The Silver Wolf by Alice Borchardt
(HarperCollins Voyager, £9.99, 451 pages, trade paperback; published 21 June 1999; ISBN 0-00-224715-1.)
Of all the staple characters in horror - the vampire; the zombie; the creature from another dimension - the werewolf is perhaps the least common to arise in fiction. S/he's popularity probably peaked in the 1970s with Gary Brandner's The Howling and Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves, and the many off shoots that inevitably followed. If fiction correlates with fashion, which seems to skip a decade and then return, then the shapeshifter must be long overdue a revival. But will that revival be inspired by Alice Bordchardt's The Silver Wolf? Or will The Silver Wolf be more a Lone Wolf...
Set in Rome just as Rome is about to fall, the book's key character is Regeane, the She Wolf of the title, through whose eyes the bulk of the narrative is told. Regeane is distantly related to Charlemagne, and because of this finds herself unwittingly drawn into a web of plots, counter plots and conspiracies as the influential vie for political power in the final days of the Great City. Abused by her uncle Gundabald, Regeane relies on her wolfish side (of which no one is aware, apart from Gundabald) to scrape through various near-fatal situations. As the story unfolds, Regeane makes numerous enemies, numerous friends, and is smoothly - and subtly - insinuated into a fair amount of historical detail. And other than the occasional piece of pointless interaction, it's a fast story, with sufficient pace and intrigue to keep the pages turning.
Of the style, a number of contrasts are immediately visible. Good use is made of the conflicting dichotomy that separates Regeane's human half from the wolfish. When she's human she thinks as a human, when she's a wolf she thinks as a wolf, and knows only the present moment: no past, no future. The idea is nicely developed when the two overlap. Whilst human, and in human circumstances, Regeane will feel the wolf stir inside, and be tempted to behave how the wolf would behave. When a wolf, the human voice will appear, and offer its own perspective and advice on current events. Regeane is a finely crafted, interesting character. I would, however, suggest that she might have been portrayed with a little more savagery. A grittier, more feral side to her character would maybe attract horror readers, as by and large this is a fantasy novel, aimed at a fantasy audience.
Another, less commendable contrast occurs in the first fifty or so pages. Other characters, in particular Regeane's evil uncle Gundabald, who verges at times on the stereotypical, are painted with much less realism than the protagonist. Gundabald (who couldn't have been blessed with a less convincing name) seems able only to swear, drink and be violent. A particular problem is the swearing, which isn't realistic swearing but is pantomimic, even cartoonish. It's a small point, but it makes for a rocky start that in no way at all does justice to the remainder of the book.
On the whole, though, an entertaining and elegantly visualised tale, worth picking up alone for the two-in-one character of Regeane.
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© Jason Gould 28 August 1999