The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
Orbit, paperback, 544 pages
Review by Megan Leigh @m_leigh_g
The Wold in the Whale uses ancient mythology as a fantastical lens with which to view the world. Jordanna Max Brodsky is no stranger to mythology-inspired fantasy fiction. In her first series, Olympus Bound, Brodsky had Greek gods living among mortals in a contemporary urban setting. This time, she turns her attention to Inuit and Norse mythology. This combination of two very different sets of beliefs makes for an interesting and original story, not to mention the battle that the characters face to hold onto their beliefs as Christianity takes an ever-strengthening foothold in their world.
The book follows the story of Omat, an Inuit hunter whose people are on the edge of extinction – they are a small group, with little food and no children. But larger forces are at work in a battle for survival across the Inuit’s land. As Omat journeys across the land in search of food, the very fabric of the world is at stake as gods and mortals collide in a final reckoning.
‘If you’d come to me, I would’ve told you to shove your compassion up your ass where it belongs.’
The story, prose, characterisation, and settings in The Wolf in the Whale are all consistently polished in execution. From the beginning of the novel I was hooked. I loved these characters and they took me on a journey through every emotion under the sun. Brodsky’s prose is a pleasure to read, neither too purple nor devoid of poetry. Despite using a lot of ‘foreign’ (to the reader) words, they are not used too often and their meaning can always be gleaned from context.
My one niggle with the book is the pacing. The book begins to lag around the three-quarter mark. While it is understandable for the author to want to illustrate the hardships on the long journey across an unforgiving land while ensuring enough page-time for the budding romance, this section was bloated and needed a trim.
It was refreshing to see Inuit mythology as a basis for a fantasy narrative, as it is something I’ve not seen before. When I first read that a white American woman had written about such subject matter, however, I admit I was concerned about issues of appropriation and respectful handling of potentially sensitive material. Given that I am not an Inuit either, it is difficult for me to judge whether the book misrepresents these beliefs. With these caveats to my perspective in mind though, I found the depiction respectful and insightful.
‘It started as just one priest, they say, and within a generation, all the island had forgotten their old gods of Moon and Sun and turned to the Christ. I have yet to travel anywhere where he has not taken hold.’
I’m not sure what the author’s religious beliefs are but I found the book to be a rather scathing indictment of religion as a whole, and especially of Christianity. While the protagonist, Omat, is an unwavering believer, the gods of Omat’s people are fickle and manipulative. While holding tightly to her beliefs, Omat is capable of believing in gods of other peoples. It is not the validity of other beliefs that come into question – it is accepted that there are other gods for other peoples – but the idea that there could be only one god and the followers of that god want to convert everyone else does not sit well with our protagonist.
‘I am no longer scared of being a woman — it doesn’t make me any less a man. I am both. I am neither. I am only myself.’
Cultural and religious sensitivities aren’t the only tricky subjects Brodksy tackles in the novel. Omat is born female, but with the spirit of her father. She sees herself as a man, a hunter, the spiritual leader of her family after her grandfather’s death. But not all see her as a man and insist on forcing her to act and present as female. As with the sensitivity towards the representation of Inuit beliefs, I cannot comment on the authenticity of Brodsky’s handling of Omat’s gender identity but she certainly communicated Omat’s position with pathos. As a cisgender woman, I was moved by Omat’s portrayal. I found the character enlightening and captivating.
The book also touches on issues of incest and rape. And whereas many novels use rape as a shorthand for giving a character motivation for revenge, this is not the case in The Wolf in the Whale. The scene plays out on the page and may be difficult for some to read, but it is far from gratuitous. Instead, the scene represents a crucial part of Omat’s story – society enforcing a gendered status Omat didn’t choose. The recovery from the rape is similarly handled with care. Verdict: A richly intense novel covering a lot of sensitive material – from cultural differences to sexual assault. It’s a long one but worth it. Highly recommended.