Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear: The Tempering of Men

I read the first novel in this trilogy, A Companion to Wolves, together with Leander from The Idle Woman blog and urge you all to read her excellent review to get an idea of what it is about.

If you check out the reviews of this second volume at Goodreads or Amazon, you are going to find a lot of complaints about its disjointed plot or even the absence of a plot at all. Those are not quite wrong as statement of fact, but I think they’re not really valid as complaints, because, like its predecessor, The Tempering of Men is not really about plot, what there is of it is mostly a vehicle for other things. At their heart, both novels of this trilogy which I’ve read so far, are not the traditional Fantasy novels they might at first glance appear to be, but rather an in-depth analysis of various Fantasy tropes (I’d even say a deconstruction, but recent usage of that term has been sloppy to a degree that makes it pretty much useless).

The first novel was quite clearly about animal bonding and gender; while it’s plot was also rather episodic it presented a tightly-knit web of motifs and images around those central themes. It is a bit harder to make out what The Tempering of Men is about, and I think it is chiefly this which has caused many readers, even those who enjoyed A Companion to Wolves, problems with its sequel.

The Tempering of Men is told from three points of view, none of which is Isolfr who was the protagonist of the first volume and on whom we get several fascinating outside perspectives here. Each of those gets his own narrative thread, and in an interesting narrative move each of those threads describes a different kind of encounter: with animals, with non-human sentients, with other humans. Each of those threads then is resolved in a different manner: the first with violence, the second with diplomacy, the third with a mixture of both. Obviously, the authors (and I consider both Monette and Bear to be among the most intelligent currently working in the SFF field) put some thought into this, and even if the threads have only a superficial connection as regards plot, they are firmly linked on a thematic level, running underneath the surface action. And I think that from the interplay between those threads (and there is a lot of mirroring back and forth going on), there arises the central concern of this novel which, if I’d have to nail it down in word, would be consequences.

Your classic Epic Fantasy novel always has some kind of Evil Power trying to take over, and once our heroes have defeated the evil overlord everything is presumed to return to the status quo ante. Not so here: After they defeated the trolls and killed the trollqueen the wolfthreat have pacified the North – and got rid of their own raison d’รชtre. They face the choice to other fade into insignificance and eventually disappear or to find some new reason for being and for the wolfless men to give them support and tithe boys. In short, this novels poses the question of what happens after the good guys have won, and while it suggests some answers it does not settle on a single one. The Tempering of Men is much more interested in working through the problem then coming up with a solution, and generally showing that things are rarely as neat as traditional Fantasy Epics like to paint them but tend to be considerably more messy – which very likely also is a reason why so many readers were frustrated with this novel. But I strongly suspect that frustrating readers’ expectations also was a major part of the authors’ narrative strategy, and generally your enjoyment of The Tempering of Men (and probably the trilogy as a whole) will depend on whether you like that kind of thing or not. For my part, I do (a lot) and am already looking forward to reading the concluding volume.

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2 comments

  1. Look at this! You warn me not to expect any new posts and yet you turn out two in two days. And I was delighted to read your thoughts on this one. As ever, you have shrewdly homed in on the important thematic and symbolic elements of the book – I was interested to read your comment that this, in a sense, takes us beyond the conventional fantasy novel in seeing what happens after the dark lord is defeated, etc.

    I don’t have any impressions of my own to counter with, as I read this once, very quickly, some months ago and need to return to it. But I like your idea about the three threads following three different kinds of encounters and being solved in different ways. I’m looking forward to going back to this and taking it more slowly, and hopefully coming up with something interesting to say ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Yeah, I know, that same occurred to me as well. And I have a third post already finished (on a film) which I’ll be posting tomorrow. After which there’ll probably be another long period of silence…

    And I’m certain you won’t have any issues of coming up with oodles of interesting things about this novel. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Did you ever get around to reading the final installment, by the way? I’m probably going to tackle that one before too long, now that I actually bought it.

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