Friday, August 29, 2014

Review: "The Wolf Hunt" by Gillian Bradshaw

When her brother is killed fighting in the Crusades, Marie Penthievre becomes the heir of the family manor: a rich prize fought over by Normandy and Brittany for generations. Now Marie herself is the prize. Before her Norman overlord can act, Marie is kidnapped from her convent and smuggled into Brittany.

Alone in the Breton court, Marie defends her honor and her right to refuse a husband from among her enemies. Tiarnan of Talensac, a knight in Duke Hoel's service, serves as her champion. But Tiarnan, a married man, has his own crisis of honor to endure: whether his new bride will still love him when she learns that he is a werewolf, an abomination in the sight of God.

When Tiarnan disappears, Duke Hoel's court grieves their favorite while Marie mourns for her first friend. But Tiarnan is not dead--only trapped in his monstrous form by his faithless wife and her former lover. Now the duke he once served hunts for him, and the forests of Brittany become a battleground.

5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

No, dear reader, your eyes do not deceive you: the grump has actually handed out a five-star rating!

Gillian Bradshaw's The Wolf Hunt has so many elements that I like, all bundled up in a basket of fresh and flowing prose with a bow on top for the closet romantic in me. Exhaustively-researched history! Culture shock! Found families! Cute marrieds! Characters struggling with questions of What It Means To Be Good! Characters of faith who can be critiqued without being blasted by the narrative! Complex relationships between social classes! A touch of the magical or surreal in an otherwise historically accurate world! A heroine like a burning torch!  Medieval France, so far back in history that it has more Gaelic than French in its names, trappings, and customs, is a fantastic setpiece for a story like this. There is nothing less than lovely between the first page and the last.

The third-person-omniscient POV is seldom found in modern adult fiction--and thankfully so, as it's hard to do well. Bradshaw uses it judiciously to great effect. She isn't only telling the story of kidnapped Marie Penthievre among the Bretons, or of the werewolf Tiarnan, but of the hopes and perils of an entire community. Rather than fragmenting the narrative thread, Bradshaw's forays into the perspective of minor characters strengthen it, like a braid.

Bradshaw writes generously--that's the best way I can think to put it. She brings a gentleness to characters who would be Simply Stock Comic, or Simply Shallow, or Simply Conniving in a lesser writer's hands. I love her characterization of Duchess Havoise, summed up as "strong-willed, domineering but good-humored, sentimental, sly, and surprisingly coarse." Or take this whole excerpt from early on in the book:
"What's the duke like?"

Tiher gave her question some thought. "Do you like dogs?"

"I like some dogs," said Marie, wondering if there was a connection.

"And that's well said, for there are as many different sorts of dogs as there are of men, and one might find correspondences between the two. Greyhounds, for example, are noble and swift and lovely--like yourself, my lady! Alaunts and brachets and lymers, which must be brave and wise to hunt a lord's quarry and to pull it down, might be compared to knights. And then there are fawning spaniels and mastiffs, to attend on a lord and to guard him."

"And the lord in this allegory of yours, the duke--he is a lion?" asked Marie, smiling at the conceit.

"No," said Tiher with satisfaction. "Duke Hoel is a terrier. But a very noble one."
The narrative tone of The Wolf Hunt has a certain wryness which is fun to read, full of sly asides that keep me turning pages even on the six and seventh reading. I'm particularly fond of Bradshaw's wordplay, such as describing Marie's investigation as having "started a bird of suspicion from cover, and somebody was going to have to bring it down."

Rare is the book where I like every character. In The Wolf Hunt, I do: yes, even the faithless Eline. The older I get, the less patience I have with cheaply written villainesses. Bradshaw's sincerely gracious depiction of Eline wins my respect. As Judicael the Hermit warns Tiarnan before the wedding, "She will not understand you, and you will not understand her... You will do each other harm" (emphasis mine.) Modern readers, surfeited on paranormal romances, may not at first grasp the depth of Eline's horror at learning her bridegroom turns into a wolf once a month or so. Where we might envision Jacob of Twilight and his ripplingly underaged abs, Eline is traumatized and suffering nightmares about damnation for having "given her body to a beast."

Is she an admirable character? Perhaps not. She does betray her husband, after all. But she is understandable, and she is pitiable, and Bradshaw grants her both understanding and pity over the course of the novel.

I realize I haven't said much about either of the main characters, Marie Penthievre and Tiarnan of Talensac, but I think I prefer to let them speak for themselves. Marie is a delightful heroine, a shining light of (occasionally misplaced) defiance. Her efforts to find a truly honorable course of action, when everyone around her is quick to pass judgment, parallels well with Tiarnan and Judicael's eternal question as to whether Tiarnan's involuntary transformations are a damnable sin. Watching her grow from having nothing on her side but honor and a little self-conscious hypocrisy, into being happy and fearless and alive--it's a soul-strengthening read.

Between this and The Goblin Emperor, I am feeling quite well treated by books this summer.

Complexity of Writing: 4/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: attempted sexual assault, cruelty toward animals, period anti-Semitism

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