This week on Down the Stacks, we have a selection that’s a bit lighter than recent fare: Promise of the Wolves by Dorothy Hearst.
Set “14000 years in the past,” when the world was still all wild and humans were still at the hunter-gatherer phase of civilization, Promise of the Wolves concerns the early life of a wolf named Kaala. In the Wide Valley that Kaala’s pack shares with other wolves, various other predators and prey species, and a few clans of humans, the wolves have three cardinal rules:
- Never consort with Humans
- Never kill a Human except to defend oneself or the pack
- No pup with blood from outside the valley may live.
Kaala’s life begins as violation of the third rule, and she’s only permitted to live because of the intervention of the Greatwolves - a group of bigger wolves who watch the Wide Valley packs from afar and uphold the rules. The Greatwolves suspect Kaala’s destiny will have a profound effect on the Wide Valley, so she is allowed to live and try to become part of the pack. The pack’s alpha, Ruuqo, however, is resentful of the exception and tries to passive-aggressive Kaala to death over the seasons.
Kaala drives herself to overcome her obstacles to fulfill a promise to her exiled mother, but struggles to find a balance between following her leaderwolf’s commands and asserting her competence and dominance among the pups of the pack. She manages to skate along well enough up until she and the other pups are shown the humans. What was intended to be a lesson in the reasons for avoiding humans turns into an opportunity for Kaala to feel a powerful attraction to meet and hunt with one of the humans and sets off several opportunities for Kaala to learn the real history between wolf and human and question the rules as they stand.
Underneath the charming story of the first steps in the greatest partnership between man and beast lies a lot of quality research into the lives and social dynamics of a wolf pack. Dorothy Heasrt has an obvious passion for wolves and put that love into studying them and using what she learned to describe Kaala’s growth from suckling puppy to junior hunter. Hearst’s research also shows in the personalities of the wolves of the pack - Ruuqo leads his pack through both strength and respect, which means he has to put up with Kaala if he doesn’t want to lose his mate, Rissa, and have the pack split in half. About half the adult wolves, and all but one of the pups who survive long enough, are supportive of Kaala to some degree or another and the remaining adults only speak to Kaala to call out her legitimate errors.
Of the humans, we see little of them individually aside from the girl who Kaala feels drawn to and a couple others who are close to the girl and open-minded about half-adopting a wolf. Those that we do see are decent enough characters for their roles in the story, and I suspect they’ll get more characterization in the sequels.
Overall, Promise of the Wolves is superbly crafted with sharp, relatable conflicts and believable character relationships. That’s especially impressive given that this is Heasrt’s first published book. I will be reading the rest of the series when I get a chance.