Review policy

Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Sunday 6 February 2011

The Tenderness of Wolf

The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver were, I think, responsible for me missing my tube stop more than any other books that I read last year. Ghost Hunter, the final book in the series, won the Guardian Fiction Prize last year.

Wolf Brother, published 2004, is the first book in the series. 6000 years ago, in Scandinavia, twelve year old Torak is an outcast from Wolf Clan. In the first scene he is crouching next to his father, who has been attacked by a bear. Torak hopes to save his father, who knows he is dying and begs Torak to perform death rituals, and warns him that the bear is not an ordinary bear. It has been possessed by a demon. Fa begs Torak to head North, to the Mountain of the World Spirit, to enlist the World Spirit's help to destroy the bear before it destroys the clans and their forest. Torak agrees, and after taking his father's knife, tent and their remaining food, he leaves.

Heading North, he encounters more bear-kill, which looks strange. Bears will eat all the meat on a creature, and it's insides: this bear is not killing from hunger as it is taking no more than a bite from each animal. Scavengers and flies aren't feeding on them, and he realises that his father is right. Further up the valley, he reaches an area of flash flood. There is one survivor: a wolf cub. By this time, Torak is very hungry, but he can't bring himself to kill the cub for food. He realises that he is having visions of the death of the cub's family: in fact, he is experiencing what the cub has experienced.

Shortly after this, Torak is captured by a boy, girl and man from the Raven Clan. He is accused of stealing a roe deer from their clan territory, and taken to the clan leader, Fin-Kedinn, for judgement. After undergoing ordeal by combat with another boy, which he wins with Wolf's help, he learns that his father was once the Mage of Wolf Clan, but was killed by the bear due to his determination to destroy a group of rogue mages, known as the Soul Eaters. Fin-Kedinn and the Mage of Raven clan meet to decide whether Torak is the one that ancient prophesies say will save the clans from a great danger, or whether Fin-Kedinn should travel to the mountain. In the meantime, Renn, the girl who captured Torak, believes him and releases him. Together they continue to travel North, to the mountain, and Torak begins to realise not just his powers but also his inheritance and responsibilities.

Paver's achievement in writing the Chronicles is remarkable. Firstly, because the books are incredibly consistent in terms of the quality of her writing. Most series have a weak book or two; this one doesn't- witness the final book winning the prize.

Secondly, the plausibility of the world Paver has created. She researched all the aspects of her book thoroughly, spending time with wolves, snow shoe walking in Scandinavia and researching the lives and beliefs of nomadic peoples. However, the proceeds of the research do not overwhelm the storytelling, but instead lend authenticity to Torak's stone age world. The clan system, their beliefs in the integrity of the natural world (wasting nothing of a kill, displaying their gratitude to nature, the pantheistic belief system), the geography of Torak's world- all are enhanced by research, but not created by it.

Thirdly, by the characters of Torak, Renn and Wolf. Due to his outcast status, Torak is slightly removed from the clan system, which enables the reader to learn about it along with him. His relationship with Wolf, and the reason that he can communicate with him, is an integral part of the story, so I will not elaborate on it too much. The vocabulary that Paver has created for Wolf (the Fast Wet for river, the Bright-Beast-that-Bites-Hot for fire) and the description of his body language and the yips, howls and barks that he and Torak communicate in lend authenticity to Torak's ability to communicate with him. Renn's characterisation grows in other books; she herself has special abilities that mean she is more than the feisty girl sidekick that many children's fantasy writers create.

Finally, the thoroughly created stone age world and belief system that Paver has created means that the horror of the Soul Eaters' plans, being so contrary to the clans' ecological way of life, is truly shocking.

The Guardian's free download audiobook is available here.  Aurora by Bjork was my accompaniment to this book.


  1. Hi Ali - thanks for swinging by and joining my Share the Love of Books event. Come and grab the image! (Right click, save as) It's so much some seeing people join in.

    Can you tell me what kind of trouble the linky tool was giving you? Your link did finally show up but I'd like to tell the admin of that site what specific errors or issues it is causing people.

    I've made the event easier - people can complete one, two or as many items as they would like. Thanks again for stopping and linking.

    ~ Jenna

  2. Hi Ali,
    I've downloaded the audiobook thanks to you pointing it out - hope to listen to the first half on the train this morning!

  3. I hope you enjoy it, and that the mp3 player has sorted out the order!

  4. Great review. I'm normally a bit apprehensive about prehistoric settings for some reason, but this book sounds really interesting. And since I'm planning on reading all 1001 Childrens Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up it'll come my way sometime....