Wolfbreed by S.A. Swann (Novel Review)

Discussion in 'Science Fiction & Fantasy' started by Gojirob, Apr 24, 2011.

  1. Gojirob

    Gojirob Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

    Nov 10, 2001
    Going Super Diclonius 4...
    S.A. Swann's Wolfbreed; A Book Review by 'Goji' Rob Morris

    In the earlier part of this past millenium, the Western Christian Church and the Eastern European states launched the Northern Crusades, this in an attempt to convert their largely pagan neighbors; in some cases, it was an also an effort to 'convert' those Christians holding allegiance to the Orthodox Christian Church, as well as Jews. Like its better-known counterpart in the Middle East, it was often a bloody affair marked by actions that could and did call the purity of motive on the part of the Crusaders into question. Ethnic identity entered into these considerations as often as religious ones did, as did the recurrent battles between the Holy Roman Emperors and The Popes in Rome.

    This world of the early-mid 1200's is a brutal one, and the Church often as not suspected its recent converts of either swearing falsely to Christ or drifting back to the pagan ways and beliefs so recently put aside. The line between the world of the old gods and the adherents of the One God is a thin one, as a knight of the Teutonic Order in 1221 learns during an incursion into Prussia (Prusa), when he sees his entire troop wiped away by a feral creature that seems also Human. The plans he initiates after his very near triumph drive the bulk of this novel.

    In the novel's relative present of 1239, a guard in a keep of the Teutonic Order in the now-conquered Prusa does what fictional guards at the start of stories always do. The creature that escapes is a girl named Lilly, but she is wounded in the head by silver, a substance which inhibits the easy healing that otherwise defines her existence. After her wolf-form gets her out of the keep, she is found in the woods by a young man named Uldolf and brought home to his adoptive family. Uldolf has lived with his uncle's family since the Christian knights conquered the village that once stood nearby, a horrific attack that saw his family torn apart and cost him his arm. Uldolf does not recall how all this occurred, and has no real desire to. As the family comes to care for the gentle loving girl Lilly can be, they have no idea of what she can become, or the lengths to which two feuding factions within the Church will go to get her back.

    Swann acknowledges straight out in his foreword that this novel owes its direct initial inspiration to the manga-anime series Elfen Lied by Lynn Okamoto, and the debt is both deep and apparent. Readers/viewers of that series will quickly spot the stand-ins and recombinations and common situations, but this is far from all the novel has, and the differences aside from the time-setting become apparent. For example, Elfen Lied's Kouta fudges the truth to suspicious police at the start of his story and they are forced to leave empty-handed; When Uldolf is similarly cornered near story's end, to the soldiers who question him, he barely has the right to breathe, and they press him on that. Lucy knows she is a person from the start of EL, even if a strange one; Lilly, who can blend in with greater ease than Lucy ever could, first thinks of herself as an animal and a weapon in the employ of her masters. The world they live in is not a prosperous modern one where a family has an old inn they're looking to fix up--the conquest has left them with a small plot of land that demands every ounce of their attention just to survive. The tragedies they encounter are sad but not startling to them, especially as they have been at war.

    While the odd word is bandied about here and there, the Hercules/Xena rule of common talking is in effect, so no ten-footnote references await the unwary. It is strange for someone who thinks of Prussian and German as synonymous to see it so firmly set apart in this story. Christianity itself does okay in this story; some of its supposed officers not so much, as they are very willing to turn away from responsibility for what they have created, and almost incapable of seeing how at odds their mission and methods are with the beliefs they go to the sword for. That said, the villain characters are not that flat; the worst of them has what passes for a moment of decency, but for the most part he is the jerk he seems. One more is an opportunistic monster; the main antagonist becomes lost in the various levels of morals and choice his duties and beliefs demand and offer him. Again, Elfen Lied fans will recognize his likely inspiration quickly, though once more with differences.

    Swann recreates life and death on the German forested frontier well. The impact that even being noticed by local authorities can have on the basic ability to survive the winter is brought home, making later harsher actions really have impact. For the most part, the characters speak when they have something to say, even when an iron glove awaits them for doing so. Once more, the world they inhabit makes it impossible for any of the slapstick that marked off the less controversial portions of Elfen Lied to be even considered. When Uldolf's family takes her in, they must hide that there is even a guest of any kind. In a neat inverse, the locals have up to a point accepted their new masters and religion. It is the conquerors' fear that they weren't thorough enough when forcibly converting them that drives the natives to the brink of revolt.

    It helps going in to know something about this time and place in history, but it is not required, nor is any knowledge of Elfen Lied. Swann is very thorough in setting up his world, and except for one situational nit at the novel's very end, he is very good with follow-through. The antagonists are all so secure in their power and correctness that subterfuge and surprise revelations are few and far between. The story is about normal people in that time and place navigating a normal-plus situation, to survive the present and reconcile a dark past. I'll say, in the case of Wolfbreed, you will know where it is going, and you will go there anyway.

    A very good book in any event, and for me as an Elfen Lied fan, a lot of fun. I recommend it.