edward j rathke’s novel Twilight of the Wolves opens with a boy digging graves. He is alone. Everyone he knows is dead, consumed by a war that will engulf cities, peoples, a continent. It has already consumed his heart. Or so it appears:
By the first nightfall, he no longer cried. By morning his lips no longer moved. By moonlight he no longer stopped. A constant pace, digging and digging and lifting and dropping and burying. Burying. Burying.
rathke excels in creating atmosphere. The opening chapter sucks the reader down into the novel’s grim themes of decay and despair. In particular, rathke’s later portrait of the doomed city of Luca is loving and unflinching, capturing the purposeful chaos and human contradictions of a populous city. The city teems with both glory and filth, and rathke carries the reader from the heights of culture and beauty to the depths of plague and war.
The city is “Structureless, a congested architecture of slums and complexes and hovels stacked upon one another, built inside each other, handshaking styles, exchanging tenants. The city was alive with a heart bigger than its body, an intricate anatomy dictated by its five great arteries and veins bringing new atoms and molecules to melt into the chaotic system of constantly cycling humanity.”
The novel is ambitious on every level, from language to structure. rathke works in a more poetic mode than is often found in fantasy literature, playing with phrasing and language to capture experience. He has a penchant for the dramatic, shifting from the molecular to the galactic in only a few lines. The Deathwalker “This one” describes a song as “Soft and deep as if from the Ocean. It does not rush or stampede but drifts through the wood and the body sets to tingle, its atoms vibrating with the deep resonance, as deep as the Grey one must navigate to usher the living to the shore. This vast world within the tree so alive and unknown.”
In this ambition, the novel has a tendency to feel unrestrained in these elements of language and structure. The diction can feel inconsistent, and the climax of the novel makes odd temporal and structural choices that undermine the long slow build that have come before. Careful pruning could have still maintained the book’s ambition and scope, but there is still much to be admired here.
The novel most closely follows three characters who are gradually brought together through Part One of the novel: a cursed outcast, a beautiful orphan, and a spirit-like Deathwalker who ferries the dead to the afterlife, or at least that is what he’s supposed to be doing. Each longs for transformation, placing their respective hopes in myth, whispers, and the strength of their own desires.
The expectation is that this epic fantasy will focus on these characters’ quests and how they will ultimately shape the world, whether for salvation or destruction. However, the narrative constantly expands and contracts, making it difficult to track the central line of the story and its important lore, characters, and information. While this effect can be disorienting, it adds to the novel’s charm, mirroring the bustling, shifting life of the city, where at any given time a single individual’s story is insignificant or deathly important, depending on the angle of observation. For a reader steeped in traditional, more linear fantasy novels with clear hierarchies of character and storyline, the experience may be uncomfortable and confusing. But once the reader falls into the rhythm of expansion and contraction, the beating of the heart, the effect is a strange kind of wonderful.
It’s the strangeness of Twilight of the Wolves that is rathke’s greatest success. He offers a challenging fantasy novel steeped in cerebral poetics. This novel values the settings and cultures and lives that would be swept over in the more traditional epic fantasy style. The heroes of this story shape their own world, not the world at large. Boiled down to its essentials, the story is small. Boiled down to its essentials, the story is enormous. Like the city of Luca, this novel’s heart is bigger than its body.
Twilight of the the Wolves, by edward j rathke. Perfect Edge Books. 292 pages. $18.95, paper.
Kelsie Hahn holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Caketrain, NANO Fiction, The Southeast Review, and others. Her fiction chapbook Responsibility is forthcoming from Eastern Point Press. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Stephen Cleboski.