Set 6,000 years ago when all of northwest Europe was forest, Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother, the first book in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness begins just after a bear has attacked Torak and his father. As Torak's father is dying, he makes Torak promise to find the Mountain of the World Spirit and ask it to help destroy the bear before the bear, who seems to be possessed by a demon, destroys the forest. He also insists that Torak stay away from humans and remember to always look behind him. Torak agrees and unwillingly accepts his father's knife, giving him his own, to take on the Death Journey with him. As he places the Death Marks on his father to help his three souls unite on the death Journey - the circles on the heels marking the name-soul, a circle over his heart marking the clan-soul and finally a circle on his forehead to mark the Nanuak, the World-Soul, he knows he cannot make this journey on his own. Raised alone in the Forest by his father who is of the Wolf Clan, Torak has supreme hunting skills but there is still so much his father hasn't taught him. And so many secrets he has not told him.
What follows is a suspense filled, treacherous journey as Torak makes his way to the Mountain of the World Spirit, a place no one has ever been to before. First, Torak finds the guide his father said would come to aid him. A wolf cub who's family has been drowned in their den during a flash flood seems like a suitable dinner, even though Torak is part Wolf Clan, until he discovers he can understand wolf-speak. Torak spares the cub, names him Wolf and learns that, despite the cub's tender age, he truly is a guide with an unfailing sense of direction and can be trusted implicitly. While most of the book is told in third person narrative, portions are narrated by Wolf, who refers to Torak as "Tall Tailless." The relationship between Torak and Wolf, as well as the brief narratives by Wolf, make up the backbone of the book. Paver conducted extensive research, which included traveling the forests of Finland and Lapland and, "sleeping on reindeer skins in the traditional open-fronted Finnish laavu. [Eating] elk heart, reindeer, and lingonberries, and spruce resin: the chewing gum of the Stone Age," to write this series. She also studied the belief systems of more recent hunter-gatherer clans such as Native-American and Inuit tribes in order to create doctrines of the spiritual world that the various clans of the Wolf Brother adhere to. The spiritual beliefs of the clans and their deep respect for nature and the animals that helped to sustain their lives was especially fascinating to me as I read the book. The clans peoples' belief that everything, rocks, rivers and trees are alive and have spirits and, while they can't all talk, they can hear and think affects the way they live their lives down to the way they walk, what they wear, how they hunt and where they will travel.
This understanding plays into the main drama of the book, the hunting of the bear-demon that has been created as a means of revenge on Torak's father, who was aware of this before he died. This knowledge is part the reason that he has kept Torak's existence a secret from all but one person - the Mage of the Raven Clan. As Torak, Wolf and the bear-demon make a path through the forest, the bear-demon leaving a trail of kills behind him, killing not to feed his body but to feed the demon inside of him that makes him bigger and stronger with every death, all three make their way to the Mountain of the World Spirit. Forgetting his father's warning to always look behind him, Torak and Wolf are captured by hunters from the Raven Clan and taken back to their camp. Unbeknownst to Torak, he has killed (and prepared, making use of every possible part which Paver describes in fascinating detail) the buck that the Ravens were tracking and they want him punished. The rules of the forest have changed and Torak, having lived apart from the clans, only attending one clan-meet ever with his father, is unaware of this. When Fin-Keddin, the Leader of the Raven Clan agrees to let Torak fight a clan member instead of being put to death, Torak takes on Hord, an ego-filled young hunter and one of the three, along with his younger sister, Renn, and Oslak, who captured him and brought him to the camp. Of course the fight is not a fair one, but Torak finds a way to win and in doing so unknowingly reveals himself as the Listener who "gives his heart's blood to the Mountain. And the Shadow is crushed."
Regardless of this prophecy, Torak intends to carry out his promise to his father. However, it is up to Fin-Keddin and the rest of the clan to decide it young Torak should be allowed to go the the Mountain and spill his own blood or if he should be killed and a stronger man be allowed to take his blood to the Mountain. This is generally more talk about blood and killing, even if it is to survive, than I am used to or interested in, however, because of the time period of the novel and Paver's magnificent writing skills, I was immersed in the story almost immediately and overcame my aversions easily, in the same way that I was able to come my revulsion at Mary and Laura playing happily with a pig's bladder balloon on butchering day in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. Also, in addition to reading this book, I had the IMMENSE pleasure of listening to Sir Ian McKellen narrate the audio version which can be downloaded at audible.com but does not seem to be available for purchase as a CD. To read Ian McKellen's enthusiastic words about the series and the experience of recording it, click here. To watch and listen to McKellen in the recording booth reading Book 5 in the series, with an introduction by Michelle Paver, click here.
Genre wise, this is not my kind of book at all, but there is something so completely entrancing about it that I am going to clear the decks as much as possible so that I can read the second book in the series, something I rarely have time to do since I started reviewing books. Personally and professionally, I feel that this is a series that, despite the seemingly boy overtones, will appeal to both boys and girls. Renn, who becomes Torak's traveling companion and eventual friend by the end of the book is a fabulous female character, a bit like Elliott from the Tunnels series (book 2, Deeper) by Gordon and Williams. Also a book with very few female characters and even fewer positive ones, Elliott is powerful, smart and self-sufficient as well as admired for these skills by the boys and men around her.
I never read Jean M. Auel's The Earth's Children series but find myself wondering if there are any similarities between it and the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness. Please weigh in! Otherwise, there are no other books in the children's or teen's section that I can think of that are similar. I know they are out there, so please clue me in to them! This is the kind of series that people will LOVE and seek out similar titles while waiting for the next step in Torak's journey to be published...