Maria Vale’s The Last Wolf is a dazzling new take on paranormal romance. Many paranormal series fall under the umbrella of urban fantasy, with their supernaturally haunted cityscapes and high-octane action sequences. But The Legend of All Wolves series draws from classic epic fantasy instead, using Norse myth and medieval history to develop an entire alternate culture of werewolf packs that live isolated from the rest of humanity in the North American wilderness. To create the rich, complicated world of her Great North Pack of werewolves, Vale drew from her background as a medievalist.
I come from a family filled with people who studied Useful Things. They studied engineering, chemistry, pathology and economics. I did not study Useful Things. My major was Medieval Studies. I remember clearly one Christmas when I had to defend my decision to an uncle who made it clear that Medieval Studies was not only Not Useful, it was actively Useless. He, at the time, was involved in something like armaments design. Maybe the Merovingian dynasty wasn’t as useful as MRVs, but they weren’t as harmful as modern weapons either. Not anymore, at least.
But I wasn’t only concerned with the waging of wars and the comings and goings of kings. I was also concerned with the spread of monasticism, the formation of doctrine, the rise and fall of Rome, Pictish stones, the economic impact of the crusades in France and the politics of sports in Byzantium.
So of course, when I decided to write a romance, I chose to write one set in contemporary America. In Upstate New York. About werewolves.
Which might make you think—like my family did back then—that my studies were going to end up being a lot of course hours without much to show for them.
These are not just any werewolves, though. For three days out of every 30, the Pack must run wild in their animal form. This isn’t a burden to them or something that they try to suppress. This is a sacred time, when they all come together. For them, their human side is more of a tool, used to protect their sacred wild.
In creating the world of The Last Wolf, I imagined the Great North Pack as something between an actual wolf pack, a family and a society. Like a family, the connections are tight, and they owe each other comfort and reassurance. Like a wolf pack, it is built on hierarchy. Like a society, it has its own culture, one that weaves together law and religion and history.
The Great North Pack hails originally from the forests of Mercia, in England—until years of mining and enclosures led the great Alpha, Ælfrida, to move her Pack to the wilds of New York in 1668.
I imagined that Pack culture, like any culture under siege, would be very conservative, clinging doggedly to laws and religion and customs derived loosely (very loosely) from the world of 9th-century England. This was a time of isolation—Roman infrastructure was four centuries overdue for repair—and of insecurity. Viking raids showed up with a depressing regularity, much like dysentery or human hunters. It was also the time of Beowulf and Old English. And that language, to my ear at least, combines the roughness and musical cadence I associate with a wolf’s howl.
I adapted certain historical realities with those of life among wolves. When it came time for the entire Pack to make a decision, I borrowed from the Athenian use of ostraca, or pottery shards dropped inside into urns, and from the Thing, the Norse assembly held by freemen. I combined the challenges that real wolves use to move up and down the hierarchy with a duel used to settle disputes in Viking Britain. Called Holmgang, or “island going,” it was often fought on a spot set aside for these ritualized trials. I gave the Great North Pack just such a place:
“Fighting is a fact of life in any pack. Someone is always watching for that loss of power or respect that signals the time to make a move up the hierarchy. Or to gain cunnan-riht, the right to cover a more viable wolf. Aside from the Dæling, when an entire echelon is brawling, we hold our fights in a low palisade of logs about the shoulder height of an adult wolf, hammered in to the ground around a big square of scuffed dirt. It is near enough to the Great Hall that it’s a short run to the med station. Far enough that blood doesn’t splatter on the woodwork.”
I also adapted certain legends to the Great North’s circumstances, like that of Tiw, the god of war, and Fenrir, the giant wolf. In the Norse story, Tiw volunteers to put his right hand in Fenrir’s mouth as surety that the fine ribbon the gods want to wrap around him will do Fenrir no harm. As usual, the gods are up to no good, and the ribbon is so magical that it is able to chain even the ferocious Fenrir. Furious at this betrayal, Fenrir bites off Tiw’s hand.
The Great North has a different version. Tiw binds Fenrir inside himself instead, after feeding the wolf his right hand, so he will never make a false promise again. The Pack believes that once the wolf was bound within him, Tiw stopped being the god of war, and became instead the god of law, because he understood that law is the balance of freedom and restraint.
I suppose the point is that as scattershot as my studies were, they made me understand that politics and war and big events in isolation only tell you so much without religion and art and economics and literature and the everyday lives of the people.
In short, they gave me a richer appreciation of how the world is built. Which in turn gave me a richer appreciation of how to build a world.