“Once upon a time, a hundred years ago, there was a dark and stormy girl.”
(Ladies and gentleman, how is THAT for a first sentence?)
Feo and her mother live at the edge of the Russian wild. When wealthy aristocrats grow tired of their pampered wolves, or perhaps they lose a digit or two to their sharp teeth, they send the beasts to Feo and her mother to learn how to be true wolves again. They teach them how to hunt, how to howl, how to run, how to be the dangerous wild creatures that they are; this is what a “wolf wilder” does. When Feo’s mother is arrested for continuing to wild wolves instead of killing them as per the Tsar’s orders, Feo decides to make the long journey to St. Petersburg to rescue her. So she sets off through the frozen Russian winter forest with her three wolf companions White, Grey, and Black (wolves have their own names and don’t need human names, so Feo simply calls them by their colors), a young army deserter, and a scrap of a plan for how to smuggle her mother out of prison.
Even though there’s no actual sorcery in this book, this Russian folklore-inspired tale is magical nonetheless. Katherine Rundell has a scrumptious way with words that makes the entire story shimmer with metaphors so fresh you could slap them. Her gift with literary descriptiveness means that the bleak Russian setting, rendered beautiful through her poetry, sinks its teeth into you and transports you bodily there along with Feo and her wolves. The relationship between Feo and the wolves was written entirely differently from the standard child and dog relationship; the wolves are not pets, but rather characters in their own rights, elegant and dangerous, loyal and free all at once, but without going so far as to be anthropomorphized.
The story itself is swift and sweet. The desperation of Feo’s journey comes through in the pacing, which only flags a bit with the introduction of a young revolutionary to the narrative. This may be very un-book punk, but I am getting a teeeeensy bit tired of revolutions being thrown into every single book for young people. Once the plot shifted in that direction my absorption in the story wavered a bit; it detracted from the forward momentum of a little girl on the run with her pack of wolves. What’s a revolution when compared to that? I guess it felt like a blip from another novel tacked on, so that the resolution felt like it had a bit of an identity crisis.
Overall though, this is a spectacular middle grade novel, with writing that dances across the page, a furiously paced journey, flawed, crystal clear characters, and children riding wolves to glory. What more could you want, except maybe a little less Marxism?
Music is easy: “Winter’s Wolves” by the Sword.