The Gentle Wolf by Pia Foxhall

Published: Self-published in November 2020
Format reviewed: E-book (epub), 252 pages
Series: Perth Shifters #2
Genres: Romance, contemporary fantasy
Source: Kobo
Available: Amazon (AU, CA, UK, US) ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Booktopia ~ Kobo

Disclaimer: The author is a friend. I have done my best to give an unbiased review.

Omega Aodhan Donne has buried his past, his life revolves around his chocolaterie, Little Star, a place where he creates sweet and happy memories. Demisexual, and used to being shoved in the friends category by the time he falls for someone, he throws all his energy into creating romantic moments for others in his store, neglecting his needs. His highlight for two years has been the man who visits his shop every Tuesday.

Beta Thomas Wilson is an historian who believes the past should be unearthed, working as the curator at Western Australia’s only shifter museum, educating children and adults about shifter history. Quiet and hard-working, he allows himself to visit Aodhan at Little Star once a week, as a treat.

When Aodhan decides he wants to get know Thomas better, he offers him a window into a complicated history that influenced the lives of shifters in the whole of Australia, and faces the possibility of Thomas learning too much about his dark past.

After deciding to take it slow, their unconventional relationship becomes a whirlwind, sweeping them up together and blowing open the doors hiding their painful pasts. They couldn’t face their truths alone, but if they’re willing to face them together, Aodhan and Thomas may get the love they’ve always yearned for.

February is the month for romance novels. But not every romance novel is light and fluffy. The Gentle Wolf shows how romance can tackle heavy issues while still exploring the joy of new love.

Character is crucial in a story like this. Both Aodhan and Thomas are likeable, sympathetic people. They work hard and are devoted to their respective professions.

Aodhan strives to make his chocolaterie, Little Star, a safe haven — a place for joyous moments for his customers. This is partly a coping mechanism for dealing with a very traumatic past. However, the scenes at the cafe also show his genuine caring for other people. We get to see how he engineers opportunities to better the lives of his employees — creating a secure job for a formerly homeless man and facilitating training for his assistant — while also taking a very sincere interest in their lives.

Thomas is passionate about shifter history and dedicated to educating the community. Like Aodhan, he’s a great boss who values the specialist knowledge of his employee and encourages her to research and design her own exhibits.

Thomas’s museum is one of the places where the worldbuilding really shines. The story is set in contemporary Perth, albeit an alternate history version where wolf shifters outed themselves to the public in the 80s. Although shifters have gained the general acceptance of the public, there’s still a lot of ignorance prevalent. By allowing the reader to sit in on part of a school group Thomas is educating, the author allows us to not only see Thomas in his element, but also show us how shifters fit into the science of this world.

This also ties in to one of the most brilliant things about this book: its grasp of intersectional marginalisation. Although it is touched on only briefly, it is made clear that while shifters are present in both Indigenous and Anglo societies, each have different attitudes and cultures involving shifters. More relevantly, the story shows that even though shifters have emerged into public consciousness and have won themselves rights, those rights aren’t distributed equally. Alphas remain privileged in both shifter and human societies, while omegas have little protection from abuse. This has been a particular theme not only of this book, but the series as a whole.

As you might have gathered, this is a book that comes with some trigger warnings — which is helpfully announced up front and the details included in the back to assist both those who need the warnings and those looking to avoid spoilers. Readers with sensitivities around child abuse, incest and PTSD will want to tread carefully. No abuse is ever shown explicitly on screen, but remains a shadow cast over the story.

Which may make the novel sound like it’s all doom and gloom. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a story about healing, and while that is often difficult for the characters, the author makes sure to share with us their moments of joy. Aodhan takes genuine pleasure in being a wolf, and there are some lovely scenes of gatherings with friends, not to mention the excitement of new love. Plus, getting to see the characters begin to come to terms with their issues is cathartic.

It should be noted that healing is not a fast process, so some readers may find the book a little slow. However, I found it entirely suitable to the subject matter and never felt like it dragged. I did feel there was a bit of an imbalance between the characters, with more focus being devoted to Aodhan. But this also felt somewhat appropriate. The issues that these characters face, while both serious, are not equal: Thomas experienced one abusive relationship as an adult, whereas Aodhan faced years of abuse by his family as a child. It makes sense that the latter is going to have a greater impact and need more time and energy to come to terms with.

One last thing that should be mentioned, particularly in relation to representation, is that Aodhan is demisexual. I’m not the best person to judge the quality of this depiction, but I found it a refreshing choice for a romance novel, particularly one that features explicit sex. It is made clear that although it takes Aodhan a fair bit of time before he feels sexual attraction to a person — needing to be around them and establish a friendship first — he is still more than capable of feeling that attraction.

On the whole, The Gentle Wolf is a thoughtful and intelligent romance novel that deals sensitively with some difficult topics. It is a very fitting addition to the Perth Shifters series and I hope to see more in the future.