AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES [Amazon | The Book Depository | Kobo] is the third book in Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s Iskryne series, which blends Norse mythological influences with the tradition of animal companion fantasy. In this secondary world (which parallels ours in some ways, but isn’t an exact analog of our historical past), men bond with massive wolves to protect their communities from the trolls who seek to overrun them from the north and the invaders who strike from the south.
Each of the books focuses on different characters, so you can start with this one if that’s your thing; however, I strongly recommend you read A COMPANION TO WOLVES and THE TEMPERING OF MEN first. They’re wonderful books, and they’ll give you a good grounding in the social and political situation you’ll find in AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES.
And you want that. These books are filled with glorious complexities, and figuring out how everything slots together is half the fun.
AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES follows four point of view characters: Alfgyfa, who has lived half her life in the human wolfheall and half with the svartalfar craftspeople to whom she’s apprenticed, and who isn’t sure how she fits into either world; Otter, a former slave who is afraid to be happy with her new life in the wolfheall; Tin, Alfgyfa’s master, who fears the alliance between the svartalfar and men will crumble once the parties who brokered it are gone; and Fargrimr, the sworn-son (trans) jarl-in-exile of the first territory overrun by the Rhean invaders who came on the scene in THE TEMPERING OF MEN and who have now begun to advance on the northerners.
After a brief prologue, the book picks up about twelve years on from its predecessor and examines how the characters deal not only with the Rhean threat but with the restraints their own society places upon them. And as you might imagine given its protagonists, it’s very much concerned with gender.
Really, this has always been the case with these books as the various wolfcarls (and -jarls, and -sprechends) who carried the first two volumes considered the notion of gendered work and their own conception of masculinity, but now we see how this plays out from the female perspective. Alfgyfa, Tin, and Otter each give us a different glimpse at how femininity works in this world and within the two cultures that dominate the narrative.
Tin comes from a culture that honours smiths and mothers, both of which terms apply to her. The svartalfar have no true notion of women and men; instead, there are female people, male people, and people who fall in between and help facilitate reproduction. Gender doesn't really exist, and biology is a relative nonissue as it does not dictate what role a person can fill in society. Even males and in-between people can be honoured as mothers, though they have to go to greater lengths to achieve this distinction than most people with wombs do.
Because the svartalfar don’t do gender, Tin struggles to fully understand how gendered roles work for the humans. She’s not entirely comfortable with the masculinity on display in the war camp, and she’s baffled that Fargrimr has to be called a man to embrace what the humans consider a male role. To the svartalfar, people are simply themselves, in whatever way they’re capable of.
Otter accepts a place in the wolfheall to get away from the Rheans who sacked her country and made her their translator (and no doubt did other things to her, though she doesn’t elaborate for obvious reasons). She’s an immigrant, with an immigrant’s wariness of and interest in the new culture that surrounds her, and she serves as our main window on domesticity in the Iskryne due to her responsibilities as a wolfheall headwoman.
Otter loves her work, but she doesn’t trust that she loves it because her past trauma has left her acutely aware of how her status as a woman renders her vulnerable. Her life has been ripped apart once already, and she's uniquely placed to understand exactly how bad things could get if the Rhean invaders overrun the Army of the Iskryne. This makes her reluctant to accept how good things are for her right now, and to strive for anything beyond the moment or to admit how much she's come to care for the people she lives and works alongside.
Alfgyfa straddles the two worlds. She spends the first half of her life in the wolfheall and the second among the svartalfar, and she isn’t at all sure where she belongs. She’s unhappy among the svartalfar because she loves her work as a smith but chafes under the customs and rituals that govern life beneath the mountains, but she’s also unsure if she wants to be a true part of human society with its limited view of femininity. She's happy to help the other women of the wolfheall with their work and she doesn't want to become a sworn-son like Fargrimr, but she also doesn’t want to accept other peoples’ notion of what a woman is. And she’s young enough at fifteen that she’s still struggling to work through all these ideas, and to find a place for herself that fits with her identity while still allowing her to do the work she loves and be with the people she loves.
Fargrimr’s perspective takes us away from female-centred concerns as he fights the Rheans, both martially and ideologically. Just as the female characters let us see what happens in the domestic sphere, he’s our window on the front, and on the issues the men face from the invaders. He’s also one of only two male trans protagonists I’ve encountered in my SFF reading (the other being the title character from Lane Robins’s MALEDICTE), and it’s refreshing how readily Iskryne culture accepts him. The only people who question his masculinity are the Rheans, for whom sworn-sons are unknown across all the peoples they’ve conquered, and Tin, who lacks a human’s understanding of gender (though she does use the correct pronouns).
Fargrimr also raises even more questions about how gender works in this world. He’s a sworn-son because his elder brother bonded with a wolf, leaving their father without an heir. Would society have let him live an openly male life under other circumstances? What about the other sworn-sons in the Iskryne? We know from THE TEMPERING OF MEN that they exist but aren’t so common that everyone’s met one. It makes me wonder how many other people are wandering through this world trapped in the wrong genders, barred from the conditions that would let them be their true selves.
So the focus on gender is a major draw and a prime reason you want to read these books, but it’s not the only reason. Let’s talk about some of the other wondrous things the authors do with AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES.
Time and again as I reread the first two volumes and tackled this one, I thought about how absolutely perfect these books are for people who’re both nostalgic for the sort of fantasy that dominated in the nineties and eager to see new, innovative things. These books touch on so many of the ideas that cropped up in my young adulthood reading: the importance of honour; weapons training and the fight against unreasonable aggressors; the bonds between companions, both human and animal; the divide between human and nonhuman cultures; and the sheer, epic scope of living someplace that actively tries to kill you. But they do so in a more adult, inclusive way that’s interested in celebrating and interrogating the basic premise; in seeing what works about this scenario, what doesn’t, and how things might play out if simply bashing a troll over the head with an axe wasn’t enough to solve everyone’s problems.
This is the sort of fantasy that excites me, friends.
Of the three books, AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES is also deeply concerned with How Stuff Works, which y’all know is my favourite. Alfgyfa is never content to accept anything her teachers tell her. She’s always gonna prefer innovation over tradition, and she’s curious about every new idea she stumbles across, whether it’s something she could conceivably do herself, like binding runes to metalwork, or something she can only observe and reflect on, like shaping stone. She’s also keen to try anything and everything that’s within the realm of possibility for her, and she often considers mastery of less importance than discovery.
This delighted the hell out of me and made me like Alfgyfa very much.
Much of the worldbuilding is also deeply concerned with the How Stuff Works angle as we delve deep into the social structures that govern human and svartalfar alike. Some of it’s tied to gender as discussed above, some of it builds off of details established in previous books, and some of it is entirely new as additional challenges crop up and must be dealt with.
And I may have geeked the fuck out when the Rheans brought mammoths into the mix. I ain’t saying.
I should probably let you discover the rest of it for yourselves. I fear I'm so excited about this book and its predecessors that I've fallen into tell-everyone-everything-because-it's-all-just-so-great mode. Which is a stellar recommendation, I suppose, but not necessarily the most helpful way to go about things. You'll want to draw your own conclusions about everything you find herein.
TL;DR, this book was perfect for me due to its focus on gender, the fascinating world it portrays, and the heady nostalgia factor. I suspect it’ll be perfect for many of you, too. Read A COMPANION TO WOLVES and THE TEMPERING OF MEN first for maximum effect, then throw yourself straight at AN APPRENTICE TO ELVES.