The final book in Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s Iskryne Saga, An Apprentice to Elves, wraps up a series that began with a splash in A Companion to Wolves (2007). This time the reader is primarily following Isolfr’s daughter Alfgyfa, apprenticed to the alfar, as well as other characters who were secondary in the previous two books. The first novel was a fresh, engaging, and often-grim take on companion animal fantasy while the second explored the aftermath of a war—but this third and final volume approaches issues of cultural conflict and the battle that has finally come to bear against Rhean conquest and colonization.
It’s been interesting to watch this series develop, for two reasons. One is the spectacular, absorbing, densely-researched world of the Iskryne; honestly, I’m a bit heartbroken to see it finished with. The other is that, over the past eight years, these writers have each—and have as a pair—developed a great deal in terms of their delicacy and skill of craft. The end result is a series where each installment truly stands out and stands its individual ground as a wildly different sort of text, without ever losing the coherence and engagement of the project as a whole.
Overall, I’d venture to say that this is one of my favorite second-world fantasy series of all time. As in, ever. That’s in large part because of the fact that each book is so different, conceptually and thematically. Instead of becoming one-note, it develops rich undertones and offers equal time to starkly varied narrative perspectives and voices. A Companion to Wolves is Isolfr’s book, as he becomes a man in a dangerous and hard world with his wolf companion—and it is, very much, a man’s world. A Tempering of Men is, in many ways, Vethulf and Skjaldwulf’s book, but deals more complexly with the rights and lives of women as well as the complex relationship that develops between the two men who are, in a sense, married to Isolfr (who is heterosexual).
An Apprentice to Elves, by contrast, is about a girl becoming a woman in the same hard lands as her father, except her goals and experiences are her own. Alfgyfa, raised up as an apprentice among the matriarchal culture of the alfar, is part of a new generation who seem inclined to challenge the gendered social expectations of their forefathers. This is, I would say, a book about cultural exchange, rapid generational shifts in politics and life experiences, and finding chosen families. Alfgyfa falls for Idocrase, after all, who is himself an alfar and a scholar; Tin, who is a Smith and Mother, wants to bring her people back together with their estranged relatives after five hundred years of feuding. The Rheans seek to dominate the local culture of the Iskryne, while the Iskryners aim to refuse them all purchase.
Then there are the other voices of the novel, which belong to two people above all. One is Otter, who was once a Rhean slave and was adopted into the wolfheal’s family—a canny, cautious woman whose slow-to-develop love story is one of the threads underlying the rest of the plot. The other is Fargrimr, a sworn-son whose prowess in leadership and organization—despite his insistence that he should have been a fisherman—is one of the reasons the Northerners succeed in their desperate bid to save their homeland from invasion. (Also, sworn-sons are people who, though assigned female at birth, live as men. So, that’s another fine touch.)
The use of the historically-inspired second world setting allows Bear and Monette to explore both a gripping plot—the fight against the seemingly indestructible force of the Rhean army—and a dense world of cultures that all influence each other and drive the development of new science, new magic, new ways of being. If it weren’t for Alfgyfa’s forbidden bonding with the trellwolves, the Wolfmaegth of the end wouldn’t have happened; ditto her willingness to ask questions, cause trouble, and find new alliances and ways of being with the other races of the North.
It’s just a damn good series, and a damn good ending to that series that allows the reader to experience several women’s perspectives as well as the perspectives of character who are not heroes of song—just different kinds of men, like Fargrimr, living their lives and trying to survive. The perspective on war, conflict, and culture is well developed and feels intimate and individual. A thousand small personal details add up to a convincing and natural representation of these people’s lives, loves, and fears; the same care of detail makes the world and the wider conflicts deeply engaging as well.
The plot moves fast and wraps up solidly, though I also had some quibbles. Namely, I thought the pace of the ending was a touch too breakneck, so fast that it lost depth. While I appreciated the sudden confluence of fate and design that leads to the routing of the Rhean armies, that sparking sense of everyone coming together at exactly the same correct moment, the gathering of the Wolfmaegth was something I’d have liked to have seen paralleled a bit more with the gathering of the svartalfar. That just—happens off screen. On the one hand, it likely would have ended up too slow if it was all thoroughly detailed; on the other, I did find myself feeling a touch too rushed.
But, all together, that’s a minor complaint. Bear and Monette have written a very good book, here, to end a very good series. That’s the important part. It’s a fast read, compelling, that does interesting work with gender, politics, and human nature; it’s also got a strong plot, thorough research, and delightful characters. Highly recommended conclusion to a great set of books.
An Apprentice to Elves is available now from Tor Books.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.