An Apprentice To Elves (Iskryne book 3) by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear (book review).

October 19, 2016 | By | Reply More

In all honesty, ‘An Apprentice To Elves’ by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear was a disappointment for me. Without being familiar with the previous two volumes in the ‘Iskryne’ series, all I had to go on was the publisher’s blurb that included ideas about elves and men, as well as the protagonist’s obviously Anglo-Saxon name, Alfgyfa, which can be loosely translated as ‘Elf Gift’. So my assumption was that the authors were going to be doing something new with the whole elf trope, using them in the genuinely Anglo-Saxon, pre-Christian era sense.


In other words, that the elves would be liminal figures occupying the boundary between our material world and the hidden world of the gods. For the average Anglo-Saxon, elves were definitely real and their influence on daily life was profound, particularly in terms of physical health and the well-being of pregnant women and babies. Elf-shot for example is very well attested for in Anglo-Saxon medical texts as the reason for all sorts of physical pains and injuries and, if the elves were for some reason unhappy with the humans living alongside them, they might just as easily use their elf-arrows to maim or even kill horses and livestock.

A book that explored these powerful but usually invisible beings would be something fresh and new but, no, despite the very superficial Anglo-Saxon flavour, what authors Bear and Monette write is completely conventional fantasy fiction, with elf warriors much like those in everything from ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ through to ‘Lord Of The Rings’, as well as telepathic talking wolves, distancing their novel even further from the reality of Anglo-Saxon experience. Again, the idea of a possible psychic or magical connection between animals and people is perfectly possible within an Anglo-Saxon milieu. In the pre-Christian era, their priests would have been shamans of a sort and warriors would certainly have wanted to channel the energies of creatures like wolves and bears into themselves before going into battle.

The protagonist Alfgyfa literally lives with wolves in their great hall and, while the strengths and limitations of their society is explored. These are not wolves of any believable sort, but a pure fantasy invention. The way the elves are crafted works much the same way. There’s depth and detail for sure, Bear and Monette being perfectly competent writers, at least as good as anyone else writing genre fiction. While they know enough about the Anglo-Saxon world to give the hero an Anglo-Saxon name and their elves what seem to be more or less Scandinavian names, whether as individuals or in group names (such as the ‘svartalfar’ or dark elves), there’s no real sense of them having explored those two historical cultures any more deeply. Their elves are more re-branded versions of the elves we’ve already seen in so many other works of fantasy fiction.

Instead, their focus seems to have been making a fantasy novel that puts a female character front-and-centre and, as female authors, to try to get inside their invented world from a feminist or perhaps post-feminist perspective. To be fair, they avoid a few of the possible clichés of such fiction, their heroine isn’t, for example, a mother fighting to protect her children. They also do make some effort to provide multiple points of view, including through the elf matriarch and a human female slave and the fact that so many lead characters are women shouldn’t be any more significant than the preponderance of male characters in, say, ‘The Hobbit’. Nonetheless, I just got the feeling that this book was written for a specific audience, possibly young women, looking for something written from their perspective but without being the usual paranormal romance tosh pumped out ever since the success of ‘Twilight’. This forty-something male didn’t enjoy this book as much he might have done, even if that’s simply because he was expecting something else.

Neale Monks

October 2016

(pub: TOR/Forge 2015. 334 page hardback. Price: $26.99 (US), $31.50 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-2471-9)

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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