Tethtoril's Bookshelf

Black Wolf
The Sembia Series - Book 4

TSR Code:

Product Type: Novel
ISBN Number: 0-7869-2673-2
Author: Dave Gross
Cover Artist: Terese Nielsen
Release Date: November 2001
Format: Paperback book (312 pages).
The text below is taken from a description by WotC:

'Talbot Uskevren
The second son of the Uskevren family fights a deadly battle within himself.
Like most young men of his station, Talbot spends his days honing his swordfighting skills and, unlike the others, practicing the art of acting. Now, Talbot will put both of these talents to the test when a rival house comes looking for blood. The only way for Talbot to survive against the Black Brotherhood is to let the inner wolf loose, and the only way for him to live in Selgaunt's society is to keep the wolf chained.'

Other titles in The Sembia Series:

Read the interview between Candlekeep and Dave Gross, HERE!

By: Jeremy Daw Date: 9-March-2004
Rating: GoodGoodGoodGoodGood


'Black Wolf' is the fourth book in the Sembia series and, as the series reaches its mid-point, I must say I'm enjoying the varied tales of the Uskevren family immensely. One of the strengths of the series is a strong sense of continuity between the novels. The central idea of the Sembia books - exploring Sembian life through the lives and tribulations of the Uskevren family - lends itself to a certain soap opera-like quality and 'Black Wolf' is no different. Although the book's protagonist is Talbot, the Uskevrens' second son, all the other family members make an appearance to a greater or lesser extent and at least one major 'arc' plot point - Talbot's understanding of the nature of Larajin's relationship with Thamalon the Elder - is cleared up in its pages, providing an intriguing teaser for the next novel in the series, Lisa Smedman's 'Heirs of Prophecy'.

'Black Wolf', however, along with the previous novels, is an excellent book in its own right. In turns horrifying, exciting and moving, it's a fast-paced rollercoaster of a tale, which nevertheless remains easy to follow, largely because Dave Gross' prose style is so clear and uncluttered. Even in potentially confusing battle scenes, it's easy to keep tabs on who's doing what and some moments are described in a devestatingly controlled and understated way that makes them all the more powerful (the elf's suicide on page 47 is a good example). A dry, authorial irony surfaces from time to time, but it's rarely obtrusive and, generally, I'd say Gross has a superb control of his material.

Speaking of which... Werewolves are wonderful opportunities for authors to explore a variety of themes and it's safe to say that you will find issues such as desire, control, entrapment and the hunt being addressed in 'Black Wolf'. This being the Realms, however, none of these issues quite pan out as you'd (or, at least I'd) expect them to. One of the key ways werewolves are used in modern horror/fantasy fiction is to represent mankind's primal instincts in the face of a (false?) social and technological sophistication. As the Realms are a pseudo-medieval milieu, this ain't really an option, but the idea of the lone wolf is subverted here. Factions of both Malar and Selune are keen to 'acquire' Talbot Uskevren, something that the almost suicidally independent Talbot is desperate to avoid. Stubborn refusal to accept help *not* being a particularly attractive character trait, much of the novel is concerned with Talbot's realisation that he does need other people and Gross does a good job of depicting this gradual change in Talbot's personality.

'Black Wolf' is not just (or even) a twisted hirsute bildungsroman, though. There are plots and deceptions aplenty, an aquatic vampire, who, were he any camper, would undoubtedly dress in canvas, and his brother, whose emotionless, calculating swordplay makes him, in my book at any rate, the best villain of the novel. In addition to all this, the supporting cast of characters is varied and intelligently written. Easily the best of these is the former servant, Darrow.

Now, I could be wide of the mark here, but I think Darrow is the most interesting character in the novel. In narrative terms, Darrow is nothing more than a device to allow the author to show you what's happening in the various factions that are involved in the plot to ensnare/destroy Talbot and provide a sense of continuity between those different groups. He starts off as a servant for Radu Malveen, before being charmed and 'hired' by Radu's vampiric brother Stannis. Here he meets Rusk and later agrees to travel with the Huntmaster to his lodge with Radu, where he is betrayed by the younger Malveen, but saved by Rusk for his own purposes. During these experiences, however, Dave Gross imbues Darrow with an authentic inner life. His hopes, dreams and self-analysis are laid open for us and you can't help but like the guy - even when he becomes a participant in the murder of a character you really ought to like more. Towards the end of the novel, Darrow appears to achieve a measure of control over his life by choosing to help Talbot in his final confrontation with Rusk and the Malveens. Even this moment of self-determination is illusory, however, as he has been betrayed by the most subtle and cruel of enemies - his own heart. Although Darrow's fate makes perfect sense in terms of his role in the book (and there is an argument to be made that he is, in some senses, a flawed mirror image of Talbot), I couldn't help feel that it was uncharitable and the authorial intervention that describes it (page 301, in case you're interested) seems a little heavy-handed. That said, if that's the only bad thing you can say about a book (and it is!), then you're doing pretty well and, in any case, it's a mark of good writing that a reader should *care* that much about a character's fate that he makes an issue of it in a review! :)

Overall, though, this is an excellent read with strong characters, an interesting exploration of a well-known myth combined with some clever use of realmslore and, perhaps most of all, it had that hard-to-put-down quality that means, if you haven't read it already, I have no hesitation whatsoever in recommending it to you. Enjoy.

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