Scarlet of Lysia is an honest peddler, a young merchant traveling the wild, undefended roads to support his aging parents. Liall, called the Wolf of Omara, is the handsome, world-weary chieftain of a tribe of bandits blocking a mountain road that Scarlet needs to cross. When Liall jokingly demands a carnal toll for the privilege, Scarlet refuses and an inventive battle of wills ensues, with disastrous results. Scarlet is convinced that Liall is a worthless, immoral rogue, but when the hostile countryside explodes into violence and Liall unexpectedly fights to save the lives of Scarlet’s family, Scarlet is forced to admit that the Wolf is not the worst ally he could have, but what price will proud Scarlet ultimately have to pay for Liall’s friendship?
Spoiler Warnings for all 4 books in the series below.
We bought our copies of Books 1-3, but received Book 4 from the author.
Karen: After reading Meridian I realised that I had bought all 4 books in Kirby Crow’s Scarlet and the White Wolf series, and as I was on my make do and mend summer (no buying of books and clothes June- August) thought that these would be my next reads. I coerced Fra and Miki to join me, admittedly they didn’t take much coercion.
Fantasy is fast becoming my favourite genre, especially if it has some romance in it as well, and I really liked Kirby’s writing style.
My hopes were high.
I was not disappointed.
Fra: Well coercion is a bit strong there Karen. I think it took less than 10 seconds to sell me reading this series while on my holidays. And man am I glad I did it.
I think Kirby Crow is one of my best discoveries of 2016 in terms of quality queer novels. And let’s face it, Fantasy is one of my favourite genres and I was never going not to read this.
With gorgeous writing, engaging plot and marvellous and extremely well developed characters this series is well up there in my 2016 fave reads.
Karen : I found the basic premise of Scarlet, a variation on the theme of Little Red Riding Hood, clever, and the first book is pretty much focused on that retelling. We meet Scarlet, our red caped pedlar, and Liall a bandit leader and the White Wolf. This book is all about getting to know part of the world they live in, and also the characters for me. While there is the hint of a romance it is just a hint, and there is just one kiss. In no way did the first book suffer from the lack of sex, in fact for me it strengthened the bond between Scarlet and Liall, and my investment in them.
Fra: If there is anything more satisfying than getting sucked into a book from the very first page I have yet to discover it. The Pedlar and the White Wolf is one of those books.
Crow frames her world building and her characterisation into the known parameters of Red Riding Hood while at the same time turning the story on its head and exploiting some of its more apparent tropes.
Little Red Riding Hood is a cautionary tale about straying from the familiar and embracing the unknown. Scarlet’s wanderlust is a complete break from his family and people’s traditions. He ventures outside of the confines of the Hilarin culture, he explores, the author builds up both on the wanderlust and on Scarlet’s sense of adventure. Through his eyes we discover the world he wanders and the one he returns too. And there’s a constant sense of wonder to the world building which makes this book a joy to read.
Straying from the known path into the symbolic “forest” leads not only to increased knowledge but also to many dangers. In Little Red Riding Hood the protagonist ends up putting her family in jeopardy and almost falling prey to the Big Bad Wolf – in The Pedlar and the Bandit King Scarlet encounter with Liall sets a series of events in motion which will challenge every single one of Scarlet’s cultural references and will eventually force him to acknowledge that notwithstanding all his wandering his thought process really needed a good shake up. Interestingly enough I think it is telling that Scarlet’s introspection occurs not while he wanders aimlessly as a pedlar but while he is confined to the Rshan palace by an endless winter night.
I thought the tension between Scarlet and Liall was particularly well conveyed. It is deliciously slow, it pushes and pulls and develops naturally through several fortuitous encounters.
There’s undeniable sexual tension which is never forfeited in favour of a quick denouement of the relationship. In fact there’s the whisper of a promise of a relationship by the end of book 1 and the tension was building so intensely that I basically catapulted myself into book 2, Mariner’s Luck, the instant I finished the first.
Karen: After the first book I was intrigued to see where the series was going, and I thought the way that Scarlet and Liall’s journey moved from being something relatively sweet to a much more complex story about loyalty, honesty, familly, truth lies and love. I found Book 2 very strong. Often a second book in a series is weak and acts as a link. But not this one
Fra: Yes Karen Mariner’s Luck is what many call a bridge book – it brings, in this case quite literally, the story and the characters from point A to point B and readies them for the next challenge. Many say that bridge books lack action and plot tension and for some books that might well be right but in this case? I didn’t think so.
Most of Mariner’s Luck takes place on board a ship – this shouldn’t make for exciting reading times and yet I found it as equally engaging as book 1. First of all one momentous realisation on Scarlet’s part – namely the realisation that really it wasn’t wanderlust that was propelling him on the road – is what places both protagonists onto said boat.
By jumping onto the boat Scarlet moves the action forward; he takes a real leap onto the unknown and I personally think that to place this actual movement in a very confining environment is a credit to Kirby Crow’s writerly skills.
All world building in book 2 is character driven. The language barrier and open hostility to Scarlet leaves a lot of the novel to be carried by Scarlet’s observations and thought process.
At the same time the Voyage is one of the founding blocks of any Epic fantasy – we move to another world and the slowest the voyage the deeper the character’s development.
There are secrets not being told but there’s also an incipient (and obviously forced) closeness between the two main characters which lets the author build on the sexual tension she initiated in book 1.
The illness that plagues both MCs at one point or the other in the book also serves to increase the closeness and in a very traditional way also as a sort of purging exercise.
I did find the lack of communication – especially on Liall’s part – very frustrating; I mean the least he could do is tell Scarlet the purpose of the journey and what is going to happen. And yet, and yet the fact that Scarlet is untouched by Liall’s mollycoddling and figures much of what is happening around him on his own strengthens the fact that Scarlet is way more than his good looks and sense of adventure.
This is not to say that Scarlet doesn’t feel like a fish out of water the moment he sets foot on Rshan na Ostre. If the sea voyage gave him a taste of what Liall’s people would be like, arriving at the palace, surrounded by smiling scheming courtiers, forces him to confront the actual scope of Liall’s responsibilities. Scarlet falters a bit, questions his decisions and yet he sticks to the decision he has made. Scarlet character is honourable, brave, adventurous but most and foremost he is loyal and willing to question many of his own cultural boundaries.
Karen: Confining Scarlet and Liall on a boat really focuses their relationship, in Book 2 it’s clear that these two are in love, and are committed to each other. The attitude of th crew to Scarlet, and his ability to win them round does much to show the strength of will of Scarlet, and how in many ways he has developed in the first 2 books. The relationship on one level was solidified, but you can feel the tension, especially in Liall as he wonders what will happen to Scarlet in his land, and also when Scarlet discovers his secret.
Like Fra I also felt frustration with Liall, and his inability to communicate, and saw problems ahead!
Fra: The Land of Night is another splendid chapter in this Epic fantasy: there’s court intrigues, Liall’s fighting between his urge to atone, serve and protect and the need to go back to the freedom he has known for many years as the White Wolf. I particularly appreciated that on the reveal of Liall’s true identity and name there is no sudden change in the character himself. He takes on the burden, he very reluctantly accepts unto himself the situation but doesn’t falter in his core. I liked that. I liked that under the court finery Liall is still the White Wolf.
Where Book 2 counted heavily on the characters’ development to carry the plot and strengthen the world building – book 3 catapults the reader into an extremely well executed and action packed story.
Crow spent a lot of time coaxing Byzantur to life in book 1 – it is Scarlet’s continent, it is the background to his ceaseless wandering and the theatre of his first encounter with Liall and of Liall’s freedom. Now she applies the same skill into bringing to life Rshan Na Ostre and does so mostly by describing it from the inside of Liall’s palace.
The contrast between the two worlds is staggering: open roads and clement weather on one side, forbidding landscape and seemingly eternal night on the other. Most of the action in Byzantur takes place outside whereas most of the action in Rshan Na Ostre is inside. Pretty much the perfect counterpoint to Scarlet character’s growth. In Rshan Na Ostre Scarlet asks constantly whether he is going to be enough for Liall, he bristles at the malicious attention of the people surrounding him, he questions his place in the palace and yet never falters in what is his very core. He has made a decision and he will see it through. He also slowly makes friends and finally the sexual tension changes and transforms itself into a full blown loving relationship.
I must say that I wish Liall would have shared his past and worries with Scarlet slightly earlier on in the book as it would have been good to see more of how these two face challenges together.
Which is what I enjoyed most about The King of Forever, the fact that we see Liall and Scarlet as an established couple with very real challenges to face together.
Karen: I have to say that In Book 3 my frustration with the lack of communication began to get the better of me., while I understood the reasons for this (on both sides) and also that it was actively encouraged by the couple’s detractors it was at times too tense for me. Mirrored by the intrigues and lies at court it was like navigating a labyrinth. And all credit to Crow, while at times I actively disliked the characters and how they were behaving, at all times I wanted them to pull through.
And I totally agree with Fra, the world building is amazing. I’ve said before that the books that truly work for me have the ability to transport you to another time and/ or place and you can feel, in this case, the cold and the warmth of the fur, the lack of sunlight and the vague feeling of sadness that seems to permeate the climate.
Fra: In book 4 the change of season also signals a change of pace in the action – where most action in The Land of Night was scheming and and courtiers’ plotting, in book 4 the consequences of these signal the advent of war and even more challenges for the two lovers.
Karen: Book 4 leads us into even more machinations, and empire building by those who want to use Liall, I was worried that the constant tension would take it’s toll on both Scarlet and Liall – but I felt that in many ways they had turned a corner, and now they were actually talking to each other. As we were back on a journey again, this brought into play new places, and thankfully removal from the Court, which seemed in many ways a poisonous place.
My only criticism of this series is that Book 4 ended so suddenly, I was bereft.
Fra: In conclusion: this series is expertly written, it has all the markings of epic high fantasy: a quest, a journey, magic and a myriad of references to fairy tales and folklore – from fairies to Red Riding Hood, Vikings and magicians to ancient divinities; unexpectedly it also has a sci fi twist to it which left me wondering how this great author can carry the story forward.
Kirby Crow not only created a complex and detailed world to immerse her characters in, she surrounded them with appealing and well fleshed out secondary characters (many of whom I’d love to see star in their own novel at some stage), immersed them into a tight web of conflict and intrigue and propelled them into the oncoming war at the edge of one hell of a cliff hanger.
She also managed to create a strong couple not by throwing them into the throes of instant lust but by building up the sensual and romantic tension.
Karen : Well said Fra, I couldn’t agree more. I so enjoyed the way that everything enfolded so beautifully, and with each book there are layers of subtlety. These are books that you can take your time with, and I know that I will read again.
All in all we highly recommend this series and will be pining away in this corner over here waiting for the next book (hint hint)