Alex Wells’s Hunger Makes the Wolf is a ton of fun. It’s a space western with magic, and biker gangs, and more than one well-developed female character in it—if it wasn’t fun, something would be horribly wrong. But it also works through serious ideas about family, emotional vulnerability, labor and union organizing, systematized oppression, disease, violence, and magic, among other things. The reason that Hunger Makes the Wolf works so well, I think, is that those serious ideas grow out of the same basic material that the fun parts do. That basic material is one vividly developed planet (part of a much larger network of which we get to see some pieces) and the people who live on it.
The planet is called Tanegawa’s World, and it largely consists of desert, dunes, and dust. It’s owned by TransRifts, Inc., the company responsible for developing and controlling interstellar travel; the corporation needs to use mysterious ores from within the planet in order for interstellar travel to work. The planet has one big city, Newcastle, where the wealthy members of TransRifts, Inc. live, but many of the planet’s people live in poor mining and farming towns, where TransRifts exploits them. Weaving in and out of these towns on their awesome motorcycles are the Ghost Wolves, a mercenary biker gang. Hob, to whom this story belongs, is one of them, due to the fact that the leader of the Ghost Wolves, Nick Ravani, pulled her out of the desert when she was a girl. She’s a badass, but a badass with a real, intricate, messy, internal life that we’re lucky enough to be able to see. If Hob hadn’t been like that, if Wells had written her as just a slick biker with a few cool tricks up her sleeve, the novel’s fun parts wouldn’t have amounted to much more than that, because they wouldn’t have mattered; they wouldn’t have really meant anything to anybody. But we come to care a lot about Hob, in all of her messy bravery, and what she cares about, too.
Hob cares about Nick Ravani in spite of herself. He isn’t particularly easy to like, largely because he seems determined to embody the nastiest version of “space western biker gang chief” possible. But Nick rescued Hob from the desert, and shares her “witchiness,” which seems to be a sort of taint, or magical ability, that comes from straying out too far into the desert. Fire seems to live inside both of them, and both of them can make things spontaneously burst into flame. This taint becomes a significant part of the plot later, and is a key part of why exactly Tanegawa’s World is so strange. Hob, though, is stuck dealing with her witchiness at the same time she deals with Nick, who refuses to talk about it with her. In one of the book’s best sequences, the Ghost Wolves are forced to hunker down in order to avoid a government ambush, and Nick is too hurt to take charge. As Nick slowly gets weaker and weaker, Hob is forced to make choices about the gang and her own witchiness, which leads to her reaching a better understanding of Nick. He also has internality, and Hob finally understands what that internality looks like and why Nick chooses to hide it. She doesn’t quite agree with what he does, but she understands him.
The fact that Nick and Hob find a way to recognize each other, in a way that forgives neither but humanizes both, speaks to Hunger Makes the Wolf’s ability to give weight to the things it spends time with. The tropey elements of the story are an important part of why this works. If Nick hadn’t seemed like a walking, talking, textbook antihero, Hob and the rest of the Ghost Wolves wouldn’t have reacted to him in the same way. The meaning of that type of trope, what it gains and what it costs, is crucial to the connection between Nick and Hob. It is also crucial to the way we uncover meaning in this book as a whole. The depth of the characters and their world are never supposed to erase the pulpier genre elements. Hunger Makes the Wolf is a caper, a western, a bizarro space opera, a literal witch hunt, a spy thriller, and likely a bunch of other things, too, and it has no interest in pretending not to be, or in subverting those tropes so that they no longer quite mean the same things or achieve the same effects. Instead, the tropes themselves get questioned. What does it really mean to live in a world like this? What would it mean to be a person thrust into these roles? Hunger Makes the Wolf lives inside its genre while asking these questions of it in order to make the genre deeper.
This awareness of genre is only one of the things at the book’s core, though. Hob has another relationship even more important than her relationship with Nick, and it’s that relationship which truly makes Hob into a character strong enough to flesh out her world. Nick Ravani, gruff and mysterious as he is, has an actual family. Phil Kushtrim, his brother, is the body that shows up dead in Hunger Makes the Wolf’s first chapter, and Mag, Phil’s daughter, is Hob’s best friend. At the start of the book, Hob and Mag have been estranged for three years, because of something Mag did that Hob couldn’t forgive at the time—but that was really Hob’s own fault. Three years later, Hob knows this, but she hasn’t been able to figure out a way back to Mag. Finding Mag’s father dead gives Hob a way, though not one either of them would ever have chosen. The first part of the book is about how Hob and Mag circle around each other, as Mag goes to the city of Newcastle in search of a better life, and Hob sends herself on a rescue mission when it turns out that Mag’s been trapped there.
Mag is smart as a whip, but she’s far more demure than Hob, and more practical, too. I loved that someone as brash and explosive as Hob valued someone like Mag so much, when another story might have written Mag off as too boring or too nice. The two of them are bewildered by each other, sometimes, but they also have an immense respect for each other. This respect is one of the most exciting parts of Hunger Makes the Wolf. Hob and Mag are equals, and they have no interest in being mentor figures or mysteries to each other. They want to be friends—and friendship proves to be a tangled and complex thing. We see them get furious at each other and reconcile, trust each other to follow through with plans that are outrageous and difficult for very different reasons, and understand and recognize small things about each other in a way that only comes with time and dedicated focus. Both of them value each other. Mag’s perceptiveness and careful planning are just as vital to the story as Hob’s impulsivity and leadership. Hob isn’t, ahem, a lone wolf. Mag grounds her, but Mag also gets to have doubts and fears and a sense of humor. Theirs is a real and rich friendship, and it also happens to be between two women. We get to know each of them better through how they know each other, and, as we do, we learn how to engage with their world.
Not everything about the book works. Its structure, in particular, can be a bit strange at times. Chapter and part breaks come at moments that don’t always seem logical to me, and the pacing can feel lumpy. This seems to be because Hunger Makes the Wolf has so much it wants to talk about and develop—and all of those elements are exciting and worthwhile. But we sometimes get a lot of detail about one or two ideas at the expense of all the others. This is particularly true of the second half of the book, where we spend a lot of time following the Ghost Wolves and labor rights struggles. Mag appears less frequently in the second half, which is a shame, both because she’s a fascinating character in her own right, and because her relationships with Hob and Nick Ravani make up much of the novel’s heart. Since most of the book’s first section is about Hob and Mag finding each other again after a period of estrangement, having Mag drop out of later sections isn’t just disappointing, but disjointed from what happens earlier. It is true that their relationship has healed to the point where they don’t need to be together at all times, but I would have liked to see more of it.
These feel like issues that will be sorted out in later books (Blood Binds the Pack, the sequel, has just been released, and I plan to read it as soon as possible). They’re also issues that I’m more than willing to push aside, since I wouldn’t want anything in Hunger Makes the Wolf to be cut out. I haven’t even talked about the Bone Collector yet, one of the strangest, creepiest, and most intriguing characters I’ve read about in a long time. (In brief: he’s summoned by blood and requires bones in exchange for his work; he lives underground and transports people there by pulling them under the sand; he may be some sort of sentient, mobile statue or rock; he and Hob share incredible chemistry.) Hunger Makes the Wolf is an exhilarating ride that makes you think, with characters who practically demand rereading. If you care about genre, or labor rights, or female friendships, or having a really good time with a book, read it.