Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Author: S. A. Swann
Publisher: Ballantine Books
I picked up Wolfbreed more or less on impulse. I chanced upon it while I was browsing the local public library in search of the copy of Frostbite that I knew was there. From the cover, I figured Wolfbreed for a fantasy novel, which is not I genre I read extensively, but that was part of what drew me to it. After a long string of Urban Fantasies punctured by the occasional YA paranormal, I was interested in something a little different. Well, I kinda got that, and I kinda didn't. Wolfbreed has a very by-the-numbers plotline, but it's also a testament to the power of a writer's skill to make even predictable stories interesting. In fact, the quality of the storytelling in on such a high level that I'm annoyed that the book languishes in relative obscurity while lesser books are better-known.
Our story takes place in 13th-century Prussia. Our heroine, Lilly, is a werewolf who was captured in infancy by a Teutonic Knight who didn't know what to make of her. Deciding she was some heretofore-unknown type of animal, he trained her to be a dog of war, and she became quite the effective killing machine. However, she didn't take very well to being locked in a cage, beaten regularly, and the other indignities that go with being classified as a dangerous beast. So in the early chapters we watch Lilly break out of a fortified castle, slaughtering the guardsmen in a brutal massacre before escaping into the woods. Thanks to a bad concussion received during the melee, she's extremely out of it when she's found by a one-armed peasant boy named Uldolf. Unwilling to just leave a bloody and naked woman in the wilderness, Uldolf takes her home to his family's farm. She soon starts to recover and shows signs of an attraction to him. But of course, the Teutonic Knights are not about to let their walking superweapon get away, and soon the family winds up hiding Lilly from pursuers while remaining unaware of her true nature.
Wolfbreed wavers somewhere between fantasy and historical fiction, and devotes a lot of page-space to world-building. This isn't the spic n' span Middle Ages of your average fantasy novel, this is the dirty, gloomy dark ages, an age of roadways covered with horse dung and peasant farms that barely keep their occupants fed. Meanwhile, corrupt clergymen and knights with variable morals rule over the land with terror and violence. It's pretty grim, but it's also a very vivid picture. I can't vouch one way or another for how historically accurate it all is, but that doesn't really matter. For the purposes of the story, what's important is that the world is consistent, plausible, and interesting, and Wolfbreed succeeds marvelously on all three counts. Swann has also taken care to flesh out most of the cast, giving distinct personalities and histories to even one-scene cannon fodder characters. The massive amount of detail helps the story come alive in a way most books don't.
Of particular interest are the bad guys, who are a varied bunch. Chief among them is a bishop who personifies everything that was wrong with the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. He dresses in ostentatious garments with jewelry all over and exhibits an amazing contempt and disrespect for his less-extravagant underlings. Worst of all, he's grossly, massively obese, which in a world where most people worry about having enough food to survive for another year is downright obscene. It's probably telling that he's one of the few characters who never gets a section from his perspective, since he's the least human character in the book. The other major villain, Lilly's master Erhard, is more sympathetic. He harbors some conflicting loyalties and genuinely cares for Lilly -- albeit more in the manner that one would care about a beloved pet than a fellow human being.
Actually, conflicting loyalties are a major theme here, as well they probably should be. The backdrop for this tale is the conquest of Prussian lands by German forces loyal to the church, and the cast is largely made up of Prussians who converted recently -- most of them at the metaphorical or actual point of a sword. So there's a lot of wondering by various characters if the German rulers truly represent Christian values.
The size and detail of the cast, however, brings up a little problem. As alluded to earlier, Swann switches the viewpoint back and forth between several characters, which is not bad. However, he has this really grating habit of showing a scene from one character's perspective, then jumping briefly back in time to see the same events through another character's eyes, essentially making the reader go over things twice. This gets especially annoying during the climax, where we keeping jumping from one character to another and get confused as to what exactly is happening. Frankly, he should have just taken one perspective for a given event and gone with it, because this idea falls under the heading of "murder your darlings."
Swann claims in the acknowledgements that one of his major inspirations was the anime Elfen Lied. Now, I saw only four episodes of that series, because I'm frankly baffled that anyone could find such a bizarre combination of creaking harem anime cliches and gruesome, gory violence appealing. But the influence on Wolfbreed is obvious, maybe a little too much so. I could list at least a half-dozen plot points the two have in common off the top of my head. And as mentioned earlier, even if you look past that the plot is deceptively average. While reading, I was completely engrossed in the world and the characters, and it's only now that I sit down to actually think about it that I realize how predictable it all was. Even the big twist that monkeywrenches Lilly and Uldolf's relationship was something easily seen coming.
All in all, though, I don't find this a problem. I'm sure some people will send the originality police over to Swann's house, but I'm confident he's savvy enough to direct them towards the racks of Twilight and Anita Blake imitators at the local bookstore for a more productive use of their time. Kidding aside, it matters a lot more whether the story is good than whether it's original, at least to me. Good writing can make even the most cliche story enthralling, and Mr. Swann is certainly a good writer. Wolfbreed is absolutely first-rate and definitely deserves a look.