This is Tim Leach’s third novel and although I haven’t read his first two, which are both about King Croesus of Lydia, I have heard good things about them. His new book, Smile of the Wolf, has a completely different setting but sounded equally fascinating, so I was pleased to have an opportunity to read it as part of a blog tour arranged by the publisher Head of Zeus.
Smile of the Wolf takes us to 10th century Iceland, where a tale of revenge and betrayal, loyalty and friendship is played out across a cold, harsh, beautiful landscape. At the centre of the tale, which is inspired by the Icelandic Sagas, are Gunnar, a warrior and farmer, and his friend, the travelling poet – or skald – Kjaran. Kjaran has no lands of his own but moves from household to household providing songs and stories in exchange for the hospitality of his hosts. It is while spending the winter with Gunnar and his family that rumours begin to circulate of a ghost that wanders in the night. Gunnar and Kjaran set out to hunt down the ghost – but when a misunderstanding leads to a man being killed, a deadly feud is set in motion.
This is a beautifully written novel, which is very appropriate as our narrator is Kjaran the poet, a man whose livelihood depends on his skill with language. Tim Leach uses just the right words and phrases to transport me to another time and place and to help me understand the people who lived there.
In the long winter, even the wealthiest of Icelanders curses the day that their ancestors came to this land. They forget the dream of the people, that dream of a world without kings, and know only that they live in a dark, lonesome place. But when the sun begins to ride higher in the sky and the snow begins to quicken and thaw, it is an easy land to love. The dream grows strong once more, for we are a stubborn people.
Iceland is a country with a very strong tradition of storytelling and the author has drawn on some of the stories told in the Sagas – stories of ghosts and feuds and friendships which take place in a land of snow and ice. We also learn a lot about Icelandic culture and customs, systems of law and punishment, and the conflict between Christianity and the older beliefs.
The relationship between Kjaran and Gunnar is well drawn, showing their very different personalities and the very different ways in which they react to the same situations. Gunnar prefers to settle disputes with spears and shields, while the more cautious Kjaran takes the time to look for other solutions. Although the two main characters – and most of the characters on the other side of the feud – are men, there are also some women who have a big part to play in the novel. These include Vigdis, whose schemes cause the feud to spiral out of control and last much longer than it needs to, and Sigrid, the woman Kjaran hopes to marry.
The combination of interesting characters, atmospheric setting and poetic writing make this a great read – both moving and gripping. It has left me determined to read The Last King of Lydia and its sequel as soon as I can.
Thank you to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this novel for review.
For more stops on the tour, please see the banner below.