At the Table of Wolves is the first novel by Kay Kenyon that I’ve ever read, though I understand her backlist numbers above a dozen. Published by Saga Press, At the Table of Wolves begins—or so I’m given to understand—a new series, one set in England in the late 1930s and involving superhuman/paranormal powers.
Raised in America, Kim Tavistock returned to England and her distant, aristocratic father after being fired from the newspaper at which she worked. In England, she has discovered that she has a paranormal ability: people involuntarily tell her secrets, and they don’t even realise they’re doing it. In England, too, she has been recruited for testing under the Official Secrets Act, so that her powers may be understood and perhaps put to use. But at Monkton Hall, this secret testing site in Yorkshire, there might be a problem: her case officer Owen suspects that the head of Monkton Hall is a German spy. He convinces Kim—who’s raring for a chance to do something that feels useful—to try to gather enough evidence to expose him.
Kim’s father, Julian, is on the fringes of the social circles of Britain’s upper-crust fascist sympathisers. Or so it appears to Kim: the reader learns, though Kim never does, that Julian is a senior agent of one of the British intelligence services, and has actually been investigating possible German agents. I will return to this point shortly: for now, Kim uses the social contacts that she has by virtue of her father to position herself within the fascist-sympathiser circle that she knows. There, she makes the acquaintance of a charismatic and dangerous Nazi, the German intelligence agent Erich von Ritter, who seems to her a more interesting and more accessible target to investigate. He has a paranormal power of his own, one very similar to Kim’s, and she soon finds herself engaged in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Nazis.
Nazis, she learns, who have a plan to invade England using paranormal powers that will bypass England’s naval defences and open a pathway right to the heart of the country. Matters proceed to a showdown in a Yorkshire mental asylum, as Kim tries to thwart Nazi plans for English conquest with her wits and her bare hands.
Apart from Kim, the novel offers us the viewpoints of a handful of other characters. Of these, the most striking are a German officer, Kurt Stelling, and Kim’s father Julian. (Kim’s case officer Owen also has a couple of brief sections from his point of view, as does Rose, the definitely non-neurotypical daughter of the Tavistock’s cook-housekeeper and their man-of-all-work, but these have less bearing on the novel’s train of events.)
Stelling is the officer in charge of the base from which the German invasion will be launched. His sympathies become alienated when a superior officer discovers that he loves men and holds the threat of exposure and imprisonment over him: he tries to defect to France, promising the embassy in Berlin information about the planned invasion of England, but is killed in the course of his extraction to safer territory. Stelling’s allegations and his death bring Julian Tavistock onto the scene.
I had a number of minor issues with At the Table of Wolves—a pervasive sense that Kenyon’s interpretation of Germany’s strategic priorities in the 1930s is a bit weird; the usual problems with American authors writing English characters, like their jarring tendency to describe distance in a small Yorkshire town in terms of “blocks”; the way in which Kim does not seem at all rooted in a 1930s context. Among others.
But the novel’s greatest problem is in the interplay between Kim’s point of view and Julian’s. They are working towards the same goal, but at cross-purposes, and while this does add a certain interesting degree of tension, it throws off the story’s pacing. At the Table of Wolves starts off as coming-of-age story and turns into a thriller, but the thriller’s narrative payoff is undercut by the fact that neither of its main viewpoint characters ever share information. Emotionally, this cheats the narrative of satisfaction: the experience becomes a lot like reading one of those romance novels in which there would be no novel if either of the main players ever spoke to each other, and the reader is left with the abiding desire to take everyone by the scruff of their necks and shake them until they talk to each other.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a pretty entertaining book, and an interesting conceit. But parts of it are intensely frustrating. Will Britain be conquered by Nazis? It would be hard (but not impossible) to have a sequel, if so. But will Kim and Julian ever have an honest conversation?
The answer to that question is a resounding Who knows?
At the Table of Wolves is available July 11th from Saga Press.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.