Illustrations: Geoff Taylor
Now we have the final instalment of Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother sequence (earlier called The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness). It has been a long time coming, the first volume was published in 2004. But some things are well worth waiting for. And, in any case, the journey in-between has been quite something.
This series of novels is very possibly one of the finest contributions to contemporary children’s literature. Set in the New Stone Age it is necessarily very largely imagined, but is based on deep knowledge and understanding of prehistory so that its vivid world is both convincing and compelling. Its evocation of the natural landscape, as it must have been at that time, including its humans and its wild creatures is just stunning. Elements of fantasy are added, but these too are based firmly on what can be deduced about the spiritual beliefs and practices of the times, so that the ‘magic’ too enriches the potently convincing world-building. Then, on top of all this, the books contain some of the most powerful and moving explorations of the intense relationship that can form between humans and animals, specifically here between protagonists Torak and Renn and wolves
Over the course of eight existing titles, it is inevitable that the effectiveness of the narratives varies slightly. However, Michelle Paver is such a skilled writer than none of these books is less than gripping and most are breathtakingly compelling, combining visceral excitement with deep emotional pull, and a fair amount of thought provocation too. Unlike the characters in some book series, the protagonists here do get older, so there is a through line of development across the series as well as a degree of completeness in each of the separates stories. And after so much thrilling time spent growing with them, the commitment to these particular protagonists, human and animal, is now total.
So will this final instalment live up to expectations?
By no means least
The answer of course is a resounding yes.
From the outset, the tension of the tale is drawn taught as a gut bowstring. Michelle Paver quickly and vividly reestablishes her familiar wild topography and the jeopardy that stalks it, threatening the heart of our beloved characters. And when it is Wolf that is initially in danger, what better to pull us headlong into this final story.
One of the many things Michelle Paver has always done particularly convincingly is to capture the voice of the wolf, using mainly standard English, but adding in some distinctive vocabulary to reflect the different lupine view of the world. This enables her to give the creature a readily understood role in the narration whilst maintaining its credibility as a wild creature. Consequently, she is able to construct a narrative alternating between human and animal perspectives, with intense reading momentum.
As Torak and Renn set off in desperate pursuit of missing Wolf, not to mention Renn’s demonic half-brother, across the terrifying open ocean, neither they, nor we Michelle Paver’s readers, have ever felt so close to nature. This has always been one of the elements making these stories so powerful, but when Torak takes the drastic step of ‘spirit walking’ in the body of a killer whale, so desperate is he to be reunited with his Wolf, the intensity of the natural world in which they all live so intimately becomes almost overwhelming. This is nature in all its utter wildness, red in tooth and claw. But this is no longer the bold, innocent young Torak of the Wolf Brother days. This is Torak torn apart by all his intervening experiences, Torak whose very soul is in mortal and immortal danger. Almost unbearable tensions develop as it looks like so many of the characters and relationships built beautifully over the whole series are horrendously threatened.
Michelle Paver again imagines the customs and spiritual beliefs of these ancients wonderfully, giving them intense expression that feels completely authentic. Here she develops them even further than previously and weaves them beautifully into one of the most compulsive narratives of the series. The climate, environment, creatures, peoples and demons of this distant age are all conjured with the most vivid and affecting life and when the story reaches its gut-wrenching climax, with what might be called ‘Wolf love’ pitted against the deadly ‘Wolfbane’, the reader can do nothing but hurtle through the pages looking desperately for a resolution. It would be so wrong of me to give more away, but suffice to say that I cannot imagine a more fitting ending for this stupendous series.
With so many stunning vignettes
In trying to communicate Michelle Paver’s gripping, epic storytelling, I would not wish to neglect the contribution made throughout the series by Geoff Taylor’s stunning illustrations. Consistently his chapter head vignettes have caught to perfection the creatures and landscapes of this distant world, bringing it even more poignantly to life. His drawing of a whole range of animals, but especially the wolves, help to capture their feelings as well as their form, without for a moment every detracting from the reality of their wild nature. It is remarkable how such relatively small drawings can be simultaneously so sensitive and so majestic, or so deeply affecting. And now, in this latest volume, we are also treated to a handful of highly atmospheric double page spreads that we have not had before. His contribution to this whole series is considerable and has not, I think, always had the full accolades it so richly deserves.
A true legend
The cover calls Michelle Paver ‘Creator of Legends’ and for once the hype is justified. She is now herself a legend and her Wolf Brother chronicles will live long, ancient and darkly fearful, but warm and comforting too. They bring our distant past intensely alive, with a richness and power that will hold countless readers in thrall.
Particular thanks are due first to Orion and then to Zephyr for maintaining the presentation style throughout, so that the nine books also make a beautiful physical set.