Epic fantasy is the fiction of my heart. Yet as much as I love it, it’s often tough to find a book that doesn’t just rehash the same tropes (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that—tropes in just another word for tools, after all). When I first opened Leo Carew’s The Wolf and was greeted with a suspiciously Britain-shaped map of Albion, I thought I knew what to expect, and it may have given me pause. I couldn’t help but wonder: am I in the mood for another fantasy set in a fantasy analogue of a European country?
Well, I am here to tell you, friends: never mind the shape of that map. You don’t want to miss this one: Carew’s debut is remarkable in its ambition, and does not disappoint where character and worldbuilding are involved.
Albion is an island divided. The Black Kingdom, located north of the Abus river, is wild and untamed, populated by a fearsome race of beings literally born for war. Living twice as long as humans, and towering above most of them at around seven feet in height, the men of the Anakim are born with bone plate armor just under the skin of their chests. They are a warrior people. Much like the Spartans of ancient Greece, every man serves. Every man fights. South of the Abus lies Suthdal, populated by more familiar humans, plentiful in number, though softer, and more interested in wealth than in war.
Unexpectedly, it is the Sutherners who break the tenuous peace between the two peoples; they inavade Anakim territory, killing the Anakim leader, the Black Lord. Roper, the Black Lord’s heir, young and unready as he is, faces an ultimate test of life and death. To survive, he must succeed in his rule, or risk death at the hands of he who would challenge his rule—the captain of the Sacred Guard, Uvoren the Mighty. But Roper also facing a cunning foe from the south in Bellamus, a crafty politician who has fomented war with the Anakim in a strange attempt to both learn the race’s secrets and eradicate them from the land. Bellamus is secretly backed by the Queen of Suthdal, and her motivations are as yet unclear.
Carew’s plotting is remarkable. Many epic fantasies begin with, and are organized on the back of, a quest narrative. More often than not, the climactic moment is a large battle, and the winner of said battle (whether it comes at the end of the book or the end of a trilogy) is the ultimate victor, forever and ever. The Wolf begins with the epic battle, which we experience through the flawed, fumbling leadership of Roper, who makes terrible choices, revealing just how green he is as a leader. His struggles do not end on the battlefield, and as he learns to wage a more intimate sort of war—one of politics and personalities—he makes yet more dangerous blunders. He chooses dubious allies who might, in the end, be more deadly than those he’s ostensibly fighting. The question remains, can Roper figure out how to succeed in both open warfare and in the political theater?
Women are largely absent from the narrative, but don’t be deceived into thinking they don’t have just as an important role to play as Roper and his male allies. Early on, Roper makes a marriage of politics to the daughter of his most powerful ally, Tekoa. But his bride, Keturah, is no object to be bartered with. Her father and her husband both defer to her choice to enter into the union, and she proves to be more skilled at the game of politics than her new husband. She enters the marriage willingly and with eyes wide open. For the two of them, it’s an alliance meant to strengthen their country; at this level of leadership, that’s more important than a love match, and their relationship of mutual respect carries through the novel. Given Keturah’s interest in the secrets of the Anakim, and what she begins to uncover in The Wolf, I fully expect her to have a much large role in the balance of this planned trilogy. Yes, this particular book focuses on epic battles between two nations, and yes, the armies are comprised solely of male characters, but enough hints are dropped about women making moves behind the scenes that I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.
The world of the Anakim is fascinating. It’s got a very Scandinavian feel, but is alien enough to stand on its own. The descriptions of the Anakim’s intimate, almost spiritual ties to the land are often breathtaking and completely immersive. This is epic fantasy with a touch of grimdark, populated by fierce warriors and smart women. Fans of Joe Abercrombie’s novels—particularly The Shattered Sea trilogy—will eat it up like…well, you can imagine.