Published by BantamSpectra
Werewolves have been part of the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and a part of human folklore for hundreds of years. In Wolfbreed by S.A. Swann, these creatures of legend are a tool of the church as Christianity attempts to sweep through and ‘convert’ Europe. At the heart of the novel are two young protagonists, Ulf and Lily, one of whom is a wolfbreed and the other the last survivor of a ravaged village. The wolfbreed (Lily) is being hunted since her escape from the dungeons of the church, coming to realize she was being used for many years.
The novel begins with a prologue which relays a Teutonic Knight’s discovery of young pack of werewolves. These wolf cubs are treated as both an abomination and a blessing – they represent the pagan fears the church is trying to eradicate. However, as a blessing, the church plays on this fear and uses these ‘demons’ to help in their crusade to bring the pagan peoples under their sway as converts.
One of the great things about the book, and an element that helped to keep me turning the pages, was Swann’s structure for the novel. In interweaving sections, Swann reveals the past of Lily and her wolfbreed pack-mates as they are trained by the church to terrorize villages. The bulk of the novel deals with the aftermath of Lily’s escape as she comes to the attention of Udolf, who is in the woods helping to make his adopted family make ends meet. You see, Udolf’s family was slaughtered about a decade prior to the events of the novel in one of the Church’s destructive conversions. In addition, Udolf lost an arm the night his family was slaughtered so his self-worth is not exactly high.
Swann fills the novel with multiple conflicts, each of them paralleling each other. In Lily, we have a creature that is conflicted herself – between her human side and her wolf side. During her years as a captive of the church, she was tortured and abused, with hints of rape thrown into the mix. To help herself cope, she split her personality and hid part of herself away to avoid really experiencing those horrid deeds. When she comes to meet Udolf, she is a shell of a person having regressed in her ability to communicate. However, she displays great physical strength and a remarkable ability to heal, which helps Udolf’s family a great deal. All told, Swann has given readers an empathetic, remarkably drawn character in Lily.
In Udolf, Swann drew an equal to Lily’s complexity. He’s mentally tortured and physically damaged and immediately finds himself drawn to Lily. As the truth of Lily’s nature began to reveal itself, a crossroads of all the characters came to bear and it was handled very well. It was difficult to pull away from the novel for the majority of its length and the pages turned very quickly. Swann effectively portrays this, but the strength of Udolf’s character is that he isn’t entirely downtrodden, nor does he fully hate himself.
Often in such stories, the Church is depicted as a controlling all-powerful organization with little regard or connection to the ideals it supposedly espouses. It can be a little cliché, but here, Swan managed to make it work refreshingly well. More importantly, a lot of their actions and the story itself comes across as plausible….if werewolves existed. One element I had hoped to see when I first started reading the book was an origin of how these werewolves came to be. As Swan’s narrative progressed; however, the importance of that ‘backstory’ receded into the shadows and the story turned out better by not having such revelatory scenes.
Swann, as it turns out, has launched a series with this book for the second book Wolf’s Cross is set to appear in about a year. This is a good thing because in Wolfbreed, he’s given readers engaging characters, a plausible conceit, and a greatly-paced story.
© 2009 Rob H. Bedford
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