Series: Iskryne World #3
Publisher: Tor (October 13, 2015)
Length: 320 pages
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
An Apprentice to Elves is a fascinating novel, where the multi-layered, mythical world is as much a star as the characters themselves. Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear filling its vibrant borders with fully developed and completely realistic cultures derived in part from Norse and Roman history; these very unique people on a collision course that promises to end one or more races. And while it is the third installment of the Iskryne series, Apprentice definitely can be appreciated as a stand alone novel; lack of familiarity with the prior books not an impediment at all, as the authors effortlessly integrate all needed history into the ongoing narrative.
The story itself takes place during a time of change in the Northlands. This harsh land of icy winters and dense forests has kept its people safe and sheltered from invasion for generations, but now a new enemy has appeared: the Rhean. These disciplined, brutal, and determined empire builders have the manpower and the will to brave the Northlands, willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary to bend it to their will. And all that is standing in their way is the scattered Northmen with their wolfcarls and their trellwolves, whose only potential allies (the alfar) are just as likely to be their enemies.
Monette and Bear develop this growing conflict through multiple points of view. We have Alfgyfa, a human girl sent to apprentice with the legendary svartalfar (dark elves); one who has trained to become a mastersmith, but wishes to become a wolfcarls. (Wolfcarls being a few special human men who form a telepathic bond with the fearsome, intelligent trellwolves.) There is also Tin, Alfgyfa’ svartalf master, who reveals the mysterious and almost alien ways of this legendary people. And Otter, a foreign woman from Brythoni, who was once a Rhean slave but was saved by a Northman and taken away by him; her place among her rescuer slowly but surely maturing until she is now an accepted member of the heall willing to do anything to stop the Rhean invaders.
All this might suggest Apprentice is a tale of war, and that is somewhat true (The Northland/Rhean conflict does grows throughout), but it is more than that just that. Rather, this is a complex tale which attempts to realistic shine the light on important questions like the clash of cultures and ideas, not merely different people colliding but the old ways versus the new ways. The narrative gradually revealing the centuries old conflict between the traditional svartalfar and their former brothers the more open-minded (at least in some ways) aettrynalfar; the lingering mistrust between alfar and mankind; and the growing problem of exactly what is the role of women in a wilderness society on the edge of annihilation.
Even with that being said, where this novel excels beyond belief is in the world-building. From first page to last, a reader is feed a steady stream of intricate details about this land and its people. Minute details about everyday life are scattered around like biscuits before a beggar, resulting in lovers of complex, well-crafted fantasy world-building gorging themselves until they cannot hold anymore. Legends, customs, history, and language all becoming perfectly realized. And as readers devour each delectable morsel in turn, they will realize that their expectations for fantasy world-building will never be the same.
But what about those amazing trellwolves featured on the stunning cover, I know some of you are wondering?
Oh, they are here. These massive masters of the northern forests running around as integral parts of society, aiding their chosen wolfcarls in both ordinary life and conflict. The amazing thing about them their realistic nature. The wolves’ moods, body language, and personality shining through, transforming them into living, breathing, vibrant characters who you could see youngsters like Alfgyfa dreaming of bonding with.
There has to be something wrong with this book though, I see that guy over in the corner mumbling?
Not much really. The only thing I thought needed adding was a glossary. An Apprentice to Elves was such a world-building extravaganza I felt it would have been a very practical addition. The names of people and places all within easy flipping distance of readers, so that they could easily refresh their memory of an unfamiliar term quickly without having to take notes or flip around within the text. But that is really a very minor criticism on my part.
Overall, this was an epic fantasy novel that does things differently. Sure, there is traditional conflict and the clash between opposing forces, but it is more about the journey of several people and their cultures evolution from the old ways to the new. Yes, identity and feminist themes are also explored here, but for a simplistic fantasy fan like myself, what I will always recall about this novel is the wonderful land of Iskryne, which really does exist between the covers of this book.