Maria Vale's debut novel THE LAST WOLF is an immersive tale of identity, trust, and love. It's a fresh take on the werewolf subgenre, steeped in history and tragedy. It is also wildly funny, completely endearing, and stomach-churningly violent.
The book blurb (above) does a good job with setting up the plot. Tiberius (Ti) Levereaux shows up injured at the Great North Pack's territory in the Adirondack region of upstate New York. Silver's pack works on the buddy system, with every wolf having a "shielder." Hers has just been kicked out for being several kinds of awful, which means that she's been demoted to the absolute lowest position in the pack, a wolf who serves the alpha and has no hope of a mate or change in status. A large part of the reason for this is that Silver only has use of three legs in her wolf form, meaning she can't keep up with the pack and can't effectively fight in the challenges that determine pack hierarchy. When Ti shows up, Silver chooses to leave the pack and pair with him. They then have three moon cycles to convince the pack to let them join.
Ti is a shifter, a being that can walk as human at any time, not bound to the Iron Moon. He's also half-wolf, however, and his struggle for a place to belong is central to the book's plot. Ti and Silver exchange many jokes around the idea that Ti is a "crappy wolf," while Silver is a "crappy human."
The pack functions in ways that will be familiar to paranormal romance readers, but also in many ways that I hadn't read before. For example, if a wolf in the pack kills something, s/he has to eat it. Silver ends up eating things that she'd rather not, including, at one point, the penis of a would-be rapist. When I say this book is visceral, I mean literally. There are a couple of scenes of disemboweling. It's a violent and kind of gross world, but the pack doesn't see it as violence, so the reader doesn't either. It's a holistic view of the world - if you kill something, you eat it. If you own hundreds of acres in the Adirondacks, you take the best care of the land that you can. The pack has a network of wolves living "Offland" who come home each full moon and function as lawyers and trust managers the rest of the time. They fight for conservation and against pollution, development, etc.
I loved the inversion of the common PNR trope of wild man and the woman who tames him. Ti is the more human of the two, and they each pull the other toward a midpoint between wild and civilized. It's Ti who waits on sexual contact. It's Silver who rips out throats. Their romance is unconventional but also so familiar. They don't come together in a big swell of emotion, it's a practical partnership that grows into something more. Like a wolfy marriage of convenience. It's quite lovely.
In an attempt to keep this review a reasonable length, I'm going to bullet out a few things you might want to know:
- The pack has absolutely no internal racial concerns, which makes sense. They do, however, have a Human Behaviors teacher who teaches the pack about humans and how to act more like them when Offland. It felt like an obvious omission for the book not to address race at all, ever. When Ti and Silver go into town, in that super-white corner of NY? We see that Ti is very polite and careful, but it's not mentioned whether that's for *spoiler reasons* or because he's a black man in a gun-toting white town. It also seems like something that the Human Behaviors teacher should be teaching the Pack. Racism is just as likely (more?) to get them killed in the outside world as being a wolf is.
- I can't speak to the quality of the disabled rep in this book. Nothing about it struck me as offensive, but I don't have mobility impairments. If I see a review that covers this better, I'll link it here.
- Content warnings: violence, stillbirth, off-page attempted rape, children in peril, massacre in the beginning prologue.
Overall, I gave this book 4/5 stars. It's a really compelling debut with little clues throughout, red herrings, and a hell of a twist. The pacing was steady but I found myself wondering what the plot of the novel was at one point. Did that keep me from enjoying the heck out of it? Nope.