Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Promise of the Wolves

Series: Wolf Chronicles (#1)
Genre: Adventure
Author: Dorothy Hearst
Publisher: Simon and Schuster

I've been duped. Or rather my girlfriend, who got me this book for Christmas, has been duped. But I don't mind too much, because a good story is a good story.

If you've seen this book marketed as a werewolf book, it ain't. It's a fantasy novel that takes place 14,000 years ago, before the neolithic revolution. Is there a genre for prehistoric fantasy? There ought to be, because I can think of two or three works using a similar conceit. You could also argue that Promise of the Wolves is a furry story, since most of the main characters are essentially talking wolves. So I'm a bit out of my element here, but not enough that I can't recognize a worthwhile tale being told.

The story takes place in a sheltered river valley which is home to several packs of wolves and abundant prey. Our heroine is a wolf named Kaala, whose mother made a big mistake by consorting with a wolf from outside the valley. Kaala and her siblings were the result, and when the Swift River pack finds out, they massacre the pups and banish mom from the valley. Kaala herself survives, thanks to the intervention of the Greatwolves, a kind of higher power that regulates the governing of the packs in the valley. The Swift River alpha reluctantly adopts Kaala into his pack, but this is just a temporary respite. Kaala has a year to prove that she deserves to be a Swift River wolf, and with the alpha against her she'll needs to make friends with the other wolves to do so. Complicating matters further is the fact that there are humans in the valley. The wolves are charged to avoid humans on pain of apocalyptic disaster, but they also feel a strange mystical connection. Almost irresistible.

This is, as I said before, a fantasy novel, and heir to all the tropes associated therewith: the hero/heroine marked for a great destiny, the series of trials she has to go through to meet it, the wise old hermits that show up now and again to babble exposition, and so forth. The protagonist is a wolf trying to fit in with lupine society, but that hardly matters. The entire story could be transplanted onto a tribe of prehistoric humans and lose nothing. So Promise of the Wolves is not an especially original story, but it's still a well-told tale. The werewolf stories I so love are built upon an unspoken connection between human beings and the primal, animal self inside us. Promise of the Wolves turns that common device around, showing us a group of animals that are not so different from the humans they co-exist with. As the story goes on, many of the wolf characters wind up paired with humans who share their attributes, further driving home the point that we are all in this together.

If I have a major problem with this book, it's that it switches gears halfway through and never gets back to the story it was telling. Kaala's goal through the first half of the book is to be accepted by the pack. Midway through, she becomes convinced that this is impossible, and the remainder of the book is devoted to averting a war between the humans and wolves. You could tie both together to Promise of the Wolves being a story about Kaala finding her place in the world: when she fails to make it in her pack, she finds another place for herself instead. But in the end, Kaala neither rejects one world nor accepts the other. This makes sense intellectually. Neither society is depicted as bad, and the author is clearly favoring a peaceful coexistence. But it still feels like I've been cheated out of the payoff.

Likewise, the book has the old issue of being the first of a projected trilogy. A love triangle is blatantly set up for future books, and the important revelations are sidestepped with the usual "you're not ready for that yet." But it averts the worst of this by keeping the focus on the story it's telling, and though I can't say much was truly resolved, there's at least a temporary victory at the end, and a feeling that things have changed significantly. I do not feel like I've merely been teased into buying the next book, is what I'm saying.

Promise of the Wolves fails to distinguish itself significantly, but it's solidly put together nonetheless. Call it somewhere between average and above-average.

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