This richly-drawn, intricate fantasy novel breathes with life in all ways. It’s an absolute pleasure to read a fantasy story which shows more than just a single hero with a sword. The world of the Iskyrne warriors (which will look joyfully familiar to anyone who has spent time studying Old English and the Anglo-Saxon culture) feels real. This world is populated by people of all kinds — not just fighters, but also smiths, caretakers, farmers, housewives, students, and even obnoxious teenagers who don’t know their limits.
Aelfgifa (what a great name!) is one of the novel’s viewpoint characters, and she’s a fish out of water; a daughter of a king (well, a wolfjarl, but let’s keep it simple for now) who is far from home. She’s been apprenticed to learn to be a smith with the alfar — some of the most interesting and unique elves I’ve read about. But when things go wrong in the alfar city, she needs to travel back to her home — and that turns out to be a good thing, as her home community is under a grave threat. The Rhean (think Romans) have arrived with war mammoths and thousands of soldiers, prepared to conquer.
What follows is a wonderfully engaging series of character-driven events in which the different groups must find their own ways to resist the Rhean invasion. Perhaps my favorite viewpoint character, Otter, is a woman who has escaped from Rhean slavery. Her point of view brings home the very real danger that the invasion presents. Not only that, but her place in the Iskyrne society as the huswyf — the woman who needs to make sure that the warriors are supplied with food and drink as she is concomitantly keeping things running in the great hall — reminds the reader in such a real way how invasion affects everyone in a country. The battles don’t happen in isolation. Without Otter and her supplies, the soldiers would be unable to fight. She is as much a part of the resistance as the men and women out their wielding their swords.
As much good fantasy does, this one also contains some magic as well as some mysteries; the magical link between the wolves and their warriors as well as the magic-mixed-with-old-fashioned-hard-work methods which the different branches of the alfar use to work metal and stone both play an important part in the story as it unfolds. The magic adds to the detailed world-building and doesn’t ever get used as an escape from the character-driven conflict.
All in all, I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who loves intricate world-building, carefully crafted cultures that feel solid and real, and characters who steal your heart (and…occasionally…make you screech in frustration.) On a side note, this is the third book in a series, but I read it as a stand-alone and found it easy to get into. I will be going back to find the other novels now, though. I’m pleased to add Monette and Bear to my ever-growing TBR list!