Book review

The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell (2015)

Feo knows about wolves. She's learned it from her mother. She's learned what to do when a wolf turns up on her doorstep, which happens pretty often. That's because in Feo's world it is very fashionable to keep a wolf in your town house as a pet. This is perfectly alright while the wolf is young but when he grows up and starts to get in the way and bite little bits off people he has to be sent back to the wild forest.

Usually when the carriages arrived at the house in the woods, the drivers would blink, looking around for someone large and male to come and untie the wolf. Instead they would see Feo and her mother coming from the house, wrapped in cooking smells. Marina was thirty-three and tall as the lintel on the front door. She had taught Feo to do pull-ups on the cottage door frames. She had a four-clawed scar circling her left eye. Men who met her had been known to forget, just for a second, how to breathe.

You might think to yourself that Feo and her mother do a useful job, rewilding the wolves:

Feo braced the wolf's jaw open against her torso and ran her fingers along the teeth, pushing at the gums.

'You – little girl, stop that! Mother of God!' The man let out an impressive cascade of swear  words. Feo noticed with interest that his fingernails were sweating. 'Do you want to be killed? What are you doing?'

'I'm checking for gum decay.' There was none. She let the wolf go and scratched her under the front legs. The wolf collapsed on her side, whimpering with pleasure.

The man still looked horrified, and almost angry. 'Shouldn't that thing have a bit of rope around its jaws?' He was staring at Feo, at her eyes and at her earlobe: it had been split in two by an accidental wolf's claw when she was six.

Unfortunately the wolf wilders have an enemy.

'I am commander of the Tsar's Imperial Army for the thousand miles south of St Petersburg. And I am here because your wolves did this,' he said. He kicked at the elk. Blood spread across his brightly polished shoe.

General Rakov is an implacable enemy:

'If we see that child with a wolf, we'll shoot the wolf and take the child.' He slammed the door behind him.

But even his own men aren't necessarily on his side. And it isn't long before things come to a head out in the wild wood where Feo is running with the new wolf. A young soldier steps out from behind a tree and levels a gun at Feo's head.

'If you try to shoot her,' Feo said, 'I'll kill you.'

'Will you?' said the soldier. He came a step closer, gun outstretched. 'I don't see how.'

'I will! Get back, I swear I'll bite you!' The soldier stopped, his face astonished. Feo breathed in. 'If you come a step closer, I'll pull your fingers out.'

The soldier looked interested, despite himself. 'Could you actually do that?' His face, twisted in curiosity, looked younger than she had expected.

'Yes,' lied Feo. And then: 'Probably, actually. If you stayed still.'

Well this story just tells itself doesn't it. It gallops along at a wild pace. The young soldier, Ilya, chooses to be on Feo's side which is good because at this stage Feo doesn't really know just how much help she is going to need. The soldiers come for her mother and take her away to the impenetrable Kresty jail.

If you want to know how Feo sets out to rescue her mother through the howling Russian winter night with a village of children at her heels, you'll just have to read the book. And I know you'll have a brilliant time! Highly recommended, especially sitting in front of the fire after dark.


What can I read next?

If you enjoy this story you could have a look at Katherine Rundell's other book which is also a bit wild and different:

  • Rooftoppers

It's quite hard to match the epic fairytale quality of The Wolf Wilder which balances so finely between wicked humour and just plain wickedness. But you might like to have a look at these books by Odo Hirsch:

Also this one by Neil Gaiman is a pretty unsettling fairytale format:

In the same spirit you could have a look at this one by Leander Deeny:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

The Wolf Wilder features in these lists: