My first read of February 2021 is done and it’s actually an f/f werewolf romance—something I don’t read much of (last time I read werewolf romance was when I beta read a sequel to Izazov krvi, by Vesna Kurilić). But I love werewolves and all sorts of wolves in stories, especially when they are written in a great way. And oh boy, does Pyotra and the Wolf deliver with its werewolf character.
First things first—I saw that the Pyotra and the Wolf is a queer retelling of a Russian symphonic fairy tale (Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev) and I’m always interested in queer fairy tale retellings, which is why I requested this book on NetGalley even though I have no idea how the source story goes. I went on Peter and the Wolf Wikipedia article only after I read Pyotra and chuckled at the summary, recognizing elements the author Elna Holst used in her version. It also confirmed for me that only one part of the novel is a fairy tale retelling, while the other part slips into a different genre.
The beginning of the Pyotra and the Wolf is a very atmospheric piece of a hunt. After Pyotra’s young brother falls into an ice lake, a strange wolf saves him, but in the process, it breaks his skin at the neck—which Pyotra misunderstands and, believing that her family and the village are in danger, decides to hunt down the wolf and kill it. On the other hand, the wolf is drawn to Pyotra, and so starts their game of cat and mouse through snow covered Siberian taiga and tundra.
When Pyotra learns the truth that the wolf she’s hunting is actually a woman shapeshifter—an actual werewolf—their dynamics change and this is where the romance fully starts.
This whole part was very interesting, and had some peaceful moments of solitude in the long Siberian nights, with atmospheric descriptions of the wintery landscape. It also had that vagueness typical for fairy tales, where characters don’t really act rational and the world around them has that dreamy quality. Where love can be very fast, very intense.
The dynamics of Pyotra and Volk were also what made the book easy to read, their relationship portrayed from the starting animosity and distrust, to banter and an energetic and fierce love. However, there were parts that were dragging for me personally, mostly because the author kept going back in the narration, showing the same events first from Pyotra’s, then from Volk’s perspective.
While I’m usually a fan of multiple POVs, this was a very jarring decision. You can show what another character feels and thinks without going back in the plot to show that. This was like a “show, don’t tell” used too rigorously, and it was completely unnecessary because most of Volk’s behaviour could be understood fine without it. This sort of a narrative choice slowed down the already slow pace, and at moments it was hard for me to read.
The second part of the book was for me, personally, much more engaging. Though this is where it stops being a fairy tale retelling and goes more into a paranormal romance/urban fantasy genre, complete with bringing in the new cast of characters with their POVs, dynamics, backstories and pacing. I saw that some reviewers mention this is where the plot fell apart for them. I could understand that. The genre shift was unexpected for me also, although I have nothing against it. I actually loved it because, while I enjoyed the atmospheric, almost existential first part of lonely lesbians in an endless icey night in the middle of nowhere, I don’t think I could read the whole novel just about that. Bringing in the new genre spiced it up a bit, for me. And the rescue story of the second half was also fun, energetic and engaging. There were moments I laughed out loud, and these new characters were also very interesting, although a bit underdeveloped and much too simplified.
I do understand, though, why some people didn’t like this. The tonality and pacing changes and the late introduction of new characters are definitely an issue, and while I find it interesting when authors play with narration, I think this could’ve been a bit more polished and better balanced.
That said, I absolutely enjoyed the romance. Volk is a fantastic werewolf character—constantly encompassing both wolf traits and human, giving us a dangerous but loving woman. I also loved the way she was shifting with her mood, even if she wouldn’t completely change the form, living in this constant midpoint. It really showcased how there was either a wolf trapped below a woman’s skin, or a woman below the wolf’s. Also I’m a huge fan when werewolves are women—especially when they are sapphic women. The fact that Pyotra is not shown as a vulnerable, weak human compared to her werewolf lover, but instead a woman that can hold down her own, capable and smart, was what made their relationship even more interesting.
There’s also a lot of graphic sex scenes—really well written, in my opinion. The heat between characters is real and could probably melt the ice. I wonder how they didn’t spontaneously combust. (A side note: I saw some reviewers were uncomfortable with some sex scenes because of this constant almost-shifting-back-to-wolf. For me, personally, it never gets to bestiality, but I don’t view shapeshifters as animals. Regardless, Volk never fully transforms into a wolf while having sex, mostly it’s just some fur breaking the skin. However, I recognize the fact that I’m not maybe a good person to judge this because I’ve read some Croatian scifi and fantasy stories with full-blown, graphic depictions of bestiality and no, it wasn’t shapeshifters, and yes, it was actual animals and it was very pornographic and mentally scarring. So my perspective on this topic may be a bit skewed. But still, be warned.)
Pyotra and the Wolf is an interesting take on queer fairy tale retellings and paranormal romance, giving us interesting characters, especially the titular Wolf who is an amazing example of a woman shapeshifter. It’s also a steamy, sensual love story between two women with graphic sex scenes. If you like fairy tales, hybrid genres and authors playing with narration, as well as magical sapphic romance, werewolf romance, and long passages of solitary wintery nights under the Northern Lights, this could be a novel for you.
I want to thank NetGalley and NineStar Press for giving me the opportunity to read eARC of Pyotra and the Wolf in exchange for an honest review.