Book review

The Wolf-Sisters by Susan Price (2001)

Here's a tale told like a Viking saga. It's a tale of choice, the choice between liberty and honour, for Kenelm in this story cannot have both.

Kenelm lives in the kind of world that the Vikings lived in - just outside the bounds of the known kingdom there dwell mysterious and powerful gods and beasts, half-beasts and shape-shifters.

When we first meet Kenelm he lives a kind of half-life in a monastery. He is not Christian, but he has been given by his uncle, the King, to the church to become a monk. He was given for vague reasons of state and it is this which Kenelm resents so much. He was born to be a warrior in the Royal Guard, but for reasons which he cannot fathom he must live his life in poverty and drab boredom in an isolated monastery. His obligations are heavy. He is bound, not only by duty to his King, but also by duty to his family.

So it is the answer to his heathen prayers when he is suddenly recalled from the monastery to take a message on behalf of the King into the Wild Wood to the Wood-People. The whole kingdom is blighted by the plague, and only Kenelm remains strong and healthy enough to take a message. The message seeks the alliance of the Wood-People against foreign invaders during this moment when the kingdom is weak and vulnerable to invasion.

But who are the Wood-People, and why would they choose to help Kenelm's people? Further, what would they want in return for their alliance? It's an important question for Kenelm who is bound to return to his monastery at the end of his quest, unless he can find a way to avoid his duty without bringing shame on his family.

As you will discover when you read the book, for Kenelm there is really no honourable way out of his obligation. It's a bit like selling your soul to the Devil for the granting of a single wish ...

Singing, the women turned, their feet trampling and rustling in the leaves, their hair flying. Stooping, one after another, they snatched up grey things, which they whirled in the air about their heads - skins. They had picked up wolf-skins. Catching the skins between both hands they stretched them over their heads, still dancing, still singing, and then lowered the skins to their shoulders. The skinned masks of wolves sat on top of their heads, baring their fangs in their dark hair. One after another the women threw themselves forward, arms outstretched, as if to land on their hands - and, bounding round him on long legs were not three women but three wolves. Shaggy and grey, brindled with tawny, they voiced their song again, before racing away through the trees, tails high, their paws kicking up dead brown leaves.

This is a powerful and atmospheric book full of superstition and magic. Did Kenelm make the right choice?

What can I read next?

Susan Price has written many powerful books and collections of short stories. You could have a look at this fantastic time-travel adventure for older readers by Susan Price:

The 'horror' flavour of The Wolf-sisters reminded me very much of this one by Mervyn Peake:

Also, the slightly detached account of a fantastical occurence reminds me very strongly of David Almond's books:

If you enjoy total fantasy and you haven't already read this one by J R R Tolkien, I think you will really enjoy it:

And if you are interested in the retelling of a Viking saga, have a look at this one by Melvin Burgess:

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