Kate Elliott is having a moment. February saw the release of her short fiction collection, The Very Best of Kate Elliott. Then in August, her first YA novel, Court of Fives, debuted. Black Wolves is her third book of 2015 and the opening to an expansive epic fantasy series that takes place in the same world as her Crossroads trilogy. It has everything fans of Elliott have come to expect: thorough world-building, an array of characters written with agency and care (especially the women and girls), and a complex, tense political and social chess game played out across a rapidly changing landscape.
Although Black Wolves begins a series and acts as a sequel to the Crossroads trilogy, it stands on its own. Twenty-two years after Dannarah loses her beloved brother, Atani, to a murderous plot, she’s faced with a choice: the standing king wants her to bring Captain Kellas, the former leader of Atani’s Black Wolves, back to the palace in order to protect him from being cut down like his father. Dannarah, now older and a powerful and influential Marshall, is reluctant to bring Kellas back from his self-imposed exile in the wake of Atani’s death. But the Hundred is more complicated and chaotic than ever, and politics force Dannarah to make a choice between old grudges and her professional ambitions. The choice will lead her back to Kellas and to truths about her family legacy that will change her world forever.
This book is ambitious; it plays with well-known fantasy tropes while carving its own path, and features a cast of heroes we don’t often see in epic fantasy. The players are a disparate collection of people from across cultural, racial, and multi-generational lines. Interestingly, the main characters are over 50, supported by a cast of young people caught in a turbulent political situation caused by a wave of social and religious change. Kellas is in his 70s, and Dannarah, who commands a band of warriors and their giant eagles in order to keep justice, is a rare older women to play a prominent role in an epic fantasy. She’s confident, blunt, knowledgeable, and unafraid to challenge the shifting culture, regardless of the consequences. Meeting her gave me the same thrill as when I saw Mad Max Fury Road this summer: thrilled to see a diverse group of strong women (many of them older) taking charge of a genre that often marginalizes them.
Dannarah keeps pushing long after a sexist culture would have silenced or erased her. Although the story belongs to Kellas as well, as he seeks to atone for the mistake that cost him Atani and their plans for the future, the book revolves around the women who have to make tough choices at every turn, for their families and their own safety. This is the type of epic fantasy I wanted as a girl: it sets up a dangerous political situation in which women are players, not simply objects to be moved around the field of engagement. The men can’t dismiss them because they’re an inextricable part of the world, with agency of their own. They must be reckoned with.
Elliott is examining a society in which social and religious traditions of two separate countries are clashing violently, different cultures are hostile to one another, palace infighting is at an all time high, and external foces threaten to destabilize the Hundred. Elliott has always been adept at writing creative, subtle cultures in ways that ask tough questions about social change, and here she draws our attention to the ways power looks different depending on who holds it, how fear can change lives in unpredictable ways, and the lies we tell ourselves to maintain the status quo.
With this book, Kate Elliott has leveled up. It’s a formidable fantasy that engages with the humanity of its characters as they struggle to find their way, exceptionally plotted and filled to bursting with the politics and drama that makes all of her work so memorable. If you’re seeking epic fantasy that remembers women exist—that they matter—Black Wolves is not to be missed.