Friday, June 10, 2011
Author: S.A. Swann
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Wolfbreed was an underrated gem, a blend of historical fantasy and paranormal romance that gave a stark and authentic portrayal of life in the middle ages and the dark side of human nature. It's a tough act to follow, so author S.A. Swann doesn't try. Instead, he takes the setting and crafts a different story, with new characters and a completely different tone. Results are good. While Wolf's Cross does not pack the brutal impact of its predecessor, it is just as good as a story, and in its own way quite a bit deeper.
Our story takes place in 1353, roughly a century after the events of Wolfbreed. The existence of werewolves is now known to the Catholic Church, but kept secret from the general populace in order to avoid witch-hunts. The Teutonic Knights have formed a special unit, the Wolfjagers, with a mandate from the Pope to hunt down and destroy werewolves. When a detachment of Wolfjagers gets their collective ass kicked by an especially nasty lycanthrope, they take shelter at Gord Narew, a castle in the Masovia. Our primary heroine is Maria, a peasant girl who works as a servant at this same castle. Although the lord is none too happy about the presence of the Wolfjagers -- particularly since they work for a rival political faction -- he nonetheless offers them room and board until their wounded recover. One of those wounded is Brother Josef, whom Maria gets stuck playing nursemaid to. As he convalesces, they get to talking, and soon sparks begin to fly. Meanwhile Damien, the werewolf who attacked the Wolfjagers, has followed them to Grod Narew hoping to finish the job. Instead he becomes the third vertex of the love triangle, because he recognizes what Maria is, as well as the true purpose of the silver cross she never takes off.
A big theme in Wolf's Cross is ignorance. Like it's predecessor, it uses multiple viewpoints to tell the story. However, Wolf's Cross gets much more mileage out of the device. Each major character has a unique perspective on the situation they find themselves in. More importantly, each character has incomplete information about the situation. Only the reader has the full story. You could make a pretty strong case that, if even one of these characters saw things as the reader did, the plot could have been resolved with minimal bloodshed. It's the same idea that underlaid Secrets and Shadows: hiding secrets from your loved ones doesn't protect them and could possibly make things worse. Wolf's Cross does it a lot better, though, and with more subtlety.
The downside is that seeing each character's perspective means each character is sympathetic. Which in turn means that for a large portion of its reading time, the book lacks a clear antagonist. Damien is clearly an antihero at best, and probably not heading for a good end. But we get his history in flashback, and darned if you can't kind of see where he's coming from. So Swann has to fudge a bit to get back on track for a solid climax, and he does so by pulling out the whole "dominant alpha male" bit with no build-up. Well, "no build-up" might be a little harsh. It is an established part of the werewolf mythos, like the vulnerability to silver. And Damien does have a possessive streak which, while not a good thing, is for once actually understandable. But still, when he shifts gears abruptly from seducing Maria to insisting she submit to him at the exact point where the story needs a real monster instead of a tragic monster, it prompts a disapproving glare at the author. As does a secondary character's equally abrupt switch from reasonable if misguided authority to raving zealot. Swann pulled that trick in Wolfbreed, too, and it didn't work there either. He played up Erhard's doubts and conflicting loyalties for the entire book before having him decide "Oh, screw it. BURN THE WITCH!" in the last chapters. Much as I like settings with heroes and villains drawn in grey scale, the author doesn't really handle them very well.
Fortunately, he compensates by handling nearly everything else well. The odd thing about studying werewolf fiction is that you wind up reviewing a disproportionately large number of new writers. So when the work of a seasoned pro with nearly 20 books under his belt crosses my desk, the difference is immediately apparent. While the tale moves a little slower then I'd like, it's never padded. Every scene has it's purpose, and the character development proceeds at a steady clip. Likewise, the focus on world-building that distinguished Wolfbreed is still present. The Black Death is a major factor in the backstory, as is the political entanglements of the era. And I've talked already about the characters.
One nitpick I have is with the sexual undertones of lycanthropy. Again, this is a common aspect of the werewolf mythos, and I'm certainly no prude about it either. It fits in very well with Maria's identity crisis, as well as the obsession with chastity in the middle ages. Double points since Josef, as a warrior monk, also has to keep it in his pants. The problem is that if this kind of metaphor is not played well, it can easily induce snickering. The explicitly orgasmic transformation sequences in Wolf's Cross are a bit of a level breaker. And the reader response to mentioning beast mode Darien's erection is probably not what Swann intended.
All in all, though, Wolf's Cross makes for a very good read. Will fans of Wolfbreed like it? I'm not sure, really. It's a bit of a genre shift. It's a much quieter, more low-key story than it's predescessor: instead of werewolf rampages and political intrigue, the focus is on character drama. But I liked it. There's no word on a third entry in this series, which is a shame, because I for one would like to see more in this universe.