Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: Wolfwinter

Book Review: 'Wolfwinter' by Thomas Burnett Swann

3 / 5 Stars

‘Wolfwinter’ (203 pp.) was published by Ballantine Books in November, 1972. The striking cover artwork is by Gene Szafran.

The novel is set in ancient Greece and Italy (Etrusca / Etruria), back in the days when Gods and heroes and the creatures of mythology roamed the earth alongside mortal man.

The heroine of the novel is a plain, rather awkward adolescent girl named Erinna; she resides on the island of Lesbos, and is friend and confidant of the poetess Sappho. Lesbos is – not surprisingly – presented here as a wonderland of Free Love. Orgies (alluded to in a mild way) are not unusual, and as the novel opens, Sappho urges Erinna to attend the Festival of Aphrodite – an orgy devoted to the arrival of Spring – and after some prodding, Erinna agrees, and has a liaison with a faun named Greathorn.

In the months after the Festival, Erinna is betrothed to Timon, a member of the idle rich of the city of Sybaris, a city in Etrusca. Timon recognizes that Erinna is pregnant by another man, but, in keeping with his indolent nature, agrees to have the child raised in his household.

Unfortunately for Erinna, when her son Hoofless is born, while he lacks the hoofs of a faun, he has two horns on his forehead. Timon will not abide with rearing a satyr’s son, and he orders that Hoofless be taken away from his mother and subjected to the cruel custom of Sybaris: unwanted, crippled infants are abandoned outside the city walls, on the Field of Wolves, where they are devoured by the unnaturally intelligent and ferocious White Wolves of the surrounding countryside.

Erinna has no intention of sacrificing Hoofless, so she escapes the city walls and travels to the Field of Wolves…there to try and save her infant son, an act of foolhardy courage that brings her into confrontation with the White Wolves….and involvement in the age-old war between the fauns of Italy and their canine adversaries.

‘Wolfwinter’ is the first novel by Thomas Burnett Swann that I have read. Swann (1928 – 1976) wrote nearly 20 novels and short-story collections, many of which were published by DAW Books and other sf publishers in the late 60s and early 70s. 

Swann, who was a homosexual, portrayed ancient Greece and Rome in a laudatory, even elegiac, manner for their lack of repression in such matters, although, as in ‘Wolfwinter’, he did not shy from disclosing the less salutary practices of these ancient civilizations, such as infanticide.

‘Wolfwinter’ is a fantasy novel in the sense that much of its narrative is occupied with lyrical descriptions of the forest, its fauns and dryads and other creatures, all living harmoniously in a sort of pastoral paradise. Its accounts of the charming, rustic habitations of the woodland denizens, their food and drink and interior and exterior décor, are told with the same detail and warmth with which Tolkein related the homely appeal of his hobbit-holes and the landscape of the Shire. 

It’s a reasonably engaging book, and, while devoid of much in the way of action, those few sequences in which the ravenous White Wolves are encountered are well-written, and injected sufficient momentum into the narrative to keep me interested.

No comments: