Book Review – The Wolf Den by Elodie Harper

books, reviews

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I’m pretty sure that I bought a copy of this on my first holiday after Covid. I picked it up on a whim when I was in Waterstones. Mostly so we could take advantage of their special offer. It wasn’t something that I knew a lot about before I walked into the shop. It was just one that they happened to be recommended. I don’t even think I properly looked at the cover before I bought it. I just went in blind. It’s definitely the kind of book that appeals to me though, so no doubt I would have picked it up anyway. As ever, it sat on my shelves for ages without being read. Somewhere along the way, I also bought an audiobook copy of it. No doubt it was part of an Audible daily deal or something. One of the many reasons that I’m glad I don’t have a subscription anymore. As I’m trying to reduce the number of unread books on my Audible account, I decided to listen to it last week. As the book is about a Roman brothel, it probably wasn’t the most appropriate choice for work but never mind.

 I tend to worry when I read historical fiction. I’m always ready for the writer to throw as many historical references and famous faces into the mix in an attempt to create some sort of authenticity. Or that the historical context will be introduced in a really awkward and clunky way. There were a few moments when The Wolf Den could have been a tad more subtle but, for the most part, the setting seemed pretty well realised. Maybe the world-building could be a bit stronger but it’s the first in a trilogy, so I have to assume that it can improve. We find ourselves in one of Pompeii’s most famous brothels, the Wolf Den. As we follow the women who are forced to work there, we learn about the society and customs of Ancient Rome. We also get a pretty good glimpse of what life was like for slaves at the time. The dreams of freedom and the sacrifices that must be made to survive. We see this world through the eyes of the daughter of a doctor, Amara. After the death of her husband, Amara’s mother had no choice but to sell her only child into slavery. Coming to Pompeii from Greece, Amara sees society as an outsider and is quite unlike her fellow prostitutes. 

For one thing, Amara can read. She also has a rudimentary understanding of business and takes an interest in her owner’s dealings. It doesn’t take long for Amara to rise through the ranks. Starting the book as just another whore, she uses her intellect to get what she wants. She learns how to manipulate her customers and get men to do what she wants. Her past allows her to find ways to stand out from the other women at the brothel. Suddenly she is hired to entertain at parties and sing for rich men. It’s clear that Amara has the skills needed to gain her freedom. Especially when she meets a wealthy young man who easily falls in love with her. But there’s also the question of the potter’s slave with whom she begins passing notes. Will her fellow Greek slave distract Amara from her main goal? Or might she actually achieve gain her freedom and get out of the brothel? 

The ending of this book won’t really be a shock to anyone. It’s clear how this is going to end. For one thing, Amara is a bit of a Mary Sue. I know she wasn’t born a slave but the advantage she has over her fellow prostitutes is huge. She gets away with so much more and very rarely sees any consequences for her actions. I’m not saying that I’d have wanted to see Felix treat her badly but it didn’t feel completely realistic that he would have been happy with her constant interference. I really wanted to like her but I did find her a tad annoying. She talks so much of sisterhood with the other women in the brothel but also treats them horribly at times. For a book that talks so much about women supporting women, Amara isn’t exactly a perfect feminist. She looks down on women like Victoria and thinks pretty badly of them. It didn’t completely sit well with me. 

In terms of the story, I found the book to be pretty slow to get going. It didn’t immediately grab my attention as much as I wanted it to. Then the end is just too quick. It all ends in a huge blur and the final scene just feels messy. The pacing didn’t really work for me. I also found it to be fairly tame. Now, I’m not saying that I wanted explicit scenes set in the brothel but it all seemed a bit innocent. It’s supposed to be dealing with the hard reality of brothel slaves but all of the gritty acts are brushed off quite easily. It also doesn’t help that Elodie Harper seems to be trying to make up for it with the language. I’m not one to complain about swearing but the overuse of it seems at odds with the rest of the novel. It just feels like a poor attempt to seem edgier. It didn’t need it. 

After all, there’s a lot to enjoy about this book. I thought there were a lot of interesting elements that could have been expanded upon further. Like the other women in the brothel and their relationships with Amara. I enjoyed Amara’s character development from a timid young girl to a master manipulator. Yes, it happens a bit quickly but she is a strong female character and had a lot of potential. This wasn’t a book that I disliked but I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t that engaged with the story. Certainly not enough to rush out and read the next two books. 

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