In the Suthern lands across the waters of the Abus, King Osbert is weak, a fool who is afraid even of lightning and easily manipulated by Queen Aramilla and her secret lover, the upstart Bellamus of Safinim, a warrior without title whose value at court has been cultivated through his deep knowledge of the Anakim whose forbidding land he has visited, the traditional enemy of the Sutherners with whom an uneasy peace has existed for years.
The Anakim are physically superior, larger than the Sutherners and long-lived, their bone-plates providing a natural armour in addition to the superior weapon-forging skills of their glittering Unthank steel, but the Sutherners are more numerous and Bellamus has persuaded Osbert to launch an excursion beyond the Abus.
What should be an overwhelming victory for the superior forces of the Anakim is a bloody trap hinged on their overconfidence and the battle costs the life of Kynortas, Black Lord of the Anakim; inheriting the throne is Roper Kynortasson, beset within and without, an untried youth who is named a coward for ordering retreat even though his action saved the armies of the Black Kingdom from massacre, and in the wings waiting to step into his place is Uvoren Ymerson of House Lothbrok.
Captain of the Sacred Guard and a dangerous enemy who believes he would be a more suitable Black Lord than the nineteen-year-old heir, with his famous warhammer Marrow-Hunter at his side Uvoren is respected warrior and popular with the people with many allies by his side, but those who know him well realise his ambition is personal rather than for the good of the country, and if the wolf banner of House Jormunrekur is to fly Roper will have to find his own allies, and fast.
The debut novel of Leo Carew and first of his Under the Northern Sky series, The Wolf is described as an epic historical fantasy but as well as the tens of thousands of armoured men marching across the stark landscapes in search of glory there is equal time spent manoeuvring within the halls of power in the high stone walls of the Anakim stronghold, the supposedly impregnable Hindrunn.
Micromanaging every element with passages on weaponry, the designs carved on armour, the battle tactics on the fields, the syntax and vocabulary of the languages, both spoken and the pictograms of the pre-literate Anakim and the history and architecture of the realm, while Carew undoubtedly knows his world inside and out it is often at the expense of momentum.
Initially frustratingly slow as though the reader were joining the armies in trudging through the mud, traversing the Hindrunn at one point takes seven pages of careful description of the different neighbourhoods as though Carew were in hopeful pre-production for his own HBO show, but the tone and pace change as winter sets in and with it the plague, another challenge for Roper’s precarious leadership.
What is missing is feeling; Bellamus conceives Queen Aramilla as subtle and shrewd but her scenes are written as though she were a shallow high school bitch playing games with her fawning court, and while Keturah Tekoasdottir is a more developed and interesting character – she could scarcely be less – in her sudden marriage to Roper to seal his alliance with the powerful House Vidarr it is never examined whether their union has grown to affection, even love, or remains a strictly practical and political arrangement.
An overwhelmingly masculine novel in temperament and focus, like Roper who leads his army from the front without fear or compromise it is on the battlefield where Carew finds his confidence and the pacing improves any time weapons are drawn, which is often, and while the immediate finale has an element of deus ex machina it is evident that he already has great plans drawn up for his armies and that further strife will come to the lands under the northern sky sooner rather than later.
The Wolf is available from 5th April from Wildfire