Mea culpa: I haven't read anything written by Kate Elliott in over two decades. This is long overdue, I know. And I have no excuse. I read the Jaran books back in the day, but nothing else since. I have bought every single Crown of Stars installment as soon as they came out, yet I decided not to start reading the series until it was complete. Did the same thing with the Crossroads trilogy. So yes, I should have at least read King's Dragon and its sequels a long time ago. But for some reason, something always got in the way. New books and other authors clamored for my attention, again and again. Which brings us here today. I was planning on reading either King's Dragon or Spirit Gate when I realized that Elliott had just released a new fantasy novel. Hence, Black Wolves went to the top of the pile of books I was going to read next.
Although the novel has garnered rave reviews, it appears that it's also quite divisive among fans. A quick perusal of online ratings and reviews shows that lots of readers didn't like it, and some of them did not even finish it. I never read reviews beforehand when I decide to insert a title into my reading rotation, so I wasn't aware of that fact. Perhaps that's why I went into this one with somewhat lofty expectations. And which is probably why I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would.
This new series is a sequel to the Crosroads trilogy. When I inquired, I was informed that one didn't need to have read the previous series in order to enjoy Black Wolves. It might be the case, but now that I'm done with the book I'm not so sure. Ofttimes, I felt that I was missing some nuances, some little things that could have made me like the novel a bit more.
The main problem I had with this book is that it reads like something that's not the final draft of a manuscript. Which was surprising. There are so many unnecessary scenes that bog down the narrative, it makes it hard to believe that this work went through the entire editorial process. Of course, it did, which is kind of scary, given how bloated the novel is. At times, Black Wolves is a case in point of everything that's wrong with epic fantasy these days. Too many protagonists and too many POVs, most of which bringing little or nothing to the story arcs. Too many plotlines focusing on extraneous or secondary characters or events, most of which getting in the way of the actual storytelling. Massive info-dumps as well as sequences and whole chapters fattened with filler material. Don't get me wrong. There is a lot of good stuff between the covers of Black Wolves. Problem is, you have to sift through a lot of superfluous material to get to it. So much so that it's more than a little off-putting, and now I understand why some readers couldn't get through the book.
Here's the blurb:
An exiled captain returns to help the son of the king who died under his protection in this rich and multi-layered first book in an action-packed new series. Twenty two years have passed since Kellas, once Captain of the legendary Black Wolves, lost his King and with him his honor. With the King murdered and the Black Wolves disbanded, Kellas lives as an exile far from the palace he once guarded with his life. Until Marshal Dannarah, sister to the dead King, comes to him with a plea-rejoin the palace guard and save her nephew, King Jehosh, before he meets his father's fate. Combining the best of Shogun and Vikings, Black Wolves is an unmissable treat for epic fantasy lovers everywhere.
The decidedly unconventional structure is clearly the most off-putting aspect of this book. In the acknowledgments, Kate Elliott mentions that this was a tremendously difficult novel to write and it shows. Often, especially throughout the first two parts, it felt as though the author is making it all up as she goes along, that she doesn't necessarily know where the story is going. Which is why it feels like this isn't the final draft of the manuscript. The way Elliott uses flashback scenes can be confusing, as is the decision to focus on protagonists and events for nearly half of the book and then fast-forward forty-four years into the future. In retrospect, now that I have finished Black Wolves, it appears that you could pretty much get rid of the first 347 pages, those which focus on what took place in the past, as in the end they get in the way of what is essentially a very good second half. Had I received an ARC and was reading this one with no knowledge of some rave reviews by some critics whose opinion I respect, I would never have gotten past the first hundred pages. This weird structure, going back and forth between the past, the present, and the future is not only confunding, but it makes it hard to get into it and enjoy the tale. Indeed, by the time you reach page 347, you still have no idea what this book is supposed to be about. Better to begin forty-four years later and rely on flashback scenes to help readers catch up with the events that led to the second half of the work, especially since Elliott is fond of doing that throughout the novel anyway.
The worldbuilding is good, but too often the author relies on huge info-dumps to share information with her readers. A number of scenes and conversations are nothing more than info-dumps, which somewhat cheapens the whole thing. On the other hand, sometimes it feels as though readers should know what's going on and no explanations are offered. Which is why I felt that perhaps those who have read the Crossroads trilogy might be a step ahead of newbies like me. Still, Kate Elliott came up with a multiayered and convoluted tale of betrayal, and the second portion of the novel demonstrates that this story arc is much more complex than what I had come to expect. The blurb mentions James Clavell's masterpiece, Shogun, which implies that Black Wolves would have an Asian-like setting as a political and historical backdrop and not the habitual medieval European environment that has become the norm in the genre. Sadly, other than the occasional rice cakes and rice wine, and a few names here and there, absolutely nothing of the setting and the traditions truly feels Asian. Unlike Clavell's Shogun and Kirk's Child of Vengeance, novels in which everything down to the last minute detail reflects the Japanese way of life and customs, very little within the pages of Black Wolves feels different from other fantasy works on the market today. Which, in the end, was a major disappointment, as I elected to read this novel instead of an older Elliott title specifically because of the promied Asian setting.
The characterization is quite uneven. It can be brilliant, but it also often leaves a lot to be desired. As I mentioned, there are way too many chacaters and POVs. More than the story needed, and that's why the going can be so rough at times. Whole scenes and chapters could have been excised without hurting the story. Captain Kellas, former leader of the legendary Black Wolves, is an excellent protagonist. Complex and mysterious, there are a lot of layers to this man. The second main character, Marshal Dannarah, is the complete opposite. That woman is such a two-dimensional protagonist and I cringed when I read almost every scene she appeared in. She is incredibly dense when the story dictates that she be dumb, yet she becomes an eagle-flying Perry Mason/Inspector Columbo who can unravel the most impenetrable mysteries without much of a hint when the plot demands it. Oddly enough, with the jump ahead in the timeline, both Kellas and Dannarah are senior citizens for most of the duration of the novel. Which is unusual, but works well on the whole. Two other POV protagonists, Sarai and Lifka, are by far the most interesting characters in the book. It's a pity that it takes so long for their storylines to truly take off. But their back stories are the most fascinating, so it's evident that Kate Elliott has a lot in store for them. Finally, Gilaras' plotline gets too much exposure and would likely have worked better with less "air time". Again, the author spent too much time padding each individual storyline with too much filler material. Each storyline has its own reward before you reach the end, that goes without saying. But you have to go through so much irrelevant stuff to get there that it's understandable that some readers gave up at some point.
The dialogue can be jarring, especially in scenes featuring Marshal Dannarah. It seems that in trying to make her so overly competent and badass, the author created what turned out to be a caricature of sorts. I hoped she would die, but I have a feeling that she's in for the long haul.
The politicking is sometimes clumsy. Political intrigue is not something that every SFF author does well, and not everyone is as gifted as George R. R. Martin or Katherine Kurtz in that regard. But since a large part of Black Wolves hinges precisely on that aspect, it can be a bit of a setback.
The pace is abominably slow. Nothing seems to be happening for the longest time and it does take forever for the tale to finally kick into gear. Still, though the second portion of the novel gets better and tells a much more compelling story, there is no denying that the narrative continues to get bogged down by filler and extraneous material throughout. The end doesn't offer much in terms of resolution and is nothing more than a "To be continued" kind of thing. As such, after slogging through nearly 800 pages, I'm not sure Kate Elliott delivered as much as she wanted to as far as the ending is concerned.
Would I read the sequel? I'll give it a shot, no question. The way Elliott capped off Black Wolves makes me want to discover what happens next. But there is no way I'm slogging through another interminable and bloated read. If the story doesn't kick into high gear in the first hundred pages or so, I'll simply abandon the book.
If you are one of those people who couldn't finish it, I suggest you give Black Wolves another shot. Things do get better by the time you reach the halfway point. It's getting there that's hard. . .