Fantasy literature, specifically pertaining to werewolves and vampires, has been seriously tainted by the rise of the unholy spectre of romance novels hiding their true nature in the guise of something called paranormal romance. While this plague has spread seemingly unchecked over the past few years, there are still a brave few willing to stand against the hoards and do their best to drive the stake of a well written werewolf (and vampire) stories into their malevolent hearts.
Tanya Huff has been writing great fantasy and science fiction for more then thirty years. She has not only taken on this new scourge on the literary front, her vampire detective series, Blood Ties has been adapted as a successful television series. While werewolves have made appearances in some of her earlier books in her latest, The Silvered, from Penguin Canada, they take centre stage as the rulers of the small country Aydori.
Aydori’s world sees Edwardian technology, steam engines, hot air balloons and gas lights co-existing with a kind of elemental magic and werewolves. While some have no problem with this rather unique blend, there are those who see magic as a thing of the past and werewolves no better than beasts. As the Hunt Pack, the werewolves of Aydori, are male and only mate with female magic users, known as the Mage Pack; those who hold to this negative opinion of werewolves also condemn the women for sleeping with animals. Unfortunately for Aydori, Emperor Leopold of the Kresentian Empire is a firm adherent to this belief and also has a strong desire to rule his neighbours.
So when his troops advance through neighbouring provinces and begin an assault upon Aydori, nobody is too surprised. Unfortunately, the empire’s technology has come up with a method of countering the Hunt Pack’s superiority in combat: artillery firing rockets which unleash silver shrapnel. While members of the Pack can heal from normal gun shot almost instantaneously, silver will lodge in their flesh and can kill them. However, in spite of the Emperor’s supposed disdain for magic, and desire for land, it turns out his invasion of Aydori is merely cover for a more sinister purpose involving specific members of the Mage Pack.
Mirian Maylin has washed out of university, told by her instructors her magical power is too unfocused for her to amount to much. While the reactions of the Hunt Pack to her (werewolves are attracted to the smell of magic and pick their mates according to how they react to a woman’s scent) say she has a latent source of power, she’s never been able to produce more than the weakest and lowest level spells. However, when the Aydori forces are overrun and the leaders of the Hunt Pack are killed, she and the rest of the country are forced to flee to the Pack’s mountain retreat. It’s during this trip she witnesses a small group of Imperial soldiers capture five of the leading members of the Mage Pack. With a magical artifact designed to neutralize their powers, the five women are hustled away.
Unfortunately for Captain Sean Reiter of the Imperial army his orders were to bring back six mages, not five. So he sends the five captured women back to the capital and with a small band sets out in search of his sixth mage. Picking up the trail of Mirian, he and his men capture her as she’s searching for any surviving members of the Hunt Pack to tell them of the kidnapping. While most of them have been killed, young Tomas Hagen, the Hunt Pack leader’s youngest brother, has managed to survive. Desperate with grief he has fled the battle field only to come across the strong scent of a mage. Finding Mirian held captive, he manages to help her escape.
Thus the stage is set against which the rest of the story plays out. Tomas and Mirian play a dangerous game of cat and mouse with Captain Reiter and his small troop while attempting to make their way to the Empire’s capital city in order to rescue the captured mages. However, instead of merely telling their tale, Huff splits the narrative three ways. We not only spend time with the young mage and wolf, she also gives us Reiter’s perspective as he attempts to recapture them. We are also travel further down the road with the captured mages and begin to learn why the Emperor has gone to such trouble to take them prisoner.
Huff’s greatest skills as a storyteller has always been the strength of her characters and her ability to bring the world they inhabit to life. From deep space to times without technology she is able to immerse her readers in a book’s environment. However, unlike others who use long descriptive passages to create a sense of place, she develops the picture gradually through the eyes of her characters. It’s from young Tomas’ descriptions of the battle field we learn of the nascent technology of the empire. Coupled with Mirian descriptions of the type of magic employed by the Mage Pack and Captain Reiter’s dealings with his men, we discover both the nature of the relationship between the Mage Pack and the Hunt Pack and different people’s different feelings about magic and werewolves.
Thomas, Mirian, Captain Reiter and the other characters, including Emperor Leopold when we meet him, are drawn as complete human beings. While some, like the Emperor, we only meet through the eyes other characters, even then we are given as balanced a view as possible. For when Reiter is made a member of the Emperor’s inner circle he sees the various sides of the man’s character. On the one hand he’s a loving and doting father who obviously takes pleasure in the company of his family. On the other he can casually order ghastly experiments be carried out on those he considers lesser beings. Its like reading a description of those who blithely sent millions to their deaths in the concentration camps during the day and were loving parents at night.
Huff is one of the best story tellers I’ve ever come across. Aside from her ability to create characters and intricate, but understandable, plots, she also has a knack for inventing new and intriguing forms of magic. While she’s used elemental based magic systems in the past, here she’s expanded upon it to include metals and healing as well as the more traditional elements of air, water, fire and earth. Most of the Mage Pack are able to control one of the elements.
As their proficiency increases their eyes acquire flecks of colour associated with their power. In the rare case when a person is able to work with multiple elements, like Mirian, their eyes gradually turn silver. This is isn’t the only transformation she goes through as her power increases, and watching her and Tomas deal with her transition into a person of power is one of the more intriguing aspects of the book. Aside from the whole “with power comes responsibility” thing, there’s also a personal cost to be paid. Huff handles the two young people coming to grips with Mirian’s new reality in the same practical and straight forward manner she deals with all issues. There are no histrionics or melodrama involved, just a very real description of a young woman’s fears and how she copes with overcoming them with the help of a close friend and companion. (By the way, for anyone concerned about the seemingly hetero-centric nature of relationships in the book, rest assured we meet a happily gay werewolf and his soothsayer partner.)
Tanya Huff has always shown a flair for making the fantastic realistic and believable and The Silvered is no exception. If you’ve given up hope of ever reading about werewolves without having to wade through the treacle of romance novels, this book should ease your mind. While a romantic relationship is obviously starting to flourish between Mirian and Tomas, it’s a perfectly normal and natural development based on their experiences together. Their relationship is indicative of the book as a whole, everything happens organically and with good reason. The characters might be mages and werewolves, but they’re firmly grounded in reality.