Retro Fiction Review Series
“Diplomacy of Wolves” (1998), first book in the ‘Secret Texts Trilogy’ by Holly Lisle
Published by Warner Books, New York.
In “Diplomacy of Wolves” Holly Lisle begins a story that really grabbed my attention and I practically devoured it. This review may be spoilery beyond this point so if that’s important to you you may wish to simply know that I highly recommend the book and go and read it before continuing on with this review.
On the blurb it is described as:
“…a fantastic epic of ancient curses, evil conspiracies, and the darkest of sorceries.”
This is an apt description for the story. The central protagonist Kait is immediately likeable and she gives us a multi-layered insight into the world of Matrin in which the story is set. I love stories involving intrigue, politics and magic and my, this story doesn’t disappoint! The politics involves the notion of a powerful aristocratic class known as ‘Family’, inevitably two rival Families clash over power.
Any illusions Kait may hold about the sanctity of family or purity of her Family the Galweigh’s motives over the rival Sabir Family’s are quickly shattered. Kait’s place and understanding of the world around her is pulled apart and she is left to make the best choices she can to serve her Family after a brutal attack on one of the prestigious Galweigh Family Houses.
I also love stories with romance and in this there is also no disappointment. What I love about this book and the romance threads is that Kait gets to be a sexual being. She does struggle with this as her Karnee nature lends itself to intense sexual desires leading up to the time when she Shifts. However, this is not the struggle of a young woman in the grips of a puritanical view, rather her own moral code that would see her sleep with people for a genuine connection or preferably not at all.
Kait makes her choices to engage in or not engage in sexual connections without the condemnation of those around her for the reasoning of sex for it’s own sake.Strange that this is refreshing, but it is. Too often my eyes glaze over reading about yet another female character being punished because she dared to be a sexual being. That Kait is always in fullness ‘herself’ indcluding in a sexual sense makes the book and it’s romance enjoyable to read. Other romantic threads also include such ability to choose freely and not be punished for it so the surrounding impression is that there is no sexual war of consent being fought between the characters.
Ry as a Sabir Wolf treads a fine line in places in this book where he brushes against being a Stalker, it is only Lisle’s deft writing of his character and how he interacts with and thinks of Kait that steers this story thread away from a toxic interpretation. You can absolutely see the unhealthy patterning around relationships that seems to be almost a defining trait within the Sabir Family, but Lisle is careful not to give that reasoning any permissability. I also really enjoyed Ry’s relationships with his friends, their camraderie is believable and made me smile many times. I could actively believe in them standing with him despite the dangerous and in some ways foolhardy courses of action he proposed to take.
The counterpoint to the ‘hero’ protagonists is the characters who are the villains. There are several ways in which individual character’s roles change throughout the story but some of the true villains are easy to pick from the very beginning. You’re given an introduction to certain characters that very easily identifies them as ‘evil’, not through convenience but believably through the character actions and justifications for their actions. Some of the other villain characters were more ambiguous in their presentation, though there was always a sense of being wary of them. It makes you think… but not too hard about it.
I won’t say much about the story itself, but as a ‘quest story’ it is interesting and both familiar (tropes are like that) but also engaged with interestingly, at no point was I bored by the procession of the story. The story itself is intricately linked with sorcery and the system of magic and religion is believable and not so all powerful as to be irritating. I particularly like the way the notion of consequences for actions are engaged with. The decision to keep one’s ‘Word’ or not, the fact that in asking for help from a God one forgot to ask for a clear sign of support. Little things that just really allow me to relax and enjoy the story.
One favourite aspect I really enjoyed was the emphasis on Love as the underpinning of Peace in the wake of the Wizard War that events in the story herald.
If you’re someone who enjoys the epic fantasy style of book, enjoy magic and political intrigue with a side of shape shifter magic and romance, I recommend this book (and the trilogy) to you. I’ll be interested in thoughts from other people who’ve read the series about their impressions of it.