Black Wolves by Kate Elliott. ★★★★
Trigger Warning: Rape
This may be my favorite read yet from Kate Elliott, and I have the feeling that this trilogy will become one of my all time epic fantasy series. If non-Western epic fantasy with loads of ladies who do things sounds like something you’d like, then you need to read Black Wolves.
The first hundred pages of Black Wolves introduce many of the central characters, but everything then changes after a forty-four year time skip. King Anjihosh saved the Hundred from demons and conquered it in the process. The story starts with Kellas, a captain of the Black Wolves, the king’s elite unit of soldiers and spies. The king’s son, Atani, learns of a family secret and soon after disappears. Kellas is tasked with his retrieval. The first section ends soon after. In the time skip, Atani both became king and was murdered on one fateful night still shrouded in questions and mysteries. Now Atani’s son is king, and he fears that no one around him can be trusted. His aunt Dannarah enlists a now elderly Kellas to return to safeguard her nephew and his kingdom.
However, Kellas is just one of many protagonists, all of whom have their own storylines. Dannarah is a Marshel of the Reeves, an ancient military order who’s members are chosen by and bonded to giant eagles. Under her nephew’s rule, she’s seen her power diminish, and she fears for the Reeves as a whole and their traditions.
Lifka is the adopted daughter of a poor carter, who just wants to help her family survive. But the Hundred’s conquerors have become increasingly oppressive of the native culture as the generations have worn on, and new taxes, religious mandates, and forced labor endangers her family. On top of all that, Lifka might just be one of those orphans who has a secret past…
The last couple of major characters are a couple in fact — Gilaras and Sarai, two young people who end up (from her own design in Sarai’s case) in an arranged marriage. Gilaras’s father betrayed Atani, and the family seeks an alliance with a wealthy merchant clan to stay a float. Sarai’s people usually do not marry outsiders… but Sarai is mixed race and has never been fully accepted by her own family members. She’s spent her entire life inside the family’s rural compound, and she wants out. Her girlfriend’s already left, so there’s not much left for her besides spending her days cataloging plants and growing old. When she sees the chance of an escape, she jumps at it.
I was not expecting the time skip at all. I was pretty confused for the first hundred pages! I kept looking at the back of the book and being like, “This doesn’t fit at all what’s happening?” Of course it didn’t. The back blurb was describing events forty-four years later! It was an unusual choice for Kate Elliott to make, and I don’t know how much I liked it. I think it led to Black Wolves having a slower start than it might have otherwise, and I’m not sure it was entirely necessary. On the other hand, it was interesting to have the characters and my assumptions about them shift so radically from one page to the next. Dannarah went from a naive teenage girl to a mature leader, and Kellas went from a young badass male lead to, well, a badass grandpa.
I actually really liked all of these characters. Plus there were some great supporting cast members as well! There’s so many women doing things and being generally amazing… and they interact with other women doing things. Women doing things and interacting with other women isn’t a high bar, but it’s something a lot of fantasy series fail at. Black Wolves gloriously passes that bar.
And the cast of characters is diverse in many different aspects. The majority of the cast are POC and all of the POV characters are. The culture seems to have been based on East Asia but it’s original enough that I can’t pick out any specific influences. Oh, and Sarai is bisexual! Her culture doesn’t allow women to meet with unrelated men before they’re married, but since she’s bi that doesn’t stop her from having a romantic and sexual relationship before she enters into the arranged marriage with Gil. This had the bonus effect of putting her and Gil on more equal footing since they both came in with some prior relationship experience.
Actually, I think Gil and Sarai’s relationship was one of the best arranged marriage plotlines I’ve seen. I tend to hate these plotlines. You know how they go. There’s some naive young woman who has no experience with men or marriage who is suddenly married off (usually unwillingly) to a handsome and super worldly man who is in a more powerful position than her. Of course, he tends to turn out to be the embodiment of perfection and she falls in love with him. Black Wolves changes the equation. Sarai is in her early twenties, not particularly naive, and arranges the marriage herself. Plus, she retains control of all the financial assets she brings to the marriage, so she’s not helpless in comparison to Gil.
I really enjoyed Black Wolves. It just has so much of what I want from fantasy. A world that feels unique and tangible, characters I love, and a plot I find exciting. And I’m going to reiterate this point: it has loads of ladies doing things and some of them are queer. Basically, Black Wolves is everything I love in the fantasy genre wrapped into one awesome package. I’m sure I’ll be recommending this one a ton in the future, and I can’t wait until Kate Elliott releases the next book. It’s slated for spring 2018 and it can’t come out soon enough!