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REVIEW: Wolfbreed by S.A. Swann

Dear Mr. Swann:

Wolfbreed is not a book I would ordinarily pick up despite my appreciation of the shifter mythology but I’m glad that I did.   Set in the Middle Ages, Wolfbreed ponders  the core of the werewolf mythology and that is who is the more beastly of creatures? Animals or humans.

When Brother Semyon von Kassel of the Order of the Hospital of St. Mary of the Germans in Jerusalem survives a brutal slaughter of his Order at the hands of an inhuman beast, he believes that he has been granted a gift from God.   When he finds a litter of ten, he brings this gift to his superiors.   Together it is decided that these babes will be fostered, trained and turned into the greatest secret weapon of the Church.

Brother Semyon is a sadist at heart.   He views these creatures as animals and exhibits a sort of unnatural glee at breaking them.   “It is simple, my brother; punishment and reward, dominance and submission.   If every small sin is punished with an iron fist, they will not longer even conceive of large ones. … They obey us not to avoid pain, but because our approval is the only light and pleasure they are allowed in this world.”   Semyon, for all his belief that these creatures are animals, however, is not so repulsed that he does not avail himself of the girl beasts.

The Teutonic Order’s march in Germany to overtake the native pagan villages and turn them to Christianity is made easier when the trained beasts would “slip into its heart and tear it out.”   One the of survivors of the litter (because training was “hard”) was trained by Brother Erhard now Landkomtur Erhard.   Brother Erhard leaves Lilly in a keep kept by the Teutonic Order near one of the villages where Lilly first wrought death for her master.

This leads to a series of events that will bring Lilly into contact with Uldolf, the last surviving son of the former pagan chieftan. His family was killed eight years before and his arm torn off.   Uldolf grew up with his adoptive family, trapping animals and working leather with his one good arm.   When Uldolf finds a young girl in the woods, hurt and alone, he brings her back to his family.

The Order is desperate to find Lilly.   She represents a huge loss for the Church and they are rightfully worried about the danger she presents outside her confinement.   The search for Lilly starts to show cracks in the Church’s hold over the natives who have seen slaughter and oppression.

I had a couple of problems with the characters.   Initially, Lilly seemed almost simple minded, her thought process not shown to be mature.   Later in the book (but in a short time span) Lilly’s emotional status becomes quite complex as she grapples with her past deeds and juxtaposing it with the lessons of faith that she was taught while trained.   Part of this may be due to the fact that we get little deep point of view from Lilly until the end.   This does serve to keep the suspense up but also made some of Lilly’s actions seem contrived in beginning.   I did ask myself several times why the animals seemed to kill indiscriminately but would, from time to time, allow certain key people to survive to propel the story.

The relationship   between Lilly and Uldolph was a pivotal part of the story but I felt that their love for each other, particularly at the beginning, was missplaced particularly given Lilly’s state of mind.   She had been, essentially, brutalized at the hands of men for years and then brainwashed into being a mindless weapon.   It was a little hard for me to believe that Lilly had true feelings for Uldolph other than gratefulness.

The perversion of the Church, the challenge of faith, the capacity of forgiveness are all explored in this fantasy story.   I would recommend this to those who are intrigued by the shifter myth and the philosophical bounds.   It has a romance but while the relationship is core to the story, the romance is not.   Intellectually, this book gives a lot to ponder, but I remained detached emotionally.   B-

Best regards,

Jane

This book can be purchased at Amazon or in ebook format from Sony or other etailers.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

11 Comments

  1. Cristiane
    Sep 12, 2009 @ 17:20:42

    Is that Milla Jovovich on the cover?

  2. Alice
    Sep 12, 2009 @ 19:28:38

    Thank you for reviewing this. I have only heard good stuff about this book.

  3. Laura Kinsale
    Sep 13, 2009 @ 15:11:07

    I read this because I thought it was such a great concept. However I was disappointed and spent some time trying to figure out where it went wrong. It should have been and could have been a powerful, memorable book, but wasn’t.

    The central character of the werewolf girl was unique. The set-up for her background had incredible potential but her character, which should have driven the plot and the relationship, seemed to keep vanishing into obscurity just when it should have reached out and grabbed me.

    It was frustrating. It’s as if the author went for the simplistic you-killed-my-family-I hate-you conflict, and turned away from a nuanced tragedy that was crying to redeemed by a central male character who had half the courage and heart of the girl. She sure deserved better than the boring farm kid with a chip on his shoulder. Like a dog, she loved whoever gave her a pat and fed her–a fascinating werewolf concept in itself that was never explored at all.

    Too many bit players were introduced with complete backstories that made them seem important and empathetic, only to get killed off in a page or two. This fractured reader trust and further weakened empathy for the main characters, in my view.

    It read as if it was meant to be a YA, and maybe it was. It seemed that it may have been written too quickly, and followed a synopsis, rather than the scenes and characters evolving out of what they were. I wish the author had skipped a lot of the backstories and taken more time with this whole book to do his great idea justice.

  4. Jane
    Sep 13, 2009 @ 16:46:40

    @Laura Kinsale I had a hard time reviewing the book because I don’t read a lot of fantasy and kept thinking of the book in terms of how a romance plot would work. In other words, in romances, I expect a lot of character development but recognize that isn’t always the goal of a book in other genres. Sometimes the plot is the most important point or here, I thought that the philosophical exploration of the beast concept was the overriding focus or goal of the story. Erhard seemed to be as pivotal of a character as the central character of the werewolf girl, Lilly.

    Your assessment of Lilly as a having dog like responses to those who were kind to her was essentially my problem with the “romance.” Given how she was made to please her master, it merely seemed that she replaced Erhard with Uldolph.

  5. Laura Kinsale
    Sep 14, 2009 @ 09:33:22

    Ok i need to come back and clarify here, because it was mentioned on Diana Peterfruend’s blog that I am bashing YA in my comment above.

    Re-reading my comment, I can see how it would be taken that way. However I didn’t intend to say that the book was an indication that YA is lacking as a genre. This book would fail as a YA in the same way it fails as an adult book–as a story that could have been exceptional and instead is mediocre in my opinion.

    There are great YA books just as there are great romances. There are also YA books that don’t live up to their potential, same as romances.

    What I really meant to say is that this book doesn’t seem to know what it is. Jane’s comment that the character of Erhard “seemed to be” as pivotal as the werewolf girl is indicative. Erhard is an interesting character too but just left weirdly half-developed and then killed off. I got a fair amount of information about him but not any feel for him or why he acted as he did, which was contradictory. He seemed attached to the girl but showed no upset or conflict when she was to be executed, for instance. He had no character arc, yet took up a lot of print. Several characters went right up to the edge of real emotion and then just “poof” nothing happened inside them, nothing changed, there was just a fight or action, where characters are “done to” rather than decision-making.

    The book went this way and that way, with mainly an adventure theme that struck me as typical of YA, which is why I mentioned it. A number of YA’s emphasize the adventure over the characterization, just as a number of romances emphasize the love story over the plot. That’s just a fairly typical genre element, not a bash. This book may have been meant as an adventure where the author was drawn to the deeper themes and potentially intense emotions (not just romantic, btw) and then seemed to shy away from them.

    I was, as an author, actually jealous of this great idea, and so I spent some time trying to figure out from a writer’s point of view why I thought this book didn’t do the concept justice. On the spur of the moment I wrote here about it, since Jane’s take interested me. I usually write comments and then delete them because I always get in trouble!

    So mea culpa, I have nothing against YA and don’t look down on it at all. I just like to see great books and think about near-misses and what happened with them.

  6. Jane
    Sep 14, 2009 @ 09:47:20

    @Laura Kinsale I did not take your comment to be YA bashing (I wonder if YA authors are sensitive to this given the NYTimes statements?). Having read the book, I see completely the YA orientation because Uldolph is young (maybe 18 or so) and Lilly is 17 (and then 18 later in the story). Both Uldolph and Lilly think in very simplistic terms and their “romance” is premised mostly on kindness of Uldolph and his family to Lilly.

    Lilly’s state of mind, for most the story, is impulse based. Neither Uldolph and Lilly think about far ranging consequences. Take out the explicit sex scene and the story could have a YA feel to it.

    So, I got where you were coming from in terms of the YA comment and did not see it as bashing at all. Thanks for coming and sharing your thoughts with us. I think its always interesting to hear from people who study the craft of writing.

  7. Diana Peterfreund
    Sep 14, 2009 @ 09:53:25

    Hey, thanks for clarifying, Laura!

    Whenever I read “reads like a YA novel” with “simplistic” in the same critique, my hackles do go up, because a lot of people do assume that the two go hand in hand. And, like you said, there are fabulous, nuanced stories in all genres.

  8. Laura Kinsale
    Sep 14, 2009 @ 10:05:07

    It just occurred to me, Jane! The emotion that was missing in all the characters except Lilly.

    Loyalty.

    This book could have been a deep exploration of loyalty in all its guises, in what it means, how it tears us apart or heals us, causes us to do terrible things and redeems us.

    Lilly had it in spades. And every single character failed her in the end.

    I think that’s why it was ultimately so unsatisfying to me. She saved all their ass*s. But everything she did was rendered emotionally pointless, because no one (including the dishrag Udolf) gave back to her the gift she gave to them in spite of everything that was done to her.

    Dog-like, indeed.

  9. Robin
    Sep 14, 2009 @ 10:20:34

    @Diana Peterfreund: I haven’t read this book, but the YA thing caught my attention. In my review of the last Michelle Moran novel, I noted that her books had a YA feel to them – the protags were often young, the stories much more ‘coming of age’ than not, and the voice, which is that of the young female protag, has a mindset more consistent with a younger person. That is, while the *novel* is not simplistic, the protag’s voice can be at some points, in large part reflecting a naivete that is in line with her age or experience.

    And I must not have been the only person who thought that, because Moran’s new novel, Cleopatra’s Daughter (releasing tomorrow, IIRC), is being marketed as BOTH YA and adult.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying I did not think Kinsale’s comment was YA bashing at all.

  10. Genrewonk » Review-O-Rama
    Sep 15, 2009 @ 06:01:31

    [...] Dear Author: “I would recommend this to those who are intrigued by the shifter myth and the philosophical bounds.” [...]

  11. Genrewonk » Review Redux
    Sep 28, 2009 @ 06:04:16

    [...] Dear Author: “I would recommend this to those who are intrigued by the shifter myth and the philosophical bounds.” [...]

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