Top positive review
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One of the better books I have read in a long time
on 17 March 2005
Wolfskin is the first of a now complete duet; the other book is called Foxmask. It tells the story of Eyvind, a Wolfskin, or berserker, warrior and his friendship with Somerled. The two swear an oath of blood brotherhood as boys, and this oath affects both boys, and the others they encounter, significantly.
This book is some 700 pages long but I found it flowed past easily. Marillier's writing is easily readable, and does an excellent job of bringing the world to life. She manages to imbue certain, quite small lines with a lot of depth and impact, for example "He was not gentle with me." tells you everything you need to know and a whole lot more about both event and characters involved, and the simplicity makes it all the more powerful. To say even one word more would spoil the impact.
This is a book which benefits from being read slowly and with attention, rather than while half asleep or in a rush. This is partly because of some nice, subtle touches here and there, but also because it is a book set in the Viking world. The characters of Wolfskin explain how their world works, and the reader should listen and view the world as they do. These are not modern characters with modern values transplanted to an older setting, and Marillier should be praised for this. Not every author writing in a historical setting manages to do this, and anachronistic characters are a pet hate of mine. To modern eyes certain things characters do or say seem inexplicable, but those same things fit perfectly into the world. Blood brothers are sworn for life; breaking that bond is unthinkable.
Wolfskin managed to do something which none of the many other books I have read recently has done - it actually made me care. Normally when I read I'm very objective; the characters and story do not touch me at all. Books do not provoke emotion in me at all, with a very few exceptions. Tales of people crying, laughing or having to put a book down because of the emotional weight are almost entirely alien to me. However this book I did put down at two points, and I was astonished to find I actually felt slightly angry and upset on behalf of my favourite character (Margaret) quite frequently. No book has promoted any emotional effect from me in ... years. I also find the book is lingering on in my mind long after I put it down, and that is also rare.
Somerled is an interesting villain. Scenes where his better side shine through are quite touching because they show would could have been. The scene where Somerled teaches Eyvind to write his own name is, in particular, one of my favourites. I found it was quite clear Somerled could have been very different, if only ...
The book is not perfect by any means, and as I write fiction myself I am a very picky reader. I find far less to nitpick about with Wolfskin than with the other books I have read recently. Eyvind and Nessa, the two main characters, felt less compelling to me than Margaret. Margaret is a character who gets relatively little space, perhaps only appearing in 1/8th of the book total, and yet she really did grab my imagination, and has continued to hold my attention several days after I closed the book. I found both her story and her character to be more engaging to those of the main duo. I wish she had been given a lot more pages. Nessa, in particular, had no real effect or interest for me, and I found her parts of the book to be my least favourite parts, except when her path crossed with Eyvind or Margaret.
There are certain moments where characters actions become a little hard to believe. At some points, even reading with the Viking viewpoint instead of a modern one, I found myself asking why Eyvind never even said anything about certain of Somerled's actions, or tried to explain why his friend was wrong. At first Eyvind does try, but he is always quickly rebuffed and made to seem stupid, and from there seems to give up. But I still find it hard to believe Eyvind, who is undoubtedly a good man, did not keep trying, especially when Somerled went from smaller evils to increasingly greater ones. He does finally start trying again in the end, but not before letting many things go.
Marillier manages something which both frustrates and delights me - she has her characters acting like real people, and at some points this gets rather unfair. It hurts when characters I like get the short end of the stick, but at the same time it's brilliant to see characters behaving just like real people, who do have selective memories and can be painfully unfair.
The book is not a pure historical novel; it does feature some magic. I would not say it is a fantasy story through, just a good story which needs certain parts of Dark Age mythology to be 'real' so it can tell the tale it wishes to. Indeed, this approach does lend the story a certain feeling of kinship to the old Viking sagas.
I am currently reading the second in this duet, and I feel that the two books should be read together. Marillier is doing an excellent job of adding new depth and insight into her original characters, even if the second books mostly concerns their children. Somerled in particular is becoming more and more sympathetic to me as I go. A re-read of Wolfskin will follow once I have finished Foxmask. I do not usually re-read books so soon after finishing them, but I feel I am learning such a lot I will gain more from both books.
In closing I would recommend both books.