PROS: Strong attention to historical detail; Interesting reworking of familiar myths and tropes.
CONS: The third person omniscient POV of the book doesn’t always work; a key change in a character is told, and not shown.
VERDICT: An uncompromising, extremely dark historical epic with a patina of fantasy that suits its target audience well.
Vali thought of the Odin-blind berserks and the needless deaths they had caused, thought of the stupid frenzy that had exposed his kinsmen to danger and the valuable slave hanged on the returning boat. One day he would drink Odin’s blood, tear that god down and make him pay for his corpse lust.
9th century Viking King Authun has a problem. A good king needs an heir, or else what he has carved out with blood and blades will be lost. Authun has plenty of daughters, but no male heir, and in desperation, has sought the advice of a treacherous set of witches. They have directed him to the west, where the son he seeks will be found in a church at a settlement just waiting to be raided. The raid goes off as planned, but Authun discovers not one babe in the promised place, but, instead, twins. Which twin is the right babe? And what should he do with the other one?
This is just the beginning of Wolfsangel, a historical fantasy novel by M.D. Lachlan. Wolfsangel is the story of those two children, as, leading very separate lives, they grow, struggle and slowly learn that their destinies and even their very nature are more than Authun realizes, more than the witches realize, and even more than the Gods themselves may realize.
For much of the book, the fantasy elements of Wolfsangel are slight in the sense that much of what we see can be explained by non-supernatural means. It’s a realistic magic system we are ultimately presented with; there are hints and intimations of the Norse deities and magic, but for much of the novel it is all shadows and whispers. Readers won’t find overt, big scale and obvious magic, or Thor coming down from the heavens and knocking sense into trolls. The magic system here is an extremely subtle one.
Thus, most of this book is a dark, savage, and sobering historical period novel focusing on the life of the fostered heir of a Viking king in 9th century Scandinavia, and his twin who grows up in very different circumstances. The novel plays with expectations as to who the “werewolf” is going to be and what positions the characters play in the mythological tapestry that very gently over-frames the narrative. The werewolf myth, as it comes to fruition here, is nothing like werewolves in modern urban fantasy. It isn’t until the last act of the book, however, that the fantastical elements are strong and clear enough that the book unquestionably features a supernatural Norse werewolf.
The major weakness of the book, in my opinion, is the author’s choice of a character’s a point of view. The book is written in multiple third-person viewpoints that every so often seem to skate into a third-person omniscient. This quavering of the viewpoint was noticeable and I think it weakens the narrative somewhat. It is possible that, given that third-person omniscient is somewhat out of fashion, that I was under prepared for a book that relies on it. And given that choice, I found it a bit odd that a key change in the character of Authun is at first told rather than shown.
Other quibbles about the book are more minor. The major female character, Adisla, often feels more like a pawn than a character in her own right. This improves as the novel progresses, but for a fair chunk of the book, she is not more than a McGuffin. The unlikely survival and actions of another female character feel more like a plot device than anything else. The end of the book, when the supernatural elements burst forth like Fenris Wolf bursting free of his chains, stands in stark contrast than the “perhaps it is magic and perhaps not” feel of the previous chapters. I think the transition could have been handled a little better.
Finally, the novel might be a tad too grim. It’s not a happy book, although one can argue that the fatalistic, brooding narrative parallels very well with Norse myths and stories. The book does not end happily, in a resolute bleakness that reminds me of some of the work of another writer of things Norse, Poul Anderson.
Those points aside, there is a lot to like in Wolfsangel. Lachlan (who is a journalist in his day job) has done his research extremely well, and it comes across on the page. From daily life, to Viking raids to a remorseless trek in the far north of Norway, the landscape and the people who inhabit it are convincingly invoked. If novels are meant to transport you to other places and times, Wolfsangel definitely and definitively puts you in early Norse Scandinavia. Too, Lachlan also writes rather savage, bloody, and realistic combat scenes. No flynning or cinematic exploits, here. This is not Lachlan’s first novel, and the polish of his writing shows.
In addition, the characterization of the three main characters, and the core dynamic of two brothers and the woman between them is set up very well. Although they start at the same point and have some similar experiences, the two brothers contrast well against each other and against Adisla. The minor characters are fleshed out well, too. I especially liked the trader Veles Libor, especially because he was so very different than his more martial countrymen.
I understand that Wolfsangel is the start of a series of novels that, together, work much like the Katherine Kerr novel Daggerspell – these characters are going to be reborn again and again, with their struggles against each other to be played out over time. Although this type of fiction is too grim for me to want to read every time I open a book, I will be looking forward to what Lachlan does with the core characters, in new bodies and a new milieu.
And if you do want to learn more about Wolfsangel and M.D. Lachlan and his work, Patrick Hester recently conducted a podcast interview with him here at SF Signal. Although I had finished the book prior to listening to the podcast myself, the interview was an eye opener on the book and what Lachlan is doing in the novel.