Joan and Victor were two souls united against the world until the night Victor stormed out after a fight and never came home. When Joan finds him leading a prayer meeting a year later, he’s a stranger with her husband’s face, who claims not to remember her. What happened to Victor out in the dark?
Empire of Wild is Métis author Cherie Dimaline’s first adult novel, following short story collections and her acclaimed YA debut The Marrow Thieves. It’s a novel that emphasises how publishers determine pitch and reception: my copy came from Weidenfeld & Nicholson, a literary imprint more likely to be found on awards lists than genre shelves. Consequently, the blurbs – from the likes of Harper’s Bazaar and the New York Times – praise it as a literary thriller and a contemporary novel; not a one of them mentions werewolves.
Because make no mistake: with a different publisher, Empire of Wild might have been pitched as a literary urban or folkloric fantasy.
This is a dark fairytale of love at first sight and loss at first betrayal, set in the Métis communities of Canada where the rogarou haunts the night. Parents tell their daughters not to walk home alone a night lest the rogarou gets them; they tell their sons not to molest girls, lest they become rogarou. Treachery, hate, or violence will let the rogarou take your very soul and walk in your skin, a danger to the community.
Community is a key themes through Empire of Wild: Joan and her brothers are the pragmatic children of a no-nonsense matriarch more interested in the family business than their cultural heritage. Her Mere is a belligerent elder steeped in lore and rage, unwilling to countenance any suggestion her family might take the better wages at the mines polluting land tricked away from the nations. However tempting the money may be, it’s Victor’s suggestion they take a big corporate check for their land that causes the rift between him and Joan.
The narrative hops between past, present and otherworld, casually switching perspectives as it goes. Joan is our primary narrator, steeped in grief that isolates her even from her family until her fierce determination is reignited by hope. As the novel progresses, we get glimpses of all the players: Victor and his new reality; Joan’s devoted but vulnerable nephew Zeus; earthy Ajean, determined to age disgracefully and teach these youngsters a thing or two as she does; Heiser, the manipulative businessman using all means available to force through land deals; and the unexpectedly affecting perspective of Cecile, as desperate for something to believe in as she is to be seen by someone she follows. The plot is relatively straightforward, propelled by the characters and shaped by its mythology.
I found Empire of Wild an engrossing read, although I was somewhat nonplussed by the final act. I was sad to see Ajean and Zeus had only minor supporting roles (the blurb makes them sound equal partners in Joan’s quest; this is not the case) and frustrated by the sexualisation of the villain (although as sexual predation appears integral to the rogarou, I guess this is on me). However, I loved impulsive Joan – so sure she can rescue her husband if she’s armoured in lipstick and her best panties – and if other characters are fairly thinly-drawn, Dimaline does a brilliant job of evoking a great deal with relatively little whenever they appear. This is true also of context; Empire of Wild clearly but almost casually conveys the challenges and culture of the Métis community.
The result feels literary in both Dimaline’s vivid metaphors and its lingering moments of lust and heartache; but Dimaline refuses to let readers convince themselves her rogarou are mere metaphors. Sure, there are intellectual contortions available – the rogarou as a representation of temptation, calling men* off the straight and narrow path to make metaphorical monsters – the wolf at Heiser’s window long-ago reflecting his urge to swindle the communities he’s dealing with, rather than a rogarou summoned by his odd Germanic gift. Where Mere and Ajean immediately see an ancient threat in the dark to be warded off with medicine, Joan has the doubled vision of the modern young woman who knows when her parents are trying to scare her away from taking risks along with the hot, terrified memory of being stalked by an animal on a dark road.
But it’s easier and – given the twists of the final act – perhaps more comforting to take Joan, Ajean and Victor at their words and believe in rogarou. To read them as a metaphor would leave me questioning how Joan could continue to pursue Victor (and to think less of her for doing so); and to have nothing but baffled confusion over where we leave Zeus. Taken at face value, Empire of Wild acknowledges how easy it is to stray whilst believing firmly in the chance of redemption if someone loves you enough to forgive you and fight for you.
I suspect Empire of Wild may have passed fantasy readers by (especially outside its native Canada), but it’s worth seeking out for those who enjoy character-driven, mythological drama.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
* As best I can tell, women cannot become rogarou. I appreciated that Dimaline is clear that this doesn’t automatically make women good people. This is most obvious in Cecile, as dangerous as any rogarou; but also in the very human flaws of overwhelmed Bee and remote, controlling Flo.