Friday, April 12, 2013
Review: Wolfskin by Juliet Marillier
Title: Wolfskin (The Light Isles, #1)
Author: Juliet Marillier
Rating: 5 Stars
After my ever-so-slightly-disappointed encounter with Son of the Shadows, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Wolfskin. It can be a painful process to read the work of a beloved author with the knowledge that the novel in your hands is good, but it isn’t the outstanding masterpiece you were expecting, and I did my best to avoid another Marillier novel because of my fear of that very feeling. Even more disturbing, though, is the fact that virtually none of my friends have read Wolfskin and the public reviews I had to go by promised that readers would either love this tale of Vikings or feel drastically apathetic towards it. Needless to say, I cracked open the spine of Wolfskin with shaking fingers, but by the end of the first paragraph itself, I knew, without a doubt, that I had discovered another legendary story from Juliet Marillier; one I would undoubtedly display on my shelves next to Daughter of the Forest itself.
In the cold settlement of Rogaland, young Eyvind dreams of becoming a Wolfskin, an honored Viking warrior who hears the voice of Thor himself in battle. When Ulf, a visionary chieftain, arrives during the winter with his younger brother, Somerled, in tow, Eyvind and Somerled strike an unlikely friendship. Although Somerled is strange, taciturn, and refuses to make any friends beyond Eyvind himself, the two become blood brothers, swearing a life-long oath of loyalty to one another. Years later, Somerled secures Eyvind a spot on the ship of his elder brother who seeks to voyage to faraway islands of fable. Once there, Ulf establishes a peaceful friendship with King Engus and the islanders – a time of joy that is broken with the ruthless murder of Ulf. It is now that Eyvind begins to witness the cunning, ambitious persona that lies under the quiet exterior of his friend as he comes to question not only his loyalty towards Thor – whose battle cry he no longer wishes to follow – but also towards his childhood friend, who asks him to sacrifice the one woman he holds most dear.
From the first few pages of Wolfskin itself, a dark, ominous tone is set for the novel. It is the type of creeping feeling there isn’t a name for; the kind where you know terrible events are about to unfold, but you can’t do much about it. What Marillier excels in with Wolfskin is the blurring of lines between good and evil. Although it is established from the very beginning of this tale that Somerled is not necessarily a good person, we see the goodness in him, alongside the evil. We see him create a new type of knot just so he can trap animals and watch as they die, but we also see him risk his life to save that of Eyvind’s. We see that he is a clever and intelligent young man, once timid and afraid of others, but we also see his glowing ambition. At its heart, Wolfskin is the tale of these two friends, of the adventures they’ve experienced together and of the dreams that have brought them to where they are in life. We experience the inner battle that Eyvind faces, that of confronting his childhood friend or dealing with the guilt of not having stopped him before. Marillier makes us see the grays of these two characters so deeply, their flaws right alongside their goodness that it is impossible to know where to place blame and where to weep.
As you can imagine, Wolfskin is a dark tale. Its pages contain rape, murder, suicide, massacres, and heavy violence, but still, it remains a story of love and hope.* Unlike the previous Marillier novels I’ve read, Wolfskin is not simply narrated from one perspective; rather, it shifts between the third-person perspectives of Eyvind and Nessa, a priestess and the niece of King Engus. Although Nessa and Eyvind come from different races of now-warring people, the two are drawn to each by fate and their love only offers them greater faith and strength in a time of desolation. Furthermore, their bond is a feeling, one that carries them through the difficult paths they face alone and the respect, equality, and understanding between the two is unrivaled by any other literary couple I have come across as yet.
One of the themes that stood out to me throughout the duration of Wolfskin was that of faith. We have literal faith in that the Vikings believe in Thor, the people of the island in their spirits, and even a priest in Christianity. Yet, Wolfskin is not a religious book. It shows us how faith drives our lives – faith in something, whether it be divine or otherwise – and even when our faith in one thing is broken, something else invariably comes along to replace it. Until, that is, we are stripped of everything but our faith in ourselves. Wolfskin explores, so poignantly, of what humans are capable when pushed to their limits, when they have nothing and no one to turn to but themselves and their allies and whether, at the end, their faith stands the true test of time, come what may. Nessa, in particular, as a priestess is constantly told that she will embark on a journey in which she must be prepared to go on, despite losing everything and everyone she holds dear. It is for the strength and compassion she displays on this journey that she will go down as one of my most inspirational protagonists of all time.
In addition to literal faith, though, Marillier explores the faith we put in other people, the trust we place in them to do what is right. With Somerled and Eyvind especially, she doesn’t hesitate to break our hearts, time and time again, especially as she builds an attachment to both these characters, despite the flaws that they possess. Ironically enough, I found myself patting myself on the back as I neared the end of this novel for not shedding a single tear. Naturally, I found myself bawling during one particular scene during the last chapter – a scene that continues to take my breath away. It is through this subtle inflection of faith that Marillier enables her characters to grow, making them build that faith within themselves that is formerly lacking, and even the complexity of relationships she builds, no matter how trivial, continue to build throughout the novel, culminating in an ending that is simply utter genius.
Like Daughter of the Forest, this novel has forced me to re-evaluate my own life and look out upon it with different eyes. Juliet Marillier, I can only thank you for writing such life-changing masterpieces. From the bottom of my duct-taped heart.
*I just want to re-iterate that Wolfskin, although containing characters who are in their teens, is really not for teenagers. If you are not comfortable with any of the subjects I mentioned, or with novels that contain sex, I’d suggest a more light-hearted novel by Juliet Marillier like Shadowfell instead. (You can read my review of Shadowfell HERE if you're interested.)