. I'd have liked to see the perspective of all three of the main characters Elliott's Spiritwalker books once they were torn asunder. And I felt like the dual perspective of Sarai and Gill really paid off; allowing the book to develop while maintaining a connection between the reader and both characters.

In Black Wolves, many acts of female rebellion involve women pushing against restrictive societies. In a neat twist, Sarai's rebellion is deeply connected to maintaining traditional domestic values. Getting and staying pregnant will keep Sarai safe from the machinations of her relatives who want to annul her marriage. In a remarkably practical and funny scene she sets out on a last ditch attempt to secure her position, and in doing so removes any mystique about the act of getting pregnant. Through Sarai's storyline, the book shows how traditional acts like marriage and motherhood can be variations of female weaponry - enabling women to carve out and protect their independence. Serai is a revelation, and a figure of revolution. I mean, as if she wasn't already, what with being a bisexual woman who carried on an affair with a woman for two years right in the middle of deeply controlling a society. As readers of Elliott's past works would expect, Black Wolves is exceptionally good at showing how the world does and doesn't work for a variety of women, and how these women manage to work circumstances to their favour.

Still, despite my own personal interest in all the characters and stories this time around, I feel like there's also some technical magic working its wiles on me that I'm just not able to identify. In her review, Renay also mentioned finding Black Wolves an easier ride than other epic fantasy. And, as I hope I've established, Black Wolves is not a simple book. I would love to hear more thoughts on what makes this book fly - what keeps the reader moving forward? Answers on a postcard or in the comments please!

However Elliott has created this sense of urgent progression in such a multi-layered, deliberately winding book I'm glad that she has managed it. Black Wolves is the book I wanted Spirit Gate to be, and probably my gateway back into the world of The Hundred. It might even be my gateway back into epic fantasy which I haven't really touched since I was a teenager. Back then I raced through all the books by Katherine Kerr and Anne McCaffrey that my library had to offer; gleefully reading series out of order, trying to stitch together how the worlds worked. Often pre-occupied with the dragons. Now, I often just don't see the kind of stories I want to read in those big epic blockbusters but I always crave the satisfaction that came from reading big epic fantasies when I was a kid. That's why I have the first volume of Game of Thrones in my house. Not because I think George R. R. Martin is necessarily for me but because I wanted to recapture the feeling of being a fan of epics. Brains are weird and should not be given access to money. Unless they demand that you buy Kate Elliott's Black Wolves right now, in which case you should give them free reign over your purse.

Supplementary Materials

The Call To Adventure - Black Wolves by Kate Elliott
Renay praises Black Wolves in Let's Get Literate! So, I Heard You Like Nuanced Women?
Renay reviews Black Wolves at Barnes and Noble
Reconfiguring Epic Fantasy: Black Wolves by Kate Elliott

Date: 2016-03-17 05:13 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I loved Black Wolves, but I think I loved the Crossroads trilogy just as much. Like you I was thrown by what happened to Marit, but once I got through that I just couldn't stop reading. Devoured those books.

This is problem with reading a newly published epic fantasy book, the wait for the next instalment! :)

( I hope this comment doesn't post multiple times. Having trouble with the OpenID login so doesn't it anon-like)

Fence - www.susanhatedliterture.net

Date: 2016-03-17 06:25 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Reading Crossroads isn't necessary to get into this book, but having read it anyway and with knowledge of much of the past and of characters that managed to stay around, I giggled at some portions of this review. Elliott is too good at managing information, and these four books (so far) have been a testament to that. So much of both series touches up on the writing and rewriting of histories that even for the readers things get muddled, not just for the characters. The flow of information between book and book, series and series, points of view to points of view... Just. A lot to juggle, and Elliott makes it seem like a walk in the park on her end. (This is a long way of me winking, without spoilers, to get everyone to give Crossroads more chances to prove itself. Believe me, I get the way Spirit Gate can leave someone cold.)

Also, eagles! I can't finish Black Wolves because of the eagles! I got stuck in a scene ~80% into the book where I can't read on because whenever I try I feel too hurt for them and everyone else involved. Reading enthusiastic reviews like that do make me want to try harder to just Bear It and get past that scene.

- @eafiu (https://twitter.com/Eafiu)

Date: 2016-03-18 01:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
Okay I'm glad you warned me about all the barriers to entry for this book. I noped out of Cold Magic for similar reasons -- it was just a lot of exposition up top, and I had a hard time seeing past it to the story -- but I am determined to give Kate Elliott a fair try, for Renay's sake. :p

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