Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski is a standalone YA werewolf novel. Or I could just as easily call it a straight fantasy novel that happens to have werewolves in it. The fantasy world is loosely based on dark-ages Europe — after the Romans left — with the mythology a remix of a few Celtic and Gaulish ideas, including faeries.
The main character, Etienne, is sent out to be fostered with one of his father's allies when he's in his teens — later than usual because as an only son he was needed at home. While serving with Lord Geraint, Etienne learns that Geraint is what Etienne himself has long feared: a werewolf born. However, Geraint is a good and fair master and quickly earns Etienne's loyalty.
There are two types of werewolves in the Wolfborn universe, however: born werewolves, called bisclavret, who are descendant from creatures created by one of the gods, and the other kind, who made a deal with the Dark One to gain the power of shape-changing. Needless to say, the latter tend to be more evil.
For a short book, there several different aspects of mythology packed in — werewolves, faeries, gods — but not, I think, too many. It's hard to judge since I am relatively familiar with Celtic mythology, but I thought the different ideas were sufficiently fleshed out and tied in well to the story.
I found it interesting that Etienne's journey was not a heroic quest or some other common fantasy trope. Instead, it was about him going from fearing werewolves to accepting them (well, the bisclavret ones, anyway) as a normal part of his world's nature. Oh, also, the blurb suggests it's a romantic story but it's not really. It's based on a romantic story (wriiten by Marie de France in the twelfth century, as the afterword tells me), but the focus is shifted in this retelling.
The book reads like Etienne is telling the story well after the fact, when he's older. There are some moments when he comments retrospectively on the events taking place. This reminded me a little bit of Robin Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice where Fitz is more or less recounting his life story. There was some similarity in setting and themes too, although Etienne is a page, not an assassin, and Wolfborn is much, much shorter. I enjoyed that aspect, but to me it didn't feel quite like a YA book for that reason. Although it's the length of a YA book, however, and the main character is in the correct age bracket, I think it would work well as a bridging step between other YA fantasy books and "grown up" fantasy books like Hobb's or the multitude of others, some of which I've reviewed. Mind you, I was reading Robin Hobb while I was in my teens (before, ahem, YA was it's own category), so i don't see why teenagers wouldn't enjoy Wolfborn.
The book is quite short, coming in at less than 300 pages, and I think in parts it suffered a little for it. There were some aspects of the story which I think could have been fleshed out a little more. For example, there were a few scenes where I thought the characters could maybe have spent a bit more time talking about their predicament on the page, instead of summarising. It's not that thinks weren't thought through, but a little bit more on-the-page world building would not have gone amiss either, in my opinion. In the end, the story spanned about three years (although the last year was sort of an extended epilogue, so perhaps doesn't count) which is a lot of time to squeeze into so few pages. It wasn't hurried, though, and some "and then nothing much happened for x weeks" bits were rightfully skipped, but I still would have liked to stay with the characters longer.
I recommend Wolfborn to fans of Celtic-style settings in fantasy with a werewolf twist. I think it would be enjoyed by both readers of adult fantasy after a quick read and readers of YA fantasy. As I said, it'd make a good gateway dr— book for YA readers to transition into "grown up" fantasy books.
4 / 5 stars
Format read: paperback
Source: a review copy was provided by the author
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013