Iron Rabbit; Mainframe: Beginnings & Mainframe: A Matter of Transfer; Timothy; Urchin of the Riding Stars & Urchin and the Heartstone; The Challenge of the Rose; and Windrusher & Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-Hoth

reviewed by Fred Patten
©2006 Fred Patten

Home -=- #09 -=- ANTHRO #9 Reviews
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Iron Rabbit Mainframe: Beginnings & Mainframe: A Matter of Transfer Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile Urchin of the Riding Stars & Urchin and the Heartstone The Challenge of the Rose Windrusher & Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-Hoth

Title: Iron Rabbit
Creator: Bill Holbrook
Publisher: Plan Nine Publishing (High Point, NC), Aug 2006
ISBN: 0-9660676-8-1
Trade paperback, 132 pages, USD $13.95

   Iron Rabbit—The Eleventh Kevin & Kell Collection! Fans of this oldest of the Internet’s original comic strips (started on September 4, 1995) should not need any more prompting to get this volume. Iron Rabbit begins immediately where Oh, the Humanity! broke off, with the March 1, 2004 strip, and it includes everything (no omissions this time) to December 26, 2004, the day after Christmas.
   Kevin & Kell is arguably the ultimate Furry comic strip. It is set in a world without humans but where everything organic is intelligent. Kevin (rabbit) & Kell (wolf) Dewclaw are a happily married couple despite their natural prey-predator relationship. The whole city of Domain is inhabited by animals (and insects, and plants) who have worked out an integrated society despite their carnivore-herbivore diets. This is a light comedy strip, so it is easy to poke big holes in the logic and consistency of the animals’ relationships; but any critics who do are just showing how tiny a sense of humor they have.
   The strip was nine years old when these episodes first appeared, and had accumulated a considerable backstory, so those who are not familiar with Kevin & Kell may want to start with one of the previous collections (all are available from Plan Nine Publishing). Iron Rabbit introduces a major new character—Aby Eyeshine, the cat who owns an automotive body shop—and a traumatic change in Kell’s life, when she loses her longstanding job as an executive at Herd Thinners, Inc., and how this affects the whole Dewclaw family. Both events occur midway through this volume, which also includes Kell’s overcoming her prejudice against felines, Kell’s mother’s online experiences in a seniors’ chat room, the threat of a Constitutional amendment banning predator—prey marriages, the discovery that teen son Rudy has ‘dystracksia’ (a tracking disorder which threatens his position on Caliban Academy’s hunting team), the growing financial problems of Kevin’s Hare-Link I.S.P. company, the startup of daughter Lindesfarne’s online blog, the revelation of Kevin’s past as a masked wrestling star, Lindesfarne’s graduation from high school and entry into Beige University, and much more. As usual, the nine months’ worth of daily strips consists of both standalone gag episodes and brief story sequences that run about two weeks each.
   The collection is in Plan Nine’s format of two pages of three daily strips (Monday—Wednesday, and Thursday—Saturday), followed by one Sunday strip. The Sunday strips are the size of two daily strips, which would leave 1/3 blank page under them. To keep this space from being wasted, Holbrook has thrown in an assortment of brand-new strips, old filler art such as the “Kell’s Angels” badges sent to sponsors in past years, stock certificates from corporations featured in Kevin & Kell (Herd Thinners, Inc., Hare-Link, Aby’s Auto Repair, MicroTalon, Inc.), and early entries from Lindesfarne’s blog, Virtual Quill.
   Iron Rabbit is unfortunately in black-&-white only, lacking the color of the Internet strip. (Plan Nine’s publication of previous collections in full-color did not sell.) This presents an unexpected surprise; Aby the cat is shown as a blonde rather than a brunette. The book has been printed from Holbrook’s line art before the computer coloring is laid-over, and apparently Aby’s thick coal-black hair has been added computer-coloring rather than part of the basic black penmanship. Kell’s hair has always appeared as blonde in these uncolored collections, but that was always obviously due to the missing blue coloring. Seeing Aby with colorless hair-&-fur may take a while for regular readers to get used to.
   Iron Rabbit—if you are a K&K fan, you know you have to have it.

Kevin & Kell ©2004, Bill Holbrook Buy the books at
Compare this August 2, 2004 strip with computer coloring to the uncolored strip in Iron Rabbit to see Aby change from brunette to blonde.

Iron Rabbit Mainframe: Beginnings & Mainframe: A Matter of Transfer Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile Urchin of the Riding Stars & Urchin and the Heartstone The Challenge of the Rose Windrusher & Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-Hoth

Title: MainFrame: Beginnings
Author: Simba Wiltz
Publisher: Xlibris Corporation (Philadelphia), Dec 2001
ISBN: 1-4010-2287-1
Trade paperback, 320 pages, USD $22.99


Title: MainFrame: A Matter of Transfer
Author: Simba Wiltz
Illustrations: Maps
Publisher: Xlibris Corporation (Philadelphia), Jun 2006
ISBN: 1-4257-0982-6
Hardcover, 346 pages, USD $32.99
ISBN: 1-4257-0981-8
Trade paperback, 346 pages, USD $22.99

   Scott’s ears grated uncomfortably against the earholes of his helmet. The fox was only borrowing it for the flight to his new home, and the fit was less than ideal. He tried to ignore the slight pinch by watching the Pellician horizon. The quiescent Sea of Expanse slowly rolled under him. As many times as he’d dreamed of being in a plane like this, he never imagined that his first experience would be this amazing.
Comfy back there?”
   “Hmm? Oh, yeah. I’m fine Hunter.”
   In the seat ahead of Scott, a much larger felinoid piloted the craft. His pale yellow ears turned as he heard the reply, then returned to attending the various sounds of the cockpit. “Nervous?”
   “A little,” Scott said, “but I’m glad to be out of Hytrato.”
   Hunter nodded his head a bit. “It’s a shame really. I’ve heard that Basi Hill was a nice place.”
   “There were lots of nice places in Hytrato before the Naiko Powers showed up.”
(pg. 19)

   Whoa! MainFrame gets off to a bad start due to dumping the reader into the funny-animal world of Pellicia with a confusing plethora of names of nations, cities, geographical features, international organizations, and more to figure out. A gazetteer is badly needed. There is none in the book, but there is one on Wiltz’s MainFrame website. You should order the books online, then while waiting for them to arrive, read the website’s “World of MainFrame: Pellician Information” for the background.
   A brief overview: Pellicia’s largest nations/landmasses are Lirona, Jirinate, Hytrato, and Aeri-Agula. All are members of the planetary InterTerri Council (ITC), headquartered in Jirinate. A couple of years before the beginning of the novel, the Hytrato government was seized by the sinister Naiko Powers which combine the worst aspects of the Nazi party and Marvel Comics’ HYDRA international terrorist organization. The ITC and the other nations are trying to accept Naiko-controlled Hytrato as a distasteful but legitimate dictatorship, while making military preparations against any attempts to expand into its neighbors; but it looks like Naiko’s real goal is not conquest but world destruction through genocidal terrorism. Naiko teams also ruthlessly strip-mine all Pellicia for celestite, the mineral that is the main power source for all technology. While the world publicly dithers about what to do, top-secret steps are being taken to create an anti-Naiko commando force.
   Just think of MainFrame as a funny-animal version of Marvel Comics’ original Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. stories when S.H.I.E.L.D. was fighting HYDRA, and you have the basic idea. MainFrame is a typical comic-book secret commando organization with a super-high-tech hidden base:

   Hunter smiled. “Welcome to Mount Cragnie.”
Mount Cragnie?” Scott repeated, “The Mount Cragnie?”
There’s only one.”
   Scott’s brows knitted in an expression of discomfort. “When you said that the base was isolated, you didn’t mention it was on the cliffs of the most dangerous island on the planet.”
(pg. 21)

   Scott Curry (fox), an electronic communications expert, is the latest recruit to MainFrame. The first sixty or seventy pages are Scott’s (and the reader’s) introduction to the Crag City base, crammed with military, surveillance, and secret-agent technology at least a decade ahead of anything the public knows about. Scott is welcomed into the commando team:

   The fox turned to see a tall collie coming in their direction. A similarly sized lioness strode next to her with long steps. Both females were dressed in baggy blue pants and wore beige work boots designed to fit their footpaws. The lioness sported a white tank top exposing a well-toned upper body that bespoke graceful power. The collie had on a white T-shirt tucked into her pants on one side. Scott looked up as both ladies approached, noticing that they were almost two feet taller than him. (pg. 24)

   The collie is Andrea and the lioness is Sarah. Other team members include commander Mane (lion), Norman (grizzly bear), Libby (tabby cat), Bradford (black panther), Taylor (wolf), Ty (raccoon), Edmond St John (Clydesdale) and his wife Vanessa (dapple gray mare), and Jessi (doe). Most are mammals (Pellicians refer to themselves as fursons), though there are exceptions:

   Libby stood at the door [of the infirmary] and crossed her arms. “I thought you said you were ready?”
I am,” Gerald [condor] replied, turning his head to look at her. The fleshy corner of his beak turned upward in a smile. “I’m feeling much better.”
   “That’s not what I’m talking about, Gerald,” the feline said. “Where are your pants?”
   “The feathers cover everything essential,” Gerald said, “besides, pants are so un-avian.”
(pgs. 54-55)

   Animal sizes seem to be relatively realistic. The raccoon and fox are the runts of the team, while the two bipedal horses are 9 and 8 feet tall when standing. Each is an expert in one or more technological fields and martial-arts specialties.
   After establishing MainFrame as a smooth-working team of good-natured macho (despite being half-female) buddies, the novel swings into action. Separate incidents read more like connected short stories. MainFrame has to repeatedly save badly-planned ITC military actions under General George Brant (bulldog). Naiko terrorism kills some teammates along with hundreds of innocent civilians. A mysterious accident causes the base’s combat simulation trainer, programmed to stop just short of being deadly, to go over the line into a lethal mode. Commander Mane Msmangu agonizes over a personal secret that may affect his ability to lead MainFrame. A suspenseful secret-agent mission is conducted into Hytrato’s capital city, the main Naiko stronghold. MainFrame carries out its first fully-united commando foray against a Naiko celestite supply route, which almost results in a friendly-fire tragedy when a unit of the regular ITC-Special Forces attacks at the same time. MainFrame: Beginnings ends with a celebration of early victories, but the grim knowledge that the war is just starting.
   MainFrame: A Matter of Transfer is a straightforward continuation of the story. It is hinted at in Beginnings, when Norman and Bradford casually discuss the theoretical possibilities of a Matter Transfer Device that noted irascible scientist Dr. Dollinger of the Science Institute of Hytrato is rumored to be working on. The Transfer Device is mostly what Alfred Hitchcock would have called a maguffin; if Dr. Dollinger (armadillo) completes it, Naiko will win, so MainFrame has to fill the second book with several aerial combat missions to prevent Naiko from gathering the resources to build the invention. ITC’s military incompetence looks increasingly like deliberate sabotage. Major new characters are the Naiko leadership under Commander Anoux Afiriti (lion); and what seem to be the ITC Armed Forces’ only competent leaders, Lieut. General Dorivar Vout (bull) and his adjutant, Major Steve Retrac (tiger).
   The most serious problem of this two-volume adventure is that nobody, including its own team, wonders more than idly in passing where MainFrame comes from with all its comic-book supercommando technology. About two-thirds into A Matter of Transfer there is a chapter titled “Revelations” which provides good answers to this and several lesser mysteries; but it is too late to keep this from being a glaring blind spot in the intelligence of the cast.
   A separate two-page “Author’s Commentary” tucked into Beginnings says that A Matter of Transfer was actually plotted first. Beginnings was added when Wiltz realized that his story needed too much setup for one volume. This could explain why the writing in Beginnings seems more polished. A Matter of Transfer is a bit more crudely melodramatic, as in this description of Naiko’s ominous main headquarters (pictured on the book’s cover):

   Looming in the center of the city-state [Hitralato], a wicked spire shot up from the civilization like an angry finger stabbing at the heavens. Four sub-buildings surrounded a flawless shaft that grew into the sky with unnatural perfection. Its dominating form stood out from the rest of the skyline, driving a wedge of cold terror into the hearts of all who laid eyes on it. At the base of the edifice, a plaque read ‘Ministry of Commerce and State’. This monstrous creation served as the capitol building of the city, province, and landmass. (pg. 42)

   MainFrame will be enjoyed by Furry fans who are also fans of Mission: Impossible, The A-Team, all those Destroyer novels (over a hundred) created by Richard Sapir & Warren Murphy, and similar commando/secret-agent thrillers. Despite some comic-bookish simplicities, and some implausibilities in the animal cast (a bipedal giraffe, even if specified as wearing a reinforced neck guard, seems too fragile for the battle action), the drama and suspense are well-handled and the questions that will arise in readers’ minds are eventually resolved.

Note: In addition to, you can also purchase the MainFrame books from Xlibris: Mainframe: Beginnings for USD $19.54, and MainFrame: A Matter of Transfer for USD $29.69 in hardcover, or USD $19.54 in paperback.

Iron Rabbit Mainframe: Beginnings & Mainframe: A Matter of Transfer Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile Urchin of the Riding Stars & Urchin and the Heartstone The Challenge of the Rose Windrusher & Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-Hoth

Title: Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile
Author: Verlyn Klinkenborg
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf (NYC), Feb 2006
ISBN: 0-679-40728-6
Hardcover, 178 + [3] pages, USD $16.95

   I was gone for more than a week before they found me. A rustling in the bean-field, heavy steps nearby. A shout—the boy’s voice—more shouts. Thomas catches me up in his hands with sickening haste. I weigh six pounds thirteen ounces. He lifts me as though I weigh nothing at all.
   Ground breaks away. May wind shivers in my ears. My legs churn the sky on their own. I look down on bean-tops. Down on the blunt ends of sheep-bitten grasses. Over one field into the next, into the hop-garden beyond. Past thatch and tiles, past maypole, past gilded cock on the church tower. All in my eye, all at once. So far to see.
(pg. 5)

   Thus Timothy’s attempt to escape when a gate is carelessly left open. Gilbert White (1720-1793) was born in the small English village of Selborne, and spent most of his life as a deacon, vicar or curate there and in neighboring parishes. Aside from delivering weekly sermons, performing marriages and burials, and similar ecclesiastical services for his parishioners, he had a lot of spare time. White is remembered today principally for his voluminous diaries and notes as a pioneering amateur naturalist, mostly published in 1789 as The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. White extensively documented both the human events in his village, and the weather, plants, insects and animal life of the surrounding Hampshire countryside.
   This included Timothy, a Mediterranean tortoise kept for forty years by his aunt and her husband, the vicar of nearby Ringmer. Timothy was outside White’s area of interest for most of their lives, although he did borrow the tortoise during a visit in 1775 to be weighed on a local shop-scale. When his aunt died in 1780, White inherited Timothy and brought him home to Selborne. For the next thirteen years, until White’s death, Timothy featured regularly in his observations on natural history. (Long after, a later generation of naturalists determined that Timothy had actually been a female tortoise native to Cilicia in Turkey. Her shell is in the Natural History Museum in London today.)
   In Timothy; or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, Verlyn Klinkenborg recasts the story from Timothy’s viewpoint, in the rambling, old-fashioned style of White’s commentaries. She was not as unlikely an English immigrant as a modern reader might think:

   I was fashionable, you see. We were fashionable, the tortoises, a fashion only just beginning. Not in Ringmer or Selborne alone. Tortoises all across the ecclesiastical countryside, none of us native. Find a clerical establishment of a certain outlook and behold! Tortoise in the garden. Vicars and curates examine their reptiles the way they examine the Clergyman’s Intelligencer or Ecton’s guide to parish incomes. Consult us, round Easter, like clocks. Who rises? (pg. 45)

   Mediterranean tortoises in the English countryside had the habit of burrowing into the ground and hibernating during winter. White documented this every year, to Timothy’s annoyance:

   I heave up the mould. Unbury myself. In this place, I am considered a sign of spring, like the budding of beeches on the Hanger or the return of the first birds of passage. But I am a sign of spring the way flooding in Gracious Street is a sign of high water. Over the goose-hatch. The thing itself. The season advances directly through me.
   Year after year Mr. Gilbert White notes the occasion. He has been up for months. Stands over me while rising still blinds me, before hunger returns. Long winter lingering in mouth and bowel. Mr. Gilbert White records the date, the weather. Conjunction, at my arrival, of a bat, a redstart, a daffodil, a troop of shell-snails.
   “Timothy the tortoise begins to stir,” he writes; “he heaves up the mould that lies over his back.”
   “Timothy the tortoise heaves up the sod under which he is buried.”
   “Timothy the tortoise heaves-up the earth.”
   “Timothy the tortoise roused himself from his winter-slumbers and came forth.”
   No other news in Selborne? No mad dog a-biting? No cow a-springing on a barn floor? What makes my rising momentous to anyone but me?
(pgs. 12-13)

   For all his fascination with Timothy, White has a low opinion of tortoises. He calls them “most abject reptile and torpid of beings” and (in a quote from his Natural History):

   It is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squander more than two thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor, and be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers. (pg. 46)

   Timothy reciprocates, commenting scathingly on White’s and all humans’ smug assurance that only they have higher feelings; that animals lack the intellect to enjoy their own natures and species’ abilities. Timothy is able to criticize from the advantage of two centuries’ further advances in knowledge, as she notes White’s inability to distinguish male from female tortoises, and his assumption that, just because tortoises hibernate during the winter, this also explains the disappearance of certain birds during that season:

   Mr. Gilbert White suspects that some of the summer birds winter as I do. Hole in the ground, cavity in a riverbank. “Hiding,” he calls it. Cannot persuade himself of the great flights into Africa. Wheatears resting on ships’ rigging far out at sea. Flocks in the shrouds. He cannot credit the thought of Selborne’s hirundines chattering out of English earshot. No longer swallow, swift or martin. (pg. 30)

   When Timothy is not correcting White’s misapprehensions about nature, she gives her own views of humans, in the abstract and describing their seasonal social activities in Selborne:

   It took me many months among them to trust that humans could keep from falling over. Their paces, forward and backward, still seem little more than falling forestalled one foot at a time. Side-to-side shuffling of a raven. Not nearly as solid on their feet as a hen scratching after crumbs in the street. (pgs. 50-51)

   White died on June 26, 1793. His last journal entries were about ten days earlier. Timothy’s epitath is, Wind on the fifteenth of June 1793? From the northeast veering to the southwest. Matter of record. Wind on the sixteenth? No one will ever know who did not live through it. (pg. 157) That winter, she is finally able to burrow and hibernate in peace and privacy.
   Since the vocabulary of late 18th century rural England is unknown to most modern readers, Timothy’s story is followed by a fascinating and very helpful 18-page Glossary of such forgotten terms as gossamer (the small cobwebs of tiny spiders that swarm in the fields in autumn), ha-ha (a sunken fence, as a barrier against grazing animals), and lorum (“the space between the eye and bill of a bird”).
   Verlyn Klinkenborg is on the editorial board of the New York Times. Timothy briefly appeared on its Best Sellers—Fiction list. The book has been getting excellent literary reviews (“…Most of all, Klinkenborg imbues Timothy with a profound sense of apartness, a lonely being at home in the space of a singular shell. It is the author's greatest triumph: He makes us believe we are reading not just the thoughts of a tortoise but those of a Turkish tortoise, uprooted from the craggy coast of the Mediterranean to spend cruel, solitary winters in a British garden.”, Los Angeles Times; “…Klinkenborg gives the tortoise an unforgettable voice and powers of observation as keen as those of any bipedal naturalist…”, Science Daily; “…Timothy is admirable on several levels, from its mastery of character and voice to the dexterity of its perspective-shifts as it examines the metaphysical questions that arise from the 18th century Christian minister’s observation of nature.”, Seattle Times), and therefore should be in most public libraries, for those who wish to read without buying.

Iron Rabbit Mainframe: Beginnings & Mainframe: A Matter of Transfer Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile Urchin of the Riding Stars & Urchin and the Heartstone The Challenge of the Rose Windrusher & Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-Hoth

Cover of the US edition of URCHIN OF THE RIDING STARS
Title: Urchin of the Riding Stars (The Mistmantle Chronicles, Book One) [UK] [US]
Author: M. I. McAllister

Illustrator: Gary Blythe
Publisher: Bloomsbury (London), Jan 2005
ISBN: 0-7475-7355-7
Hardcover, 330 + [2] pages, UK £12.99

Illustrator: Omar Rayyan
Publisher: Miramax Books/Hyperion Books for Children (New York), Sep 2005
ISBN: 0-7868-5486-3
Hardcover, 282 pages, USD $17.95

Cover of the US edition of URCHIN AND THE HEARTSTONE

Title: Urchin and the Heartstone (The Mistmantle Chronicles, Book Two) [UK] [US]
Author: M. I. McAllister

Illustrator: Gary Blythe
Publisher: Bloomsbury (London), Apr 2006
ISBN: 0-7475-7512-6
Hardcover, 361 + [2] pages, UK £12.99

Illustrator: Omar Rayyan
Publisher: Miramax Books/Hyperion Books for Children (New York), Sep 2006
ISBN: 0-7868-5488-X
Hardcover, 297 pages, USD $17.95

   “…This heart-stopping adventure in the great tradition of Watership Down and The Wind in the Willows,” says the U.S. jacket blurb. Lies, lies! Urchin of the Riding Stars is solidly in the tradition of Jacques’ Redwall series, or Disney’s 1973 funny-animal Robin Hood movie. Watership Down and The Wind in the Willows are both about animals living in the human world, while there are no humans in Urchin. Watership Down is about ‘realistic’ animals, while the talking animals of Mistmantle Island wear clothes, have their own kings, castles and Medieval politics, and so on. Urchin is even like the Redwall books in their illustrative format of one small but excellent picture at the head of each chapter (by different artists in the U.K. and U.S. editions), instead of full-page illustrations.
   But while its true influences are obvious, Urchin of the Riding Stars is worth reading in its own right. Unlike the Redwall books, which are packaged for both Young Adults and adults, the Mistmantle Chronicles by British author Margaret McAllister are aimed directly at children of the 9 to 11 age range; but the action and dialogue are generally mature enough that older readers will enjoy them, too. There are heroes and villains among each animal species, and all speak standard English. If some plot elements are overly formulaic (the king’s most trusted advisor is the villain who is plotting to overthrow him), how they are handled is nicely original and intelligent.
   The isolated island of Mistmantle is populated by four British woodland species in harmony: “She had heard great things about the secret island, where a kind king ruled from a high tower on the rocks, and red squirrels, hedgehogs, moles, and otters lived and worked together. It was a good, safe place, protected by the enchanted mists folded around it like a cloak. Because of that protection, very few ships ever reached the island—but at last, this one had.” (U.K. ed., pg. 8) Mistmantle is a single kingdom ruled by good King Brushen, a hedgehog. But there have been other dynasties in the past, and there is no prejudice against a new king from one of the other species. Whenever a dynasty does not have an heir, the senior captain becomes the next king.
   Urchin is a young squirrel of mysterious parentage, discovered as a newborn foundling babe on the beach. Adopted by a motherly squirrel named Apple, Urchin stands out because of his unique coloring: “He was still as pale as honey, with the red squirrel color only at the tips of his ears and tail.” (pg. 9) He expects to grow up to become a common laborer, until he is chosen for his reliability and intelligence by Captain Crispen, one of the king’s advisors and Urchin’s particular hero, to be his page boy:
   “All three captains [Husk and Crispin the Squirrels, and Padra the Otter] had been friends since they were small. In time they had been chosen to be pages at the tower, then promoted to the Circle, and now they were captains, the highest rank on the island. Captain Husk was the king’s most trusted friend and advisor, and mostly stayed in the tower. Captain Padra had always taken special care of the shores and the creatures who lived by water. But Crispin took a particular care for the woodlands and the Anemone Wood creatures—he even appeared to take an interest in Urchin.” (pg. 20)
   To be a royal court page is every animal boy’s dream. But Urchin is barely chosen when the infant crown prince is murdered, and dubious evidence frames Crispin as the killer. Crispin is exiled from Mistmantle. Padra, who is convinced of Crispin’s innocence and suspects that he will be the next to be falsely disgraced, takes over Urchin’s sponsorship and training. The two are the only ones at first whom the bewildered commoners can rally around (even though they are aware that this increases their own danger) when harsh new laws in the king’s name begin to be enforced by cruel new commanders paw-picked by Captain Husk. It becomes a race for Padra, with Urchin’s help, to expose Husk’s and his corrupt followers’ villainy before the two can be assassinated.
   The Mistmantle characters are well motivated. Most readers will recognize more than a bit of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the nightmare-haunted Husk and his smiling but coldly scheming squirrel wife, Lady Aspen. Padra and Urchin become good friends although they remain an Odd Couple; Padra the Otter cannot understand why anyone would not love swimming and fish for dinner. Other memorable characters, good and bad, include Brother Fir, the squirrel priest; Lady Tay, the otter historian; Needle, the hedgehog seamstress; Lugg, the old mole soldier; and Gleaner, Lady Aspen’s ambitious squirrel maid, among others. Urchin grows in competence and self-assurance until he is trusted to undertake what may be a lone suicide mission; to leave Mistmantle, find Captain Crispin, and bring him home.
   There are a couple of inconsistencies. Both story and art are vague as to how anthropomorphized the animals are supposed to be. At one moment they are walking along streets or indoors on two feet; at the next they are skittering up and down trees or walls on all fours. Urchin scrambled out of the window, down the wall, in through another window—it was the quickest way—and ran through the corridors to the royal chambers. (pg. 83) On the first page of Chapter Two, just after he has been appointed Crispin’s page, Urchin is described as, He wore a cloak, a new dark red one, partly because the nights could get cold, but also to honor the occasion. He couldn’t go to the tower without a decent cloak. Yet the U.S. chapter-heading illustration by Omar Rayyan shows Urchin as a natural squirrel, naked except for his fur. The attractive cover pictures of both the British and American editions show Urchin as a normal red-furred squirrel despite constant references in the story to his strikingly odd coloring. The animals outside Mistmantle, on Swan Isle ruled by swan Lord Arcneck, can talk but seem otherwise completely naturalistic. No reason is given for their notably more primitive nature. Yet there are brief references to civilized animals on other islands; and despite many references to Mistmantle’s secret and unfindable location, there turns out to be a lot of trade with those other islands. But these are minor annoyances in an otherwise well-written adventure.
   The chapter-heading pictures by Gary Blythe in the British editions are more decorations than illustrations, since they show a sword, a pitcher and cups, a boat, and other objects; but no characters. The U,S. chapter headings by Omar Rayyan are much more illustrative and excellently depict the cast, even if they are inconsistently clothed.
   Book 2, Urchin and the Heartstone, begins as Mistmantle is preparing for the coronation of a new king. The Heartstone is a crucial part of this event:

   Fir chuckled softly. […] “The Heartstone of Mistmantle. It looks like any old pebble, just like one of these, but it has a most special quality. It is a gift of the Heart to the island. The Heartstone can only be held in the paw of a rightful ruler or priest of Mistmantle. Nobody else can hold on to it, unless they carry it in a bag or box, of course. That makes it a vital part of the coronation.” (U.K. ed., pgs. 35-36)

   Yet the Heartstone is only a subplot. A ship from neighboring Whitewings island comes to request aid. Many of Husk’s brutal soldiers fled there after his defeat, and they are terrorizing King Silverbirch’s realm. There is a legend that Whitewings can only be saved by a ‘Marked Squirrel’, so the ambassadors ask specifically for young Urchin’s aid. Urchin is deep into unexpected treachery on Whitewings before it is discovered back on Mistmantle that the Heartstone is missing. Urchin and the Heartstone introduces new characters (notably Smokewreath, the evil squirrel sorcerer) and has several clever surprises in its parallel stories of Urchin’s efforts to survive and discover the true enemy on Whitewings, and of his Mistmantle friends’ attempts to rescue him, and to find the Heartstone. Each novel stands nicely on its own, although the mystery of Urchin’s parentage is resolved in Heartstone. Book 3 in the series, The Heir of Mistmantle, is due out in Britain in March 2007.

Iron Rabbit Mainframe: Beginnings & Mainframe: A Matter of Transfer Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile Urchin of the Riding Stars & Urchin and the Heartstone The Challenge of the Rose Windrusher & Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-Hoth

Title: The Challenge of the Rose (Part 1 of The Trail of the Great Rose)
Author: Fara Shimbo
Illustrator: The author
Publisher: LMC Campus Press/CaféPress (Foster City, CA), May 2006
Trade paperback, 331 pages, USD $17.99

   Is The Trail of the Great Rose (the series of which this book, The Challenge of the Rose, is the first installment) set on an alien planet, or on Earth in a future so distant that humanity is extinct and new intelligent species have evolved? The answer is not in this first part. It doesn’t really matter, because the characters, their species, and their society are all so fascinating that readers will soon become totally engrossed in this story.

   Khizhir turned and looked down the river. “Well, I have never heard [Yre] mention trying to find a home.” She lay back in the sunlight, and after a few moments started chuckling. “These Zhe-Shimeyu! They think, except when they need our hands to do something for them or just us to eat, we Zhe-Chiyaha don’t really exist.”
   “I observed that last time I was here,” Rumau said.
   “And when they
must discuss themselves in front of us, they must change to their own tongue. It is an insult.”
   Rumau grunted. Her mind was already returning to the problem of the kiln.
(pgs. 43-44)

   The initial main characters are Khizhir, a chiyaha (roughly monkeylike giant squirrels); Yre, a shimeyu (flightless large birds like emus, with small and almost useless hands); Rumau and Heyu, both Madhai (the most humanlike, but with tails and blue- or green-and-white striped skin that must be kept moist; they spend a lot of time soaking in rivers or baths); and the Madhais’ horses, Gadrin, Ohlu and Owán, who are like 20th century horses with intelligence as well as equine instincts. Others like Cookie (Koo-kii!) the Sky Lion will gradually enter the plot as the story and the world both expand.

   Rumau looked out over the crowd which had gathered on the dock and the seawalls. Except for color, she found it impossible to tell the chiyaha apart. There were plenty of small and large chiyaha in Rumau’s homeland, but no Zhe [‘Speaking’]-Chiyaha; and Rumau never could grasp the subtleties of their individual faces. The shimeyu, as common here as back home, were of five or six kinds to begin with, and with their marks of rank they were far too fancy for her elderly eyes to pick out individuals.” (pg. 15)

   The chiyaha and the shimeyu were originally separate and still have separate towns, but the more cosmopolitan of them have come to live in joint communities. While there is polite commerce between them, neither really trusts the other. The chiyaha consider the shimeyu to be Obsessively hierarchical, organized beyond the point of ridicule, the Speaking-Shimeyu […] formed scholarly and secretive Societies, which dealt with just about everything; everything that happened, that once had happened, or that might possibly happen. (pgs. 5-6) They also fear that the toothed, omnivorous shimeyu will eat chiyaha. The shimeyu (and, indeed, most other species) consider the chiyaha to be frenetic, frivolous, and having almost nonexistent attention spans:

   At that moment a small cart was rolled down the gangway. […] The locals, truth be told, had never seen wheels before, much less seen anything rolling about on them.
   The chiyaha immediately broke into questions and demands to see the cart roll again. The shimeyu edged a little closer, but were silent, and only watched.
(pg. 17)

   And in the background are the lovely but deadly Great Roses:

   About half an hour upriver, the road turned suddenly to the north, away from the bank. The reason was very clear; growing on the bank was a Great Rose.
   The Rose formed a dome about four times as tall as the Madhai and fifteen times a Madhór horse in diameter. The plant was covered in dark green leaves, and flowers the size of one’s fist. They could just see that the flowers on this Rose were smoky orange, streaked with purple. Yellow-orange fruits hung in clusters, all attended by birds and small shimeyu and chiyaha. The fragrance was overwhelmingly beautiful; sweet and deep and as soothing as the touch of a friend.
   The guardian wasps were not in evidence. If Madhai and Madhór kept to the trail, they probably would not come out.
(pg. 19)

Illustration from Chapter 27    Anyone who disturbs a Great Rose is likely to be stung and pecked to death by its guardian wasps and birds; and the Great Roses are spreading unchecked across this world.
   This review could be filled with interesting background alone. The catalyst for the action is the arrival of two Madhai, the elderly potter Rumau and her student Heyu, with their Madhór horses from across the sea to examine the area for new clays and minerals for glazes. Khizhir the chiyaha and Yre the shimeyu, both loners and overly curious among their kind, go to Rumau’s camp at White Rock Dike to see what is going on. Rumau is equally curious about this new (to her) world. When it becomes clear that Yre is not allowed to answer any questions because all information is a secret of one Society or another, and non-shimeyu are not allowed to join, Rumau proposes semi-humorously that they start their own scholarly group, the White Rock Dike Academic Society, so they can share their information with each other. They do not expect that they have more serious knowledge among them about this world’s archaeological past than they individually realize; that the haughty shimeyu Societies will react in unpleasant ways to keep Yre from revealing their secrets; and that the chiyaha will turn against their own for challenging the status quo. Add to this a dramatic climactic change that threatens all species, plus the slow but unstoppable spread of the Great Roses, and you have an impending global disaster that only a unique trans-species Academic Society of extremely reluctant questers may be able to stave off.
   The Trail of the Great Rose is a refreshingly original adventure, with a cast that does not behave as much like humans in superficial animal form as like animals with intelligence as well as their own instincts. The ambience swings from hilarious frustration (when Rumau tries to teach the scatterbrained chiyaha anything) to dramatic suspense (as some naïve characters wander into situations of real danger). Shimbo’s detailed illustrations every few pages depict the exotic cast in satisfying realism. This is a unique story that should not be missed. Readers who cannot wait for Part 2, The Clan of the Beruliy, can find it in serialized progress on Shimbo’s website.

Iron Rabbit Mainframe: Beginnings & Mainframe: A Matter of Transfer Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile Urchin of the Riding Stars & Urchin and the Heartstone The Challenge of the Rose Windrusher & Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-Hoth

Title: Windrusher
Author: Victor DiGenti
Publisher: The Writers’ Collective (Cranston, RI), Jan 2004
ISBN: 1-59411-098-0
Trade Paperback, 280 [+ 6] pages, USD $15.95


Title: Windrusher And The Cave Of Tho-hoth
Author: Victor DiGenti
Publisher: Ocean Publishing (Flagler Beach, FL), Jan 2005
ISBN: 0-9717641-7-4
Trade Paperback, 261 pages, USD $15.95

   The double-hexology (twelve books) of Erin Hunter’s two Warriors series may have garnered most of the attention during the past three years, but fans of anthropomorphic cat-quest novels should certainly not overlook Victor DiGenti’s two Windrusher novels.
   Tony, a gray mackerel tabby with orange stripes subtly woven through his coat (pg. 9), is a young cat living with 11-year-old Kimmy Tremble in Connecticut. When her father gets a new job in Florida and the family must drive to their new home, they reluctantly give Tony to Kimmy’s cousin Stacy because he goes into panic attacks in cars and would never survive the trip.
   What they don’t know is the cat’s deep love for Kimmy. They also do not know about the worldwide secret society of cats, who can link together telepathically. They have their own names and language. Tony’s real name is Windrusher, or Pferusha-ulis in the feline language.

   They [humans] had no way of knowing that at that very moment their cat was listening to his Inner Ear, hearing the voices of thousands of other feline coming to him in a dreamlike roll call. Oblivious to the outside world, he was plugged into an ancient communications system that dated back four thousand years.
   The voices rippled through his unconscious in tinny, unceasing waves. At first they nearly overwhelmed him, like being in a cavernous room filled with tens of thousands of talking dolls, each of them programmed to repeat a particular phrase, and all speaking at the same time. […]
   Slowly, the waves slackened, and he concentrated on the voices, winnowing out the inconsequential, the parochial. Wind narrowed his focus, and waited for a break, then became one with the onrushing waves. (pg. 18)

   “Windrusher, your Hyskos have gone to a far place,” he [Short Shank] growled. “Florida is many long lengths in the direction of warm waters. It would take you nearly twenty night globes [full moons; months] to reach it unless you traveled in a Hyskos vehicle.”
[…] Windrusher couldn’t comprehend such a period of time, but he didn’t believe he was even twenty night globes old. It was an impossible task; no cat had ever made such a journey. (pg. 19)

   So Windrusher (Wind) sets off on a feline history-making quest. It is hard to read “no cat had ever made such a journey” without immediately thinking of The Incredible Journey, Solo's Journey, Tailchaser's Song, King’s Wild Roads trilogy, or Hunter’s Warriors volumes; but Windrusher is its own novel and it holds up very nicely in comparison to others. Bloomfield, Connecticut to Crystal River, Florida is about 1,200 miles, even without Wind’s involuntary side-trip to Gallipolis, Ohio. The three pets’ saga in The Incredible Journey was only 200 miles, and that was entirely through Northern Ontario wilderness.
   Wind’s long trek is through a complex variety of Eastern Seabord locales. He faces dangers ranging from feral predators in mountain wilds to urban Animal Control officers to the natural disaster of a tornado; from the realism of animal-euthanizing humans to the fantasy melodrama of a psychotic feline enemy determined to prevent him from completing his quest. DiGenti also presents scenes from both feline and human points of view, unlike most cat-quest adventures which show everything from the feline standpoint:

   He was nearly a mile away before he stopped to catch his breath. Overhead, the sky was quickly changing complexion. Wind looked at the open fields on the edge of the High Hills subdivision; six acres of undeveloped land given a reprieve from the bulldozers when the housing market tumbled. (pg. 29)

   Wind’s rapidly-changing adventures introduce several supporting characters who stay with him (or with whom he stays) for varying lengths of time: Lil’ One, a recklessly frisky kitten; Scowl Down, a hardbitten but motherly old queen; Swift Nail, a feline politician trying to hold together a junkyard colony of feral cats; Silk Blossom, a seductive pampered red point Siamese pet; and Bolt, Wind’s possibly demonic nemesis. There are also the cats of the Akhen-et-u, the Inner Ear network to whom Wind describes his adventures as he journeys south. They give him advice and encouragement, but Bolt can also listen in upon them to stalk Wind. There is little real suspense as to whether Wind will succeed since the reader knows from the start that Irissa-u, the supreme feline goddess is watching over him (she even reassures Kimmy at one point), but the variety of adventures that befall Wind on his journey, and the different fates of his companions, will make Windrusher a compelling read for lovers of cat-quest novels.
   Windrusher ends with an epilogue describing Wind as a week-long media sensation for his impossible trek to his family in Florida. Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-hoth opens with a mood-setting prologue at an International Cat Fanciers Show where a friendly, constantly-smiling man—She wondered how he could speak while maintaining such a broad smile. That must have taken practice. (pg. 14)—makes an impossible snatch of a prize-winning cat. Human villains are the main menace in the sequel.
   Wind/Tony is happily relaxing at his new home with the Trembles, but he is soon also catnapped. The villains are a psychotic Southern California inventor/millionaire, Karl von Rothmann, who has decided to collect famous cats, and his multi-aliased ex-corrupt-policeman henchman. The sickly Von Rothmann has a palatial pleasure cattery built within his Pacific cliffside mansion for his stolen cats—Murray, a star of TV commercials and a sitcom; Darwin, the first successfully cloned cat; Katmandu, the prize-winning haughty Persian; and now Tony—but they are hardly safe there:

   The excitement of last night was making him careless. […] he had forgotten to check his blood sugar level. He would have to be cautious since one insulin reaction could lead to another. He sat in a high-wing chair in his bedroom with his head back and his eyes closed.
   […] A nap was what he needed; regain his strength so he could enjoy the incredible bliss he felt having Tony in his house. It was like owning a treasure, a Michelangelo or Van Gogh that had been lost to the art world. There may be photographs of the artwork in books or prints hanging on walls, but he owned the real thing, and only he alone could enjoy it, could bask in its splendor.
   Tony and the other felines were his private collection. He may add others over time, but one thing was certain, he would never give them up. He would rather see them dead.
(pg. 81)

   This time, Wind gets his dream-warnings from Tho-hoth, feline god of wisdom, rather than from Irissa-u:

   “If you do not find a way out, you and the others will die there. And it will be soon.” (pg. 85)

   Wind must persuade the three other cats—Murray (Chaser), amiable but sedentary; Darwin (Blank Eyes), who may be brain-damaged; and Katmandu (Rahhna’s Light), arrogant and argumentative -- that their luxurious prison is really a deadly trap from which they must escape as soon as possible. Chapters that follow the cats’ flight into the coyote-filled chaparral countryside north of San Diego alternate with chapters following the search by Kimmy and her mother Amy to find Tony. A private investigator, Quint Mitchell, traces von Rothmann’s henchman to the latter’s isolated estate; but none of the humans realize the extent to which the mad millionaire will go for ‘revenge’ when his ego is thwarted. Wind faces new menaces ranging from falls off cliffs and icy Pacific riptides to that most Californian disaster, an earthquake.
   DiGenti’s writing has flaws. The first novel builds to a climax featuring a coincidence huge enough to strain the suspension of disbelief of readers who will not blink at accepting cats’ telepathic brotherhood. Cats are such intelligent and distinct individuals that it does not make sense that all dogs are mindless, cat-killing (or slobbering over if friendly) “floppy-eared snouters”. The feline culture is clearly ancient-Egyptian-derived, with names like Nefer-iss-tu (Wind’s mother) and the ‘five gods’ whom all cats worship; but the derivations seem pop-culturally superficial rather than based on serious Egyptology. (The cats’ Nut-Atna is ‘the god of night’, while in Egyptian mythology Nut, the night goddess, was female. If the feline word for humans, Hyskos, is supposed to indicate the first humans with whom cats established a partnership, it is much too late in history. The Hyskos were nomadic invaders who did not arrive until around 1650 B.C., over a thousand years after Egyptian humans and cats first bonded. Also, Bast was a lioness-goddess for centuries before she evolved into a friendly housecat-goddess.)
   But DiGenti’s writing is also constantly lively. Even the interludes between action scenes move briskly. He has mastered the trick of making the cats simultaneously realistically hedonistic, sleeping for hours and willing to cozy up to almost any friendly human, and fictionally intelligent, understanding of their dangers and able to figure out risky escapes. Cat-quest adventure addicts will gladly add these two award-winning novels to their libraries.

Iron Rabbit Mainframe: Beginnings & Mainframe: A Matter of Transfer Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile Urchin of the Riding Stars & Urchin and the Heartstone The Challenge of the Rose Windrusher & Windrusher and the Cave of Tho-Hoth

Anthropomorphic books for review should be sent to Fred Patten, at:
Golden State Colonial Convalescent Hospital, 10830 Oxnard Street, North Hollywood, CA, 91606

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