I added The Wolf Wilder to my TBR as soon as I saw it. I didn't read the synopsis. I just saw it was by Katherine Rundell, whose Rooftopers I enjoyed, and that it had an intriguing cover. Author plus cover is often all it takes for me. I was in for a pleasant surprise when I started reading.
Feo has an odd job. She and her mother rare Wolf Wilders. Their job is to take in the wolves Russian aristocrats have kept as pets but have lost control of and now want to send far away from them. It is terrible luck to kill a wolf so the Wolf Wilders exist to take in the wolves and train them to be wild creatures again. They teach them to run, to hunt, to howl. Feo loves the wolves and her life with them. When General Rakov arrives at her home to tell them they must stop wilding the wolves, Feo's idyllic world shatters. Dodging soldiers and trying to do their work in secret, it isn't long before Feo's mother is captured and there is a large bounty placed on Feo's head. With the wolves and her new friend Ilya, a rogue soldier in Rakov's army, Feo begins a perilous journey to St. Petersburg to rescue her mother. As they journey toward their destination, Feo and Ilya pick up a group of unlikely allies and discover that Rakov's reign of terror in the countryside is far harsher than they had ever imagined. If they are going to rescue and free their friends and family, they will have to face and overcome the worst sort of predator.
Katherine Rundell has a poetic way of writing that pulls you into a story. She is a potent wielder of imagery and uses her settings well. The cold harsh Russian winter and the beauty of the wild in the wolves are fully rendered and make you feel like you are actually there running along with them through the snow. The prose has a storyteller's cadence and brings to mind fairy tales and folklore though there is no magic save that of friendship, love, support, and the bonds that grow from community. The magic of our everyday world. It's a beautifully told novel.
Feo and Ilya seem an ill matched pair at first. A socially awkward girl who spends her days with wolves and a soldier. But they are both misfits. Feo doesn't fit in with humans because she never really learned how. She understands the language of wolves far better than that of people. Ilya never wanted to be a soldier. He wants to be a dancer. They are brought together by the wolves. Ilya is terrified of them but fascinated. When he first meets Feo and witnesses the birth of a pup, he can not bring himself to follow his orders to kill something just starting out in life that is so magnificent. Both Ilya and Feo are incredibly brave but in different ways. Feo is more outwardly bold and naively flaunting of the rules, but Ilya is willing to risk himself for what he loves despite knowing the horrific consequences that will fall on him if he is caught. I loved watching their relationship develop and the eventual group of children they built into a small little army to complete their mission. That is another way in which this story has a fairy tale type feel to it. The small band of children armed with nothing but faith and courage taking on a force of evil and cruelty. It is a story that never gets old, and the form it takes here is enduring and fascinating. It was a book I couldn't put down and walk away from.
Rakov is a fairly standard villain. He is evil. All we know of him are his terrible deeds and his evil insanity. There isn't a lot of depth there. Randell didn't include any historical afterword so I do not know if he is based on a real person or not. There were certainly commanders in the Russian army who behaved the way he does toward the peasants. However the historical haziness is the only part of the book that bothered me. It shows the rumblings of the coming Russian Revolution, but it feels very unreal in many places and there is much that doesn't make sense to me. This is due, in part, to the storyteller's voice and fairy tale feel of the prose. I'm sure the target audience is not going to care. It was a minor distraction for me.
The Wolf Wilder is an excellent novel that tells a tale of friendship, family, community, bravery and love.