Wolfbreed – S.A. Swann

From Publishers Weekly: 

Starred Review. Religion and political intrigue turn an adolescent werewolf into a killing machine in this compelling novel of 13th-century Northern Europe. Eighteen-year-old Lilly is superhumanly strong, vulnerable only to silver and trained to help Christians subdue unrepentant pagans. When she slaughters a dozen Christian soldiers and flees into the wilderness, Uldolf, the son of Johnsburg’s last pagan chieftain, takes her in. As they come to terms with their histories, the knight Erhard von Stendal comes to hunt Lilly down. Lilly’s struggle to reconcile her split personalities—cold assassin and lonely girl—becomes a quest for redemption and love as she endures rape, amnesia and the knowledge of her own terrible actions in the church’s service. Swann (Prophets) turns opposing viewpoints into sympathetic perspectives, clearly painting the complex political and religious dynamics of the time. 

There are a few books I’m going to be reviewing soon that all fall under the “don’t judge a book by its cover” stipulation. This is one of them. The cover makes me automatically think “oh, good, a paranormal romance” or “yay, a woman with windblown hair on a cover. I bet this book will shock me…” (insert eye roll). Well, it’s not what I expected. Wolfbreed takes place in the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church is working hard to Christianize the Prussian wilds. This book is what happens when historical fiction and urban fantasy get together and make a baby. 
The story follows the narratives of two main characters. Udolf, a young man who gets his arm ripped off savagely when his town of Johannisburg is attacked and Lilly, a semi-human wolfbreed the Catholic Church is basically using as a trained killing machine. There are other points of view thrown in there for good measure, such as perspectives from several of the Knights of the Order and Udolf’s adopted family.
This isn’t your grandma’s werewolf story. Violence, torture and rape are central to the storyline. While I will freely admit that this is not an incredibly graphic novel in my own perspective, it could be ranked as such to others. I mean, you’re reading a review from someone who’s read numerous books where people are hung from castles by their innards. It gets kind of hard to impress me with violence in literature. Wolfbreed has none of that, but there are sections which deal with traumas like rape and torture and children, which could seriously bother some readers.
The thing that makes Wolfbreed unique in that respect is that none of it is gratuitous. Swann doesn’t shove in a bunch of horrible events because he knows it will attract readers. Instead, it’s all applicable toward the overall plot and even then I think it’s a little less disturbing than he could have easily made it.
The plot is nicely paced and the reader will quickly get sucked into the well-researched story and the flawed characters that take a central role in things. While there is a lot going for this book, there are some things that did bother me. Swann’s writing is solid (solid enough to get an endorsement from George R.R. Martin), but there were parts where it was overly clumpy or he’d use the same word one too many times in one paragraph (a pet peeve of mine). Those are small complaints overall and I’m chalking them up to writing habits that go away with experience.
The other thing is, yes, you guessed it, the romance. I’m all about heartthrobs and I think in this book it added a sweet overtone that helped lighten a very dark plot. I am hesitant to go into my overall issues with the romance because I really don’t want to spoil any plots for people who might read this book so I’ll just say that the romance is amazingly predictable and incredibly unrealistic, but sweet, and that sweet factor will probably temper other readers where it just inflamed me. It should be noted that by and large the romance is not a huge part of the plot, instead its more of an overtone, which was a saving grace.
I did find the plot somewhat predictable. There were no amazing shocks for me with this book but that didn’t detract from its overall enjoyment. Swann did some great research when writing this book. Infusing an interesting historical time with creatures that are overtaking the Urban Fantasy shelves was a smart move. Everything in this book was new and different than anything I’ve ever read before. I also enjoyed learning a lot about the period as I went. 
Wolfbreed is the first book in a series where the second book is set to come out fairly soon. If you can overlook some word-redundancy and a (in my opinion) semi-cheesy romance then you’ll really love this book. Wolfbreed is infused with rich history and a unique spin on events we’ve all probably learned about. Good story telling, characters that are easy to understand and care about and a nicely paced plot all combine for a book readers will find themselves sucked into. My prediction is that people will either love or hate this book. The people who love it will devour it, as it’s a pretty easy read. The people who hate it will walk away with their feathers ruffled.
I try in my reviews to show some common complaints others have listed about books so I can try to be well rounded.I did a search online to see what a majority of people is saying about Wolfbreed. Several reviewers felt that this book was too history intense making it a chore to read through. There were some complaints about the slow first hundred pages. I also read some complaints about the graphic nature of the book. I, by and large, disagree with those complaints but I think most well-tempered epic fantasy readers probably will.
I will throw out one warning for you. This book, by and large, doesn’t paint the Catholic Church as the most noble of all institutions, which may offend some people. If you are one of those either read this book cautiously or stay away from it all together.
3.5/5 stars

4 Responses

  • Jamie Gibbs

    I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to urban fantasy/paranormal romance, I will almost always judge a book by its cover. I usually avoid these kind of books, but I'm a fan of historical fiction so I could be tempted by this.

  • ediFanoB

    I own a copy of Wolfbreed – unread. Due to your review I know it has been worth to buy it. I like books including history. To be honest the history of Catholic Church is a bloody one.
    But it seems I will not read it in 2010. I have other plans….
    Do you know THE GASLIGHT DOGS by Karin Lowachee? when everything goes well my review will be upon Sunday – fingers crossed.

  • RedEyedGhost

    I really liked this book, and my only real complaint was that it was a little heavier on romance than I prefer. It was a fun and easy, but the historical and supernatural aspects were a cut above the rest of this genre which really set it apart in my opinion.

    The second book Wolf's Cross is very good too, and I might actually prefer it. We get more insight into what it means to be a wolfbreed from the insider's and outsider's perspective in it. Unfortunately, the romance aspect is a bit increased as well.

  • Sarah

    Whew, sorry I didn't write back sooner. I got all involved in some stuff yesterday.

    @Jamie – I'm always judging books by the cover in UF, as well. It's probably why I rarely read the stuff.

    @Edi – It's a good book, an easy read and interesting due to its unique setting but the more I think about it, the more I think if you take out the unique setting there really isn't anything new to it. Oh well, it's a good escapist thing with new information thrown in. (If you can't tell I'm kind of torn on it – hence the 3.5 stars). Also, The Gaslight Dogs is a book that's been looking at me for a while. I can't wait to read your review!

    @RedEyedGhost – I see what you mean about the romance. I feel like I might be too hard on all things romance so I tried to be honest and fair regarding it and thus, not harp on it as much as possible. Anyway, regardless of that, I agree with you. I thought the romance was cheesy and unbelievable… but I wasn't sure if I thought that because it was a valid concern or if I was just insane and being too picky on romance, which tends to bother me very easily… Anyway, thanks for your input!

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