Kate Elliott never fails me. She consistently writes fun, thoughtful, original fantasy, featuring diverse and interesting characters of both genders, and set in complex, textured worlds. This book is no exception. It must be said, however, that the beginnings of her series are consistently and painfully dull; I was about 200 pages into this one before it convinced me.
Black Wolves is the first novel in a new epic fantasy series set in the world of the Hundred, which also featured in the Crossroads Trilogy. While I recommend reading that trilogy, because it is good, that is not necessary to understand this one. This book begins about 16 years after the end of Traitors’ Gate, but after 80 pages it jumps ahead another 44 years, and then the real story begins. As another reviewer aptly described it, this is modern epic fantasy, in the best sense: a story told on a large scale, but driven by characters rather than tropes.
Note: this review will contain spoilers for the first half of the book, because as I said, the first 200 pages aren’t really worth talking about.
Like most epic fantasy, this features several point-of-view characters, though it still feels focused, as the connections among characters quickly become clear. Dannarah is a blunt, opinionated reeve marshal (i.e. a leader who flies about on a giant eagle); she is of the royal family but has her own ideas about where the country should go, and at age 60, she’s not taking any nonsense. Kellas is a disgraced but skillful guard captain and longtime associate of Dannarah’s, and comes out of retirement to deal with a precarious situation at the palace. And Sarai is a cloistered but knowledgeable young woman who jumps at the chance of an arranged marriage to escape her outcast status at home. There are also a couple of secondary POVs: Gil, the bored and mischievous young nobleman whom Sarai marries, and Lifka, a young reeve of exotic origin.
Once it gets going, the book has an engaging plot and is a quick read; there is a lot going on here, with a large cast of characters, a complex political story and plenty of unexpected plot twists. There’s a bit of magic (but not too much) and a bit of romance (but again, not too much – Gil and Sarai’s scenes never failed to put a smile on my face, though they’re a long shot from the melodramatic pronouncements that usually accompany fictional romance). There are villains, but this isn’t shaping up as your standard good-vs.-evil fantasy; instead of asking who is the rightful king, the book questions whether there ought to be a king at all. As always, progressive ideas inform Elliott’s writing; these books are set in a land influenced by Asian and Polynesian rather than European cultures, and the book treats its diverse cast of characters with respect. They are an interesting and well-developed bunch, and even those not in positions of power manage to take control of their situations in fresh and believable ways.
In other words, this is just the sort of fantasy I want to read and wish more authors would write. Beyond the slow start, I have few criticisms: there is some overly expositional dialogue early on, and the book ends with little resolution. I want to know what happens next! Fortunately, Elliott writes at a good pace, so there shouldn’t be too long to wait.