An Apprentice to Elves by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette
An Apprentice to Elves, the third installment of the ISKRYNE series, is a book that depends on its thick world-building. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have created realistic cultures that take some cues from Norse and Roman history and dramatized a cultural conflict between them, at the same time as developing relationships and characters rooted in these cultures. Most of the narrative is set in the Northlands, an icy forested domain whose natural defenses are harsh enough to help the Northmen stay safe. But a new enemy, the fiercely disciplined Rhean, invades from the south, hoping to colonize the Northlands and bring the Northmen under their rule. The Northmen have two advantages: their intimate knowledge of the harsh North itself, and their battle-mates, the trellwolves. These giant wolves can form telepathic bonds with wolfcarls, their chosen human warriors, making them a fighting force to be reckoned with.
In the midst of this background cultural conflict, readers meet Alfgyfa, the daughter of one of the wolfcarls of the North. She has been sent to apprentice to the svartalfar — the dark elves — which is where we get our title. Her svartalf master, Tin, navigates the challenging politics that swirl around the presence of a human child among the elves. Alfgyfa’s curiosity, independence, and willingness to buck tradition cause problems for her and for Tin. Both are called to take a stand on the side of the Northmen against the Rhean, but come up against major resistance among the svartalfar who do not want to do anything that would draw them back into war.
I liked the detail and realism of the worldbuilding in An Apprentice to Elves. Bear and Monette don’t make their world simple by any means. In that respect (and that alone) it reminded me of A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE: lots of shifting and complicated alliances and conflicts both within and between major groups of characters. One of my favorite characters was Otter, a Brythoni and former Rhean slave who was rescued by a Northman. She secures her place among the Northmen by working hard for the good of the heall, sharing her inside knowledge about the Rhean, and beginning a tentative relationship with one of the wolfcarls. We also witness the first steps of healing a centuries-old schism between the svartalfar and the aettrynalfar, spurred on by the outspoken Alfgyfa.
However, the intensity of the world-building meant that the pace dragged at times. And I wasn’t as interested in the extended battle scenes as I would have liked to be; I found them difficult to follow from time to time. Also, I just don’t care as much about battle as diplomacy — why I like Star Trek more than Star Wars. But there’s plenty of diplomacy to be had here alongside the battle.
I liked the different kinds of relationships in An Apprentice to Elves: friendships between sworn brothers, both hetero- and same-sex romantic relationships, the intense bond between wolfcarls and their wolves, and even a blooming cross-species relationship between a human and a svartalf. The blunt Northmen aren’t stereotypical monolithic Vikings, but a nuanced and developed society, with all of the shades of in-between that comes with that. In addition to Tin, Alfgyfa, and Otter, the book contains one other p.o.v. character, Fargrimr — a sworn-son who is biologically female but living the role of a man so that he can inherit and lead. I found this utterly fascinating and will probably dig back into the early books in the series so that I can understand this concept more.
If I have one major qualm with An Apprentice to Elves, it was that I did not always find it easy to understand, not having read the previous installments in the series. I picked this one up because I liked the title and had read, from several other reviewers, that reading it as a stand-alone would be okay. I felt that the history I needed to know was gestured at, but in a way that managed to confuse more than enlighten me. However, these tantalizing hints do suggest the wealth of world-building that readers of this series can expect.
Ultimately, An Apprentice to Elves is a complex tale which brings up issues like cross-cultural conflict and the gulf between generations. Trust is at the heart of many of the conflicts here: can Alfgyfa trust that her mentor Tin will protect her and champion her, even when she departs from traditions? Can the Northmen trust the alfar to stand with them against the Rhean? Can Otter trust that she will become a meaningful part of Northmen society? Can the wild wolves trust the more domesticated trell-wolves and fight with them? Like in real life, we don’t get concrete answers at the end — just enough hints that things might turn out positively if peace and friendship can be maintained.
Hmm, I’d been holding off because I hadn’t read the earlier work. Maybe I’ll wait ’til I get around to that
Ditto — I’d heard that this could stand on its own pretty well, but it sounds like I should start from the beginning. Thanks, Kate!
I appreciate a review like this because it helps me make a solid guess on if I would enjoy a book or not. That’s the best thing ever because I hate it when I’ve tied money up in a book that I would end up not finishing…. Great review Kate. This book probably isn’t for me, but now I know it.