After defeating Bjarne, the Geri Freki pack leader, Steffen has inherited the man’s pack. Men, women, and pups, all of whom have been raised to fear and hate the packs of Sköll Hati. It’s going to be a difficult adjustment for everyone as the leaderless Vargr are brought into their new home. For Steffen himself, the fight, nightmare though it was, is a mixed blessing. He won, proving his worth as Pack Alpha, and yet he had to kill a man to do it. He has been injured, terribly so, and he might not regain full use of his arm and fingers, and yet … Tristan, his mate, has been by his side.
During all of this there is still the question of Matt. Will he rise to be Sköll? Or is he just an astonishingly strong young man with vast potential? The question is made even more difficult by the arrival of Hati, who — upon meeting Matt — realized that Matt was his true Alpha mate, and he has left his own Pack to join Steffen’s, to be by Matt’s side. For Matt, this makes things awkward as he is quite in love with his boyfriend, Rasmus. The idea of being bonded to someone who wasn’t his choice, just because the Vargr side of him recognizes Hati as his is … difficult, especially for someone who believes so strongly in individual choice. If he is Sköll, will he loose all rights to choose? Will being Sköll trump being Matt?
Just when things start to settle down, Steffen’s pack is attacked, and not in an agreed upon — or even fair — challenge. Thirty Vargr warriors come, demanding the Geri Freki women and pups back, and they’re willing to go through Steffen (and the handful of men and women standing with him) to do it. It’s here that Matt accidentally sets in motion a long-reaching plan made by the Regional Alphas of Sköll Hati designed to destroy Steffen’s pack … and the packs of Geri Freki. The Völsung — the dark forces that use the Vargr as weapons and slaves — are back, pitting the Geri Freki and the Sköll Hati against one another to weaken them both. And they are succeeding.
Adding fuel to the fire, Sköll and Hati aren’t the only legends being born in mortal flesh. Geri, too, has been born, and where Geri is, Freki can’t be far behind. Someone has plans for the packs. Can mortal enemies, the Geri Freki and the Sköll Hati, find a new path through the blood and death that prophecy seems determined to see unleashed?
Whispering Ember, the third volume in The Vargr series, cannot easily be read without having read the first two books in the series. Not only does it pick up directly after the explosive fight of book two, it dives right in to pack politics, hierarchy, bloodlines, and mythos without pause. The world building in this series is rich and detailed and if you’re a fan of world building, you will find yourself gorging on it, so much so that … to be honest, I kind of got tired of it. Part of this is because, due to the multiple POVs of Steffen, Hati, and Matt — and the sheer number of people involved in each and every scene — things get repeated over and over and over. If Matt has a thought, he will either explain it to Steffen in the next chapter, or Steffen will have the same thought. And it may or may not be repeated a third time by or for Hati or other members of the pack.
That’s not to say this is a bad book, because it isn’t. The author takes pains to show both sides of the conflict, the Sköll Hati and the Geri Freki packs’ perspectives and respective ways of living. Time is taken to show how they have been set against one another from the beginning, and how their own leaders are using them, deliberately stirring up hate and mistrust so the two sides will never come together as Vargr. Which is why the birth of Sköll and Hati — and Geri and Freki — are so important. These symbols of violence, both destructive and preservative, are heroes who will draw the packs to them. Born and raised as people, they have a chance of changing the narrative and becoming beacons of pace rather than war.
There are a lot of people in this book. Not just Steffen’s pack, but the conquered pack of Geri Freki who are being integrated. And because Steffen is a good man, he takes the time — as do the men and women who have trained under him, been raised by him — to talk to the new members, to find a common ground and gain trust. Then there are the Regional Alphas, who oversee collections of packs in a given territory, who have to be introduced. And, as I mentioned above, almost every scene has half a dozen characters … who all start to sound the same. Often I am hard pressed to tell who anyone is. Everyone talks with the same logic and compassion (unless they’re a villain); everyone acts much the same. And it’s wearing.
On the other hand, the plot picks up here where, in the second book, I felt it dragged a bit much. In this book, there are more confrontations (though most end in peaceful conversations) and the flights that happen are energetic and advance the story along nicely. The pacing is pretty good, though, thanks to the repetition, there is a bit of dragging, and in this series, with its philosophical and introspective tone, lending to a slow, laid back story, that’s saying something. The writing remains strong, but I noticed several malapropisms — such as heeling instead of healing — and tense issues, such as “the Geri Freki coming to us needs it,” rather than need it.
All that said, I enjoy this series very much. The focus is on the Vargr as Vargr, not werewolves. They are an ancient people who live hundreds of years. They don’t have the same sense of time we do. So when Matt and Hati realize they have an Alpha Mate bond, it isn’t much of an issue. It may take ten years or fifty or a hundred before they decide to act on it. Both Hati and Matt are still young men, and their roles as Hati and (maybe) Sköll take priority.
This is a story more about romance than sex, as is seen in the moments between Steffen and Tristan, both Alpha Mates kept apart by pack law, both married to women and obligated to give them children for the good of the pack. That doesn’t lessen their love, it just means they have to make the most of the little time they’re allowed to have with one another.
A small trigger warning, there are hints of bestiality in this book. While not fully human, it is not uncommon for a Vargr woman or man to go into the woods and breed either with wolves, or with ‘feral’ Vargr, who are the children of Vargr/wolf breeding. To the Vargr, this is normal, but some people may find it uncomfortable.