It's possible that one of the reasons Watership Down became such an enduring classic is that it's a fantasy that plays directly to the mainstream: It centers on the lives of talking rabbits, but it avoids any other notably fantastical elements, and author Richard Adams went to great pains to tie his characters into the natural world. They talk like people, but think and act like the animals they are. It's a book that could—granted the existence of sapient rabbits—take place in the real world, and it's written as though it does. Similar books dealing with animal societies—Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song, say, or the Redwall books, or Ken Grimwood's Into The Deep—generally create their own, less compellingly close worlds. And in the process, they tend to forget that non-human characters are generally interesting for their non-human perspectives, and not necessarily for the big, familiar fantasy tropes that those characters share with their two-legged literary brethren.
In her debut novel—the first of, sigh, yet another projected trilogy—Dorothy Hearst sometimes gets the formula right. Her research into pack mechanics and lupine behavior comes in handy as she tells the story of a pack of wolves dealing with a crux in their history, circa 12,000 B.C. The first-person narrator, a female wolf named Kaala, is almost killed at birth, both because her father came from outside her pack's territory, and because of the crescent-moon pattern that marks her as a possible savior or eradicator of her pack. But the "Greatwolves"—wandering overlord types who oversee pack politics—prevail on her pack to let her live, if not necessarily to accept her. Her pack leader and his bullying pups try to get rid of her in other ways, but her tenaciousness and the allies she makes among the pack keep her going. Then she has her first encounter with humanity, and feels painfully, inexorably drawn to them. As she starts defying the laws of her kind in order to be close to those who kill her kind, the prophecy comes into sharper focus.
Promise Of The Wolves has been billed as a mating of Watership Down with Clan Of The Cave Bear, but it's closer to something like Into The Deep, a New Agey fable with some roots in reality, but most of its focus on an underdeveloped, vague animist mythology, the demands of Balance, and the strains of prophecy. Hearst's world tends to be a little too precious: The wolves are closely allied with ravens, who speak largely in haiku, while the wolves themselves have a thousand increasingly tiresome compound words to describe their pack positions and relationships. (Smallpup, weakpup, leaderwolf, Greatwolf, lordwolf, oldwolf, youngwolf, littlewolf, elderwolf, runtwolf, etc., ad infinitum… at least Watership Down's Richard Adams made up his own non-English rabbit vocabulary, to get some variety into all the descriptions of eating grass and pooping.)
But Promise does have its corresponding strengths, largely in Hearst's appealing writing style and the sympathetic, energetic ways in which she draws Kaala and her pack. She has a natural talent for writing action and for setting scenes with just enough description to paint a picture, and she provokes empathy gently and naturally, without going overboard. Her world is often absorbingly real, even as her stylistic quirks and well-trod ground work to push readers back out of it. Even on her first time out, her authorial voice is solid, confident, and well-developed. It'll be well worth watching to see what she comes up with once these books are out of her system.