The Wolf Den begins in 74 AD (five years before the famous eruption of Vesuvius,) follows Amara from Aphidnai, Greece, who was sold as a slave by her mother after the death of her doctor father. Amara ends up in Pompeii, working in a brothel known as The Wolf Den, for a manipulative and cruel master/pimp Felix. While Amara’s lives a harsh life, the friendships she forms with the other women in the brothel give a glimmer of hope in the darkness of their lives. Amara forms the strongest bond with Dido, a young woman kidnapped from a ship and sold as a slave. Where Dido is reserved and had until that point led a mostly sheltered life, Amara is educated and savvy to the world of men due to the teachings of her late doctor father.
The women of the brothel have learned to wear masks for their performances as “she-wolves” of Pompeii. Their livelihood as slaves bound to a master is directly tied to the identities they play to please potential and paying customers (the women call it “fishing”.) Every aspect of their lives, save their soul-saving friendships with each other and Amara’s secret romantic courtship with a slave named Menander, are at the whim and control and pleasure of men. Essentially, they must “play the game” to survive. If they don’t earn enough money for their master, they will face the harsh and cruel punishments.
Amara is keenly aware of this situation and employs her inherit business savvy to try to better her situation, with the eventual hope of one day earning her freedom or having a “kind” master purchase her. There is a revolving door of rich men and possible patrons, and through all of them she tries her best to play the part of the perfect accommodating woman. Like the other women of the Wolf Den, Amara lets the customer think he has all the ideas and true attention and love when in reality she plays them all as means of survival. And this fact is not something that makes her any less likable, as she has no choice. Possible patrons, and one in particular, sometimes give hints that they are aware of the game being played–but as long as the pretense is upheld, they can both live in a fantasy where one of them is not a slave, where one of them does not hold all of the power. Amara can only play this part for men when she turns her mind and emotions off, to become a shell of herself, as do the other women.
The Wolf Den absolutely had the “couldn’t put down-ness” quality. Elodie Harper fully realized each “she-wolf,” giving them distinctive personalities. What’s more, there are glimmers of humanization of their master Felix, who himself had been a slave/whore and once faced the same abuse. This is the same humanizing factor Amara recognizes as well, though she is loathe to as no one wants to sympathize with their abuser, but also acknowledges (like the reader) that there comes a point at which an adult makes the conscious choice to break the cycle of cruelty and violence. I also found Amara’s views of her friends, admiration mingled with pity and sometimes a dash of anger and frustration, were realistic and complex–especially when it came to her relationship with Victoria, who is clearly under Flex’s spell of manipulation.
As an aside, I also really loved Elodie Harper’s use of real, preserved Pompeii graffiti as chapter openers and how those true words from the past informed the story and characters themselves. I am so curious to see how this story will play out (planned as a trilogy) as the timeline draws closer to the eruption of Vesuvius.
The Wolf Den has already been released in the UK, and will be released in the US on March 29, 2022.
The House with the Golden Door, the second book of the trilogy, will be released in the UK on May 12, 2022.