There is a brutish energy in Kathleen Kent's prequel to her well-received Heretic's Daughter, a comingling of harsh animalistic dangers with politics, power and passion. The howling wolves that come for their prey are both the two-legged and the four-legged kind, and each will stop at nothing to prevail.
The book opens with the introduction of Martha Allen, a resourceful and sharp-tongued young woman who is forced to take the position of glorified servant to her weak-willed cousin Patience, who is expecting her third child in colonial Massachusetts. There she meets a giant of a man, the Welshman Thomas Carrier, a hired worker with an air of mystery. It is rumored that for the love of Oliver Cromwell's cause, he took an axe to the head of King Charles I and now has a bounty on his own head.
For Martha, Patience, Thomas and the other characters, life in the colonies is not easy. They must deal daily with threats of the plague, famished and hostile Indians, hard toil, and of course, the ever-present danger of the wolves. And the dangers lurk not in the community, but from overseas. Unbeknownst to Thomas, King Charles II has ordered a group of brutal Royalist minions to cross the ocean and bring Thomas back to be drawn and quartered for killing his father.
The two stories - that of Martha and Thomas in the colonies and the expertly trained and thuggish killers who are determined to capture Thomas - are juxtaposed, each highlighting the same theme: the courage and independence that are demanded in a time of danger and change.
Kathleen Kent does not shy away from darkness. She depicts everyday life in all its gore: an injured and frightened lamb being used as bait, a horrific recounting of a pit bull dog fight, the impressments of a young lad who is destined to be thrown overboard, the capture and burning of conspirators at the hands of some Indians. Those who have read Heretic's Daughter know that this is not an author who will whitewash the quest for survival or the challenges of day-to-day existence in an often-unfair world.
Even the progression of the love between Martha and Thomas is tempered by harshness dashed with a dollop of sweetness. At one point, Thomas pauses to tell her, "You are the deer shot through with arrows whose heart grows cold for want of being taken." And eventually: "But for this day, we live. So bide with me. Bide with me and take from me what you can, as I will from you. And however long we walk this earth, we can stand for one another..."
The book falters a bit when it takes the reader away from the main action to the back streets of London or the tempestuous times aboard a creaky merchant ship. Knowing that this is a prequel, the suspense of the hunt for Thomas is stunted. But then Wolves of Andover always rights itself and shines, capturing - through Thomas's telling - the turbulent times and battle between Charles I and Cromwell and focusing on life in the plucky colonies and the budding romance of Martha and Thomas.
It bears mentioning that Kathleen Kent is a descendant of the real Martha Allen Carrier, who was hung as a witch during the Salem trials of 1692. She does her ancestor proud with a book that is admittedly not an historical recreation, but rather a page-turning book of historical fiction (emphasis on the fiction) that, once started, is impossible to put down.