I’ve finally read A Hungering of Wolves, the last published volume of T.C. Rypel’s dimension-spanning swords & sorcery epic series about Gonji, the half Japanese, half Norwegian samurai, fighting his way across Renaissance Europe in hopes of discovering his destiny. It shouldn’t be the last book, but as of now, sadly, it is. While there is a collection of shorter tales scheduled for the near future, the sequel to this book is not.
It was orginally published as Knights of Wonder by Zebra Books way back in 1986. Rypel and his books fell victim to the whims of the publishing industry and an agent who wasn’t a big heroic fantasy fan. My earlier review of the first three Gonji books, collectively called the The Deathwind Trilogy, contains a more detailed account of Gonji’s publishing history.
I tend to avoid series that haven’t been finished because I fear they never will be. My dad went to his grave never seeing the end of Roland Green’s Wandor series. I dread the screams that will pierce the heavens if A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t reach its end. So when I tell you that I read A Hungering of Wolves knowing it sets up a story that remains unfinished, that should tell you something about how much I like Rypel’s books.
If you have any love for swords & sorcery then you should read the Gonji books. Though thirty years old, Rypel’s books don’t feel dated and avoid the cliches that infect the worst heroic fantasy. Gonji, his associates, and opponents react like real humans, not puppet characters moved about in service to some pre-ordained plot.
While the books have more blood and thunder than even I can handle at times, they also have detailed and nuanced character development contemporary readers expect. For every loud and explosive scene the books have calmer moments that create atmosphere and a believable world. Just enough time is spent with secondary characters to make you care when something happens to them or buy their motives when they act.
Not only a skilled craftsman, Rypel is steeped in the history of swords & sorcery, classic monsters, and historical adventure tales. He is a highly talented storyteller who, while never eschewing the obligations of S&S to be action-filled, never neglects building a powerful, dark atmosphere and complex world. All these attributes are present in A Hungering of Wolves (AHoW).
At the end of the fourth book in the series, Fortress of Lost Worlds (reviewed on BG by me last year), Gonji and his fellow survivors from battle against otherworldly opponents and an excursion into another dimension, found themselves dropped onto a Genoese beach. We learn what happened to them next in a long flashback that opens AHoW.
Simon Sardonis, the werewolf known as the Deathwind, had been bent on returning to his native Burgundy to destroy the Farouche Clan, a profoundly evil family of shapeshifters that infiltrated and took control of the province. He succeeded in convincing Gonji to postpone a summons from the new pope (the previous one exposed as a demonic impostor) and join him on his crusade. The party’s attempt to cross the Alps proved disastrous as their enemies discovered them and slowly dismantled the group with sorcerous storms and creatures:
Night swept down from the sky in an impossible swirling gray fog. Black shapes moved within it, stark shadows with menacing substance, watching, waiting. At last working demon-spawned evil.
Flying shapes, bulky and vermin-furred, began to strafe the survivors from above. At first they merely antagonized with their piercing titters as they soared overhead. Then they would single out a horseman who had strayed from the rest and arc down to buffet him with their wings and formless limbs.
Simon managed to elude his attackers and reach Burgundy. There he found himself outwitted and at the mercy of his worst enemies. Gonji and a devastated handful of survivors retreated back into Italy, unsure of what to do next.
Unlike the other books in the series, the narrative of AHoW is very straightforward. Instead of jumping around the planes of existence and multiple players with multiple agendas, the focus here is on the Farouches and the forces trying to overthrow them.
Gonji and the boldest of his companions decide to try to enter Burgundy once again, but by infiltration and stealth instead of directly. Unknown to them, a party of soldiers raised from the survivors of Vedun and led by Gonji’s friend, Wilfred, has been spurred to make its own journey to Burgundy in order help Simon.
On the other side, the Farouches and their father, the sorceror Grimmolech, are laying their own plans. They are trying to harness the power of the numerous planes of existence. As evil as they are, their personalities and motives are explored sufficiently to make them ingriguing enemies.
Once the preliminaries are complete, AHoW dives into nearly endless fighting. There are short duels, building-breaking battles between ravenous monsters, and sprawling combat through streets and over rooftops. Rypel brings a cinematic quality to the action scenes. They are filled with rapid cuts and changes of point of view. The geography and choreography of his combat sequences are never left vague, so you can always understand what’s happening. I can’t tell you how many terribly-written action scenes I’ve read in my lifetime, or stress enough how important it is to get them right.
My favorite set piece occurs when Gonji takes on a band of mercenaries at night during a rainstorm. It could be ripped from a great unknown Kurosawa or Leone movie (except for the presence of gargoyles at the beginning). It represents Rypel’s action writing at its absolute best and most gripping.
Performing a quick, shallow draw, he launched a shaft high into the air. It dropped straight down into the corral near the three brigands who were eyeing the horses. The men shouted in surprise, wheeling about and searching the hills; it was impossible to determine the arrow’s point of origin.
While the three were thus preoccupied, the samurai nocked and fired two rapid shots, felling both mercenaries who kicked and pounded at the rear door. He broke from cover and plunged across the ground, sprinting in a low crouch. He gained the corner of the farmhouse, stashed his bow and quiver in a dry niche behind a woodpile, and drew steel from his back harness an instant before two mounted men’s steeds skidded around the corner to the back of the house.
Gonji’s whirling blow cut the forelegs out from under the first horse. It shrieked and spilled its rider over its plummeting head. The samurai never stopped moving, gaining the second steed before the warrior could fix on the skittering dark form. Gonji’s arcing slash tore through brigandines and rib cage, downing the second rider in a shower of dark redness.
For all the swordplay and carnage Rypel doesn’t stint at worldbuilding and atmospherics. In the earlier books it was revealed that Earth’s universe is only one of many, and that great powers from outside are manipulating events for their own benefit. While many of the great secrets intimated at are still left unrevealed by the end of AHoW, there are still tantalizing revelations about the vast scale of Rypel’s world and his ambitions. One of the reasons I read fantasy is because there are no limits to what can be done. I’m very pleased when a writer takes advantage of that freedom and runs with it.
Rypel dedicated this book to Robert E. Howard, Karl Edward Wagner, and Akira Kurosawa. I like to think they’d all be pleased to see their names on this book.
If you haven’t read the previous Gonji books (Red Blade from the East, The Soul Within the Steel, Deathwind of Vedun, and Fortress of Lost Worlds), then A Hungering of Wolves will lose much of its impact because you won’t really understand what’s going on. But then, if you’re reading Black Gate and my reviews, there’s no excuse that you haven’t read these already.