It actually wasn’t until I finished The Silver Wolf that I learnt that author Alice Borchardt was the sister of vampire novelist Anne Rice (that explains why her endorsement is on the title page) but I doubt that this knowledge would have affected my reading experience. In hindsight, Borchardt follows in her sister’s footsteps by writing about a supernatural creature in an historical context, but that’s where the similarities end.
Set in the Roman Empire during its waning years, The Silver Wolf is the story of Regeane, a young woman with a dark secret. In the dubious care of her uncle and cousin, Regeane struggles to keep her inner wolf hidden from the rest of the world, knowing that it would mean death if she was ever discovered. Her remaining family has their own plans for her — as the last remaining daughter of an influential family, they have organized her marriage to a barbarian lord that holds a strategically placed stronghold in the mountains. Regeane views this match with trepidation: on the one hand, it means some measure of freedom from her repulsive uncle; on the other it poses a whole new set of problems for maintaining her secret.
The plot itself is rather hard to describe, mainly because it is so meandering in nature. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “slow,” but it’s rather difficult to keep track of what’s going on at any particular point — Regeane just seems to drift from one situation to the next with very little agency of her own. More than anything, Borchardt seems to struggle with the political wrangling that makes up the backbone of the book and which is the impetus for nearly every single character in the story. Charlemagne, the Pope and Lombards are mentioned, but are never given any real context, leaving me struggling to work out what any of it meant and how it affected the actions of the main characters. Basically, the political context is there throughout the narrative, but remains entirely vague.
Instead, the book’s distinctive attribute is its prose, which is quite poetic and descriptive, but which also has the tendency to keep the reader at arm’s length from the characters and their situations. Regeane’s transformations into a wolf, for example, are so lyrically described that a lot of the time I wasn’t sure whether an actual transformation was taking place, or whether it was all just some sort of metaphor. Likewise, though the story is by no means incoherent, it glides along at a leisurely pace and often veers off into tangents. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, and a lot of the time I found that the secondary characters became more interesting than the leads. In particular, Regeane’s brief stint in a convent was a highlight, in which we are introduced to a nun nursing a broken heart and a thwarted lover still sending her roses years after she enters seclusion. It does nothing whatsoever to advance the plot, but their little story was my favourite part of the novel.
Throughout the course of the novel there are run-ins with violent Lombards, with an aging courtesan, with a community of lepers, with other werewolves, with ghosts and with nuns, and finally with Regeane’s intended husband. Though we get glimpses of Maeniel before Regeane meets him, it is not until the end of the story that they come face-to-face. Borchardt certainly whets one’s appetite for their meeting, but when it finally does happen it feels a little short-changed, not helped by the fact that at this point the story begins to bear a very close resemblance the climax of Ivanhoe. It would have been nice to have seen more between these two before the close of the book, but Borchardt certainly ends with enough incentive for the reader to seek out the following novels.
For the most part, I enjoyed The Silver Wolf, though I can’t say that I ever felt fully invested. As said, the prose is lovely and there are several really interesting scenes and ideas, but I remained unsure of what exactly was at stake or what Regeane was trying to achieve at any given time. It’s a meandering, “floaty” sort of book that doesn’t offer much in the way of explanations, but which somehow balances plenty of intrigue with smooth pacing.