9 February 2019

Review: The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Wolf in the Whale
Jordanna Max Brodsky
Orbit, 31 January 2019
PB, 521pp.

A free copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher - for which I'm very grateful.

Well. This is a book it's hard to do full justice to in a mere review. I've got another idea. Put your address in the comments below, and I'll come round in person and persuade you to read it.

No? Well, I suppose it is getting a bit late... OK then, I'll do my best.

A historical fantasy like no other I've read, The Wolf in the Whale imagines the first encounters between Inuit and Norse, people both arriving, from different directions, at the same time in the east of what is now Canada.

Brodsky interleaves this (solidly based) historical speculation with the mythology of both peoples, showing Inuit and Norse gods taking a hand in the unfolding tales of their peoples - the Aesir, the Norse gods, also aware of the encroaching Christ winning over their followers.

Above all, though, this is the story of Omat - father and child. We hear of Omat's (the child's) birth tragic birth and of how Omat's (the father's) soul wins free from captivity with Sanna, the Sea Woman, to be reborn in the child. This story is told over and again, as each section of the book is introduced, each retelling bringing new depths of mythology to the story, both explaining what has happened and foreshadowing what might come. Without knowing it, Omat (the child) has a great weight of expectation and prophecy to carry, a burden that will be hard to bear at times. Omat has a difficult life in a a harsh environment - but an environment the Inuit [plural] are well able to flourish in. Born an angakkuk, a shaman, able to travel in the spirit world and converse with the gods, there are nevertheless rules - aglirutiit - to be observed, rules that govern personal identity, hunting, the role of the angakkuk and much more. It is hard for Omat not to be in breach of these, risking the disapproval of family and, worse, the loss of the gods' goodwill. (Meaning failed hunting trips, and the risk of starvation).

Brodsky succeeds brilliantly in showing how Omat's life, that of the family and indeed those of all the Inuit, exist on a knife edge, only a poor hunt or a spell of bad weather away from catastrophe. She also shows how resourceful and determined these settlers are ("settlers" as they are newly come into the land, the first in a great wave of migration). "An Inuk [singular] survives", we are told several times - not only a statement of fact but a personal creed and a cry of determination from Omat when things become hard. And they become very hard.

Carried away from the family by a band of strangers, made to adopt the role of a woman, not of a male hunter, raped, lost to the depths of winter, witness to slaughter, Omat is certainly a survivor. (And, yes, parts of this book are very hard to read. That's a content warning, in case you wondered!) That's true even before the Norse come on the scene. Once they do, it will take all Omat's ingenuity to live, to return to the family, to rescue brother/ cousin Kiasik. It will also require Omat to learn about and adapt new ideas about the world, in the meeting - and clash with - a whole new people, and new gods.

Brodsky's portrayal of this meeting between cultures in breathtaking. Based, clearly, on exhaustive research not only about the lives and survival skills but the beliefs and history of the Inuit, she shows a great depth of imagination in reconstructing - based on a meagre reference in the Norse sagas - just how these different cultures might have regarded each other. Both groups were hardy and were accomplished and self-sufficient travellers. The Norse, as shown here, had some advantages such as better weapons - though we see Omat scorn a Viking sword as no use for hunting - and ships, but lack some basic survival skills - skills the Inuit have honed to perfection ("An Inuk survives!") Again and again the theme arises. What can one people learn from the other? Mostly it seems to be Omat who's willing to learn, giving her an increasingly shrewd perspective on events (originally disdaining the newcomers' woollen clothes, Omat takes up spinning and weaving to great effect - in much the same way as seeing advantage in learning the "womanly" skills of parka-making despite them being alien to a male hunter).

But that's to make the book sound like a prolonged info dump about Arctic survival when it's far from that. We see Omat - a fascinating, complex and changing character - develop, mature and make dreadful mistakes (there were times I almost called out NO!!! as Omat's impulsiveness led to catastrophe). We also see Omat seek to redeem the failings of both Inuit and Norse, seek to save both their worlds - all our worlds - from destruction. Brodsky's portrays of Omat is wonderful, making the character so unique and believable, but other characters are equally well done: Brandr, the Norseman who has seen deserts and travelled as far as Rome, finds himself in a wholly alien world but adapts and even dares see it is his home. Even some of the less sympathetic characters - no spoilers! - are credible, with redeeming features. They all come alive on the page, and the reader soon cares about what happens to them (and indeed, may even shed a tear: this is a harsh world and there are losses).

I see I've mostly discussed this book as imagined history. It would be wrong to neglect the fantasy aspect though. This strand, done through the stories of gods, heroes and tricksters, is central to the book in giving characters a "religious" motivation but more importantly in personifying and to a degree explaining the struggles, crimes and misfortunes that also afflict the characters. The Inuit legend of the Sun Woman's rape by the Moon Man is central here, as are the Norse tales of Balder, Loki and the World Serpent -  and of course, Ragnarok. Reading this book I really felt - as I often don't with out-and-out fantasy - that this writing touched our world, touched our reality. That it's not just a clever game with made up names and places. The quality of the writing (and all that research) certainly helps here but I think rooting everything in real places and peoples, real myths and legends, real - if largely unknown and unknowable - events, also contributes.

Brodsky is at pains in her lengthy and detailed acknowledgments and notes on sources to make clear what the book is, and what it is not: "The Wolf in the Whale is not an Inuit story... [it is] an attempt to honour the Inuit past, not to claim it." In that, I believe, she succeeds magnificently - creating an absorbing and compelling story along the way.

I'd strongly recommend this book, suited for the depths of winter, when the wind blows and you want to huddle away from the weather... even if not from Arctic blizzards!

Finally, just look at that beautiful cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio... you need this on your shelves, you really do!

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