Book Review: The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Wolf Den Trilogy
Publisher: Union Square Co. (March 29, 2022)
Length: 488 pages
Earlier this year, both my 10-year-old and I became fascinated by Pompeii, checking out all the documentaries and books we could find. But while my daughter was more interested in the eruption of Vesuvius, I gravitated more towards the archaeology and history of Pompeii—how the people back then lived day to day, revealed by the clues preserved under the ash and pumice.
So when I was offered a review copy of The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper, described as a novel of Pompeii which “reimagines the lives of women who have overlooked,” I did not hesitate to jump on the opportunity. The story is a historical drama following a closely-knit group of slaves forced into service as prostitutes in one of the city’s most notorious brothels. Our protagonist is Amara, a young Greek woman who was once a doctor’s daughter until her father died and her family fell into financial ruin, leading to her sale to Felix, proprietor of The Wolf Den brothel. There, she meets other women who have met similar fates.
She and the other “she-wolves” become friends, despite sometimes being in competition with each other. Their dream is to one day earn their freedom, until then, they have no choice but to subject themselves to the whims of their clients, many of whom can be depraved or cruel with their intentions. The women only have each other, enduring the pain and hardship the best they can while taking comfort in whatever joy they can find. With the education she received from her privileged background, Amara also tries to pursue other side jobs to earn more money towards her freedom, or to find a wealthy patron who would buy her price and rescue her from this life.
What impressed me most about this book was the way the author brought the world and the characters to life. The history books show the excavation of Pompeii and the things people left behind the day Vesuvius erupted. Of these, some of the most captivating were the wall art and graffiti found in homes, on the streets, or in commercial establishments like restaurants and even the brothels. In fact, the book quotes a lot of these, giving some context into what life might have been life back in AD 79 Pompeii. A lot of historical fiction aims to recreate the feel of a time and a place, using what is known to imagine a living, breathing society to fill in the gaps. And quite honestly, The Wolf’s Den might be the best I’ve ever seen it done.
There is also so much heart to this story. The characterization has a lot to do with it, of course, starting with our protagonist. Amara inspires many emotions, including admiration and sympathy. She’s clever and knows how to play the game, even as someone with little power. Furthermore, she makes the most out of the resources she’s given, pulling the strings behind the scenes and flying under the radar when the situation calls for it. If she’s manipulative and self-serving at times, it’s also understandable given her circumstances. That said, she can also be a good friend and confidante, even in this world that fosters an attitude of every woman for herself. There were many memorable and touching moments with the other She-Wolves, especially with Dido, a fellow slave whose life closely mirrors her own.
Then there’s the prose, which is incredibly eloquent. As you can imagine, The Wolf Den features a lot of unpleasant material, given its subject matter. The women frequently become victims of abuse at the hands of Felix or their clients, but the story is never obscene or overly graphic in its violence. The writing does not shy away from the stark truth of the horrors endured by Amara and her friends, but there is also an elegance to the words that brings out the emotional narrative within the sisterhood’s stories.
Bottom line, reading The Wolf Den was an utterly engrossing experience, and as a novel, it also made for a wonderful companion to my nonfiction readings into the history and archeology of Pompeii. I loved how the story sought to explore the lives of women like Amara, placing less emphasis on the day of the city’s doom, which is what most other books about Pompeii focus on. This was a nice change of pace, in more ways than one, and I can’t wait to dive back into this series with the next book of the trilogy.