Locked in a room in a decayed boarding house in Rome is Regeane of the House of Pepin, distant kin to Charlemagne, King of the Franks. The child of a Saxon lord and a Frankish lady, Regeane is a werewolf, with senses both acute and uncanny, preternatural strength and profound ignorance of her own nature and abilities. Her parents having died, she is the ward of her vicious uncle Gundabald, and his dolt of a son, Hugo.
Penniless and avaricious, all Gundabald can think of is marrying Regeane off quickly, to the richest man he can find, and beating her into submission if she so much as dares to think of defying him. Fear and greed fight a perfectly matched battle inside his depraved heart, and if she were simply human his barely restrained violence would have killed her long since.
In a distant Alpine valley, Maeniel, wealthy lord of a fortress commanding a vital pass, receives word of a marriage offer to a lady of the royal Frankish house, knows it would be impolitic to refuse, and so sets out for Rome with his ragtag band of followers...
The story that follows is rich, dark and gleaming. Borchardt is one of those rare writers with a perfect grip on the physical realities of the time she writes about. In her hands the decayed splendours of ninth century Rome, the plundered eternal city, come to life; squalid markets and leper colonies, papal palaces and gorgeous villas, sumptuous food and brutal warriors, a canvas of extremes, vividly realised. Better still, her control over this backdrop is flawless. It's there, but it never interferes with the tale.
Regeane is the centre point about which the tangle of papal politics and royal alliances turns. The Lombard lords, desperate to stop Charlemagne's advance into Italy are keen to see her dead and her mooted marriage to Maeniel, well, moot. At first she seems to simply blunder from one chance encounter to another, meeting famous courtesans, priests and warlords as if by happenstance, but soon the pattern emerges and she finds herself taking sides, fighting as both human and wolf as she struggles to avoid the tightening snare of threatened war, a witches pyre, and her uncle's ghastly plans for her utterly unwanted marriage.
It is hard to know where to stop praising this book. Regeane slips in and out of brutal confrontations and subtle traps with real elan. The fight scenes are fast, furious and utterly believable. Her perceptions as a wolf are beautifully realised and when Borchardt sweeps her off into an Otherworld of ancient Graeco-Roman myth it is not only a splendid piece of writing, but utterly integral to the plot of the story, both deriving from previous events and contributing to the final confrontations of the book.
The cast of characters is large, varied, and wonderfully vivid, from the redoubtable Pope Hadrian, to the scrappy street urchin Elfgilfa. Better still is Gundabald. The struggle between him and Regeane is the central conflict of the story and never out of sight for long. He's the villain every good piece of fantasy needs; brutal, cunning, remorseless and perfectly credible. Without him constantly getting in her way, nothing Regeane does or experiences would be one tenth as fascinating.
If all that were not enough, the writing even has wit, a broad streak of clever humour that rises mostly from the dialogue between characters who are as subtle, clever, ironic and earthily crude as any you will ever encounter. I have to say that I consider The Silver Wolf to be as close to a perfectly executed specimen of the genre as I've ever encountered. Intricate, fast-paced, profound, and best of all, complete.
Half-buried in a snowbank high in the Alps, an escaped Saxon slave stumbles across an unconscious woman. Gathering her up he blunders to a nearby monastery which turns out to be a brigand's den dominated by an unclean, possibly demonic spirit, which has driven most of the inhabitants mad in an orgy of torture and botched revivification. Luckily for the Saxon the woman turns out to be a werewolf, Regeane, the wife of Maeniel, the Wolf King and once she has recovered somewhat they handily fight their way out of the mad-house.
And here, perhaps, the story could have been allowed to decently end, were it not for the fact that Regeane's distant cousin, Charlemagne, is waiting at Geneva with his army, poised to descend on Italy, and he expects Maeniel to do his bit in clearing the difficult passes and scouting the lands of the Lombard King, Desiderius. To throw a bit of spice into the stew, the spirit which Regeane encountered in the first few chapters follows on after her, intent on revenge and possession. Then again, her other cousin, Hugo, gutless but treacherous, clambers back into the story, intent upon selling her and Maeniel out as and where he can.
From these premises a book develops that is sadly tangled and flawed, written decently, but lacking in focus, full of vivid events, but somehow limping, without real pace or energy. I previously reviewed Borchardt's preceding novel (in what should never have been allowed to become a sequence) The Silver Wolf, and praised it fulsomely. Here, regrettably, the very real strengths that Borchardt displayed in the earlier tale seem to have gone astray.
She has a masterful grip on the history and physical reality of ninth century Italy, but now it emerges in chunky passages of exposition, in the tone of a lecturer, not a tale-teller. She has a knack for conspiracies and political plots, but the ones twining through this tale are slow to develop, digress, wander and seem to lose themselves in preparations for battles almost endlessly deferred. She has a wonderful ear for witty dialogue, sharply ironic or broadly crude by turns; where has it gone?
The Silver Wolf kept a tight, fine-tuned focus on Regeane as the protagonist. The Wolf King wanders from character to character, hops from storyline to storyline, never more irritating than when it jumps into the head of one of the villains. And the villains... oh dear! The central conflict in The Silver Wolf was Regeane's lethal struggle with her uncle Gundabald, as nasty a piece of work as ever stalked through the pages of a fantasy novel. Here... Well, 'brutal but stupid' is the best one can say about the human villains, while the spirit who lurks and connives is an odd, blustery, arrogant but mysterious creature... Its origins are permanently hidden from us, but we get access to its thoughts, and that's enough to rob us of any real fear of it.
Then again, when it comes to mythic resonance, access to Otherworlds and the distant past, Borchardt tries to do too much. Regeane has developed a facility for flitting in and out of reality, into ghost-realms and (perhaps) other parts of the world, even through time... but what does it all amount to? A device allowing the author to move her from place to place with suitable swiftness, or to hand her a few supernatural allies as the occasion demands. It certainly has no significant place in the plot of the novel, never genuinely contributing to the flow of events. Over-eager to make the book multi-layered, Borchardt throws in some irrelevant pieces of history from the life of Matrona, eldest of Maeniel's pack of werewolves. But this is just digression, not enrichment.
Lining The Silver Wolf and The Wolf King up side by side, one could almost believe they were written by different people. At the very least, I suspect a different editor had a hand in the sequel, or perhaps a publishing company keen to cash in on a vivid first novel demanded a second, and demanded it fast.
Well, at least Anne Rice likes Borchardt's work. Her blurb on the back cover of both books oozes approval (which only the first one merits). Hardly surprising I suppose. After all, Rice is Borchardt's sister. Well, there's nothing wrong in saying nice things about your relatives' work, though... I do wonder if the phrase 'conflict of interest' might be applicable here?
Review by Simeon Shoul.
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© Simeon Shoul 30 December 2001