Wolfskin by Juliet Marillier
Tor HCVR: ISBN 0765306727 PubDate: 06/01/03
Review by Victoria McManus
496 pgs. List price $ 26
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Juliet Marillier, author of Wolfskin, was born in New Zealand; she currently lives in Australia. She has previously written the Sevenwaters trilogy, set in 9th century Ireland.
Wolfskin, first in the Saga of the Light Isles, is a grand romance, a sweeping adventure in the tradition of great epics, which is wholly suitable for her Viking subjects. The book begins in a richly imagined Norway of the past before moving to the Light Isles, based on the Orkneys. Little is known of the Pictish people who lived there in this period, but Marillier has extrapolated as realistically as possible.
Marillier's worldbuilding and research is incredibly and totally immersive; her characters are humanly complex and flawed. Fantasy readers should note that magical elements in the story are kept to a minimum, though there are religious themes relating to Norse mythology, the earth magic of the Picts, and early Christianity.
The story is begun through the viewpoint of Eyvind, a boy at the beginning of the novel, whose only goal is to become a Wolfskin, a warrior sworn to the Warfather Thor. What Eyvind lacks in cleverness he makes up for in physical grace and strength, loyalty, and honesty. Through his eyes we see what life was like for the people who stayed at home while the Vikings viked. In the early chapters, he is given responsibility for Somerled, the young brother of a nobleman, who needs to learn outdoor survival skills. Somerled is very much Eyvind's opposite: small, clever, and manipulative. Eyvind feels sorry for Somerled, who doesn't get along well with the other boys, and who seems weak and clumsy. However, his sense of responsibility leads him to teach Somerled to the best of his ability, and his dedication is rewarded when Somerled saves Eyvind's life. The boys become sworn to each other, an act which will directly affect the rest of their lives.
Somerled is convinced that he will be a king; his belief is confirmed by an old prophetess in one of the only magical, orpossibly magical, events in the novel. The prophetess gives equal importance to Eyvind's future actions. Her prophecies seem to be coming true when both Eyvind and Somerled accompany Eyvind's Wolfskin brother Ulf on an expedition in the fabulous ship Golden Dragon, where the Vikings make inroads into the local Pictish culture of the Light Isles. In this new world, Somerled's ruthlessness and ambition propel him towards his powerful destiny, but at the expense of others.
Tragedy strikes in the Light Isles and Eyvind flees the group, encountering the Pictish priestess Nessa who both becomes a romantic interest and plays a vital role in both his own future and Somerled's. Eyvind must re-evaluate his life and his relationships, in the end making a difficult decision about what he owes Somerled as his friend.
Wolfskin is notable for its rich historical detail, especially of everyday life in both Norway and the Orkneys, enlivened by her excellent characters, particularly the central figures Eyvind, Nessa, and Somerled.
Wolfskin's sequel is titled Foxmask, and is also set in the Orkneys; there is no U.S. release date yet, but it is scheduled to be released by Tor U.K. in August of 2003.