I want to preface this review with a caveat, whereby I am fully aware that reading only the final book in a trilogy can be a risky affair. In truth, I wasn’t even aware that Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear’s An Apprentice to Elves was part of a trilogy until I was about halfway through the prologue.
It’s risky for two reasons:
1. You might not get character motivation, intensity of risks and threats, or lore that was better defined in the other books. You might think the characters overreact to things as a result. Undefined terminology might knock you out of the story as you scratch your heard, trying to define a made-up word.
2. In the (likely) event you enjoy the book, you might not enjoy reading the first two, having already spoiled the ending.
I place myself more in the second camp than the first, though I did get a bit lost in the sea of unfamiliar words in the first third of the novel. That issue, however, had absolutely no effect on my enjoying of An Apprentice to Elves. Once I became familiar with the terminology, I was able to fully immerse myself in Monette and Bear’s world.
I loved it.
A Viking-but-not island is besieged by a Roman-but-not army. And lest you think these cultures harkening back to real-world analogues is a point against the book, I’d like to tell you I loved it. And I have yet to mention the two factions of elves that make up the rest of the cultural tapestry of the story.
The cultures are rich, the world deep and well-formed, and the plot thick. Several layers (which I assume were introduced in the earlier novels) coalesce beautifully throughout the book, neatly foreshadowed where appropriate, fantastically surprising where otherwise. It’s a spectacularly structured thing.
Alfgyfa, a young human girl, has been living with the Svartalfar, a species of smallish dark elves who live in caves beneath a mountain, as an apprentice blacksmith. Being the only one of her kind (obviously) is problematic for her in many ways.
Otter is an escaped slave who is living with the Viking-not-Vikings, and learning to trust and love again, albeit slowly. She trusts the wolves (I forgot to mention these Vikings-not-vikings can commune with Wolves), and has taken the traditions of these Norse-esque halls into herself.
Here’s where hopping in late to this particular party threw me. I wasn’t sure about how the stories were related, even tangentially, and I was getting lost regularly with character and place names. It took me some time to figure out who was human, who was wolf, where they were, and whether or not anyone knew anyone else. But in time, to my great satisfaction, I figured it out.
In truth, this isn’t a book I want to summarize for you, dear reader, because I don’t think I’d do it justice. It is a very good book, and I urge you to read it (and highly recommend picking up the first two in the series before you do so.)
What I came share with you, friends, is how wonderful the writing is. I found myself regularly re-reading whole paragraphs and pages for the sheer enjoyment of it. I was blown away by Monette and Bear’s deliberate writing decisions, their incredibly evocative turns of phrase, and the clarity with which they were able to convey subtle notes of character through third-person narration. It’s a book that took me considerably longer to read than I thought it would, because I was learning so much as I read it, as an enthralled reader and admiring writer.
It is a marvelous read, and I am thrilled to learn that both Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear are quite prolific, Monette having written The Goblin Emperor, a book about which I’ve heard so many times I feel a magnetic pull to it when I’m in the vicinity of a bookstore. (I’ll be picking it up very soon.) Bear’s catalogue is impressive, to say the least.
There are times when, as an aspiring author, I feel the books I read push my writing in unexpected directions. Reading Knausgaard had that effect on me. An Apprentice to Elves had that effect on me too. I know I won’t be able to produce sentences and paragraphs as elegant as Monette and Bear’s on a first pass, but I think that, perhaps, with attention to detail and a rigorous rewriting practice, I can get there some day.