An exceptional debut novel, with historical overtures that set up a fantastical tale of great characters who are mired by the horrors of war and invasion.
For me, this story came out of nowhere. I was looking for something new and a bit different, so I scoured a few blogs and saw a bit of buzz around Leo Carew’s debut novel. With the pedigree of fantasy novels around at the moment, I was a little concerned that such a simple story, one of war and invasion between two lands, would not really be able to stand out in the crowd. That doubt was completely unfounded, for while the story is simple at its very essence, there is a great deal of complexity to the characters and their actions as they carry it through to a satisfying finale.
The Black Kingdom, a harsh land inhabited by the towering Anakim race, is drawn in to war by the Sutherner armies of Albion. After the Black Lord is killed in battle, and the Anakim army is forced to retreat for the first time living memory, his 19-year-old son, Roper, is forced on the throne. In a land where prowess in battle is held as the highest honour, Roper must overcome the stigma of his army’s first defeat, as well as the machinations of Uvoren, a prolific warrior with designs on becoming the new Black Lord. While he navigates this cold war, the Black Kingdom is victim to raids lead by the Sutherner upstart, Bellamus, whose tactical genius was the cause of the Anakim defeat. Against all these odds, Roper must do what he can to keep hold of his title and reclaim the lands, and the honour, of his people.
There are so many strengths to The Wolf that it’s hard to know where to start. I guess the best place would be with the backbone of the novel, the characters. And believe me when I say that many of these characters are a shining victory for Carew. Roper, our main protagonist, is headstrong and sympathetic. He is a leader with great potential, but Carew balances this perfectly with his immaturity, drawing the reader to understand that, while Roper is tactically adept, he is also fuelled by emotion and passion. He makes decisions that are rash, but understandable. Then there is Tekoa, who is full of cantankerous wit and wizened loyalty. He proves to be the backbone behind Roper, preventing him from crumbling without the much-needed support. Each character carries a developed, and very individual personality. Those personalities are nurtured and expanded through not only their actions, but their stories, their reactions, even the very fundamental basis of their morals. All of this makes characters like Pryce, Gray, Helmec, and many others, truly stand out.
The antagonists are given just as much weight. The Sutherner upstart, Bellamus, is given depth straight away, and Carew really draws forth the threat he poses. He is a man of unnatural skill in battle, not as a warrior, but as a tactician. He crippled the Anakim in a way no other had been able to do, and this is at the very beginning. This strength is a perfect counterpoint to help highlight Roper’s own skills as well. They are two sides of the same coin, and the way they match wits on the battlefield is a joy to behold. Even Uvoren, who could easily have been nothing more than a sneering thorn in our protagonist’s side, never strays in to the dangerous territory of two-dimensional villain. Instead, he draws his own sincerity in the way he sees himself as the perfect leader. In the land of the Anakim, where the warriors are placed above all others, Uvoren falls in to that hubris, and is willing to do what is necessary to demean Roper, who he sees as weak.
One aspect that truly stands out in this novel is the setting. Based in a quintessential medieval background, the story invokes the ideas of a feudal Britain held together by fragile truces. The Anakim have an almost Viking feel about them, in the way they relish battle and savour the land, but their beliefs stray towards the singular God rather than a Pantheon of gods. But one thing that is obvious above all other things is the author’s love of the land, and of the beauty that even the sparsest and most desolate places can hold. Leo Carew is an explorer who loves cold lands, and the Anakim perfectly represents the author’s passion. It is as if Carew is inviting us in to his life, divulging what he loves in a way that makes us fall in love with it too. The Anakim, who hold the love of the land up there with the love of their family, present us with how Carew views the world, and it takes us on a far more personal journey as a result.
Like all stories, The Wolf isn’t perfect. What it does, however, is make it damned hard to find any faults. If there was one thing that I would pick out it is the relationship between Roper and his wife. Keturah is a good, strong character, but there is not enough development between her and Roper. We see little of their true feelings for each other and are often left wondering if it is love that keeps them together, or simply duty. And that is it. That is the only fault. And, in all honesty, it did not hinder the experience of the story much at all, so it is negligible at that.
What Leo Carew has managed to do in a debut novel is nothing short of fantastic. He has created an action-packed story, interspersed with moments of real humanity. By not packing his novel with too many characters, he has managed to develop those few focal ones with an expert hand, given them more personality than you are likely to see in many other fantasy novels. But, most of all, Carew takes us on a personal journey, allowing us insight in to his own passions. And this is what really makes The Wolf so enjoyable.