The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette & Elizabeth Bear is the second novel in their Iskryne Saga, follow-up to the critically lauded A Companion to Wolves (2007), and picks up immediately where that book leaves off: the end of the war with the trolls. While the first book followed Isolfr, The Tempering of Men has alternating perspectives between Vethulf and Skjaldwulf, Isolfr’s wolfjarls, as well as Brokkolfr, a survivor of the troll siege of Othinnsaesc.
The focus of The Tempering of Men is also necessarily different from that of the first novel in the trilogy; after all, the war is won. This book is concerned with the fallout of victory—second and third string negative effects, not the least of which is the sudden lack of a purpose for the wolfcarls and their telepathically bonded trellwolves. If the trolls are gone, then even the northern towns that used to tithe to the healls will stop, and the tradition will die—not to mention the personal question of what use a warrior can be in peacetime.
Of course, it’s not quite peacetime yet, as the growing threat of the Rhean (faux-Roman, as the Iskryners are faux-Nordic) incursion lingers on the horizon and the proliferation of second-string problems from the defeat of the trolls continues to multiply—stray wyverns and strain on the relations between the svartalfar and the humans, to name a couple.
The Tempering of Men, as the second book in a trilogy, has to fulfill several purposes: set up the next book, continue the plot of the first, and yet remain independently engaging in and of itself. It succeeds, in a different way than one might expect based on the violence and intensity of the first novel. Instead of following a war, it shows the cleanup after one ends and then the tension as a new one builds, while the main heft of the plot is concerned with the characters themselves and their understanding of their lives. It’s a strategy that not only works, it works fabulously well, in great part because of the deftness with which Bear & Monette construct and humanize their large cast of characters—especially the trellwolves.
The deconstruction of companion-animal fantasy was what drew so much attention to A Companion to Wolves; the same work continues here, as the authors explore the relationships between men and their wolves, between the wolves as a pack, and how they react to the outside world. Brokkolfr’s sister-wolf Amma is one of the most heart-warming, amusing characters in the book, and she doesn’t have words to speak. (The friendship between Brokkolfr and Kari, and the end result of them finding a whole different race of svartalfar, was excellent as well.)
Fascinating to me, also, was the further scientific curiosity on part of the characters, especially Skjaldwulf, about the history of the wolfcarls and about how much the wolves become like their men in thought and personality. The realization that Viradechtis, Isolfr’s queen wolf, is a special case—and may be teaching the other wolves through the pack-sense how to communicate with men’s words—is pretty neat and implies quite a bit more about the way the relationships between the wolves and men work.
As well, the relationships forced by the wolves’ dominion over their men are explored further this time around—Skjaldwulf and Vethulf are both in love with Isolfr, who’s straight as ever and not interested, despite their wolves’ relationships. At first, fire-tempered Vethulf and older, more thoughtful Skjaldwulf are at odds because of their rivalry, but that begins to unravel as the war is winding down. They begin a relationship of their own, at first for the physical, sexual comfort and because they both care for Isolfr, and later for their own reasons. They’re hardly talkative, emotional men, but that makes the slow development of their characters all the more enjoyable. The Tempering of Men is very much their book, and as I’m equally fond of them both as characters, well-developed as they are, this focus and development pleased me—even though they spend nearly the entire narrative separated by leagues and leagues. (Distance makes the heart grow fonder, or in Vethulf’s case, irritates him half to death. Plus, it’s all worth it for the final lines of the book, which prompted an outright laugh from me.)
While it is Vethulf and Skjaldwulf’s book, Isolfr is still present and a force of presence in the narrative. Seeing him through other characters, after the events of A Companion to Wolves, was another of my favorite parts of this book; his own opinion of himself and his bearing look considerably different when viewed from someone else’s eyes. His coldness and his awkwardness, especially, are interesting—but so is his care for his pack as wolfsprechend, shown by his eventual warming to Brokkolfr and the rather adorable bit of clumsy match-making for Vethulf and Skjaldwulf at play in the last few pages.
And, speaking of the ending, there’s the physical plot of the book also: Skjaldwulf’s trip south, his encounter with and capture by the Rhean exploratory party, and the introduction of the next big threat to the Iskryners. While the interpersonal narratives that drive the book are fantastically well-illustrated, The Tempering of Men is still a novel of warriors and their battles; Vethulf is fighting to keep the peace in the towns near Franangford while Skjaldwulf is fighting and politicking in the south.
There aren’t major battles to be fought in this book, though, because while the Rhean army is a threat and their incursion a growing danger, The Tempering of Men ends without engaging them—instead, the climax of the book is the AllThing at which the people of the Iskryne agree to go to war together, as one, and elect a leader: Isolfr’s father, Gunnarr Sturluson, who Isolfr himself nominates at the climactic moment. It leaves open the war itself for the third and final book, An Apprentice to Elves, while still managing to give an effective, emotionally resonant climax—no battles needed. This is an extremely difficult trick to manage after a dense first novel concerned primarily with war, but Bear and Monette do it effortlessly.
The Tempering of Men is a near-perfect second book, resolving some sub-plots from the first novel and wrapping up with a gripping ending of its own that at once offers a climax and also doesn’t release too much of the tension that is left to roll on into the next novel. Plus, it’s almost painfully gorgeous at places; the prose is polished and evocative in the way that I’ve come to expect from this pair of writers. Middle books are hard, but the talented duo of Monette & Bear show no strain in writing an excellent one. The Tempering of Men serves to tell many stories as one, while also further developing the brutal, fascinating world of the Iskryners and their wolves. In the end I’m both satisfied by The Tempering of Men and hungry for An Apprentice to Elves—the perfect place to leave a reader.