The Emperor’s Wolves, Michelle Sagara (Mira 978-0-778-30991-8, $16.99, 516pp, tp) October 2020.
Let me confess: I hadn’t intended to read Michelle Sagara’s The Emperor’s Wolves for this month’s Locus. I could read it closer to its publication date, I thought – but I’d already read the first page, and oh, it turned out that I could really use an Elantra novel right then.
The Emperor’s Wolves is a prequel of sorts to Sagara’s long-running (delightful) Chronicles of Elantra series. The Chronicles of Elantra now stretch to some fifteen volumes (with, I hope, more to come), dealing with the adventures and misadventures of Kaylin Neya, a private in the Hawks, Elantra’s equivalent of the police. Kaylin Neya has an unfortunate habit of being the woman on the spot when the city – or the world – needs saving, and she has magic – little as she understands it – that lets her do what’s necessary, and a large number of friends and allies, including Severn Handred.
The Emperor’s Wolves is the story of how Severn became a Wolf, one of the Emperor’s executioners. And it’s a story of old murders, old guilt, and the politics and relationships between different peoples in the city of Elantra. Unlike the Chronicles of Elantra, it doesn’t stick closely to one point of view, but encompasses Severn and a number of people in his vicinity, including Helmat Marlin, the Lord of Wolves, and Elluvian Danarre, the only Barrani to work with the Wolves. In this way it resembles Sagara’s other epic fantasy a little more than it does the Chronicles of Elantra – but it remains rooted in the vivid and relatable contemporary-yet-epic sensibility of the other Elantra books. And yes, I’m aware that contemporary-yet-epic may feel paradoxical, but Sagara makes it work.
The city of Elantra is the domain of the Dragon Emperor: the emperor is an actual dragon, one of a handful still in the world after the long-running wars between the Dragons and the Barrani. The Dragons and the Barrani are the two immortal races to occupy Elantra – immortal, at least, in that they endure until they are killed – and the Barrani are far more numerous than the Dragons. The Barrani are also, in general, devoted to potentially lethal games of power and status, and as a whole rather resent their subjugation to the Emperor. There are mortal races in Elantra, as well: humans, lion-like Leontines, winged Aerians, and the Tha’alani.
The Tha’alani are feared by all of the other races, because the Tha’alani can read minds. The Tha’alani are required by the Emperor to read minds, in service to his laws, but this service is painful to them. They live isolated from the other races and share thoughts and feelings in a group consciousness known as the Tha’alaan. That doesn’t erase disagreements between them, and doesn’t make them less individuals, but it does give them both empathy and understanding for each other – and it means that, except in exceptional circumstances, the suffering of one of them hurts all of them.
Severn’s first task as a probationary Wolf is to hunt down the person responsible for old, unsolved murders of Tha’alani. He works alongside Elluvian, who has secrets and problems of his own, because the person likely responsible is a Barrani, and Barrani are fairly deadly in a fight with a mortal. (Elluvian doesn’t understand Severn. His bafflement is entertaining.) But matters are more complicated than mere murder, however horrific, and Severn finds himself navigating Barrani politics, consulting with oracles, and gaining a far greater understanding of the Tha’alani than most humans ever do. The Emperor’s Wolves is about relationships, ethics, connections, and terrible choices: a vividly human exploration of consequences set in a twisty old murder case.
It’s easy to read, satisfying, and relaxing: when it comes to the Elantra books, I trust Sagara not to kill off any developed characters who don’t (mostly) deserve it.
While I think newcomers to Elantra could start here and have a rewarding read, I believe its greatest appeal will be to existing fans of Sagara’s series, for whom learning more about Severn, and about the Tha’alani Ybelline, will prove to be a treat. Spending more time on the streets of Elantra is always a treat, and The Emperor’s Wolves is the kind of novel that inspires you to go back and read all the other books in this setting, just to hold on to the feeling a little longer. Or, well, it inspired me to start again with Cast in Shadow, at least.
The Emperor’s Wolves is the first of two Elantra prequel novels to focus on Severn. If the next one is as entertaining as this, I’ll be a very happy reader indeed.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the October 2020 issue of Locus.
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