Throwback Thursday: Hunger Makes the Wolf

Book cover: Hunger Makes the Wolf - Alex Wells (a bad-ass one-eyed woman with fire burning in the palm of her hand in front of a motor bike and a shuttle craft)Tanegawa’s World is under the crushing control of TransRifts Inc. You work for them in the mines, or you live outside the law. But TransRifts has secrets they’ll kill to keep – and a witchy gang of vengeful outlaws may be the miners’ only defence…

Hunger Makes The Wolf has been sat on my shelf for a while, but a prompt on the Dancing with Fantasy and SciFi dance card finally pushed me to read it. I’m so glad I did. This is an unapologetic space western, and I loved every minute.

Wells gets to work on atmosphere right off the bat with mercenaries bantering about girls as they escort a caravan across the desert. Welcome to Tanegawa’s World, where the outlaws are (solar-powered) bikers and living on the right side of the law means being part of a corporate dystopia.

On Tanegawa’s World, the only work is down the mines and a single company runs everything. Tunnel collapses and deaths aren’t a reason to relax quotas – you clear the bodies and get back to work before everyone’s pay is docked, gently ‘encouraged’ by a private security firm. Company overseers are unpleasant men who are comfortable abusing power they wield (Mr Franklin made my skin crawl, but – minor spoiler alert – while his intentions are quite clear and it’s certain he’s got away with it elsewhere, there’s no on-page rape).

In response, the locals have unionised, which unexpectedly made me realise that space opera about union politics is one of those things that really ticks my boxes (yes, I know, you’d think I’d have learnt from Windswept). Surprise, I just adore stories about sticking it to the company. But TransRifts Inc isn’t going to let go its grip on Tanegawa’s World any time soon. Its output is critical to maintaining TransRifts’ monopoly on interstellar travel – and the company is more than happy to stoop to the dirtiest tricks to hang on to its position (don’t get me started on religion as a method of social control).

When she finds a union organiser dead in the desert, outlaw Hob Ravani can’t turn her back. Hob is the omega of the Ghost Wolves gang after a rebellious moment nearly resulted in disaster; leader Nick Ravani’s adopted daughter or not, she’s only just another bad decision away from a bullet. But the dead man is Nick’s brother, and his niece Mag – Hob’s erstwhile best friend – has disappeared.

I loved Hob as a protagonist. She’s as sharply dressed as she is sharp-tempered, and while I never quite bought into the idea that she was on her last chance I liked that she clearly has no grasp what other people actually think of her. She’s not done beating herself up for her past mistakes. Alex Wells does a fabulous job of spinning out the backstory and setting up the relationships to give the payoff the zing it deserves.

I was even fonder of quick-thinking Mag. Her transformation from vulnerable girl to fierce rebel is rewarding: I couldn’t help but feel proud for her as she levelled up again and again in her responses to company escalations. If this were ‘just’ a story about two close female friends overcoming past wrongs to protect one another it would make me happy – but Hunger Makes The Wolf is about them stepping out of their fathers’ shadows to protect their whole community.

Along the way, we come to understand the scope of the company’s crimes, the truth of Tanegawa’s World’s ‘witches’ and meet characters so creepy they make Mr Franklin look practically harmless (yes, yes I did find the Bone Collector just as creepy as the Weatherman). This could be a pitch black tale – not least because our protagonists are anti-heroes at best, who aren’t above doing objectively terrible things – but it’s told with such panache it feels more like a romp.

Because space westerns are fun, dammit. It’s a joy to see familiar Wild West tropes repackaged and served up as the plot careers from one set piece to the next: expect a doctor to be snatched (bonus: he’s actually a trainee horse doctor vet), a train job to be staged, and lawmen with a secret agenda. About the only thing that was missing was a high-stakes card game (but hey, I’ve not read the sequel yet).