Castle of the Wolf, by Sandra Schwab

>> Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Castle of the Wolf is my first book by Sandra Schwab. I've had The Lily Brand in my TBR for some time, but everyone says it's very dark, so I'm still waiting for the right mood.

After the death of her father, Cissy Fussell finds out that she has inherited a castle in the Black Forest - but on one condition: she has to marry the son of her father's old friend.

Ever since he returned home from the war, physically and emotionally wounded, Fenris von Wolfenbach has lived in the castle of his family, retired from the world like the beast in the fairy tale. Thus he is far from happy when one day a young Englishwoman turns up on his doorstep and claims his home as hers. Fenris is prepared to use any means fair or foul to get rid of his unwelcome visitor again. But will he manage to put Cissy to flight with rats on the loose? Or will she unravel the secrets of the Castle of Wolfenbach and eventually tame her beast?
This one should appeal both to gothic lovers and to those who clamour for more varied historical settings. And the romance is pretty good, too! A B.

When Cissy Fussell's father dies, she is sure she will have to resign herself to the fate of being a poor relation, dependent on her brother's goodwill and that of his insufferable wife. But the will contains a surprise: Mr. Fussell once helped out a German friend by buying the man's ancestral home when it was auctioned off, so Cissy now finds herself the heiress to a castle in the Black Forest. Provided, that is, she agrees to marry the son of her dad's friend.

It's not that hard a decision to make, considering the alternatives. Full of hope, off Cissy goes into the unknown, only to discover that her castle is falling to pieces and that Fenris Wolfenbach, that son her father expected her to marry, is pretty much the beast of Wolfenbach castle.

A bitter, resentful man, Fenris is determined not to let Cissy have his castle and not to allow her to even approach him. But no problem, Fenris has a younger, much more charming brother, Leopold, and Cissy could just marry him. He's sure to be a better husband than Fenris. Or is he?

I had a lovely time reading COTW, and not just because of the yummy setting. Cissy is great. She's such a sensible, determined woman, ready to go after what (and who) she wants. I really liked that she doesn't immediately go ga-ga over surly Fenris, and even seriously (and understandably) considers his brother as a better prospect. Yes, she's intrigued by Fenris from the beginning, but she only really looks back at him when she realizes she doesn't like many things about Leopold. Only then does she truly find the good man beneath the bad-tempered surface, and when she does, she doesn't let him push her away as he seems determined to do.

Fenris is also a very interesting character, even if at one point I lost patience with him. This is one very tortured guy, and with reason. During the Napoleonic wars, Fenris ran off to fight for what he thought was right and joined the British side. Unfortunately, this went against the position of the authorities in his land, and so his family was punished for it by their castle becoming forfeit. That was where Cissy's father came in to save the day by buying the castle himself and allowing the Wolfenbachs to remain, and Fenris blames himself for causing that to happen.

This sense of guilt, together with scarring and a wooden leg, result in a hero who's often very unpleasant to the heroine and can become tiresome. Part is resentment, part is feeling like an ugly troll who doesn't deserve someone like this beautiful woman, but Fenris behaves very badly. I was actually all right with his initial efforts to make Cissy run away screaming, because some of his more outlandish plots (I mean, rats?) led to some very funny moments, but he finally lost me with his complete about-face after his relationship with Cissy seemed to finally be moving in the right direction. That finally tipped him over in my mind from "understandably tortured" to almost-emo self-indulgent drama king.

But fortunately, the heroine is Cissy, and not some weak-minded woman who can be pushed away, so this episode doesn't last long. In the end, I really liked the passionate, tender relationship that develops and loved seeing Fenris finally realize that he could have a future with Cissy.

As it should be in a good gothic, the setting is almost another character in the story. Schwab really makes the Black Forest come alive with her vivid, colourful descriptions, and I loved that it isn't a gratuitous "exotic" setting, but really plays a role in the story. And the atmosphere! That was excellently done.

Added to this wonderful atmosphere is a very intriguing touch of the paranormal. Just a touch; I've actually seen COTW categorized as "paranormal" in a couple of places, and that seems quite an exaggeration. It's not something so overt that the characters even notice, just a matter of we readers knowing that there's something in the castle wanting our protagonists' happiness. Hardly in the league of vampires and werewolves and psychics!


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