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First edition cover
|18 Jan 2001|
The Wolf-Sisters (2001) is a historical fantasy novel by Susan Price. It is set in the Viking society of an undetermined country, (although one that has borders with another hostile nation) where the majority of the population, including its king, queen and court, believe in the old Norse gods. Its plot is central to Kenelm Aetheling, the main protagonist, a young man of noble birth whose uncle, King Guthlac, gave him away to a monastery in order to have an Aetheling advocate in the growing Christian community should they gain more power. Written for "older readers", The Wolf-Sisters deals with the themes of slavery, internal conflict and the choice between what one wants to do and what one ought to do- in other words, Head vs. Heart.
The story begins with a lone traveller wearing a bloodstained wolfskin arriving at the Borough of Thane Aelfric, a minor lord, and being admitted by a wary doorkeeper. He is generally treated as an outcast within the small village throughout the day, and welcomed, though suspiciously, to night-meal by Aelfric, where he claims that he is Kenelm, nephew to King Guthlac of the North Saxons. Aelfric disbelieves him, despite the fact that he is wearing expensive (though damaged) clothes, boots and a gold, silver and enamel torc around his neck, (proving that he is rich and possibly noble), so Kenelm asks to be given the chance to tell his story, allowing them to judge him when it is told.
Kenelm begins his tale by telling of the hardships and misery he suffered during his time at the monastery, and of how he was gifted to the Christians by King Guthlac, his uncle, aged ten. The young Kenelm resents Guthlac and longs to be back at court, to enjoy the bright colours, good food, excellent storytelling and beautiful women there. He hates the life of boring prayers, bad food and degrading menial chores as a monk, and despite years of being taught the Christian ways, he still believes fervently in his own Norse gods, and in his ancestor Woden. He prays to Woden desperately to be allowed to return there without disgracing himself or his family, as he cannot leave the monastery without doing so.
As he finishes his prayer, a monk summons him to the dining hall, where he notices a trio of house-carls, kept warriors, that serve his uncle King Guthlac. Under the direction of his Abbot, he bathes and changes, and visits his Abbess, who informs him that it has been requested that he leave the monastery to do his uncle's business. Kenelm, overjoyed, realises that his ancestor Woden has granted his prayers.
Despite the Abbess's disapproval, she allows him a month's leave, and makes him promise to pray three times a day. Kenelm agrees, but privately swears to himself that he will pray to Woden. He then leaves with the house-carls, who tell him about the deadly plague that has swept through the court, laying low almost everybody, including the king and queen. Fortunately, the monastery is so excluded that Kenelm has never heard of the plague they are talking about, and is fit and healthy.
Upon arriving at the court, Old Egwin tells him of the murderous Foreigners that are invading the country, and that nobody is strong enough to stand against them. He commands Kenelm to go to find help, revealing that the only creatures capable of helping him are the Wood Women, powerful spirits related to Woden and the Norse gods that are famed for singing to men and leading them until they are lost in the woods.
Kenelm journeys into the woods and breaks a twig, as instructed by Egwin. At this, three young, beautiful, naked women emerge from the trees, dark-haired and with big dark eyes, blood-red lips and sharp white teeth. Kenelm, though very afraid, begs them in Egwin's name to drive off the Foreigners, and they, after some persuasion, agree, because they knew Old Egwin when he was a young man.