I didn’t notice at first that Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver was the first book of the "Chronicles of Ancient Darkness" series, but I am thrilled it is. This is a world I want to spend more time in. It isn’t a typical fantasy with magic wands and spells. It’s a spiritual, elemental sort of magic, and it’s integrated completely into the story world. It doesn’t feel like a fantasy at all as you’re reading. Not only does Pager take you back six thousand years to show you the European forests and technology, but she puts you in the ancient mindset and strips away modern paradigms.
Set in prehistoric forests of Europe, Wolf Brother is the story of twelve-year-old Torak whose father has just been killed by a demon bear. With the help of his wolf guide, Torak must find the Mountain of the Spirit World and defeat the demon bear before the next full moon. If he fails, the bear will be invincible and he will kill until the entire forest is destroyed. Along the way, Torak encounters other tribes, prophecies, and glaciers.
In this day and age it’s tough to forget about technology or imagine what it would be like without it. But Paver cleverly tricked me into forgetting about cell phones and televisions and for the span of the story I saw the world like Torak did.
Paver splits the book between three viewpoints: Torak, Wolf, and Renn (a girl from the Raven clan). I’d like to camp with this trio. Torak is the hero and the dominant point of view. He has a likable and compelling mix of determination, fear, and loyalty. Torak perpetually rides the exciting edge of discovery. It’s his first time on his own in the forest, so even though he has been taught well, there is a new level of anxiety. It reminded me of my very first time driving a car solo. I met my friends at the zoo. I’d been there hundreds of times before, but riding in the passenger seat is different from actually driving the route yourself. There’s a mixture of fear and freedom that Paver captures perfectly in Torak’s voice. I’d been there hundreds of times before, but driving the route myself was radically different than riding in the passenger seat. There’s a mixture of fear and freedom that Paver captured perfectly in Torak’s voice.
Torak’s sidekick Renn is charming and likable. She is feisty, capable, and talented; but also humble and grounded securely by morals. The use of Wolf’s voice as a character was absolutely brilliant. His keen mind and observations stripped away all labels. If you lived without books or school or written language, how would you describe things? Wolf’s point of view broke the world down to the barest level, observing rivers, snow, fire, humans, and even death by using only concrete ideas rather than abstract concepts.
Occasionally the transitions between viewpoints were rough and had confusing pronouns, but luckily the character voices are distinct enough to sort things out. I worried that the descriptions of survival (hunting, clothing, making arrowheads, etc.) would become long-winded, but Paver kept the details concise and interesting. I have to commend her for resisting the temptation of info-dumps, especially after all the research she did. (According to the book jacket, Paver ate lichens, chewed pine resin, and slept on reindeer skins in the forests of northern Finland during the research process. That’s what I call dedication.)
I was shocked that this novel functioned on so many levels all at the same time. Not only was it an exciting young adult fiction, it also touched the root of humanity and what it means to be a part of this blue planet. I started reading this book on Earth Day (by mere coincidence) and it turned out to be surprisingly apropos. Beneath the adventure and coming-of-age, it was a story about harmony with the world around us and harmony with each other.