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Wolfskin    by Juliet Marillier order for
by Juliet Marillier
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Having been enthralled by the author's Sevenwaters trilogy, I looked forward to her new historical fantasy Saga of the Light Isles, and Wolfskin did not disappoint. If anything it is lighter on the fantasy elements than Sevenwaters. It tells of the initial encounter (and conflict) between Vikings and Picts in the Orkney isles. We meet the hero Eyvind as a boy preparing the temple on his family land in Rogaland (Norway) for a Yuletide sacrifice to Thor. Eyvind anxiously awaits a visit from big brother Eirik, who is a Wolfskin (a berserker warrior). After the feast, another Wolfskin, Hakon, tells the tragic tale of a Viking warrior who sacrifices his beloved to fulfill his oath.

Eirik leaves his overlord Ulf's brother Somerled in Eyvind's care. He is an odd boy who asks many questions, and plans to be a king. Bad things happen to those who cross him, but Eirik sees greatness in him, and teaches him woodcraft and hunting skills. They become blood brothers. Eyvind achieves his life goal to become a Wolfskin (with a life expectancy of 3 to 5 years) while still young, and is highly valued by Jarl Magnus. Ulf has dreamed of building a great ship and sailing to the West. He succeeds - 'he sailed forth with little more than a dream to guide him' - and Somerled manipulates events so that he and (reluctantly) Eyvind accompany the expedition. So it begins.

Nessa is a princess (the youngest of three) living on the Whaleback in Orkney. She has a strong feeling for the others, 'presences of bone and darkness, whose claim was ancient and undeniable'. Nessa is chosen young to succeed Rona, the old wise woman of her people, and is trained by her. She also learns languages from Tadhg, a Christian monk. Then comes Ulf's longship. At first, Ulf, 'a man of balance and fairness', makes a treaty with Nessa's uncle, but the shadow that Nessa feels soon overtakes them. Eyvind's part of it shakes him to the soul and sends him in flight from his own actions. He meets Nessa, who has foreseen that he will play a key role in events.

Nessa teaches Eyvind to see the Light Isles as a 'place of wonder', rather than one of 'death and loss', a place where there is 'an endless dance of wind and feather, balance and brightness.' Eyvind learns that a man can make his own choices, and awakens from his berserker dream to become Nessa's Eyvi. He finds himself living the tale that Hakon told in Rogaland, with the same dilemma and a hard choice to make. Wolfskin is a story that builds slowly and then grips the reader hard, as Eyvind learns new kinds of courage and Nessa sets out on her own hero journey to construct 'a voice of truth in a harp of bone'. Wolfskin ends beautifully and I can't wait for its sequel, Foxmask.

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