Why You Need to Read: “The Wolf in the Whale”

By: Jordanna Max Brodsky                                                   

Published: January 29, 2019

Genre: Historical Fiction, Folklore, Fantasy

  Garbed once more as a man, I entered the blood-soaked iglu. I sawed at my hair so it brushed the tops of my ears as a man’s should. I wore a man’s knife in a sheath looped across my chest. I carried a woman’s ulu in my pack. The wolf in the whale had gone south. And so did I. (Chapter 22).

            When I first received the ARC for this book, I did not know what to expect from it; however, the description of the story caught my attention and I read it with an open mind. The Wolf in the Whaleis an interesting story about gender roles, family, survival, cultural differences, and religion. Expectations placed on the characters—and the gods—within the story drive the narrative as well. Readers will gain insight into the first inhabitants to reside in and the first travelers to North America almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci.

            The protagonist of this story is also our narrator, who is retelling the events of her life. Omat was born with her father’s spirit as a hunter and with her grandfather’s abilities as a shaman. Hence, Omat is raised and treated as a male by her aunt, her grandfather, and her tribesmen, and she is expected to become the next leader of the tribe much to her cousin’s, Kiasik, chagrin. At the same time, the gods of the world—particularly the Inuit and the Norse—fear the changes to come due to the rise of a new and powerful monotheistic god. Unbeknownst to her, the gods mark Omat as a “threat” for she is expected to bring forth Ragnarök, or the end of the world. The gods’ fear causes Omat’s family to suffer from starvation and isolation. However, anyone who is familiar with myths, legends, and prophecies know that the more anyone tries to prevent a prophecy or an event from happening, the more likely it will occur. Omat’s interaction with her family, other tribesmen, the Vikings, and the gods and the spirits shape her character as she transitions from adolescence to adult. 

            The plot of this novel is broken down into 3 parts: Omat’s bildungsroman, the gods’ fear of the end of their lifestyle and adoration, and the Viking exploration. All of these plots drive the story and provides some insight into how early settlers came to inhabit the Americas, and how the interactions—even brief ones—brought elements of cultural diffusion to Omat’s tribe. The Viking “visit” is based on historical and recorded events; yet, it is unknown as to why they did not remain in the Americas. As for the motives of the gods, anyone who is familiar with religion and myths—or, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and/or Rick Riordan’s books—know the gods depend on both the worship and the stories from the mouths of mortals and shamans for their existence. A new, single god could jeopardize the lives of the rest of the gods. Omat’s journey and growth to becoming a leader means learning from other leaders—the good, the bad, and the worst—meeting challenges from the environment and from other people. Omat manages to overcome these obstacles, but not without repercussions. At the same time, Omat does learn some things from each adversity, which ensures her survival. 

            The narrative is divided into 5 parts: Omat’s birth, family and growth into an angakkug—or shaman; Omat’s power and livelihood being threaten by a visiting tribe who only see Omat for her sex and not for her abilities regardless of her gender; Omat’s journey south in search of her cousin and meeting a Viking, and seeing other people live beyond her world; Omat’s captivity amongst the Vikings; and, Omat’s role in Ragnarök, and its aftermath. All the while, the gods are watching the events unfold and they make decisions for their interests, which do not consider the impact they will have on the mortals. Given the multiple subplots and the story, the later parts in the novel are told in real-time. While this is both appropriate and believable for the plot, it makes the story seem slow at times. Omat is retelling this story. These events already happened—she either was told, or she experienced them—and we are led to believe that this stream-of-consciousness narrative is reliable. 

            The author, Jordanna Max Brodsky, has a degree in History and Literature from Harvard University. The Wolf in the Whaleis a historical fiction fantasy and folklore novel. This story is not only about the brief “meeting” between the Inuit and the Vikings—and other early settlers—but also a look into the folklore—a body of culture, traditions, tales, religion, etc. shared by a particular group of people—with fantasy elements (i.e. gods). The descriptions of the lifestyles of both the Inuit and the Vikings make the story more immersive. The cultural diffusion added by the author’s historical knowledge make the story more believable because the exchange of knowledge amongst various groups of people have been, and continue to be, a necessity for human survival and progression. This novel is a credible story of journey, survival and growth as seen in the author’s style. These elements add to the various dangers all of the characters face from the weather to each other. The realism makes the difference and it flourishes in this novel. 

            Readers who enjoy historical fiction might enjoy The Wolf in the Whale more than those who enjoy fantasy. This is because the historical and the anthropological aspects drive the story more than the appearances of the gods and the spirits. That is not to say fantasy fans won’t enjoy this book, they might not appreciate it as much as historical fiction fans. This is the author’s first standalone novel. So, readers who are curious about the author should read this novel. Fans of the TV show, Vikings, and/or the video game, Never Alone, should find The Wolf in the Whaleto be a well-structured story with the right amount of cultural elements that makes it more believable than the “what if” concept.

            The Wolf in the Whalecaught my attention due to its description about “clashing cultures and warring gods.” I was not sure what to expect from the novel besides shamans and Vikings. Being clueless, but open-minded about the novel allowed me to read the story as it is, and not what I thought it was going to be. The topics of sex and gender roles, culture, survival, interactions between different groups of people, and family drive the story as much as the history and the fantasy within it. There were times in which, some of the real-time events dragged the story. There were times in which, I wanted more from certain characters, but realized it would have diverted from the protagonist. Overall, The Wolf in the Whaleis a speculative fiction novel that is a hybrid of fantasy, folklore, history, and anthropology. I was immersed in the story from start to finish. I recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys an eclectic mix of genres in fiction. 

My rating: Enjoy It (4 out of 5)!

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Why You Need to Read: “The Winter of the Witch”

Winternight Trilogy: Book 3: The Winter of the Witch

By: Katherine Arden

Published: January 9, 2019

Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Fairy Tale Retelling, Folklore, Magic Realism

PLEASE NOTE: The following contains minor spoilers from this novel and the series. You have been warned.

            “You are a fool, man of God,” he said. You never understood.”

            Konstantin said, “I never understood what?”

            “That I do keep faith, in my own fashion,” said the Bear.

(Chapter 23: “Faith and Fear”)

            The Winter of the Witchis the third and final book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy.What started with The Bear and the Nightingale—and yes, readers need to read that book and the second book, The Girl in the Tower,in order to know what is going on in the third book—ends with this beautiful end to a beautiful trilogy. This historical fiction fantasy starts where the second book ended, with Moscow recovering from both a fire and the actions of a wicked magician. Once again, Vasilisa Petrovna’s actions have caught up with her, and she barely escapes with her life. Then, she must come up with a plan to unite ALL of Russia—humans and chyerti—to fight against the invading Tatars, and to find balance between two belief systems—Christianity and Paganism.

            The characters are those we were introduced to from the previous books: Vasya, Sasha (her brother), Olga (her sister), Marya (her niece), Solovey (her stallion), Dmitrii Ivanovich (the Grand Prince), Morozko (the frost-demon), Medved (the chaos-spirit), Konstantin Nikonovich (the charlatan priest), and Varvara (the Head servant). New characters are introduced and mentioned as well. Together, all of the characters are active in Arden’s story from the roles they play to the answers they provide to the readers’—and characters’—concerns and questions. Each character is well developed and motivated to accomplish their goals. The conviction in the protagonist, the antagonist(s), and the other characters remind the reader(s) that more scenarios are happening than the characters and we are aware of.

            The plot, as I mentioned earlier, is both a continuation of the events in the previous book, and a continuation of Vasya’s growth into an adult. Christianity is now the dominant religion in Russia with the amount of people who keep the older traditions decreasing, the Tatars continue their campaign to take over Russia, ancient feuds continue to play on, and Vasya is a step closer to coming into her own and accepting her destiny. These subplots are part of the main plot—Russia is changing, but not all things fade away with those changes—and they cannot wait to be dealt with. Each change, along with its dilemma, is addressed again and again until the story’s end. It should be mentioned that each conflict does not get resolved and that is due to the reality found within the story. Conflict—from a minor issue to total chaos—never goes away. The three conflicts found within the plot are resolved, so that story ends, but the lives of the characters leaves for an ambiguous continuation and hope for both the surviving characters, and for the reader(s). 

            The narrative switches between the points-of-view of several characters: Vasya, Sasha, Olga, Konstantin Nikonovich, the Bear, Varvara, etc. Just like in other stories with multiple POVs, readers learn everything that is happening everywhere concurrently. The aftermath of Vasya’s actions affect her throughout the story; Sasha and Olga come to terms with their family’s history, gifts, and future; Konstantin Nikonovich achieves his goals with a bittersweet feeling to his conscience; and, the Bear, the Winter King, and Varvara have their roles to play in the war. Then, there is the other war that’s coming for all denizens of Russia. If it’s not one problem, then it is another problem. Remember, the first war for power happened in The Girl in the Tower,which was a short time ago within the narrative. Arden presents the conflicts and then shows how all of her characters deal with them within the story. Since the narrative is given from multiple viewpoints without the other characters knowing what is happening to other characters, readers know that each narrative is reliable and realistic. The resolution does not give the characters enough knowledge of what happened to the other characters as well, and that provides a believable ending. 

            The style of writing the author uses in this book is the same as it was in the previous books in the series. Magic realism is a genre of writing that is often used alongside the historical fiction genre. The difference is that folklore drives the narrative of a magic realism story. Arden’s style follows this method of writing. The aspect that makes Arden’s trilogy standout is the knowledge of the lore the denizens in the story have, because the lore remains as the world changes. Devout Christians are able to see the chyerti, and there are people who practice both “faiths.” One of the best things about the author’s trilogy is the way she reminds readers that old magic and ancient tales will always remain with the people (hence, the term “folklore”). Everyone knows them, some are aware of them, and few have the ability to use the deeper magic. Folklore is part of a culture, and Arden incorporated the importance of a country unifying, not just for its survival, but also for its way of life through their culture. The author did a beautiful job expressing this within her writing. 

            The appeal surrounding this novel is interesting. I’ve started reading the Winternight Trilogy from the release of The Bear and the Nightingalein 2017 and I knew Katherine Arden was one of my new favorite authors. I received an ARC of The Winter of the Witch, and while I was reading and gushing through it, I found that other readers picked up the first book out of curiosity and enjoyed it, too! If The Bear and the Nightingalewas the first book that introduced us to Katherine Arden, then The Winter of the Witchis the book that cements her as one of the best speculative fiction authors in this era of publication. Katherine Arden takes folklore and reshapes it into a new story to be read and enjoyed the same way Neil Gaiman, Nnedi Okorafor and Naomi Novik have done within their books. The Winternight Trilogyproves that the speculative fiction canon has room for authors who write across multiple elements within the genre like Katherine Arden.  

            I am proud to say that I’ve read Katherine Arden’s books since the publication of her first novel, and I’ve enjoyed them all! Now, while this review is about the last book in the trilogy, I still have to mention all of the books in the trilogy. There are many trilogies in the speculative fiction genre; and, when it comes to the trilogies I’ve read from that genre, the Winternight Trilogyleaves me with the same level of satisfaction as His Dark Materials(by Philip Pullman) and The Broken Earth (by N.K. Jemisin) trilogies. Anyone who knows about how I feel about those trilogies, know that’s a big deal! Reading Vasya’s journey from childhood to adolescence to adulthood was an absolute joy and I’m glad Katherine Arden shared her story with us. I recommend this novel, and the series, to all readers of the speculative fiction genre. None of you will be disappointed.

My Rating:  MUST Read It Now!