Set in remote nineteenth-century Russia, this novel opens with 13-year-old Feo and her mother living alone far from anywhere or anyone. Their self-appointed job is to re-introduce wolves who have been kidnapped when young for pets back into the wild again after their owners have tired of them. The wind howls, there is snow everywhere and then an alarmingly loud bang at the door. Enter General Rakov, a psychopathic bully out to destroy wolves and also the self-contained, spartan way of life endured but also enjoyed by Feo and her mother.
So far, so dynamic. The author, who is a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, writes with authority and has a bold and original imagination. But once Feo is driven out of her home, accompanied by a small band of faithful wolves, her story becomes less convincing. These animals become progressively more human in their understanding, at times only lacking speech as they decide what is best for Feo and Ilya, a boy soldier and admirer who has deserted the army for her sake. General Rakov meanwhile, who is out to get all of them, starts popping up here, there and everywhere, with too many last-minute escapes from him gradually easing out the sense of pitiless reality with which this story began. The closing pages become almost farcical as a band of children manage to unseat this vicious dictator.
Writing for children has always been allowed a certain latitude when it comes to describing the world as young readers would like it to be rather than as it is. But piling one impossibility on another, with Feo rescuing her mother from an otherwise impregnable jail before going on to lead a counter-revolution, is not to take readers seriously or indeed the menacing world of Tsarist oppression so well caught in the first few chapters. This author is clearly very talented, but holding a story together that is fairy tale one moment and unsparingly realistic the next ultimately proves too hard a task to bring off successfully.