Alright, so this is mildly embarrassing. The Emperor’s Wolves is the start of a spin-off series by Michelle Sagara. It follows some of the side characters from her sixteen book Chronicles of Elantra series. I did not know this when I picked up The Emperor’s Wolves and somehow didn’t figure it out until I had completely finished the book. Thus, I will be reviewing Wolves as a stand-alone independent novel, but please know that it is part of a much larger world. I have no familiarity with the original Chronicles of Elantra series, but now that I have finished Wolves I am tempted to pick it up.
Wolves has a strong premise that leapt off its back cover and drew me in right away. The book takes place in a magical empire ruled by a dragon emperor. In order to keep the peace between the myriad of magical races that live in his domain, the emperor has a number of specialized forces that handle unpleasant business that crops up from time to time. One of these groups is The Wolves, a band of legally mandated pseudo-assassins that are deployed to bring in, or cut down, dangerous beings who believe they are above the empire’s law. It’s a dangerous job with little upside and a horrible recruitment process – but someone has to do it.
The book is an extremely character-focused story about a young Severn Handred, newest recruit of the Emperor’s Wolves. The story follows his progression from promising street rogue, to the interview process to become a Wolf, and finally to his first case. The story is centered around Severn, and in hindsight is clearly an origin story, but it is mostly told from the perspective of the other veteran Wolves around Severn as they comment and judge his behavior and first days as a Wolf. By moving the focus to outsiders observing Severn, instead of hearing his internal thoughts, two effects are achieved. First, Severn is written to be a quiet and private character, and this narrative style does a fantastic job of reinforcing that. It allows Sagara to have a character who doesn’t like to talk, likes to listen, but still has consistent and meaningful agency to the story. It’s really nice as we don’t often get quiet and thoughtful leads in fantasy, and it made Severn stand out in the larger genre landscape. The second effect this narrative style has on Severn is that it makes him seem really cool/clever/awesome really quickly and very naturally. By never having Severn state his own greatness, and having most of the positive reinforcement come from external characters around him, he organically starts to seem brilliant and mysterious. I was a big fan of the effect.
Something you need to understand about The Emperor’s Wolves is that it is a book about nothing. The entire plot of the book revolves around Severn just walking around and talking to people. While there is a ton of character growth, fantastic worldbuilding, and fun themes around the human condition – nothing really happens. The cast doesn’t do anything other than chat – and that’s fine. I still really enjoy the book and had a blast exploring the world. However, I know that there are some readers who will feel that this story doesn’t have enough meat on its bones and will be bored by its character-focused narrative. The one place I struggled with Wolves is that it has the occasional tendency to be a little too self-absorbed to keep me immersed in the story. I suspect this will be less of an issue for those coming from the original core series, but there were times in the story where the book failed to sell me on the gravity of events and I was momentarily pulled out of the book and it felt over the top. But, these moments were few and far between, and in general, the book was very engaging.
The Emperor’s Wolves is a very enjoyable book on its own, and I suspect that fans of the original Chronicles of Elantra series will love it even more. Severn is an interesting character to focus a narrative around, and the world of Elantra is fun to explore with its variety of original magical races and creatures. The dialogue is fun and snappy, the characters experience meaningful growth over the course of the book, and I had a good time. Although I have no idea what the greater series has in store, I still recommend The Emperor’s Wolves.
Rating: The Emperor’s Wolves – 8.0/10