The first of the Iskryne series, A Companion to Wolves, detailed the matriculation and coming to power of a boy named Isoflr, becomes the leader of a company of men who are psychically bonded to hyper-intelligent wolves, and is bonded himself to the alpha female of a new wolfheall. The wolfhealls act as a military force protecting the rest of this Viking-like people from trolls in the north (who end up being just as strange and magical). The wolfcarls fight down the trolls, but then face an invasion of Rheans (who are, roughly, Romans) from the south in The Tempering of Men.
Isoflr is the son of leaders, and becomes a leader himself, is tested again and again. Though there are some very clever inversions and reversals in this tale, A Companion to Wolves is an iteration on the boy’s coming of age, common enough in epic fantasy. Isoflr and his fellows are at the center of things, men in a man’s world. But by the time we get to An Apprentice to Elves, we are way, way out from the center. This series is about this centripetal movement through a rich and textured world, from the center to the edges, from the leaders of men to the complicated, messy people who are neither one thing nor another, struggling hard at the edges of their possibility.
There are three main characters: Alfgyfa, Tin, and Otter. Alfgyfa is the daughter of Isoflr, the legendary wolfcarl. She was promised in her infancy to apprentice as a smith with the svartalf, the elves of the title. The svartalf are ground-dwelling matrilineal creatures with a harmonic language humans are incapable of mimicing. Alfgyfa struggles with the physicality of the smithing, with the foreignness of the svarlalf culture.
Her mentor is Tin, a svartalf Mother and Smith, who has, since her introduction in A Companion to Wolves, been a fascinating counterpoint to Isoflr, this force for change in her fiercely conservative and almost isolationist culture. She and Isoflr act as parents to Alfgyfa in many ways, each working from their own rigidly gendered cultures, with their own stories and expectations. That Alfgyfa ends up as an unexpected blend of the two backgrounds, breaking all the rules she can find, is maybe not as unexpected as it might seem. Alfgyfa is her father’s daughter, and that woman cannot bond with the fearsome trellwolves is a fearsome irritant. He would not brook such small-mindedness; neither does she.
There is also Otter, a former Rhean slave now coming into her own in the wolfhealls of the Northmen. Otter’s half-culture, the ways she learns and understands her new people through the people who enslaved her, provides a sharp counterpoint to Alfgyfa: the ways she is set against herself by her very own people. Peoples.
No one is simply one thing in An Apprentice to Elves, the ways no one is simply one thing in this hard life. The opening is deliberate, setting you up for the rising action of the climax in a way that means the novel could probably stand alone (which is no mean feat, as this review probably indicates). This is a rich, complicated, textured world, with a myriad of different people, different creatures, different cultures, coming together in both a hard clash and a harder understanding. This is the kind of fantasy that makes you slow down, sound out the unforgiving consonants of a foreign culture, so you can hear those uncomfortable vowels, both the familiar and the alien. We don’t have to be just one thing, but several, and in fruitful opposition. Winter isn’t coming. It’s already here.