Nancy K. Wallace – Among Wolves

nancykwallace-amongwolvesYoung Devin Roché is about to graduate as an Archivist from the prestigious Llisé’s University, and there is just one more task he wants to complete – to preserve a complete history of Llisé.

The history of Llisé and its fifteen provinces are a peaceful affair, filled with harmony, resolution and a rich oral tradition of storytelling. Nothing untoward ever happens in this peaceful land. Or does it?

Trainee archivist Devin Roché has just taken his finals at the prestigious Académie. As the sixth son of the ruler of Llisé, his future is his own, and so he embarks on an adventure to memorise stories chronicling the history of each province.

As Devin begins his journey with only his best friend Gaspard and their guardian Marcus, he hears rumors of entire communities suddenly disappearing without a trace and of Master Bards being assassinated in the night.

As the three companions get closer to unearthing the truth behind these mysteries, they can’t help but wonder whether it is their pursuit that has led to them.

But if that is the case, what do Llisé and Devin’s father have to hide?

Among Wolves is Nancy K. Wallace’s first book written for adults and it is part of HarperVoyager’s new digital-first line of books. When offered the book for review, what intrigued me most and what captured my attention first, was the description of the protagonist’s profession as an archivist. I have a soft spot for books featuring librarians, booksellers, and archivists, so Devin immediately found himself on my good side. That was what initially drew me to the book, but what really made me love the book – setting the political intrigue and the characters aside for a moment – was the belief in the power of knowledge, history and stories that formed the core of the narrative. 

That belief formed not just the core of the narrative, but informed much of the world-building as well. It is there in the structure and purpose of the Académie, the repository of Llisé’s history and knowledge, in the intricate system of the provincial Chronicles, which preserve the important events and history that haven’t been officially sanctioned by Llisé’s central government. I loved the distinction between written history and oral history. Oral histories are considered less official and threatening to central power, because they are seen as less trustworthy since details may change in the telling and arguably they are never told the same way twice anyway. This latter point is illustrated through Armand’s telling of the story of the Beast of Gévaudan, which he tweaks somewhat to drive home a point to their host. The prohibition on putting the Chronicles to paper also shows standardised history as a political tool, as there is no way to easily compare all of the Chronicles, since there is no Master Bard who knows all of them by heart. This allows Llisé, the conquering province, to control the historical narrative.

Among Wolves is rife with political intrigue; plots and conspiracies abound, both within the central government and devised by rebellious border lords. Wallace juggles these skilfully, distracting the reader at opportune moments, while revealing the various machinations with a flourish at others, yet never making the reader feel as if she has been bamboozled. Llisé’s France-inspired setting was enjoyable, though the provinces outside of Viénne and Ombria were only roughly sketched in and the countries surrounding Llisé remained completely nebulous. The history and government of Llisé is given in some more detail, but as regards the provinces, we mostly learn that they were occupied by Viénne and then gathered together to form Llisé. I did like that Llisé isn’t a kingdom, but does have ruler who is chosen for life, unless he is deposed through treachery. It is something of a middle ground between France’s historical absolute monarchy and its current presidential system, which I liked a lot.

But while I was very taken by the world-building in Among Wolves, what really kept me reading were its characters. Our protagonist is the young, fiercely intelligent, but somewhat naive Devin Roché, youngest son of the current ruler of Llisé and an idealist. Yet despite all his idealism, Devin is practical and I found it very hard not to like him. His first companion on his quest to master all fifteen Chronicles is his best friend Gaspard, who is far less of a scholar and unkindly put comes off as a bit of a wastrel. They are joined by Marcus, a bodyguard assigned to Devin by his father as there have been mutterings against Devin’s endeavour. The dynamics between Devin, Gaspard, and Marcus were interesting, as we see Devin struggle with deciding who to trust and trying to manage having a bodyguard and having to take care of Gaspard’s increasingly problematic gambling. The more complicated the situation becomes, the more Devin starts doubting all of his relationships, even the one with his father. I found that an interesting choice, because the seemingly genuine and close bond between Devin, his parents and his siblings was one I really enjoyed. To have that put under increasingly distrusting scrutiny was a little saddening.

Once Devin and his companions reach Brisée in Ombria and find the Ombrian Master Bard Armand, they fall into a very different sort of family, namely that of Armand, his daughter Jeanette, and his previous apprentice Adrian. This sojourn brought my most favourite scenes and my most meh scenes of the story. To start with the most favourite things: I loved the songs and the way they were taught. The way the stories are preserved was quite interesting. While a province has numerous storytellers and bards, only the Master Bard can train new bards and – perhaps more importantly – add to the corpus. No one else can add anything to the Chronicle. There are several passages that feature Devin’s training and I really liked these. The scenes that left me feeling a bit indifferent were sadly those between Jeanette and Devin. Their romance felt somewhat understated; I saw it, I read the words, but I didn’t feel it, if that makes sense. This left me a little disappointed, because there is plenty of fodder for emotions and angst in their situation.

Yet despite my disappointment in the romantic subplot of the story I had a fantastic time with Among Wolves. I tore through the book wanting to discover what would happen to Devon, Armand, Marcus, Gaspard and the rest. Wallace has created an interesting world to set her story in and the political machinations make for a strong plot. If political fantasy is as much catnip to you as it is to me, then Among Wolves will certainly be of interest to you. I very much enjoyed this first instalment in the Wolves of Llisé series and I can’t wait to rejoin our intrepid heroes to find out how their story continues.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.