Top positive review
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Gritty Magical Epic
on 28 May 2010
There is a single reason why I don't consider myself a book blogger, and that's simply because sometimes real life gets in the way. I'm a slow reader as it is, liking to take my time to absorb the prose, but it would feel slightly unprofessional to take as long as I do over a book. I'm also one of those people who if I don't pick up a book at least once every couple of days, I lose the thread and have to give up.
So I feel slightly guilty towards Wolfsangel. I've been reading it for about six weeks whilst real life makes heavy demands of my time. However, probably the greatest compliment I can pay to it is that the book always kept me coming back for more.
It's competently written as well. I've always believed that prose should serve the story not self-serve the writer's ego, and I recognised a lot of this in the style of Wolfsangel, to the extent that I've spent many a night recently wondering if writers from a journalistic background have a more functional style of writing.
Now that doesn't mean the writing is dull, just that the quality of the prose is consistent, that there were no standout moments, no one-liners I thought "Oooo, I must remember to quote that when I come to write up my thoughts". In fact the only real flourish comes in Chapter 6,
"What is prophecy? It is a wide thing of many forms. We don't call a person who anticipates a cat will knock over a cup and moves to catch it a prophet. We don't maintain that the ability to look at the clouds and say it will rain makes you a seer."
The lack of flourish doesn't cause an issue. Lachlan sets out to tell a big story and flourish would just get in the way.
Now you might already be rolling your eyes at the thought of a Viking werewolf novel, but it's actually very, very original. Yes, werewolf novels have been around for years but Lachlan has done a frankly incredible job of making it fit seamlessly into Viking history. It doesn't feel like a mash up, it feels like they truly belong. I like it when people take those tropes others have deemed impossible to do anything original with, and prove those others wrong. I like it better when they do it well. Wolfsangel does it exceptionally. I think this could go down as a classic amongst Werewolf stories.
I'm really, really fussy about world-building but I have to say that I totally believed in Wolfsangel's world. I don't know how much (like the Troll Wall) is based on fact, and how much was made up, but I never questioned any of it. Seamless - and that's the highest compliment I can pay.
Magic also plays a heavy part in the story, and I think what Lachlan does with it is nothing short of superb. He portrays the magic in such a way that it feels very real. These aren't spells of "accio-werewolf," instead they're much more journeys into the mind, and as such I think they did a lot to make Lachlan's Viking world seem fresh and inventive, real and dangerous, creepy and original. So much so, that when the transformation does eventually take place, we're already so invested in the magic system of this world, it doesn't feel corny. Dare I use the phrase "gritty magic"? Oh I just did.
However, the novel did have a number of minor issues for me and it's taken a lot of time to unravel them. I'm not so naïve to believe that issues are always the realm of the author and this has really stretched my grey matter trying to unravel it all.
Now don't get me wrong the story is great, the ideas rich, original and fantastic, just that I felt slightly removed from the text, that the beat of the story (and my heart along with it) never seemed to quicken or slow down.
There's a lot of set up - it's a big story and there's a lot of story to tell (and to be fair with lots of short chapters, the book gets through the story at a cracking pace). We get introduced to a lot of characters in quick succession, but even a hundred pages in I wasn't sure who I should be rooting for: Vali, his father, Saitada, the witches or Feileg. The point of view can often shift mid-way through a scene and whilst it's done with complete competence, it did leave me as the reader asking myself "whose side am I on?" And whilst some people can whizz through a hundred pages in a couple of hours, at my speed I did wonder where the prologue ended and the story started. It meant that it put a veil between me investing in the characters emotively.
There's also a lot of story here and Lachlan is sometimes guilty of telling you rather than letting you experience it in order to keep the story pacing along. Whilst I think the old writer's adage "show don't tell" is maybe over-simplifying it, I think for the most part Lachlan skillfully balances the needs to keep the plot moving, with the short-term satisfaction of the reader. The trouble is that you'll never please everyone, and whilst I was fully invested in the story, I wasn't quite as invested in the characters.
As a result in moments of high drama, I didn't feel my empathy was quite what it could be.
"... had been murdered in her bed. Blood was everywhere, a grisly scarf of red extending down the front of her white smock. He approached and saw her throat was cut. He could imagine all too well what else had happened to her".
I've spent a long time thinking about this but there's something cold and slightly dispassionate about this to me. I wanted to get into Vali's head here, feel the grief he was feeling, and for some reason I feel it's missing something, as if an edit went too far and in doing so lost some of the emotion. I feel slightly removed from Vali's feelings. Now, I fully accept this is a personal opinion, I know other people I trust who've read it and not seen this. As they say, your mileage may differ.
I do wonder, however, if the whole relationship between Vali and Feileg could have been a mystery that unravelled over the course of the book, rather than given to you at the outset. The front end is very info-heavy and I think for me at least, I needed some extra hook to lead me along before the `big change', especially in those early chapters when it's hard to know where the story is going.
Have you ever seen a monster movie, where the monster doesn't turn up until the final act? One where you are so keen to see the actual monster that all the build up of dramatic tension and story (no matter how good or necessary) seems to get in the way instead of enhance your enjoyment? I was kinda like this with Wolfsangel. I mean, I was genuinely really enjoying it - I had to be to keep snatching moments to read during a busy few weeks - but at the same time I was promised werewolves and it was a long time before they actually appeared.
And once they did, it was like that metaphorical veil lifted, the beats seemed to quicken, and I became more fully invested in the story. Now, I think that says more about my impatience as a reader rather than something against the story, but I did find myself wondering if the issues I had, as minor as they were, were the fault of the author or the reader.
Now if that makes me sound as if I'm a bit down against this book, let me say it's probably one of the best written fantasy novels I've read this year.
When it boils down to it, this was a book that takes a classic trope and retells it in an original way, and does so in such a way that it still kept drawing me back when time for important things was just non-existent.
A brilliant start to a new series - I will be looking forward to the next with eagerness - let down by only a few minor issues that may just be personal taste, 4.5/5