Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney Doak Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, recommends The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras, a middle grade adventure set in medieval Scotland.
If the promotional language on ARCs was universally accurate we should all need larger bookstores, that’s certain, but if any galley were to be held up as a model of truth in advertising it is The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras. And yet the character of the book transcends the simple truth of its descriptors.
Why? A rising tide lifts all boats, they say, and it is apropos to storytelling as well. A great story elevates all its constituent parts. Sure, it’s true that The Mad Wolf’s Daughter is a middle grade fantasy with feminist elements, a strong young heroine, an informed exploration of relevant social issues, and the transposition of established gender roles, but it is the book’s great storytelling that makes all its components shine.
This swashbuckling tale of rescue, irregular chivalry, and self-discovery is richly set in an authentic medieval Scotland. Our story begins in the camp of the Mad Wolf, father and leader of a plundering family band that has made itself folk heroes to some and, in the process, a thorn in the side of the well-heeled Knights of Faintree Castle, the local hub of traditional power. Drest, our heroine, is the youngest and only girl among the Mad Wolf’s many cubs. She is also the only one to escape capture when the Knights of Faintree surprise them in their camp, taking Drest’s father and all her brothers off in chains. Discovering a young Knight of Faintree , Emerick, wounded near to death by his treacherous comrades, Drest takes him under her care and heads off to rescue her own family before the Mad Wolf and his war band are publicly hanged at Faintree Castle.
The story excels at developing the tension between Drest’s understanding of her beloved family, and the starkly alternate perspectives on them with which she is confronted on her journey. Central to Drest’s character is the quality of self-determination. She has her own code, adapted from her family’s, and she does not easily adopt, nor peremptorily dismiss, outside influences. The taut ambiguities of human character are punctuated by Drest’s courage and firm belief in letting no wrong stand unchallenged.
Her clarity of perspective is well challenged by Emerick, the betrayed heir of Faintree, who is her injured companion. We never see Emerick when he is not in a gravely injured state, which both obscures and focuses his more worldly, sardonic character. Emerick believes in negotiation, while Drest is more minded to cleave a sword through life’s tangles. Drest’s understanding of her quest is further complicated by a pursuing Bandit, with a disquieting story to tell, and an intriguing witch who finds herself in Drest’s debt.
A narrative device that I thought worked splendidly here was Drest hearing her brothers’ voices at critical times, as she draws on her memories for guidance. Drest begins making a legend of herself along the way to Faintree, even as she absorbs conflicting narratives regarding her father’s deeds. The well-balanced complexities of the story, along with the building drama and tension, make for a truly stirring climactic scene, which both ties up this first volume neatly but leaves the reader eager for book two. This is a middle grade fantasy which every children’s bookseller should be on a quest to liberate from store shelves and afford it escape into customers’ hands.
The Mad Wolf’s Daughter by Diane Magras. Penguin/Dawson, $16.99 Mar. 6 ISBN 978-0-7352-2926-6