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The Wolf King
Alice Borchardt
Del Rey, 375 pages

John Ennis
The Wolf King
Alice Borchardt
Alice Borchardt shared a childhood of storytelling in New Orleans with her sister, the bestselling novelist Anne Rice. A professional nurse, she has also nurtured a profound interest in little-known periods of history. She published her debut novel, Devoted, in 1995.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

A snowdrift, an Alpine blizzard, a runaway Saxon slave finds a woman near frozen.  The wind howls around them and the dark shadow of a bell tower in the distance can maybe be seen through the snow.  Despite the threat of discovery and the possible loss of his freedom, the man carries his unconscious find to a nearby monastery, only to be immediately set upon by brigands and an abbot more than a little mad, with a cast of characters and a setting that could have been lifted, at least as far as appearance, from the The Name of the Rose or any number of filmic horrors, from Nosferatu to Howling V: The Rebirth.  Something dark is lurking in the abbey, and in the battle that follows the bandits reveal themselves to include the undead, and the abbot a votary serving a demonic master who rises from an alter as a monstrous, flaming bear.  Only through desperate courage and a quick use of wits do the Saxon and his new-found companion beat back the hellish attack of evil foes, stumbling out of the burning chapel to find shape-shifting wolves awaiting them.  Along with an avalanche and a sentient horse, this spare tally of singular events sums up but the outline of this book's first chapter!

The third work of an ongoing series (earlier novels being The Silver Wolf and Night of the Wolf) The Wolf King continues Alice Borchardt's romantic horror fantasy set at the end of the Roman Empire and the later rise of Charlemagne.  Attempting to carve out territory correlative to that of her sister, Anne Rice, Ms. Borchardt has chosen shape-shifters as her theme and protagonists, specifically a pack led by the nobleman Maeniel and his bride, Regeane.  Drawing loosely upon the events surrounding Charles' invasion of Lombardy in the late 8th century, the author's tale contains a complement of secondary characters and storylines centred around the papal court of Rome, some of which have figured more prominently in earlier books.  Further, Ms. Borchardt has leavened her work with some delightful, as well as largely accurate historical details, such as the superstitious belief that if a murderer touched the body of his victim, the corpse would bleed, or the application of white lead to enhance paleness of complexion (studies have been done as to the various uses of this potential toxin throughout the Middle Ages, from its use above as a cosmetic to a topping agent and flavour enhancer in various beverages that led to localized and, at the time, unrecognized poisoning epidemics!).

Unfortunately, once wandering from the specific period of which she is writing, the author's imaginings of history become somewhat fuzzier.  Her conjecture of the evolution of prehistoric man is more romantic than anthropological, depicting a primeval Eden of noble savages plucking fruit from the trees, to be later destroyed by the glaciations of the Paleolithic Period that, according to the novel, allowed only hunters to survive, the more peaceful, vegetarian species of mankind forced eventually into extinction (Konrad Lorenz and even Leakey will be shuddering in their graves).  Additionally, historical representations closer to her subject at times become misconstrued; the survey of Roman history and its people at the top of page 243 (of this edition) is grossly simplified and inaccurate.  And while her attempts to barbarize the Franks relative to the more Romanized remnants of Italy may in some ways be justified, the author goes overboard in her depiction of a largely undisciplined and drunken rabble of armed louts, hung over before battle, too inebriated to post sentries, with leaders who lop off the heads of officers simply for making inopportune comments.  Charlemagne certainly did not advance his reign by leading an undisciplined mob, any more than the essentially tribal foundations of Frankish society would have allowed for capricious or tyrannical actions on the part of its rulers.  This was, after all, a society in which a king still had to obtain the consent of the ruled for his actions.

At one point in her novel, one of her characters states: "A thing of power, language.  Far more powerful than the men and women who used it so casually would ever understand."  While the author may recognize this, it does not always carry over into her own writing.  Much of this novel is typified by a use of language and composition that is workman-like at best, with certain passages and actions unclear, even acknowledging the fact some foundation for this book has been established in previous novels.  This is particularly true in instances where magic is employed.  The pool-like portal used by several of the characters remains unclear as to its provenance and workings, as does the summoning of Remingus and his role within the narrative, beyond magically showing up in moments of crisis.  The depiction of action within the novel often remains sketchy, and certain events transpire with a degree of serendipity, while the purpose of others, such as Regeane's eating of a shimmer or being clothed in waterweed, are vague or undisclosed.  At times, the author's sense of setting seems to contradict itself, as with a falls located in the centre of a lake, or similarly a still pool at a waterfall's verge.  In a different episode, one is left to wonder why Lucilla turns to shards of marble in order to cut a loaf of bread when she already is in possession of a knife, and the description of the married Regeane as a virgin wolf becomes particularly problematic.  Finally, on occasion the author falls into the trap of repetitive phrase or word use within a passage: casual use of language indeed!

Based upon the book's conclusion, the various storylines in this novel appear to serve little more than as a chapter or bridge to the next book's continuance of the series.  A tale in which the heroes and heroines are gaining ever-increasing and god-like powers, ranging from the ability to talk to animals and plants to prophetic visions reaching millennia into the past and future, with an insight to sense all life and gaze into the workings of the universe, invisibility, and even more talents hinted yet to come, the accretion of these powers threatens at times to overwhelm both the context and characters of the narrative.  Yet, for those of you who enjoy this type of story -- tales concerning "children of the night," werewolves, witches and vampires, the traditional cast of Hollywood and horror -- this might momentarily sate your appetite. Certainly those who have enjoyed recent work by authors such as Anne Rice or Laurell K. Hamilton, especially where the genre is sprinkled with a dash of historical detail and erotica to enliven stories that evolve in multiple and epic volumes, will likely be delighted.  And, if you already relish the aforementioned authors, any pedestrian quality discovered in the writing is unlikely to put you off.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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