Last year I lamented my own woeful writing skills when compared to the glowing writing talents displayed in Rundell’s multi-award winning Rooftoppers, a sublime children’s tale filled with heart and drama. So when The Wolf Wilder, her latest offering, promised a snowy adventure in revolutionary Russia, driven by wolves and a fiercely strident heroine, plus illustrations to boot, I knew we were in for a Children’s Classic of the future.
Feodora (Feo to you) and her mother live in the snowy forests of Northern Russia, distant from the prying eyes of civilisation. They’re Wolf Wilders, a mysterious group of independent forest folk who dedicate their lives to taking spoiled wolves from bored aristocrats and training them to become wild again – showing them how to hunt, how to run and how to howl. Revolution is blowing on the sharp winter winds though, and the Russian military is slamming an iron fist down on the freedom of people like Feo and her mother, preferring an orderly public to control and subdue. When soldiers arrive in the night, and Feo’s mother is taken into the freezing storm for crimes against the Tsar, only Feo, a reluctant young soldier named Ilya, and a her pack of wild wolves can hope to rescue her – although it means fighting an army, breaking into a citadel-like prison and maybe even sparking a revolution. All Feo wants is to live with her mother free to do as they please, and she’s willing to fight until the bitter end for it.
Wow. Just wow. Where Rooftoppers was a sweet, touching tale, The Wolf Wilder is a swirling storm of power and emotion. Rundell has knocked it out of the park. This is seriously breathtaking writing and a book that stands so far out of the crowd that it refuses to be ignored.
Feo takes after so many independent and tenaciously wilful heroines before her (Lyra from Pullman’s His Dark Materials echoed throughout her), and her morals and bright, burning sense of right and wrong as vibrant and weave through the entire story. Her mother’s quieter wisdom helps aim the young girl with the wild precision of a hunting wolf, and the two of them have a fierce, beautiful relationship that made my heart ache and swell to read. Ilya is a superb companion for Feo too, gentle and softer, but just as idealistic and driven, and as we watch him blossom and begin to understand the different kinds of bravery that you can see in the world, we can’t help but love his open heart. One of the beautiful things about all of the characters in The Wolf Wilder is how expertly they shun any need for gender stereotypes, and I loved that any nod towards them is met with scorn and aggression by the protagonists. Of all the characters in the story though, the wolves are the ones who shine so beautifully, each with perfectly crafted personalities and instantly recognisable behaviours, they’re the literal representation of Feo and her mother’s world – helping to fight because they choose to, not because they’re forced to.
One of the things that made The Wolf Wilder such a superbly delightful book to read is Rundell’s use of language, which is quite frankly, second to none. I remember being enthralled by Rooftoppers and how it wove words and sentences, and this book really takes her skills as a wordsmith and lets them explode and blossom. She uses words the way musicians use notes, the way artists use paint, like an extension of her. Metaphors and similes litter the narrative in a lilting, poetic style that creates a lyrical feel to the whole story which makes reading every page an orchestra experience of emotion. It’s this level of sophistication that really fights back against the idea that Children’s Books are simplistic, unsophisticated stepping stones. The Wolf Wilder is a work of literary beauty that tackles themes and ideas that are just as important to adults as they are to children – right and wrong, freedom, family, strength, bravery, sacrifice. It’s emotionally articulate and fiercely intelligent, refusing to simplify itself and remaining one of the best Children’s Books of the last few years because of it.
Combined with hauntingly beautiful ink illustrations, The Wolf Wilder is the full package. A book that is going to be read for generations, and in hardback it makes a gorgeous classic to keep and cherish.
Thanks for Reading.