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by Tim Leach
House of Anansi Press, January 2019
352 pages
$22.95 CAD
ISBN: 1487005393

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

SMILE OF THE WOLF is not for the faint of heart, but it is a fascinating book on many levels and a thoroughly absorbing read. Set in 10th century Iceland, the novel focuses on the inexorable logic of Icelandic feuds, as blood spilt requires more blood spilt in an apparently unending cycle.

The tale is told by the troubadour Kjaran, who moves from one household to the next, entertaining people with songs and stories, and staying with a different family through each long winter. At the start of the novel, Krajan is staying at his friend Gunnar's household. Gunnar is determined to disprove rumors that the ghost of a neighbor, Hrapp, is haunting the area, and Krajan accompanies him. They find the ghost and Gunnar kills him. They then realize that of course it was a not a ghost but Erik, the new lover of Hrapp's wife. She persuades them not to tell anyone what they have done, so Erik will not be shamed in death for pretending to be a ghost. This puts the men in an awkward and dangerous position, as they are honour-bound to admit what they have done and pay Erik's blood price to his family. As long as they do this, their act would not be considered a crime. However, when they conceal the killing and the truth comes out, a blood feud with Erik's family is inevitable.

The novel is driven by the dark, unforgiving nature of Icelandic blood feuds. Tim Leach relates the story very much in the manner of the Icelandic Sagas on which the story is based, revealing unusual details of Icelandic culture in the 10th century. It is a harsh land, without kings or cities, and with few but rigorous laws. When Krajan publicly takes the blame for the killing (even though Gunnar actually delivered the fatal blow) he is outlawed for three years (meaning anyone can legitimately kill him). Meanwhile Erik's clan remorselessly hunts down Gunnar.

The tension is high throughout, as Krajan struggles to survive three winters so dark and brutal they make Canadian winters seem like walks in the park, and Gunnar lives with the shame of concealing the killing and the unabated threat of death from Erik's clan.

Krajan is an intriguing protagonist: a poet and singer who is very much a product of his world. Deeply loyal to friends and land, he fights with honour, alongside Gunnar and on his own. He also prays to the old gods and acknowledges the White Christ as a god of revenge. His journey is compelling.

In SMILE OF THE WOLF, lovers and children are found and lost, loyalties tested, and the harsh reality of long ago Icelandic culture affirmed in a quite brilliant re-imagining of that time and place. Fans of historical fiction and suspense will find it a highly satisfying read.

Meg Westley is a writer and retired educator living in Stratford, Ontario.

Reviewed by Meg Westley, December 2018

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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