Spirit of the Wolves, by Dorothy Hearst – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Spirit of the Wolves, by Dorothy Hearst
NYC, Simon & Schuster, December 2014, hardcover $26.00 (356 pages), Kindle $13.99.
Spirit of the Wolves is a.k.a. The Wolf Chronicles, Book Three, following Promise of the Wolves (2008) and Secrets of the Wolves (2011).
“I crouched at the edge of Fallen Tree Gathering Place, a freshly caught rabbit warm and limp in my jaws, my haunches trembling. The Swift River wolves were preparing for a morning hunt, touching noses and speaking quietly to one another. Dawn light filtered through the branches of two tall oaks that stood guard at the clearing’s edge, dappling the Fallen Spruce that divided my pack’s largest gathering place.” (p. 1)
Fourteen thousand years ago, primitive humans lived with animals as part of nature. That was about when mankind began to consider itself separate from, and better than, the other animals, and began to live apart. But according to the Prologue in Promise of the Wolves, set 40,000 years ago, the wolves had already been sent the “Promise of the Wolf”. “What is the promise of the wolf? Never consort with humans. Never kill a human unprovoked. Never allow a mixed-blood wolf to live.”
The Wolf Chronicles is the first-person story of Kaala Smallteeth, a female cub born into the Swift River wolf pack of the Wide Valley; a rich land of several wolf packs, many prey animals, and tribes of men. At this time there are also huge Greatwolves (dire wolves?) who act as guardians – and guards – of the regular wolves, making sure that the wolves obey the Promise and never consort with humans, lest they start becoming mysteriously subservient to man (which presumably means evolving into domesticated dogs).
Kaala is the stereotypical Young Rebel. She Asks Questions instead of Accepting. Who created the Promise? Why can’t wolves associate with humans as equal partners instead of as servants? Why are the humans being taught that wolves are their enemy, and they must dominate the wolves?
The first two novels are full of unanswered questions, unless you consider “How dare you question your Elders?” to be a satisfactory answer. Kaala doesn’t. Finally frustrated beyond endurance, she takes matters into her own paws and breaks several taboos, which get her and a tiny band of followers like wolves Ázzuen and Maara, and young humans TaLa and BreLan, exiled together. It is hard to summarize the first two Books without giving away spoilers, but as Spirit of the Wolves begins, Kaala has learned that the Promise they have been taught is a fraud and the opposite of the true Promise. The Swift River pack must not only consort with the humans, it must protect them while preventing them from destroying nature. The wolves must also leave the Wide Valley to prevent a human-wolf mass slaughter, caused by the villainous human DavRian who has convinced his human tribe that all wolves are vicious and must be killed – while consorting with the humans.
“It was the greatest challenge to fulfilling the Promise. Wolves had to stay with humans to keep them from feeling separate from the world around them, but every time wolves and humans came together, they fought. I was supposed to change that.” (p. 11)
But the Swift River pack does not believe her. Ruuqo, Rissa, and the other wolves continue to trust in the false Promise to protect them. To complicate matters, the Greatwolves themselves are divided into two factions, and it looks like the one that wants to kill Kaala is about to seize power.
“‘I’m going to find my mother –‘ I began.
Milsindra interrupted. ‘Your mother who broke the rules of the Wide Valley by whelping you!’ She glowered down at me, deliberately turning her back on Zorindru as anger seemed to overcome her fear of him. ‘This oldwolf and the fools who follow him believe that she has the answer to why wolves and humans cannot live side by side, and that her answer will allow us to fulfill the Promise. They believe that she will give this information only to you, her daughter, the drelshik. I think that humans will fight with us no matter what we do, and that you will only help them destroy us.” (p. 13)
The Greatwolves give Kaala only until Even Night, less than a month away, to leave the Wide Valley, find her mother, and get the answer to the Promise. Milsindra and her human-hating faction are openly sure that Kaala will fail and that they can take over the Greatwolves’ council and start a war to exterminate the humans; while Kaala and her pawful of followers can be sure that Milsindra’s faction of Greatwolves will not wait until Even Night to try to sabotage them.
Spirit of the Wolves tells what happens to Kaala and “her packmates, the human girl she loves, and an obnoxious raven” (blurb) in the world outside the Wide Valley. There are new challenges and new animals to be discovered. Milsindra and her Greatwolf faction’s constant attacks must be beaten off. There is the challenge of the human village of Kaar, so large that it is practically the first town:
“It was like no human dwelling I’d ever seen.
At the center of the village was a clearing. This was true of most human gathering places, but this one was so huge that every wolf I’d ever met could lie nose to tail across it and not reach from one end to the other. It seemed more the size of a hunting plain than a gathering place, and it felt so open and exposed that I cringed as if some great bird might swoop down upon me. I hadn’t felt that way since I was a pup, small enough to fear owls in the night.” (p. 96)
The humans of Kaar are about to decide whether to live in partnership with the wolves, or to kill them all. Can Kaala’s influence make a difference? And this is less than halfway through the novel. What adventures lie ahead?
In a sense, there are two stories here. The obvious one is whether Kaala the wolf, and TaLa, her human friend, will succeed. But the underlying one is, with our present knowledge, we know that it is Milsindra who is ultimately right:
“‘The Wide Valley is nothing,’ Milsindra growled. She swung her head to Ázzuen, who stood steadly, averting his gaze only the slightest bit. ‘If wolves stay with humans, they will lose everything that makes them wolf. They will become the humans’ curl-tails, and I will not let that happen.’ She turned back to me. ‘You will make a mistake, and when you do, I’ll be sure the Sentinels know.’” (p. 135)
The humans of today do not live in equality with wolves. Wolves have evolved, or degenerated, into pet dogs. So how can Kaala succeed? How can Spirit of the Wolves possibly have a happy ending?
The Wolf Chronicles in general and Spirit of the Wolves in particular are worth reading, especially if you are a wolf-lover. But there are annoyances. One of Hearst’s more noticeable traits is her constant use of new vocabulary. Ever since Watership Down by Richard Adams, animal-species vocabulary has been an apparent necessity of talking-animal novels. The Wolf Chronicles carries it to an extreme, however, with too many introductions of new words like drelshik, drelshan, Nejakilakin, krianan, elkryn, and others — not only of the wolf and raven languages, but of the prehistoric humans. These are mixed with new combined words that are obvious from their context, such as smallpup, sharpstick, wolflet, leaderwolf, preyskin, firemeat, longfang, Then each word is usually defined:
“‘Why would we go with you?’ Pell looked down his muzzle at Lallna. ‘We’re not part of your pack and we’ll pass through your lands as we choose. We won’t be ordered about by a bunch of curl-tails.’
A curl-tail was the lowest ranking wolf in the pack and the last to feed. It was an insult, and the Sentinel youngwolves responded to it. Before I could even snarl at Pell, Lallna launched herself at me.” (p. 44)
“‘We should stop,’ she said thickly. ‘Leave good greslin for the humans.’ Greslin was the best, richest part of a prey.” (p. 87)
A few of these definitions increase the exoticism nicely, but their pedantic profusion constantly interrupts and slows the flow of the story.
The “obnoxious raven” is the tagalong, haiku-speaking Tlitoo, and he is not as obnoxious as his incessant quorking:
“‘Now can we go, wolflet?’ Tlitoo quorked. ‘We do not have time to dawdle.” (p. 15)
“Tlitoo quorked softly and lay against me, […]” (p. 28)
“Tlitoo glared at him. ‘Oafwolf,’ he quorked.” (p. 59)
“Tlitoo pecked me harder. ‘Will you let your packmates die because you wish to sulk?’ he quorked.” (p. 61)
“‘Time to run, wolves,’ Tlitoo quorked from a low branch above us.” (p. 62)
Tlitoo’s mate is Jlela. She also quorks.
Spirit of the Wolves’ irritants almost improve the story. They make reading through it to find out what happens to Kaala more compelling.
If you have read the first two novels of this trilogy, don’t stop now. If you haven’t, start at the beginning, with Promise of the Wolves. This is “literature”, so you should be able to read it for free at your public library.