The Wolf Wilder
By Katherine Rundell
Expected publication August 25, 2015 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Feo and her mother live a solitary existence - well, if you don't count the wolves. Once upon a time, wealthy Russians would keep wolves as pets until their natural instincts took over. These wolves - halfway between domestic and wild - would have to be trained again to live in the wild. Feo and her mother are wolf wilders. Feo loves her life with the wolves. That's why she'll stop at nothing to get it back when the Tsar arrests her mother and threatens to kill her wolves.
I've read Rundell's previous books and enjoyed them well enough - her first more than her most recent. In fact, I was well ready to write off Rundell altogether after her last title. But then, fortuitously, I spotted this e-galley available and downloaded it. I'm glad I had a change of mind.
Much to my surprise, I absolutely loved this book. To be clear, I can see it likely has some faults, but I fell completely for this story. What is most interesting to me is that many of the things I faulted her previous title for - a headstrong, brash main character and a repetitive series of adventures - were the things I loved most about this title. Feo reminded me of Wilhemina (the protagonist of Rundell's previous novel) - she's grown up mostly removed from society, surrounded largely by animals rather than people. As such, her social skills often leave something to be desired. For some reason, though, in Feo's case, it comes off less harshly and selfish than it did in Will's. It seemed more obvious to me that Will's intentions were always in the right spot, even if her actions weren't the proper ones. Feo always seemed more flexible and willing to learn from others as the story progressed and circumstances took her far beyond her comfort zone. These were qualities that I felt Will lacked. Feo and her interactions with others made me laugh rather than cringe, so clearly I was inclined to like this one more than her previous.
I quite enjoyed the other characters as well. Every time a new one was introduced, I was eager to hear their story and I don't think I was disappointed by any of them. Rundell does an excellent job here of infusing even relatively minor characters with some small hint of a life beyond her pages and I loved discovering these. Some of it is not so subtle (from the moment he appears, it's obvious Ilya will play a significant role), but it never bothered me.
As I said previously, the adventures do get a bit repetitive - Rakov is villainy, Feo escapes, Rakov catches up, etc. However, it never grates because the stakes feel devastatingly real. This book is not afraid to be a bit dark. So, although Rakov is a tiny bit of a villain caricature, the book never feels cartoonish. Spoilers maybe, but people and animals get hurt in this book and it feels heartbreakingly real. I'm not ashamed to admit I cried during this one - that's how engrossed I was with this story.
For the faults I can obviously acknowledge: Rundell takes extreme liberties with her wolves here. Personally, I didn't consider this a fault because I wasn't reading this as a piece of straight historical fiction (and I'm not sure it ever purports to be that). But, I can certainly see some readers balking at Rundell's depiction of wolf behaviors and attitudes. Additionally, later in the book, it touches upon some Russian politics which I can imagine might get boring for the reader but felt like a natural part of the story to me.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this and am very glad I didn't overlook it because of my past ambivalence with the author.
Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.