The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
Jordanna Max Brodsky switches gears ever-so-slightly in her novel The Wolf in the Whale (2019), continuing her examination of old-gods-in-diaspora from her OLYMOUS BOUND series while taking a step back in time — a little over a thousand years from present day — and exploring the story of an Inuit shaman who finds herself at the nexus point between her people and the first band of Vikings to set foot on North American soil. It’s an interesting and well-researched story, and though the slow pace might put off some readers, I encourage them to stick it out to the finish.
Omat is born into complicated circumstances: according to tradition, her late father’s soul will be passed into her newborn body, along with his name, and their tiny Inuit clan desperately needs more men to hunt, provide protection, and perform other duties. Omat is born female, but her grandfather Ataata, a powerful shaman, decrees that his son’s soul has, indeed, been passed along into the child, who will be raised as a boy. For all intents and purposes, that decree is carried out faithfully, and over the years Omat learns everything her older cousin Kiasik learns in preparation for adult manhood: hunting, fishing, tracking, and much more which is restricted to her alone, once Omat displays a powerful gift for communicating with the spirit world. But their clan counts barely a dozen people among its number, food is increasingly scarce, and the revelation that Omat is biologically female causes no little consternation, especially to herself.
After some disastrous encounters with interlopers, first from another clan of Inuit and then from Atlantic-crossing Vikings, led by Erik the Red’s fearsome daughter Freydis, Omat must embark upon a perilous and heart-breaking journey to define what and who she is under her own terms. Meanwhile, the gods of the Vikings, seeking safe haven from the inexorable advance of Christianity, have determined that the icy coasts of the Arctic Circle will be quite suitable as a new home for themselves and their faithful followers. It’s up to Omat and Brandr, an outcast Viking she rescues from a terrible death, to decide how their futures will go: will the building conflict between the Inuit and Vikings mean doom or salvation?
I frequently found myself caught up in Omat’s childhood joys and sorrows as she explores the natural world and learns everything she can from her elders, particularly Ataata, who nurtures and encourages her with endless love and kindness. Her rivalry and affection with Kiasik drive them each to reckless acts with realistic consequences, her care and affection for her dog Black Mask pays off (with triple the interest) in the second half of Omat’s story, and her intense desire to protect her people and see them thrive is the heart of the entire book.
Brodsky mentions in her Acknowledgements that she poured a lot of time and effort into researching The Wolf in the Whale, including meeting with several Inuit people in Nunavut and reading what appears to be an exhaustive amount of primary- and secondary-source materials, and I — a non-Inuit person, myself — think she did an excellent job of incorporating that research and her first-time experiences in building iglu and eating narwhal skin into the world her characters call home.
One moment I liked in particular was Omat’s disgust over watching Brandr cook and then eat meat. It’s such an unnatural act to her, so viscerally upsetting, and a lot of writers would have had Brandr make fun of the raw meat and blubber Omat joyfully consumes, so I appreciate Brodsky turning that typical, expected commentary on how “strange” Omat’s customs are and letting her be the one revolted by how “strange” Brandr is.
The first half, as the reader learns along with Omat the story of how the Sun and Moon became enemies, what the Sea Mother will do to anyone foolish enough to enter her domain, and how to communicate with the wolf and the ice bear spirits, is fascinating and beautifully told in vignettes which peek in on Omat during formative childhood moments. The environmental details and setting were immersive, and the integration of both Inuit and Viking lore was well-done. And not only does Brodsky write compelling, flawed characters well, but she creates impressive battle scenes which are chaotic and costly without losing the narrative thread and becoming too difficult to follow.
Where The Wolf in the Whale begins to falter, unfortunately, is at the introduction of another Inuit clan, led by a cruel man who keeps his wives in constant fear and who abuses his followers at every available opportunity. As soon as he arrived on the scene, I thought, “Oh, I bet I know exactly how this is going to go,” and I am not pleased to say that I was completely correct. While the members of Omat’s clan are complex and well-composed characters, every antagonist she encounters lacks that same subtlety, and their reactions to events, or interactions with Omat and others, are strongly telegraphed well in advance. Brodsky’s inclusion of sexual violence as experienced by or committed by characters is historically accurate and there’s an occasion when it makes sense within the story, but there are other times when it feels like it’s happening just to prove how bad a character is despite the already-existing mountain of evidence supporting that viewpoint. The Vikings didn’t hold many surprises, as a group, mainly because I’m well-versed in their behavior while on viks during that historical period. The novel’s climactic battle was thrilling, but felt a long time in coming.
Additionally, I thought the means by which Omat learns to speak Norse is just too expedient. While I can easily accept her using that same means to communicate with animals or spirits, the complexities of human language, even at its most rudimentary level, demand more effort than a few months of companionship and a single monumentally-transformative experience. Too many issues and events come about because of coincidence or, possibly, unacknowledged divine intervention, which is sometimes jarring because of all of the other events that come to pass because of obvious, stated divine interference.
So The Wolf in the Whale is a bit of a mixed bag. The first half and the ultimate conclusion of Omat’s journey are compelling and beautifully written, while the section in between held less charm and less of my interest. It’s an entertaining read, but it didn’t stick with me the way that some of Brodsky’s other works, like The Immortals or Olympus Bound, have. Still, I’ll be interested to see what historical period and subject Brodsky tackles next.