The Last Wolf, by Maria Vale

16 Feb
Cover or The Last Wolf; the face of a wolf, yellow eyes watching out the cover, superimposed over the bare torso of a man, his head bowed.

I’m trying to do SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge this year, and the theme this month is ‘fairy tales’. What could be easier, right? Genre romance is chock-full of Beauty and the Beast retellings 1 , to say nothing of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and all the rest.

Of course, as I scrolled through my digital TBR shelves and scanned the print TBR cordillera of Doom, not one title jumped out and yelled, “me, me! I’m an obvious fairy tale retelling”. 2

Which is why I have decided that wolf shifters in the woods totally works. (Because Red Riding Hood. Work with me here, people.)

Reader beware: abusive parent, graphic violence, graphic language, sex on page, maternal death, stillbirth. Narrated in first person present tense.

Also, I go on a bit of a rant.

The Last Wolf, by Maria Vale

The prologue is set in 1668, in England, with the migration of the wolves of Mercia to America, where they hope to escape human encroachment (and their firearms).

And just let me say: HOLY CRAP, that prologue! It sets up a lot of the dynamics and worldbuilding very economically, and in a way that conveys urgency and desperation very effectively, with minimal action on the page.

Ahoy, the blurb!

If she returns to her Pack, the stranger will die.
But if she stays…

Silver Nilsdottir is at the bottom of her Pack’s social order, with little chance for a decent mate and a better life. Until the day a stranger stumbles into their territory, wounded and beaten, and Silver decides to risk everything on Tiberius Leveraux. But Tiberius isn’t all he seems, and in the fragile balance of the Pack and wild, he may tip the destiny of all wolves…

For three days out of thirty, when the moon is full and her law is iron, the Great North Pack must be wild.

I’ll be honest, I would have loved to read the rest of Ælfrida’s story, almost more than Silver’s story; I found the switch from third person past tense to first person present tense jarring. (Please note: I’m generally resistant to first person narration.)

I liked the main characters, and I believed how the relationship between them develops, but I struggled with some worldbuilding choices that yanked me out of the story repeatedly, to the point of having to go read something else entirely, twice, while I was reading this book. Not because I didn’t want to finish it, but because I couldn’t not see how those narrative choices were setting up the bleak climactic moment.

Trying not to spoil the whole plot here, so, more or less in general terms, here’s how it goes:

In this world, we have regular wolves, which are only and always wolves; we have Pack wolves, who spend a good portion of their adult lives ‘in skin’ (looking like humans) but who must turn ‘wild’ (into their wolf selves) during the three nights of the full moon; and we have Shifters, who can change but don’t have to.

The Packs still around in the 21st Century spend a lot of resources hiding from humans, and, it turns out, from Shifters (who also spend a lot of time hiding from humans). There are many reasons for this, from much longer lifespans to differences in biology; and while Shifters don’t have an easy time of it, Pack wolves, who must return to their territory every full moon to change, are all the more vulnerable to human’s technological encroachment.

And here’s where the worldbuilding falls apart for me.

There are too many details about some things, such as the Old Tongue and echelons and a Greek letters wolf hierarchy that was debunked decades ago 3, mixed with a Norse origin story and Icelandic naming conventions. Then, essential details are just hand-waved. 4

The Pack doesn’t have real IDs or SS#s, but they have a judge who sits at the Second Court of Appeals, and I just wonder how that works when she has to skip town for three days every four weeks, regardless of what’s on the docket.

Another part of the world building is that some members of the Pack never leave the Homeland (property-cum-compound) because they’re too obviously different and would risk exposing the wolves to humans, but they also exile some wolves, who will change with the full moon, and how on Earth is that not a security risk?

This minutiae matters because the basic conflict set up for this book is that Shifters still kill wolves, almost with religious fervor, but somehow a female wolf left the Pack’s Homeland, crossed over to Canada, ended up pregnant by a Shifter, lived long enough to share with him just enough information about the Pack to endanger its existence and to give birth to at least one surviving offspring, then died.

Twenty-seven years later, Tiberius, the son, shows up, severely wounded, and asking to be acknowledged as one of them.

He’s given a chance, because blah blah traditions, and something about Silver’s bloodline, and it’s made clear no one trusts him because he has Shifter blood, and so on and so forth, and yet, no one asks him anything. Not one question.

How have they remained hidden this close to millions of humans (this is Upstate New York, mind, not the wilds of Montana or Yellowstone), how have they survived for more than 300 years, let alone thrived to be the strongest Pack in “all the Americas”, without asking pointed questions in a situation like this.

It makes sense that Silver as written would choose not to ask, it does not make sense that John (the Alpha) wouldn’t. The only reason that someone who has held together and led and protected the Pack for over two decades would not ask some hard questions and fact-check every answer, is that the plot demands this huge hole in characterization and worldbuilding be hand-waved

And that makes the last act feel contrived; both Tiberius and Silver are willing to martyr themselves in ways that do nothing to eliminate the threat to the Pack, rather than have one single honest conversation with John, because the world has been built to force them to make those choices, but only if John does not ask Tiberius any questions.

I’m finding it hard to rate this one; it’s eminently readable, even for someone who generally dislikes first person narrative. The characterization of the main characters is good and I absolutely believe their HEA. Some of the worldbuilding aspects are intriguing, and I wonder whether some of my issues with it are addressed later in the series. Yet, in the end, I was so angry on behalf of several secondary characters who suffer because of that one plot hole. So angry. Because everyone as written deserved better.

The Last Wolf gets 7.00 out of 10

* * * *

1 In the last week alone I’ve re-read three! (reviews to come)

2 No worries, as soon as the deadline passes, I’ll find two dozen or more that fit the theme obviously and perfectly, because that’s how life works.

3 Yes, I do understand that it’s a handy bit of literary chronotope for fantasy or paranormal romance, but it just gets me hot under the collar every time. From the International Wolf Center:

The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature, at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years than in all of previous history.

One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”

4 Do not get me started on “Human 101” or whatever.

4 Responses to “The Last Wolf, by Maria Vale”

  1. whiskeyinthejar 16/02/2022 at 4:05 PM #

    And that makes the last act feel contrived; both Tiberius and Silver are willing to martyr themselves in ways that do nothing to eliminate the threat to the Pack, rather than have one single honest conversation with John,

    I hate that! The Big Misunderstanding or just have a conversation that gets dragged out as the plot point to keep them apart.
    Intriguing concept though, I rarely read shifter romances so it sounds cool and new to me. I’ve thought about adding this one to my tbr but it is so love, hate reviewed by my friends on GRs I keep going back and forth adding it and taking it off.

    • azteclady 16/02/2022 at 4:24 PM #

      It’s an interesting take, and once I got over myself with the first person present tense narration, I found it very readable, but I would read the sample to see if you like the writing voice.

      I already have two of the other four books (because of course I do), and I’m thinking I’ll try the second title, A Wolf Apart soon.

  2. S. 17/02/2022 at 7:39 AM #

    Hello!
    I have read this book too, in 2020 and I gave it the same grade as you. However, I certainly didn’t articulate my reasons as well as you did now 🙂
    I, too, thought about reading the next installment but, alas, it has not happened!

    • azteclady 17/02/2022 at 8:52 AM #

      Hah!

      So many books, so little time, right? Things keep getting pushed to the top of the pile, until one forgets those books one’s iffy about reading, for whatever the reason.

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