Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: A Companion To Wolves and The Tempering of Men, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

Okay, this is going to be a long post, because I want to comment on various elements of the book(s) and then comment specifically on the trellwolves. You can always skip that part if you don’t care whether the trellwolves are evolutionarily believable; it’s obvious where I switch from one to the other.

So, A Companion to Wolves was published in 2007.

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I didn’t notice this book at all at the time, despite the wolves in the title. Of course, living as I do in an area without bookstores, I seldom notice any title by simply browsing the shelves, depending instead on bloggers’ reviews and so on. However, though I did not much care for her Doctrine of Labyrinths trilogy, I went looking for any other of Sarah Monette’s backlist titles after reading The Goblin Emperor, and by that time I was also keeping an eye out for Elizabeth Bear’s backlist because of Range of Ghosts. The rest of that series is on my MUST READ list for 2015.

From the description and reviews, I had significant doubts about A Companion to Wolves, but with these two authors? I had to try it.

From Publisher’s Weekly (starred review):

Rising fantasy stars Monette and Bear subvert the telepathic-animal-companion subgenre so thoroughly that it may never be the same . . . The meticulously crafted setting and the powerful, often moving rendition of characters and relationships – human and nonhuman alike – result in a brutal and beautiful novel about the meaning of honor. Never blushing as they consider the ultimate sociological, sexual, and moral underpinnings of a “what if” often treated as coy wish-fulfillment fantasy, the authors have boldly created a fascinating world that begs further exploration.”

What sounds great: the meticulously crafted setting and the powerful, moving relationships.

What sounds iffy: telepathic animal companions. I think of that as the My Pretty Pony trope, and it takes a lot to make me accept it these days. Telepathic animal companions are so rarely real animal companions, instead being written as twee pets with no personality and an infinite desire to please their human master. On the other hand, Cherryh got away from that in her Cloud’s Rider world, so I knew it could be done.

What else sounds iffy: “never blushing” sometimes – often? – means that the author ought to be blushing. As you all may have gathered, explicit sex scenes in fantasy are something I usually tolerate rather than enjoy.

The Goodreads reviews are all over the place. Readers love it, they hate it, they think it’s kind of a romance but not really, they think it’s trying to be a m/m romance but fails at that, they note that it is not a romance at all. One reviewer said, “This is pretty much every slash fanfic cliché ever … complete with telepathic wolves and gay Vikings,” which is a catchy phrase and quite a turnoff. Yet other reviewers declare that this book is anything but a porn-fest, and it’s quite clear, if you read any reasonable number of reviews, that the “gay Viking” thing is at best a very simplistic picture of this plot element. Lots of people complained that the names were too hard to remember. Nearly everyone agreed the writing was strong and the world beautifully drawn, which is hardly a surprise with Monette and Bear.

Kristen at Fantasy Book Café gave it a thumb’s up, which matters to me, since we often have similar taste.

The part that sounds great: The names. I like interesting names. Also the great writing and the world.

What sounds seriously iffy: If this book is going to be any kind of fantasy-erotica, count me out.

How the actual story turned out: Really good! I wound up taking two whole days in which I should have been revising my own manuscripts to read the first book and then immediately the second. The third is listed on Amazon with a release date for next fall, and I will probably preorder it to make sure I don’t forget about it.

Okay, to be honest, the names were indeed problematic. Ulfbjorn, Ulffred, Ulfgeirr, Ulfmaer, Ulfrikr, really? There was a list of names in the front of the book, but this wasn’t helpful. What would have been helpful? Well, how about a list of names with brief descriptions, like

Sokkolfr, first named _______, brother to ________ who is a littermate of ________; belongs first to the ________ wolfheall and later joins the ________ wolfheall.

That sort of thing would have helped A LOT to keep the many confusingly named characters straight. As it was, I constantly flipped back and forth in the paper copy of the first book to figure out who a character was. By the second book I had at least the important characters more or less straight, though.

Other than the names, the words were fine. I like having terms like wolfsprechend in the story, because hey, cool word. Mind you, a glossary would indeed be a good idea, but for me the specialized terms did not pose the same problem that the names did. They are clear enough from context, distinctive enough, and few enough in number that they add to the story rather than otherwise. Mind you, although I do subvocalize when I read, difficult-to-pronounce words don’t bother me a bit: I read over them with an approximate, simplified pronunciation and don’t worry about them.

Moving on: plenty of the reviews and comments I read before getting the first book put a lot of emphasis on the sexual relationships between the characters, which as I said is one reason I was hesitant to try the book. But in fact, this emphasis deflects attention from what the authors were actually doing with the story, which was a whole lot more interesting and subtle than I think some commenters realized.

Bonding with wolves changes both the wolves and the men. High-drive or high-emotion moments are shared more intensely between bonded wolves and men. This leads to various complications, as you might imagine.

In particular, after bonding with his “sister” wolf, Viradichtis, Njall – now Isolfr – is compelled, for a short time every year or two, into various sexual relationships that are consensual, but not something he would choose freely without the wolf bond. This is partly where that “gay Viking” crack came from.

But what Monette and Bear have clearly done is to set up – consciously, I’m sure – a society where a) sex roles are very clearly defined, and women are clearly defined as profoundly inferior to men; and b) a young, well-born, intelligent, introspective, heterosexual male is placed in a situation where he must in some ways take the woman’s role. Three or four times during the first book, Isolfr compares his situation to that of a young woman in an arranged marriage. Once he explicitly compares himself to his younger sister Kathlin, who is in fact shortly due to be sent off to a much older man in an arranged marriage.

More than that, Isolfr, because he has bonded with a queen wolf, knows that eventually he will take on the (socially important and respected) role of the wolfsprechend. He explicitly realizes that the social role of the wolfsprechend compared to the wolfjarl is similar to the role that a wife plays in her husband’s household.

More even than that, as we go through the story, Isolfr is repeatedly confronted with situations that make him question the sex roles mandated by his culture – a woman who is “as good a smith” as her husband, but who is not considered a smith, and is that fair? Wolf bitches that dominate the dog wolves. Svartalfar females who are socially superior to the males of their species. Right at the end of the story, Isolfr makes a decision regarding his own daughter that shows how profoundly he has begun to question the role of women in his own culture.

Let me add that this whole theme of subverting gender roles in the Iskryner (Norse) culture looks likely to continue through the whole trilogy, probably gaining steam in the third book. In the second book, The Tempering of Men, we meet Otter, a Brython (British) woman who is currently a slave of the Rheans (Romans).

We don’t meet either the Brythons or the Romans until the second book, which differs from the first in using multiple points of view to more fully show the world, so the story doesn’t feel nearly as intimate. Isolfr is not even a pov character in the second book, and while it was nice to get an outside perspective, I don’t think the second book was as compelling as the first. But it sets up an interesting situation – several interesting situations – which will plainly get resolved in the third book. So the first book is self-contained, but the second is definitely not.

My personal prediction for the third book is that Otter, after rescuing one of Isolfr’s people from the Rheans and being herself rescued, is going to wind up bonding with a wolf – the first woman ever to do so – thus making the whole question of women’s proper role explicit not just for Isolfr, who is already thinking about this, but for his whole society.

Obviously Monette and Bear might have other ideas of what to do with Otter, but if I were writing the story, Otter would definitely have a wolf pup in her near future. For me, the only question would be whether to give her a konigenwolf pup (a queen) or a lesser bitch pup or a dog pup. The greatest subversion of Iskryner cultural norms would occur if she bonded with a dog pup who grew into a big, dominant, ambitious male, but we’ll see.

Okay, about those wolves. Obviously you can skip this part if you’re not interested. I’m going to briefly describe the behavior of normal wolves, then take apart the interesting differences between normal wolves and trellwolves, relating the latter to other known species as I go. But! Even if you are not the least bit interested in working out the evolutionary history of trellwolves, I want to reiterate that A Companion of Wolves is a thoroughly enjoyable story, with a well-developed world, compelling characters – Isolfr does actually remind me a bit of Maia in his strong sense of duty and his generosity – and great writing. As telepathic-animal-companion stories go, it is vastly ahead of the pack (so to speak). People who enjoyed Cloud’s Rider might well love this book. I liked it much better than Cherryh’s book, in fact, because her world felt so much more claustrophobic than this one does. I’m glad Monette and Bear didn’t stop with just one, because I can’t wait to see where they take the story in the third book.

Okay, the wolves are trellwolves, a species that evolved to handle the threat of trolls. Trolls are a terrible threat in this far-north region, and it’s entertaining to think about setting up a situation where the Romans – excuse me, Rheans – run into a big warren of trolls, because I imagine they would immediately declare that the far north is not worth adding to the empire and go home. That might be exactly how we get rid of them in the third book, but who knows?

I enjoyed the trellwolves, and as an added bonus, I think their behavior seems like it could work evolutionarily. Now, Bear did indeed do meticulous research for her Range of Ghosts series, and I’m sure she looked into wolf behavior, so the (extreme) departures from normal wolf behavior that we see in trellwolves can’t be accidental. And I don’t imagine that either she or Sarah Monette is actually an expert in ethology, which is the study of animal behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Nevertheless, just for fun, let’s take a close look at wolves and a few other relevant species and see how they compare to trellwolves.

Ordinary wolves:

The early behavioral research, exclusively done using observations of captive wolf packs made up of unrelated animals forced to live together, gave us a highly misleading picture of normal wolf society. This picture is thoroughly entrenched in the popular conception of wolves and even more thoroughly embedded in fantasy, what with all the werewolf stories that focus so heavily on dominance and aggression. When I wrote Black Dog, I was deliberately using werewolf tropes, with no consideration of real wolf behavior.

For fifteen or twenty years, we have known that actual wolf society does not resemble the popular idea of dominant autocratic leaders who lord it over a linear hierarchy of subordinates. Dominance can be a useful concept, but here it is mostly misleading.

Here is a typical history for a real wolf pack: a young adult individual, male or female, leaves the natal pack during a period of food stress, travels some distance, and meets another dispersing wolf of the opposite sex. The pair finds a good chunk of land unclaimed by other wolves and settles down, aggressively defending their new territory from all other wolves. They have a litter of puppies and rear them. Because food competition is not high in the new territory, the pups stay with their parents, who continue to support them while they grow into yearlings. The breeding pair remains monogamous because the parents are much more sexually attracted to each other than to their offspring and because the territory is vigorously defended against all strange wolves. The next year, they have another litter of pups. The yearlings, not yet sexually mature, remain part of their natal pack. To some extent they are an asset to their parents; to some extent they are being subsidized by their parents. Now we have a pack containing, say, six adults and four pups, but the pair that would be identified as the “alpha” pair are simply the parents of this pack, better termed a “family.” They dominate their offspring by virtue of being the parents and the only fully mature animals in the pack. The younger animals seldom challenge their parents. There is very little overt aggression within this pack; why would there be? The parents are the decision makers not necessarily because they are high-status individuals, but because they are the most experienced members of the pack. Only if food stress becomes an issue are young adult animals likely to be refused access to food, and in that case the young animals disperse, especially if bullied by stronger siblings. If a less-assertive individual disperses and founds her own pack, she will naturally take the so-called alpha role and then she will be assertive. In wolves, the “alpha” temperament does not appear to be inborn or stable.

Obviously there are many, many variations on this theme. Wolf mortality is high. Remove humans as a source of mortality and mortality would remain high, as many wolves are killed by disease, parasitism, and most especially by other wolves. Breeding pairs are most aggressive in defending their territories and most likely to be killed in territorial disputes. If one member of a breeding pair is killed, an outsider is quite likely to join the pack. Sometimes one of the older progeny replaces a parent as a breeding animal. Turnover of the breeding role in wolf packs is high; wolf packs are not usually stable in membership for long periods; few packs last for more than a decade and many for only a few years. However, the point of a wolf pack is to produce dispersing progeny that found other packs, and they are good at doing that. Under good conditions, wolf populations can increase very quickly.

Despite quibbles and ifs, ands, and buts, the term “alpha wolf” and the whole concept of dominance as applied to wolves could be said to be overstated, although one could argue that a more correct term would be “wrong.” As a side note, competent dog trainers have known how screwed up the dominance concept is for a long time. For decades, competent dog trainers have been arguing against the “alpha” concept and asking dog owners to please, please focus on clear communication and clear consequences rather than dominance. I would never allow any trainer to touch my dog’s leash if he was talking about “alpha rolls”. Dogs do not generally get rolled over by their superiors to enforce dominance – they roll themselves over to ask for play, affection, and access to resources, as should be obvious to anybody who has a dog, and especially obvious to anyone who has a pack of dogs. Granted, some breeds are more interested in dominance than others, but the concept of dominance is not a useful lens through which to view dog training – it does not lead to an improved relationship between the dog and the owner, nor does it lead to improving the owner’s control over the dog.

And, by the way, the reason dogs rush through the door ahead of you is because they are excited and want to get out, not because they are thinking about dominance. The reason they pull on leash is because you walk too slowly. Granted, the concept of dominance can be useful in predicting, preventing, and managing aggression between dogs in one household, but, well, we’re opening up another big topic there, so never mind, moving on, back to wolves. Or actually, trellwolves.

Trellwolf behavior:

Trellwolves are much bigger and tougher than ordinary wolves. Also much more intelligent and, you know, telepathic. They think in images and emotions, which makes perfect sense. They hunt the same kinds of prey as ordinary wolves, but they plainly evolved to handle the dangers posed by trolls, which are big, scary, and come in groups, often with wyverns as pets.

Trellwolf packs are dominated by konigenwolves, queen wolves. Queen wolves are high-drive bitches that, as young animals, prior to forming a specific attachment to one male, actively solicit mating from half a dozen or so males during one season. “Alpha” temperament as an inborn trait has been pretty thoroughly debunked for wolves, but never mind. Let’s look at this relatively promiscuous mating system instead.

Actively choosing to breed to multiple males is not a wolf thing at all, but does occur in some species that live in multimale / multifemale groups, such as chimpanzees, bonobos, savannah baboons, and some other primate species, plus a few other species here and there. One persuasive explanation for this system is that, because many adult males could have sired offspring and no male can know for sure whether a particular child is his or not, males are in general very solicitous of all infants.

Among trellwolves, the bigger, more dominant, more driven males fight for access to a female, who then chooses her mates from among the winners. Injuries are very common in these fights, and it is not unheard of for a male to be killed. I am aware of no real-world species where this breeding system occurs. In canids, dholes (Cuon alpinus) and African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) live in large multimale / multifemale packs. Obviously neither species is all that closely related to dogs, since neither is in the Canis genus. Nevertheless, we can pretty well guess why dholes and African wild dogs live in very large packs: it is probably because of the threat posed by tigers (for dholes) and lions (for African wild dogs). One can therefore imagine trellwolves needing larger packs because of the danger from trolls.

As a side note, the extreme male bias seen in trellwolves has no parallel that I’m aware of in the real world – except in African wild dogs, where we see a similar male bias in some packs, so that packs may consist of quite a few males and one or a few females. Young African wild dogs often produce a more male-biased litter than older females, and the reason seems to be that males remain with the natal pack longer than females, so it pays to have sons when establishing a new pack; and because females compete for reproductive opportunities, so the breeding female is better off producing sons who will help and not compete with her.

In trellwolves, this male bias is supposed to be because trellwolves are “warriors” and must fight the trolls, though in a population where individuals are often killed by anything, it makes A LOT more sense to have more bitches than dogs, since it is bitches that limit population growth, not males. Instead, I suspect that the male bias arose because of the intense female-female aggression between konigenwolves: if progeny are at all likely to remain in the natal group, then sons will not compete with their mother for reproductive opportunities the same way that daughters might.

Anyway, in both dholes and African wild dogs, packs form when a group of female siblings joins a group of male siblings. Then one female and one male become the breeding pair and offspring remain in the natal pack for some time before dispersing. What I want to particularly emphasize is that there is almost no obvious aggression within packs of either dholes or African wild dogs, and as far as I know, it isn’t clear how the members of the pack sort out who is going to take the breeding role. Certainly the males do not try to kill each other every time a bitch goes into season. That would be insane, if large pack sizes are important for group defense, which they are. It definitely seems insane for trellwolves to behave like this, so this is by far the least believable aspect of their behavior. Though if males in a pack are unrelated to one another, and unable to form useful alliances, and if their breeding success is strikingly dependent on succeeding in those fights, then I suppose it might work. Why the males would be unrelated to one another, I have no idea.

Except one. Because when trying to explain inexplicable behavior, the saving grace of the trellwolves in A Companion to Wolves is that they are not living under natural conditions. They are living in packs with men. So it’s not at all clear what happens in a wild trellwolf pack. Maybe in a wild pack, groups form the same way they do in wolves or African wild dogs and there is much, much less intragroup fighting, whereas all the movement of men (and their bonded wolves) between groups strikingly increases serious aggression between males. Maybe in wild packs, males work out their alliances and coalitions beforehand, as they do in chimpanzees, so that there is much, much less aggression between males when a female comes into season. Maybe it is the presence of human men who destabilize relationships that ought to be stable. But the way konigenwolves are thought to incite fights among the males so that they can best evaluate the males argues against this interpretation. So I don’t know. It seems to me a bitch would be perfectly capable of evaluating males during troll hunting expeditions, so if the bitch gets to choose her own mate(s) – which she does – why would she risk her potential mates in unnecessary fighting, when bad luck could take her preferred mate right out?

We may never know. But it’s fun to put trellwolf behavior in context and speculate.

Well, I think it’s fun.

Has anybody else read these books? What did you think?

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13 Comments Recent Reading: A Companion To Wolves and The Tempering of Men, by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

  1. Estara+Swanberg

    I still haven’t read the second one (I think it was quite expensive when it came out and I didn’t find a coupon or something and then I forgot it over time), but quite liked the first one. From what I remember reading on LJ at the time, where both of them had longtime journals, the first book was supposed to be a one-off answer to Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and (to a lesser degree) Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. So yay that you’ve found enough to intrigue your scientist side of analysis.

  2. Robert+Massey

    I’ve not read the books, but I did like reading your description of wolf behavior. I had no idea that the popular conception of wolf hierarchy was so wrong, so this was a real eye-opener.

  3. Rachel

    I’m glad you liked Part II of the post, Robert! L David Mech, who was one of the first to really popularize the “alpha” concept, has been vehemently trying to get rid of it since the late nineties at least. Unfortunately, that idea of alpha-ness seems to be too entrenched to ever be effectively dethroned.

    African wild dogs are particularly interesting in the way they re-frame the dominance / submissiveness concepts, because often “subordinate” individuals use “submissive” (puppy-like begging) behaviors to coopt food resources from “dominant” individuals. Given that the subordinate dogs wind up with more food than the dominant dogs, what exactly do those concepts mean?

  4. Rachel

    Estara, I can totally see the book as an answer to the dragons of Pern. Not that I dislike Pern, which I fell in love with as a teenager, but, yeah. Even when I was a teenager, though, the horses of Valdemar were too sweet for me.

  5. Mary Anne

    I read the books as they came out, and just reread them this year.( After I reread The Goblin Emperor – I was on an author roll.) On first reading I really enjoyed the first book but was a little disappointed in the second, mostly because we lost Isolfr’s POV. I kept waiting to get to him, even though, as you said, the external viewpoint was interesting (kind of like Ivan’s occasional perspectives on Miles in the Vorkosigan series.)
    I enjoyed the second book much more when I reread – mostly because I already knew it wasn’t all about Isolfr. I was able to relax into the other characters and value their moments. At the same time, I was a little sadder for Isolfr – I think in viewing him through the eyes of other characters, you get a sense of how remote and lonely he can be, by nature of the position he fills, but also by nature of his character. I found myself cheered each time he let down his guard and made contact with others. I did not know a third book was coming, even though there was so much left hanging at end of the second. Yippee!
    And thanks for the extra on animal (especially wolf) behavior. I am way too lazy to want to dominate my dog, and I always feel a nagging guilt when I allow her to tug me along on her leash. It’s blaringly obvious that it’s because I walk too darn slow, but I still feel judged by all those walking or driving by who would NEVER let their dog be the line leader.

  6. Kristina

    I don’t know that the series would be to my taste, but your post on the other hand is right up my alley. Wild canids of all kinds fascinate me. Recently I’ve been following Running Wolf Nature Photography by Deby Dixon on Facebook and I’ve found her daily posts from Yellowstone illuminating – there’s a lot of overlap between her first-hand reports and what you say here.

  7. Rachel

    Mary Anne, I hereby declare that you can quit feeling nagging guilt for letting your dog pull. Not only is it not a moral issue, but all those people driving by probably let their dogs pull, too. As far as I’m concerned, heeling is like ballroom dancing: a special performance that has nothing to do with daily life. I personally just put my heavy pullers on harnesses and let them pull (some of mine naturally pull and others don’t). I advise people who get puppies from me to use harnesses, not collars. Then they can let the puppy pull without fear that she will hurt herself.

    Of course, all this assumes a dog is small enough that you can hold her easily. Little dogs rule! But for a big dog, I’d probably use a head halter.

    And, yes, according to Amazon, the third book will be called An Apprentice to Elves and will come out next October. Obviously the focus will be on Isolfr’s daughter, but I hope we will also follow everyone else, especially Otter.

  8. Rachel

    Kristina, thanks for the pointer! I don’t use Facebook as much as I probably should, but maybe if I follow Deby Dixon, I’ll start.

  9. Kristina

    Some women dream of Paris; I always wanted to go to Yellowstone. I finally got there for a week this past June. I’d go back in a heartbeat, but for now daily reports on Facebook will have to do. What struck me about your description of wolf behavior was how much it lines up with what I’ve been reading in Deby Dixon’s reports. There’s definitely been wolf-on-wolf aggression, but at least in the time I’ve been following her, it’s been between packs, rather than within them.

  10. Stephanie Burgis

    I absolutely adore Sarah Monette’s writing, so I’ve read all of her other novels (and lots of her short stories), but I didn’t read this one because the stuff I read online about it when it came out all seemed to suggest that there were several scenes of a young boy being gang-raped. I really didn’t think I could cope with reading those scenes, no matter how essential to the plot they might be or how wonderful the writing was. Reading your post, though, makes me think that maybe I was misled about that part. Do you think that’s true? I’d love to be able to read it, because I really think that both of those authors are fantastic, but I’m the mom of two young boys, so if it does involve a boy going through that, I probably wouldn’t be able to manage as a reader (without meaning any insult to either of the authors – there are just things I cannot read about right now).

  11. Rachel

    Hi, Stephanie — I was also really put off by those comments, but yes, I think those comments are seriously misleading. Njall at the beginning is about sixteen, sexually experienced, and explicitly regarded as an adult. By the time he first has sex during the course of the story, he is at least seventeen, maybe eighteen, and that is not remotely a forcible-rape type of situation. I am not sure that every reader necessarily notices how much time passes during the course of this story; by the end of the book, he is about twenty-two. Also, I really would not call even the most difficult scene “rape,” because it is essentially consensual, in the same way that a young woman who agrees that it is her duty to make an arranged marriage could be said to consent to sex with her husband. Also, the social perception of the situation is not at all similar to rape on any side; no one is a bad guy here. That made a big difference to me.

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