The Apprentice to Elves
by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
The harsh world of the North has defeated many enemies, from the bitter winters to the fierce Trells and their reality-bending stone-molding. Aided by the tunnel-dwelling alfar, the men of the north have withstood all. But the legion of Rhean men who have arrived on their shores are a challenge they've never encountered: disciplined, determined, and willing to throw all the resources of their empire behind their goal of conquering the North.
Apprentice to Elves is a slow-moving, richly painted novel that takes place within a mythical world that draws inspiration from Norse and Roman history. The story itself is an interesting clash of cultures; we have humans attempting to bond with the tradition-driven alfar, svartálfar against aettrynalfar, and Northmen against Rhean. The story is told from the perspective of several proto-Norse, including Alfgyfa, the eponymous girl sent to apprentice with the elves. However, we also get the perspectives of Alfgyfa's alf master, as well as a Brythonic ex-slave who escaped capture by the Rheans. I loved the cultures explored within the novel, and I loved the way that the authors mixed Norse words in casually with the descriptions and conversations. However, I'd love to see a glossary. Normally, I hate glossaries, but for this book, it would have been invaluable, as the Norse and proto-Norse words and names thrown around are clearly meaningful in ways not captured by the storyline. I found out after reading this that it is part of a series, and while I was initially somewhat bewildered by all the unfamiliar terms, I quickly adjusted, and I think the book can definitely be read as a standalone.
My favourite part, without a doubt, was the wolves. The novel's North is inhabited by the massive, hyperintelligent trellwolves, and some of them form special bonds with humans. A chosen few of the men living in the wolfheall are wolfcarls, each partnering a trellwolf in a deep, even telepathic bond. I utterly adored the trellwolves. The authors absolutely get dogs, both their moods and their body language, and by extension, their wolf characters are vibrant, real, and utterly adorable.
If you read this, don't expect the epic battles that might be suggested from the beautiful cover. (For all that, the ending is glorious.) Instead, the book delves into the difficult politics of alf versus alf and man versus man, of the role of women in society, and the complexities of society on the edge of wilderness. Alfgyfa is torn between two cultures, and uncomfortable in both. Given more agency in the matriarchal society of the alfar than she could ever find in the wolfheall, she still longs for the male-only role of a wolfsprechend. Yet as the conflict against the Rheans slowly develops, Alfgyfa seeks to use her unique role to save both communities she loves. The novel is a fascinating exploration of feminism, culture, and identity.
~~I received a copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~