Daughter of the Wolf: Victoria Whitworth

★★★½

This is the most recent novel by Victoria or V.M. Whitworth, also author of the Wulgar novels. I wasn’t entirely blown away by The Bone Thief, but I found much more to enjoy in this story set in what’s becoming a rather familiar world: Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. It is 859 AD, two centuries after the days of Edwin and Oswald, and while King Osberht maintains an uneasy peace from York, his noblemen quietly test their strength and the sea-wolves harry the eastern coast. In Donmouth, where a hall and minster both fall under the authority of the lord’s family, Radmer and his feckless younger brother Ingeld divide worldly and heavenly power between them. And Radmer’s daughter Elfrun, struggling to make the transition from girl-child to woman, is about to find herself elevated to a terrifying level of responsibility.

Radmer is known as the King’s Wolf: one of Osberht’s most loyal retainers. When his old enemy Tilmon is welcomed back from exile by the king, Radmer resists the offer of a match for Elfrun with Tilmon’s son Thancrad. But he cannot resist Osberht’s order to go to Rome as escort for the kingdom’s tithes to the Pope. His departure leaves Donmouth without a lord, under the control of Radmer’s formidable mother Abarhild. But Abarhild is old and has longed for years to retire to the minster for a life of prayer and penitence. Elfrun, as Radmer’s adult daughter, is an obvious substitute for interim lord. But how is she to make the shift from member of the household to leader? Can she expect obedience from the girls who, until now, have giggled behind her back? And what of the men around her, who resent a woman’s interference in their spheres of power? What of her uncle Ingeld, the charismatic and irreligious priest at the minster? What of her father’s steward Luda? And, most of all, what of her sullen cousin Athulf, Ingeld’s illegitimate son, who craves attention and believes that Donmouth should come to him?

Whitworth does a wonderful job of evoking the many-threaded networks of a small community in this period – with its various loyalties to king, lord and God. Elfrun feels very credible in her struggles to assert her authority, although she can be extremely blind to what’s going on around her and there are times when I would have welcomed a more spirited demonstration of her power. I wasn’t always convinced by the romantic elements of the story – I won’t go into detail, so as not to spoil it, but I’m pretty sure that at this period a well-born girl acting as a lord of a manor wouldn’t have been able to go wandering around the countryside by herself. Similarly, Athulf seemed to be pretty two-dimensional in his spite and petulance, and I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t dealt with at an earlier stage. I suppose what the novel does very well is to emphasise the personal nature of lordship at this date. Radmer succeeds because he has the strength of character to impose his will on his people. Elfrun is regarded as weak and so the vultures begin to gather, testing her. If a lord is unworthy, he can expect to be replaced.

The writing is beautiful, however, and I feel that it’s more sophisticated and elegant than in the earlier Bone Thief. Whitworth appears to be going from strength to strength as a stylist. I have no idea whether Daughter of the Wolf is supposed to be young adult or adult, and really it shouldn’t make any difference, but the romance and the certain degree of adolescent angst, peer bullying and naivety makes me wonder whether it’s intended for a young adult audience. My sense is that young people at the time would have been mature at a much earlier stage than Elfrun, who has all the concerns of a late-teenage girl of the present day, even if she doesn’t commit the unforgivable sin of seeming anachronistic. That said, Whitworth has put a lot of effort into preparing the book: she writes in her author’s notes about the Anglo-Saxon sources she drew on, and the archaeological sites that inspired her reconstruction of Donmouth. And it’s a good story – engaging, gripping (with its moreish short chapters) and vividly told.

Certainly recommended to those who’ve enjoyed other fiction set in this period, as it offers a more subtle, character-driven story than the sword-and-shield novels which make up so much of this genre. And also recommended to those who enjoy young adult tales of coming of age, or those who favour insights into the lives of historical women. Rich with detail, well-paced and evocative, it’s a pleasure to lose yourself in.

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