Quick Review: A Tempering of Men, and Talking About Trilogies

This cover is actually *not* representative of what happens in the book.

You might recall my review of A Companion to Wolves about a week ago. I just finished the sequel A Tempering of Men, and TBH, there’s not much I can tell you, and not just because it would be spoiling the first book. (BTW, there will be spoilers for A Companion to Wolves, so if you are reading it or thinking of reading it, best to look away. Those of you who d0n’t care can read on.

I think most of you will understand what I’m talking about when I say that The Tempering of Men is definitely a “second book”, by this, I mean, “not as good as the first, and not as epic as the (inevitable) third”. Some readers may be relieved to learn that there’s far less sex in this book (and only one very explicit sex scene, unquestionably consensual) but much more (as my mom would say) puttering. There’s still plenty of “wolfcarl-and-his-wolf” to go around, but the bulk of the book is spent traveling, exploring a cave, and wolfcarls wondering about their new place in a world that is pretty much troll-free. By the way, this book is told from multiple perspectives: Vethulf and Skjaldwulf we already know from the first novel, but the second introduces Brokkolfr, the only survivor of a troll attack that killed the rest of his threatbrothers. The most fascinating characters, IMO, have relatively minor but important roles in the plot. There’s Freyvithr, a godsman of Freya who is a bit irritating in the beginning but becomes more likeable as the wolfcarls (and the reader) grow accustomed to them, but the two who are most intriguing, from my perspective, are the sworn-son Fargrimr and the svartalf Antimony.

The book says of sworn-sons:

In the southern lands where there were no trolls, it was not entirely unheard of for a man without sons to make one. An unlucky sire could choose one of his daughters as heir and raise her as a sworn-man; a functional son. Such a girl never grew to be a woman; instead, she grew to be a man. She would take a man’s name and would not marry, though some took girls as lovers, and thus she could head her father’s household when he died. (pp. 17 – 18)

You don’t often see trans* characters like Fargrimr in fantasy in general (although Elizabeth Bear is no stranger to including such “unconventional” characters in her other books). There’s also Antimony, a male svartalf who is honored as a mother (one of the highest ranks among svartalfs besides that of mastersmith) because he has adopted and is caring for abandoned svartalf children. From the first book, it is established that svartalfs, trolls, and trellwolves are all matriarchal in organization, in contrast to the patriarchal cultures that humans have created. Svartalfs also differ from humans in that it’s pretty much impossible to tell their sex at a glance (females are named for metals, males for minerals, this brings up the issue of how a svartalf can name a child after a metal that isn’t found in nature, but we’ll just say the alfs figured it out by magic).

Fear not, though, everyone has a new threat to contend with in the form of the Romans Rheans, who….don’t really do a whole lot over the course of the novel. Oh wait, they do capture Skjaldwulf and try to burn him alive, but don’t worry, he escapes.

Really, this novel isn’t bad, it just has the luck to be the second in a trilogy. The first book in a trilogy has the important job of introducing the reader to its world, setting the stage, throwing a bit of plot the reader’s way to keep us engaged. The third book ends the plot the first began, ties up loose ends, maybe leaves the reader with a few unanswered questions.

But it seems like few authors have any idea what to do with that second book beyond providing “padding” for the Epic Conclusion that is book three, and this is what The Tempering of Men is: it’s not awful, but it’s definitely not the first book.

Oh, and the one thing that bugged me was the repeated use of the word “monk” to describe clergy when they could have used a term derived from Anglo-Saxon, whichwould have been perfectly appropriate to the setting (their language appears to borrow heavily from Anglo-Saxon) but it was just something that grated on me, because these “monks” were neither Christian or Buddhist.

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