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Cover image of Black Wolves by Kate Elliott

For readers of Brent Weeks and fans of Netflix's Marco Polo comes a rich and inspired fantasy tale of warriors and nobles who must take the most desperate gamble of all: awaken allies more destructive than the hated king they hope to overthrow. Kate Elliott's new trilogy is an unmissable treat for epic fantasy lovers everywhere.

An exiled captain returns to help the son of the king who died under his protection in this rich and multi-layered first book in an action-packed new series.

Twenty two years have passed since Kellas, once Captain of the legendary Black Wolves, lost his King and with him his honor. With the King murdered and the Black Wolves disbanded, Kellas lives as an exile far from the palace he once guarded with his life.

Until Marshal Dannarah, sister to the dead King, comes to him with a plea-rejoin the palace guard and save her nephew, King Jehosh, before he meets his father's fate.

Combining the best of Shogun and Netflix's Marco Polo, Black Wolves is an unmissable treat for epic fantasy lovers everywhere.


I've done two reviews now that were all about books playing with tropes. It's been a couple of months, so it's definitely time for a new one!

First of all, the cover copy for Black Wolves is dead wrong. Kellas is one of the main characters, but there are five of them, and three are women. Dannarah is arguably most central, and she barely gets mentioned in the copy. But that is the first trope that is being played with! The book starts off with roughly 100 pages of 30-year old Kellas POV, and I think Kate Elliot is doing something here that is similar to what N. K. Jemisin did with Fifth Season (WARNING: Spoilers for said book at the link!): she is giving you an easy in into this world and this story, then pulling the rug out from under you. Well, that is to say: easy in if you go by standard epic fantasy tropes and statistics. Personally I found the first 100 pages hardest to get through because I am just kind of done with fit young cis straight dudes and their drama. But then you turn the page and bam, 59 year old Dannarah. Now things get interesting — and now we really get into a conversation with and about epic fantasy.

Black Wolves, as [personal profile] renay and other reviewers have said, plays with a lot of tropes and expectations surrounding epic fantasy. I'm going to divide this into three topics: worldbuilding, power, and gender. Before I continue, I will also say that I have not read the Crossroads books, which are set in the same world. Reading them is not necessary to reading Black Wolves. And now, on to the worldbuilding!

Let's start with the obvious. First, the entire setting of The Hundred, as far as I can tell, is non-white(1) and not based on any kind, region, or period of Europe or European history. That's tearing a hole in the epic fantasy playbook from the start. Aside from the obvious default of setting epic fantasy in European-derived settings, a lot of epic fantasy tends to be about white people or Western ideals in some way. Maybe the protagonists aren't white, but, say, the villains are, or there is a white empire out there, or there are struggles over feudal/monarchical power structures. Now, there is a struggle over monarchy in this book, but I'll talk more about that in the section on power. But this is a book about people of colour, largely physically unmarked because that is their own default, and this is made obvious through the cultures represented, the themes, and sometimes physical characteristics. There is one character, Lifka, whose skin colour is frequently remarked upon, but that is because she is a black woman in a largely Asian/Polynesian/Middle Eastern world.

One of the recurring cultural touches in the book is food, and it all sounds delicious. Lots of rice, lots of mango, lots of spicy and sweet things. Everything the characters ate sounded fascinating and reinforced the Asian/Polynesian/Middle Eastern cultural markers of the worldbuilding. Kate Elliot either has a thing for food or did a lot of research, and it shows. Now, describing food is another hallmark of epic fantasy, often tied into class distinctions. But again, Black Wolves takes this trope and gives it a twist. Epic fantasy tends to concern itself with the trappings of class and power, and food is no exception. The food one commonly sees — among the upper classes at least — is hearty, heavy on the meat, and hard to prepare, like glazed pig and stuffed birds. Black Wolves follows the epic fantasy formula of describing food, but the food is non-Western and maps to class differently, because the staples are different in this world. There is also a variety of cultures on display in the book, each with its own class distinctions, each with their own food traditions, and we're given far more variety in diet than is normally seen in epic fantasy. For example, food served at the palace to Kellas and Dannarah when they are younger, following the Sirnikian traditions, is different from the food Kellas eats at an inn with his fellow Black Wolves in the Hundred, which is different again from what the adult Dannarah eats with her reeves.

There is also a lot about religion in this book — about colonialism and changing views and private practices. Traditionally, the Hundred has seven deities and four elemental Mothers; people are tattooed on calf and arm to represent the Mother to which they were born. Sarai, one of the POV female characters, has a girlfriend who is devoted to one of the gods of the Hundred, Hasibal. There is a also a goddess of death and desire, which I found fascinating. But King Anjihosh — or, more precisely, his Sirnikian wife — brings the worship of the one god Beltak to the Hundred. The ensuing clash of beliefs forms the backbone and backdrop of a lot of the worldbuilding and plot. It's easy to map the encroaching monotheism to our world's Abrahamic religions and their colonial history (especially Christianity), but I think it's best to avoid the Christian link in particular. It's too easy, and I think Kate Elliott is telling a more interesting story than that — one, honestly, that I expect to be told more fully in the other books in the planned trilogy. The theme of religious domination in Black Wolves has a lot to do with power — and, honestly, with gender(2) — and the very idea of power and its sources, uses, and abuses is questioned throughout the book.

This is a good point at which to switch to the second major category of tropes and interlocution, which is power. The cover copy makes it obvious that there is a struggle of succession here: King Anjihosh brings monarchy to the Hundred and leaves it as a legacy to his son Atani, and then Atani is murdered and the next king, Jehosh, struggles to retain the throne in a land filled with unrest and a palace full of intrigue. But the very idea of kingship and the legitimate use of power is questioned throughout Black Wolves. Part of the worldbuilding introduces the demons, who held sway over the land before Anjihosh killed most of them and declared himself king. I find the very use of the word "demon" to describe these entities highly... suggestive, shall we say. We are invited to have a certain view of the demons throughout the first 100 pages and by several of the POV characters. But then the book spends the rest of the time questioning the eradication of the demons and presenting the monarchical power structure that succeeded them as flawed.

The idea of kingship — another staple of epic fantasy — is deeply questioned by the narrative. The Hundred was a relatively egalitarian society before. Now a new king kills the demons that held sway over the assizes and brings with him stricter gender roles, monotheism, and more centralized power structures. Each of those three is examined and questioned in the narrative. The tie between power and religion is examined through the lens of colonialism. Now, religion, especially as it has to do with monarchies, is a frequent topic of epic fantasy, especially with the divine mandate traditional in many European monarchies. Black Wolves gives us a setting that is in the middle of transition and struggle when it comes to monarchies and religion, and presents many subversive plot threads questioning the links between monarchies, religions, and power.

Finally, the use of power forms the dialogue that every single one of the POVs engages in at some point.

Kellas once served monarchical power, and had a high degree of latitude with his personal power as a member of the (all-male, as far as I could tell) Black Wolves. As the story goes on, he questions the legitimacy of the kings he has served, and learns to use his own power in more subtle ways. Dannarah has craved power from a young age, being raised by a mother who believed in highly circumscribed roles for women. As the story goes on, Dannarah exercises her own power as a marshall of the reeves — the men and women bonded to giant eagles who serve as scouts, messengers, and lawbringers throughout the land — and struggles against the frankly sexist uses of power against her by the men in her life. Sarai, too, comes from a highly sex-segregationist background, and part of the delight of her story is her finding and claiming sources of power for herself: power to shape her own destiny, power to define herself in relationships, and power that comes from magic. Lifka is born of another land and brought to the Hundred as an object of conquest, and her skin colour marks her as someone who is "supposed" to be a slave in this land. Raised in a loving adoptive family, Lifka contended with challenges to her religion and her family's class status by the regime before being tossed into the life of a reeve. Finally, Gilaras is a man who in almost any other fantasy book would be the protagonist, but in Black Wolves his expected role is interrogated and turned on its head. Part of Gilaras's power is sexual: he is the only man in his family who has not been literally neutered by the king in revenge for the murder plot against Atani. But he learns — largely through interaction with Sarai — to wield his sexual power responsibly, and the events of the book eventually cause him to come into conflict with the very power structures he used to partake of when he becomes a prisoner of the state.

You might have noticed that most of these dialogues with power are gendered. That's no coincidence: the interplay of power and gender is a major theme of the entire book. It's evident early on in the form on the teenaged Dannarah, who wants to be king and co-rule with her brother, but is barred by her gender according to her family's customs. Note, nothing in the worldbuilding of the Hundred indicates that a woman can't hold that kind of power. That restriction seems to stem from the king and his family alone, as they cleave to the customs that they are importing from the Sirnikian Empire. This is a good point at which to transition to talking about gender in Black Wolves, as it is in this category that I find some of the book's best moments— and also, its deepest flaws.

Dannarah, Sarai, and Gil are perhaps the most obvious sources of interlocution with the field of epic fantasy on the topic of gender. Let's return to Gilaras first. As I said before, he's coded as the typical epic fantasy protagonist at first. He's a brash young man whose family has fallen on hard times due to intrigue, and he gets up to many escapades and hijinks. However, the story takes a left turn after he is introduced. For one, his escapades have consequences. For another, he is forced into an arranged marriage by his family for money. Both of these are not tropes commonly associated with young men in epic fantasy, or, when they are, they do not center the women. However, we get this arranged marriage from both POVS, and it is arguably his wealthy wife, Sarai, who has more power in the relationship. Once he meets Sarai, it is she who teaches him about sex and pleasure. As his arc goes on, he evolves into someone in a balanced, loving relationship despite its arranged nature. Circumstances force them apart deeper into the book, and Gil is actually witness to a man-on-man rape, the only instance of on-page sexual violence in the book. Then, Gil and his friend are forced to deal with the emotional and physical consequences of sexual violence, an unusual choice for a (presumedly straight) male character. Gil's entire story is bracketed by sexual violence, from the castration visited on his family and its effects on Gil to the rape of his friend. I find it interesting that gender continues to play an unexpected role in Gil's story even once he is separated from Sarai.

Then there is Sarai herself. Her people, the Ri Amarah, are a minority in the Hundred and are discriminated against, called "Silvers" and having their headwear-hidden anatomy questioned. They are also a society with very strict gender roles, even more so than the Sirnikian Empire. Now, I like that even on something like "society has strict gender roles" there were multiple cultures presented. However, I often cringe at any societies with strict gender roles because I never see them dealing with the people on the margins: intersex, trans, or nonbinary people. Given how deft Kate Elliott was with gender throughout the book, I was really disappointed that, even when she interrogated gender roles from a largely female perspective, she didn't engage in any work beyond that. Now, this is sort of... whatever the opposite of damning with faint praise is. Most people don't even get as far as Kate Elliott did here, and I'm only so disappointed because I believe Kate Elliott is not only capable of that work, but interested in it. But — aside from interrogating female power in societies with strict gender roles and upending heterosexist expectations, and let's be clear that I'm being really ironic in this "aside from" because that is a LOT of work — Kate Elliott does very little to really deconstruct these societies with strict gender roles. By which I mean she does like 70% of the work and then leaves out the 30% I'm most interested in as a nonbinary person myself.

All that said, Sarai's may have been my favourite POV to read. For one, she's poly! She has a girlfriend, Elit, who has gone to join Hasibal's players. Despite this religious calling, they see each other several times over the course of the narrative, and their relationship is always portrayed as positive and loving despite their different religious beliefs and different life paths. Then there is Sarai's husband Gilaras. Their initial interactions felt a bit rushed to me, but in the end I bought their relationship and enjoyed that it was so equal and, again, loving. Sarai also does a lot to find and exercise power from within the highly rigid society of the Ri Amarah, and, going back to power and religion again for a bit, she is shown valiantly holding to her religious and cultural beliefs in the face of enormous pressure to conform. I loved all of this.

Finally there is Dannarah, who, for the majority of the narrative, is a badass old woman who is sick of your shit. She deals with many men in her life, and we frequently see the ways these men are flawed in their practices and their attitudes towards her. There is the obvious example of Tavahosh, who was raised with Sirnikian beliefs and thinks that Dannarah is unfit for power — or even to be a reeve — because she is a woman. But there are less obvious examples like Reyad, who Dannarah likes at first but sees more flawed, sexist sides to as he continues in her company. Dannarah's is possibly the narrative that deals most consistently with gender, but, paradoxically, I have the least to say about it because I've covered so much ground up to now. Instead, I'd like to talk about her age!

Because GUESS WHAT this book's two most major POVs are both characters who are pushing or well past 60. Dannarah is 59 for most of the book, and Kellas is in his 70s. And I think this book has a lot to say about age and maturation and growth. Dannarah's POV is all about confronting long-held beliefs about herself, her family, and her society, and how all those views can change and evolve well into a person's later life. Most of Kellas's development happens offscreen, but uncovering the hints as to how he's changed and why — and, READER ALERT, those questions are central to the narrative! — forms one of the major themes of his POV after the 100-page prologue. I love seeing older characters as protagonists in epic fantasy, not just as sages or wizards or people whose views are to be disregarded in favour of those of the newer generations. IT IS GREAT.

But back to gender for a moment, I want to talk about two women who don't get POVs but get a lot of mileage in the story: Chorannah and Dia. These are King Jehosh's two queens, and they exercise a lot of power in the main plot of the book. The struggle between the two queens forms much of the intrigue going on in the palace in Jehosh's time, and I just want to note that both of these women have their own dialogues with power. Chorannah is Jehosh's first wife, and Sirnikian. Characters consistently describe her as historically meek and shy. Yet we see her exercising enormous power from within the strict gender roles of Sirnikian society in the palace, outmaneuvering her husband, ensnaring Sarai, and working to place her sons ahead of Dia's. Dia, meanwhile, is from a conquered land, but is also a businesswoman and successful player of the capital city economic and political scene. I look forward to seeing what comes of both of these women after the events of the first book.

Finally, a couple of notes from the negative side of my reading experience. I simply could not connect to Kate Elliott's prose 90% of the time, but I am known to be a highly picky reader. If the prose isn't working for you, give it until you meet 59-year-old Dannarah and spend some time with her. I guarantee the characters and the ideas in the book are worth it. Also, the book is maybe a bit too long, with maybe some portions of Kellas and Gil that I would recommend cutting.

But these are minor complaints about something that I overall enjoyed and that gave me a lot to think about. If you're a fan of either epic fantasy OR the unconventional, I highly recommend Black Wolves!


Supplemental Materials


Renay's review on Lady Business
Renay's review on Barnes & Noble
Renay's review on tumblr
Renay's review on Book Smugglers
Kate Elliott's own thoughts on "The Big Idea" from John Scalzi


Other Reviews


Angry Elves, especially on the topic of nonbinary/strict gender roles
"Reconfiguring Epic Fantasy" from Tor.com
nerds of a feather
The Bibliosanctum
SFF World
Dark Faerie Tales
Neth Space


Other Posts in this Series

"Where have you been all my life?" Jaran by Kate Elliott by Mieneke
Giveaway! Court of Fives & Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott
Robot Pals and Revolution: A Passage of Stars by Kate Elliott
"The History of the World Begins In Ice" — Cold Magic by Susan
Hey There, Sports Fans - Poisoned Blade Review by KJ


____________

Notes


  1. Some reviewers have misidentified the characters in the book as white except for Lifka, and I won't link to them here because I am too embarrassed for them but they were on the front page of goodreads. There is nothing in this book to indicate whiteness, and the only way you arrive at that conclusion is by having some really entrenched ideas about "default" race. The book gives plenty of cultural cues, but also physical ones. (return to text)

  2. I find it interesting that the major pushers of the Beltak religion in Black Wolves are women. There is also Tavahosh, but I actually read him as feminized? Readers, talk to me about this! (return to text)

Date: 2016-09-10 12:40 am (UTC)
coffeeandink: (Default)
From: [personal profile] coffeeandink
I might come back later, but a couple of quick comments:

1) Contrary to the usual (grimdark) practice, the only victims of sexual coercion we see are male. Dannarah uses her power to force Kellas into a relationship, and Gil's friend Tyras is raped.

2) Most of the reviews I've read have been a lot more sympathetic to Gilaras, and a lot more convinced that he's made significant progress over the course of the book, than I am. Granted, he started off on the wrong foot with me by his treatment of the dead Silver (Jewish) man's body, but throughout the book he only cares about consequences to people he cares for personally, and he continues to be protected by his privileges of rank and wealth while leading other people to suffer. Tyras is enslaved because of Gil's actions, not his own, and then raped, again because Gil doesn't realize his protections don't extend to his friends. He seems more of a subversion of the trope of a man who improves because of the love of a good woman than a fulfillment of it. His desire to impress, and even serve, Sarai doesn't counteract his shallowness or selfishness.

Date: 2016-09-10 06:06 am (UTC)
badgerbag: (Default)
From: [personal profile] badgerbag
So happy to see this long, juicy review of Black Wolves! I really loved the book and highly recommend the Crossroads series (also set largely in The Hundred, but earlier). Reading it will add even more depth to Black Wolves (though it isn't necessary to read it first!)
Edited Date: 2016-09-10 06:06 am (UTC)

Date: 2016-09-10 12:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] susanhatedliterature.net
First of all, because I haven't said it already, I'm loving this Kate Elliott appreciation series. So great :)

Its really interesting to see the discussion about the monarchy and power in Black Wolves because I've read the Crossroads trilogy, which provides a lot of, well, lets just say different aspects of the characters. And in a way I'd sort of like to have not read that series and read Black Wolves before just to have my interpretations of stuff upended.

Date: 2016-09-11 12:56 am (UTC)
badgerbag: (Default)
From: [personal profile] badgerbag
Also if you like people messing with the tropes you just haven't lived till you read Spirit Gate which starts with a girl on a giant eagle going around rescuing people. I mean.... that kind of sets up particular expectations? Holy cats!!!!! Another series I can think of that is an enormous mindfuck that way.... I think even more so.... Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey. It sets up "magic school" expectations and then turned out to make me think hard about technology and progressivism.

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