Title: The Wolf in the Whale
Author: Jordanna Max Brodsky
Release Date: January 29th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Inuit Mythology, Norse Mythology
Page Count: 560 (paperback)
Born with the soul of a hunter and the spirit of the Wolf, Omat is destined to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps-invoking the spirits of the land, sea, and sky to protect her people.
But the gods have stopped listening and Omat’s family is starving. Alone at the edge of the world, hope is all they have left.
Desperate to save them, Omat journeys across the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When she meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, they set in motion a conflict that could shatter her world…or save it.
Note: the main character Omat was born female and identifies as both a man and a woman, but the author uses she/her pronouns in her endnotes, so that’s what I’m going to use as well.
Trigger Warning: Scenes of rape and discussions of them.
The Wolf in the Whale is a languid, immersive tapestry consisting primarily of Inuit culture and mythology but one that has threads of Norse mythos weaving through it. And the result has a little bit of everything–fantastic character work, slow-burn romance, meddling gods, wolves that are whales that are wolves, battles ranging from small-scale to continent-spanning, and themes of gender roles and identity.
Above all that, though, it’s about changing narratives that others have set up for you. And I think that’s what I loved most about it.
I found the story to be a very spiritual and empowering one as it follows the “Heroine’s Journey” template in a way that’s very reminiscent of Juliet Marillier’s work (I talked a bit about the ins-and-outs of the Heroine’s Journey in this post and why I love it so much).
The TL;DR of Heroine’s Journey and what differentiates it from the Hero’s Journey is that while the latter is very external (big baddie to defeat, world to save, etc), the former is very internal. So the plot follows this trajectory:
Omat starts out with nearly everything she could hope for. She’s an Inuit shaman-in-training who will one day lead her camp, and though born female, she thinks of herself a boy and no one really challenges her on that. So she’s allowed to hunt with the men and do other “male” activities (which she’s very good at). All in all, she’s content with her current role and her future.
And then all of that comes crashing down around her.
What follows is a brutal and lonely journey across the ice that culminates in a quest to rescue her brother. But running parallel to that, and what is ultimately the heart of the story, is a personal quest to find herself in a world where people and gods alike are determined to put her in a labelled box, saying “This is where you belong.”
So the Heroine’s Journey doesn’t really work if the main character doesn’t work. Luckily that’s not a problem here because Omat is utterly fantastic–hard-headed, empathetic, vulnerable. Brodsky takes her sweet time to set her up and people might complain that it makes the beginning too slow and ponderous, but I think a comprehensive foundation for the protagonist is essential with these types of stories.
The main plot you see in the synopsis doesn’t actually appear until about 40% of the way in. Everything before that is dedicated to exploring Omat and her relationship with her family and immersing in Inuit culture and mythos (all very well-researched). And I read it in one sitting which doesn’t happen often these days, so that should tell you how engaging this slow first half is.
My second favourite part about the book? The relationship between Omat and Brandr, a battle-weary Norseman who starts out as her enemy but soon becomes her companion.
This isn’t a one-sided “hotshot hero comes in to rescue the heroine and teach her about love” relationship. These are two fractured people–both nursing pain and loneliness–who are learning to understand each other’s language (literally and metaphorically) and helping each other heal and become stronger.
And Brodansky shows exactly what I want to see in a story about two “enemy” characters from different cultures working together–a sharing of beliefs and faiths and the acknowledgement that yes, the other might be strange and foreign, but the world as a whole is strange and foreign. And there’s always more they could learn from it.
There’s this gorgeously drawn-out scene where they talk about the dead and the possibility of afterlives, and Omat consoles Brandr by saying that the souls of your loved ones are reborn within you when they die. His response is skeptical so she counters with this:
“You don’t seem to believe in a world you cannot see. And yet, if I were you, I wouldn’t believe your stories of deserts and volcanoes and tall buildings of stones. I would say you made them up, since I’ve never seen them. But instead, I trust that there are many things beyond my understanding.”
It’s a quiet, introspective scene that does nothing to further the plot and everything to further the characters, and I love it so damn much. There are many like it and they show that, beyond the meshing of mythologies, this is the area Brodsky truly excels at.
Speaking of which…to cap all this praise off, you also get Norse gods clashing with Inuit spirits and the result is exactly what I’d hoped for–exhilarating, educational and, again, highlighting parallels between the two cultures.
That being said, I did have issues with the pacing in the latter third of the book. I think the events leading up to the ending could have been a lot shorter, or if not shorter, then had more of an in-depth exploration into Freydis, the woman who’s leading the Norsemen. She’s a fascinating character and I wish I could have gotten a bit more from her.
I also have a niggling issue with the fact that Omat only becomes comfortable with her female body the moment she starts getting sexually involved with Brandr. It obviously wasn’t the author’s intent to be like, “Hey, kids, you only need to meet the right man to make you feel comfortable in your own skin!” But that’s kind of what it comes across as.
Overall, this is a wonderful standalone mashup of history and fantasy, and one that celebrates a culture that isn’t often explored in mainstream fiction.
Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.