“Black Wolves” by Kate Elliott

(review by Aliette de Bodard) blacl_wolves

Once the beloved captain of the King’s Black Wolves, Captain Kellas retired in disgrace and wants nothing more to do with court politics–but when the king summons him to his palace and involves him in a feud between his two wives, Kellas feels duty-bound to step in. Dannarah, the great-aunt of the current king, is a reeve, bonded to a giant eagle and entrusted with watching over the land; but all is not well in the reeves’ halls… Sarai is a member of a rich but distrusted minority; disgraced through her mother’s acts, she finds salvation in an arranged marriage. And Lifka is an outlander child, who should have been marked as a slave but instead found a beloved family–but unexpectedly finds herself drawn into the politics of the court…

It’s hard to summarise Black Wolves, partly because it is a thick book; but also because it is so very, very dense. Elliott excels at worldbuilding, and the tangled skein of politics and religion she weaves in the book is absolutely masterful–this is a universe that feels lived-in and real, and not merely a prop for a war. Black Wolves tackles ideas of duty to one’s country and one’s king, and how far they can be separated–but it also deals, interestingly, with the past. The prologue, set 42 years before the main narration, seems at first an interesting if bewildering choice when the pace moves forward and a lot of the characters are lost; but it turns out to be an absolutely key piece of the book, as one of the major themes is change, and the moment of change–and the question of how much a kingdom has to change to face the future.

The creeping influence of the Beltak religion is sometimes a bit caricatural (though there are plenty of other religions to offset this), but the court politics and the way they can trap even the king himself are wonderfully done. This is a book that concerns itself with people not always seen in epic fantasy: with women (and older women in particular, Dannarah and a few other characters being refreshing because they’re effortlessly competent and not inclined to give much thought to other people’s opinions); with older heroes (Kellas in particular), and with the influence people who aren’t of noble birth or of royal blood (or male) can have on the fate of a nation where men seem, at first glance, to hold most of the power (and are making plans to acquire even more of it).

There are several wrenching twists as Elliott brings her narration home; a reminder that even the best laid plans can falter and fail on what seems like the most inconsequential of things–and an absolutely awesome ending that effortlessly turns everything that’s happened till then on its head and made me take a long, hard look at my own assumptions.

Also, it has giant eagles. What are you waiting for?

Recommended, and the best epic fantasy book I read this year.

Buy this book.



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