Horrifyingly Beautiful & Utterly Perfect: The Wolf Among the Wild Hunt by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor

Posted 14th October 2021 by Sia in Crescent Classics, Fantasy Reviews, Horror Reviews, Queer Lit, Reviews / 0 Comments

The Wolf Among the Wild Hunt by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, Andrew Garin
Genres: Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: Aro-ace MC, aro-ace nonbinary queerplatonic partner, secondary sapphic character, minor polyamory/group marriage, minor disabled character, queernorm world
Goodreads
five-stars

Skythulf wants to live. Raised in the fight pits, trained to kill or be killed, he yearns for freedom that's out of reach. He's a scythewulf: a wolf-shifter considered neither fully man nor beast, his life worth nothing to his keepers…until Brennus, knight-champion of Saorlland, rescues him from certain death and offers him a new life.

When he mistakenly kills a corrupted nun, Skythulf has one chance to redeem himself and restore his honor. He must run with the Wild Hunt: an age-old trial of blood and courage, where every step hides peril and carnage. If he survives, he will be pardoned. If he fails, Brennus will die brutally at his side.

Few have ever returned from the fae-haunted land, where horrors unnamed dwell beside the enchanted and the damned. There is no rest, no relent, and no mercy.

In the Wild Hunt, you run or you die.

Highlights

~turns out you can be a deadly wolf shapeshifter AND a cinnamon roll
~Mythic Horror = beautiful evil
~nonbinary knights ftw!
~heed the magpies
~don’t stop running

My relationship with horror is not complicated: I don’t read or watch it, because I’m a total wimp.

…Except. Sometimes. Sometimes a premise is just too fucking good. Sometimes a premise or line or snippet of passage is so fucking good that it makes me brave enough to take a breath and take the plunge.

Folx, I am so, so glad I risked it this time, because The Wolf Among the Wild Hunt isn’t just going on my best-of-2021 list: it’s going on my next Best of the Decade list.

…I don’t even know where to start. Gods.

Well, I’m gonna start with the worldbuilding, because worldbuilding is my Thing, ’kay?

Worldbuilding

The impression that Wolfmoor’s world is generically Medieval Western Europe-esque dies pretty much instantly: yes, there are castles and nobility and knights, but this a queernorm world right down to its bones. Not only are same-sex pairings not noteworthy in this setting, neither are nonbinary people – the honorific for whom, by the way, is Maurr – who get to just exist here; we have a major nonbinary character in the main cast, but many of the so-minor-they’re-unnamed background characters use they/them pronouns too, and you don’t realise how revolutionary that is until you’re reading it and seeing it treated as completely normal. And Wolfmoor goes even further: group marriage is a normal part of this world, too, and the society is utterly gender-neutral in the same casually powerful way that it embraces nonbinary people – I’ve read books where women can be knights before, I don’t know how to explain what it is about Wolfmoor’s version that makes the existence of women knights pack such a punch here, especially when we see just one or two of them fairly briefly. But it does – pack a punch, that is.

That is not even close to all of the delicious gender-fuckery in this book: women can be knights, yes, and they can be noble – but Wolfmoor’s gone and made the titles gender-neutral as well. ‘Lord’ can refer to a woman or a man or a nonbinary person, and I got such a fucking thrill when it was revealed that the King of the Wild Hunt is a woman. It’s such a small thing, letting women use traditionally male titles; it seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal. But it is, because no matter how forward-thinking we believe ourselves to be, ‘Lord’ and ‘King’ have different connotations in our heads than ‘Lady’ and ‘Queen’. They just do. And in Medieval-esque settings, ladies and queens typically had less power than lords and kings. That’s not the case in this book, but…but maybe that lingers in my mind, because it felt to me like these women using – claiming – having male titles were reaching for or embracing a quality or power not traditionally, typically granted to women.

We’ve seen women as evil Queens before. But as a terrifying dark King?

I don’t know how to say what I mean. Can I just say it’s awesome?

The Story

The Wild King is relevant because Skythulf – who is a kind of shapeshifter called a scythewulf, able to shift between wolf and human forms at will, and considered bestial and sub-human because of it – is offered the choice of execution or running with the Wild Hunt as punishment for displeasing his queen. As you might have guessed, the vast majority of those who choose to run do not come back; and although at first glance it seems like an easy choice – nobody comes back from execution, whereas with the Wild Hunt you have a chance – I…am not sure I’d be brave enough to choose the run, myself.

Because the run may not do you the mercy of actually ending you.

Wolfmoor very deftly alternates between the present – Skythulf’s run with the hunt – and his past; we get glimpses of a good number of life-changing moments throughout Skythulf’s life up to this point, especially with regards Brennus, the (nonbinary) knight who rescued him from the fighting pits and taught him how to be a knight himself, and the Cold Lady, the horrific queen they both serve. These back-and-forths serve as breathers – much-needed breaks from the nauseating, terrifying horrors of the Wild Hunt – but also contrasts between two different kinds of horror: although a lot of the flashbacks are heart-warming, and give us a lot to love about Skythulf very quickly, I think you could make the argument that he handles the obvious, undisguised (and therefore more honest?) horrors of the Hunt better than he does the abuses of the Cold Lady and, to a lesser extent, her court.

Part of this is the Cold Lady’s order that Skythulf serve in her bed, which would still be rape even if he wasn’t asexual. (Sure, it’s not what we think of when we hear ‘violence’ – she doesn’t beat him bloody first – but what would you call forcing someone to have sex with you – multiple times, over and over – when they don’t want to?) Thankfully this isn’t graphic and is kept mostly off-page, and as much as it broke my heart that Skythulf had to suffer that (because he is kind of a cinnamon roll and definitely a sweetheart and I absolutely love him) it’s still important that we get stories where men are sexual assault victims – and the victims of women perpetrators, at that. It’s a real thing that too many people think isn’t real, and we need the representation.

That, however, is mostly background, because in the here-and-now, Skythulf can’t really let the past keep hold of him. One misstep, and he’ll never make it home. And he has to get home, because home is Brennus.

The Characters

I should probably feel stranger about calling Skythulf – who tears out another warrior’s throat with his teeth in the first three pages of the book – a cinnamon roll. HE IS, THOUGH. He doesn’t need me to protect him at all, but he pulls at all my protective instincts anyway. Despite being raised in the fighting pits, encouraged to be as animalistic as possible, his manner is gentle and soft (possibly a pointed comment, actually: the ones who consider him sub-human are far more monstrous than he could ever be). It’s not that he secretly wants to be a baker or gardener or something, but the kind of knight he wants to be is one who only draws their sword to defend others, not attack them.

Dance was a slowed, deliberate form of battle. Each partner was both enemy and shield-mate. Skythulf did not find it exhilarating at first, for it was not fast enough to rouse his blood. Yet the splendid grace and poise in every flex and turn of Callan’s body entranced him. A waltz might be as deadly as a duel.

I spent pretty much the entire book wanting to wrap him up in blankets and whisk him away from all the horrible things. He’s that kind of sweetheart.

Probably the second-most important character is Brennus, the nonbinary knight who rescued Skywulf from the pits and trained him for knighthood. Brennus is steady and honourable and honest, with a love of stories and a longing to be a knight worthy of being a story themself, someday. Their relationship with Skywulf is just. IT MAKES ME SO HAPPY. Because no, they’re not lovers – both of them are ace and aro – but the strength of feeling they have for each other is easily that of a romantic bond. Surpasses most romantic bonds, actually, since I think most people would be too afraid to do for their romantic partners what Brennus does for Skythulf. Theirs is an epic love story, and I mean that both in the sense that it is awesome – and that it’s a tale for the ages.

“You’re my friend and my other heart,” Brennus says. “Stay with me, scythewulf. Stay by my side. I can’t finish this journey alone.”

I think this is my first time seeing a queerplatonic partnership in fantasy (although that term isn’t used in this setting), and it just gave me so much JOY. I’m not aromantic, but I am ace and gods, I get it, romantic love is a big deal, but it’s so far from the only kind of love and can we give the other kinds some time in the spotlight, PLEASE AND THANK YOU. This was both a wonderful change of pace, and a beautiful depiction of a kind of love we don’t get to see featured very often. I massively approve!

I think Wolfmoor is making a point about people and relationships in this book, actually, because Skywulf and Brennus’ bond is massively important, but their ability to also connect to people than each other proves absolutely vital. It seems a little strange to say that a fantasy-horror novel is very much about friendship and allies and working together, but…it is.

Which is about all I can say without going into spoiler territory!

The Writing

Is fucking gorgeous.

his bearing was gilt with sight-learned manners

Look at that quote. LOOK AT IT. Is that not the most amazing image? Somebody’s bearing being gilded, with mannerisms rather than gold? Is that not absolutely breathtaking?

The whole book is like that.

Enough said.

The Horror

Wolfmoor is not fucking around when it comes to scaring the ever-loving daylights out of you. Whichever flavour of horror you prefer – gore, psychological, monstrous, emotional – it’s all here in spades. And where I might have put the book down, taken breaks, were it written by another author – here, putting the book down and walking away wasn’t an option. Between the beautiful prose and the main characters who’d stolen my heart right out of my chest, I was addicted – which is great, because I’m not sure I could have gotten through it otherwise. More than once, I thought I was going to be sick, and there are moments I still can’t think about without wanting to claw my own skin off. I happened to be cooking dinner during a scene where something else was filling its pot in the book, and – no.

NOPE.

ALL THE NOPE.

And yet – it’s so compelling??? This is not crude splatterpunk gore; the horrors Sky faces during the Hunt are deeper and richer – and so much scarier because of that. Wolfmoor weaves in the history and myth of Sky’s homeland into every one, so that we learn about ancient alliances between half-mythical peoples, see how something brutal but honest evolved into something nauseatingly evil, even as Sky’s fighting for his life. I loved these tangents, because worldbuilding is my Thing, but don’t expect the tangents to help you get through the worst parts, because they won’t. They’re horrifying too. Beautiful, but horrifying.

Beautifully horrifying. That’s what it is. That’s what I mean when I call it compelling; it’s not the can’t-tear-your-eyes-away of a car crash. It’s not nearly as simple as being morbidly fascinating. It’s…honestly, it’s art. It’s horror exalted. It reminds me of the horror of Billy Martin, who writes/wrote as Poppy Brite; Martin’s prose and storytelling, too, is beautiful – and that beauty, like Wolfmoor’s, makes it so much worse.

A horrible, scary, nauseating thing written in a story is a thing written in a story. But when you make the horrific beautiful…then you, the reader, become part of the horror. You become complicit in the horrors, because – you realise that you’re enjoying this. Not just being scared by it, not just finding it horrifying – not even finding it simply entertaining. You realise that you think it’s beautiful. And that…lifts the horror out of the story and into you. It makes you a monster too. And the horror of that realisation is…beyond words.

I’m not immune: it made a monster out of me. I can’t help but recognise the…the beautiful evil in Wolfmoor’s creations. Horror that is not crude, that is precise as a scalpel, that is imaginative and bold, the nightmares of my nightmares. This is mythic horror, and I bow before it.

To the horror fans, I say: whatever you’re looking for, it’s here. To readers who do not like horror, I say: this book is more than worth the nightmares it has left me with.

This is one of the best books I have ever read. You need to read it too.

five-stars

Leave a Reply

(Enter your URL then click here to include a link to one of your blog posts.)