Review: Black Wolves by Kate Elliott

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An exiled captain returns to help the son of the king who died under his protection in this rich and multi-layered first book in an action-packed new series.

Twenty two years have passed since Kellas, once Captain of the legendary Black Wolves, lost his King and with him his honor. With the King murdered and the Black Wolves disbanded, Kellas lives as an exile far from the palace he once guarded with his life.

Until Marshal Dannarah, sister to the dead King, comes to him with a plea-rejoin the palace guard and save her nephew, King Jehosh, before he meets his father’s fate.

Rating: ★★½

Well… This book was disappointing, to say the least. I’ve been wanting to read something by Kate Elliott since ever, because, you know, she writes high fantasy without it being dudebro-ish high fantasy, and I hate dudebro-ish high fantasy. So you can say my expectations were really, really high.

And, unfortunately, Black Wolves didn’t meet them.

But first, the good: Black Wolves is diverse. You won’t find a pseudo-Medieval Europe here. Most characters are Asian, a few are black, there are lots of women and one of the main characters is a bisexual woman (Sarai). Dannarah, the other main character, is an older woman too, and the other main character (we have lots of those) is an older man, Kellas. So, not your usual heroes either, which is what I usually look for in my fantasy.

The worldbuilding is good. We have mainly two cultures clashing in Black Wolves: that of the Hundred, where the story is set, and that of the Sirniakan Empire. In the Hundred, men and woman were always treated as equals, while in the Sirniakan Empire gender roles were much more strict; in the Hundred, people worshiped seven gods and four mothers, and in the Sirniakan Empire they believed in only one god. When Anjihosh, a prince of the Sirniakan Empire, came to the Hundred and freed them from the demons (thus becoming their king), he more or less let them keep their beliefs. But decades later, his grandson, Jehosh, is now king, and his wife, Queen Chorannah, also a princess of the Empire, is kind of pushing her people’s beliefs onto the kingdom. Needless to say, conflicts ensue.

Other thing I liked: pathetic men being depicted as pathetic men, even when they are powerful leaders or handsome youths. Something that always irked me about the already mentioned dudebro-ish high fantasy books is how we had these men with obvious flaws who did awful (or petty or just plain wrong) things (usually to women) and the narrative still portrayed them in a good light. A men who cheated or treated his wife badly and got away with it for being rich/powerful was rarely an jerk, for example, if he was also a skilled warrior or a great fighter. If men had “redeeming” “masculine” qualities, these things they did were always forgotten, and these “redeeming qualities” were, out of nowhere, the only thing said about them. Here in Black Wolves it doesn’t happen. Jehosh, the king, is a great warrior who was won wars and all that, but thanks to Sarai’s POV (and Dannarah’s too, I would say), we can see how much of an pathetic idiot he is. Anjihosh is known as the Glorious Unifier, but when we get to know Mai’s story, we understand he is a possessive, entitled piece of shit.

This was probably my favorite thing in Black Wolves. Even the good guys had their male privilege exposed (I’m looking at you, Reyad).

I couldn’t connect with any of the characters but Atani (more on that later), but most of them were well developed. The female characters especially were really good (Dannarah was my favorite), and I have to say it was really refreshing to see women talking about past lovers with no embarrassment or shame.

But it wasn’t enough to make me like the book. Which is frustrating, because Black Wolves has almost everything I usually look for in a fantasy book. So, let me explain why I didn’t like it.

Now, something very personal. Besides the Sirni and the Hundred born, there are the Ri Amarah people. They live in the Hundred but are not from there, and the Hundred people are kind of assholes to them (calling them Silvers and blaming them for literally everything). The Ri Amarah also have strict gender roles, like the Sirniakan Empire. So, I hate books with cultures with strict gender roles. Hate them. They cause me such a visceral reaction that it’s kind of difficult to explain why, but I’ll try.

First, I dislike them because I dislike the idea of strict gender roles, so it’s not something I like to read about. I remember reading Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and thinking how silly it was that the there was a kind of food for men and a kind of food for women (and to this day The Way of Kings has one of the most unreasonable and ridiculous gender roles I’ve ever seen).

Second, in my personal experience, fantasy books with cultures with strict gender roles usually mean fantasy books with cultures where the women can’t do much. In dudebro-ish fantasy books, they are probably there so the author doesn’t have to bother with creating female characters with agency. But in a book like Black Wolves, that usually means we get to see well developed female characters dealing with sexism and being awesome. Which, really, I enjoy. Every time a man half her age told Dannarah she couldn’t be a reeve (giant eagle riders) because she was a woman even though she had been doing it for forty years, I was 100% with her while she rolled her eyes and put him in his place. Even though fantasy books free of sexism, homophobia, transphobia and racism are my favorite, I still enjoy those with it if we get to hear the story of those who are oppressed by these things and still get to live all these adventures.

So, why do I hate these fictional cultures with strict gender roles? Simple: nonbinary people don’t exist in them. Trans people in general don’t exist in them, not even in books like Black Wolves, where LGB people, POC and women get to exist (and LGB women of color too). And, well, I’m nonbinary. Reading about a culture that dictates what men and women can and can not do, where they can and can not go, and not seeing, not even for a single moment, no one, not the narrative, not the characters, question how people who do not fit in these boxes feel about it makes me… I don’t know, upset, to say the least.

And it happens every time. If a fantasy book has a culture with strict gender roles, it’ll either be so the (cis) women can be almost nonexistent and the (cis) men can rule everything or be about the (cis) women dealing with sexism. Never trans people. Never nonbinary people.

Which was a reminder that even fantasy books that welcome women don’t really welcome trans people, even if they aren’t transphobic.

And you know, it would’ve been so easy to make a trans/nb character, even a secondary one, who lived in the Ri Amarah culture or in the Sirni culture… But nope. Everyone is cis. of course.

Anyway, I would’ve still liked this book (if I didn’t like every book that erased trans people I wouldn’t like anything) if not for how unnecessarily long, badly paced and at moments uninteresting it was. Or if I had really liked any of the POV characters.

About the POV characters: I liked Dannarah, but couldn’t connect much with her. Rifka, a young black woman who becomes a reeve, wasn’t given time to be developed, and Gil was kind of boring. I liked Sarai, but like Dannarah, I also couldn’t connect with her. And Kellas was… boring too. That’s it.

Also, Sarai and Gil’s relationship was dull. It was instalove, for a start. They kissed the first time they met, they were smitten the second time they saw each other (which was also when they married), and after a week living together they were madly in love, trusting each other deeply and everything. It was extremely unbelievable.

(They also protagonized one of the most awkward scenes I’ve ever read, which involved sex in a prison cell while the prisoners sang so the guards wouldn’t hear them). (But I found it so nice how Sarai showed him all the things she had learned with her girlfriend – not in this scene thankfully – because it was cute).

So, the only character I really cared about was Atani, Dannarah’s brother and Anjihosh’s son (and Jehosh’s father, and probably the only man from this family who is worth anything, to be honest). He’s not a POV character and he’s dead during 85% of book, but he’s just great. His and Dannarah’s relationship was seriously so nice I’m kind of sad the book isn’t about them. When it was said he was married to Queen Yevah and also had a lover, Eiko, I thought well, great, he was just like his son who is a pathetic idiot who can’t keep it to his pants and is a shit to women, but no! Yevah is shy, and quiet, and doesn’t really want anything with the politics of the court and Eiko protects her! They are friends! Atani, Yevah and Eiko lived peacefully in the palace for years!

So, why couldn’t I read about them instead?

This is kind of ironic because all of this happened in the 44 years the book skipped (well, in 22 years of these 44 at least). Let me explain: Black Wolves starts with Young Everyone (Kellas being 30-ish, I guess, Dannarah being 14 or 15, and Atani being 16) and then after 90-ish pages it skips 44 years and we learn that Atani became king, married Yevah, kept Eiko as his lover, had three sons and died in an ambush 22 years ago, which left his asshole of a son, Jehosh, on the throne. And it’s here that the pacing issues start.

Because, first, this part didn’t need to be this long (the whole book could’ve lost at least 250 pages and done just fine, and I’m being nice here). We didn’t need to read about Kellas’s mission, or about Kellas climbing the Law Rock, for example. I get that the author needed to establish everyone’s personality, but nope, it didn’t need to be this long. Nothing will convince me otherwise.

And  know how the blurb says Dannarah goes to Kellas to ask him to help her save Jehosh, the king? Only happens 300+ pages in. Before that, it’s all set-up. And it’s boring set-up. And even after that, the plot kind of wanders aimlessly. And the thing is, the whole plot revolves around two questions: what really happened in the day Atani died? And how it is related to the danger his son Jehosh is now in? We get to, slowly, find out more about Atani’s death, but there is so much meh between the interesting tidbits that it was not enough to keep me curious. And, really, I loved Atani and wanted to know as much as possible about him.

So, things happens. Sometimes they are interesting, but it lacks tension, which means that even when interesting things were happening I wasn’t that glued to the page. The last 30% was much better than the rest of the book and for a split second I considered reading the second volume, but nope. I’ll pass. Atani won’t probably be there so I have no reason to go, really.

In conclusion, Black Wolves is way too long, has awful pacing and female characters who are interesting, but who I really couldn’t connect to. Also, awkward dialogue. But really, this book failed to me because of the padding. There were so many boring moments between the nice ones that I just couldn’t care about anything.  2.5 stars.

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