ANTHRO's index of anthropomorphic literature

The Yarf! reviews by Fred Patten

Note: This is a fraction of the entire listing. If you’re on broadband, you might want to try the high speed version instead.

   Welcome to the “Patten’s reviews” wing of the Anthro Library! Since this is a collection of columns from a dormant (if not dead) furzine called YARF!, a word of explanation might be helpful: In its day, YARF! (aka ‘The Journal of Applied Anthropomorphics’) was perhaps the best-known—and best in quality—of furry zines. Started in 1990 by Jeff Ferris, YARF!’s roster of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of furdom in the last decade of the 20th Century. In any issue, the zine’s readers could expect to enjoy work by the likes of Monika Livingstone, Watts Martin, Ken Pick, and Terrie Smith; furry comic strips such as Mark Stanley’s Freefall and Fred Patten’s reviews of furry books and comics.
   Unfortunately, YARF! has been thoroughly inactive since its 69th issue, which was released in September 2003. We can’t say whether YARF! will ever rise again… but at least we can prevent its reviews from falling into disremembered oblivion. And so, with the active cooperation of Mr. Patten, Anthro is proud to present Mr. Patten’s review columns—including the final one, which would have appeared in the never-printed YARF! #70.

Full disclosure: For each reviewed item, we’ve provided links you can use to check which of four different online booksellers—, Barnes & Noble, Alibris, and Powell’s Bookstore—now has it in stock. Presuming the item in question is available, if you buy it Anthro gets a small percentage of the price.

by issue
by title

YARF! logo
#44 / Oct 1

Title: Ramar: The Rabbit with Rainbow Wings
Author: Darrell T. Hare
Illustrator: Tom O’Sullivan

St. Martin’s Press (New York City, NY), Mar 1996

ISBN: 0-312-14031-2

128 pages, $16.95

Availability: Am / BN / Al / Pw

   According to St. Martin’s publicity release, this book was produced by “the same editor and designer who brought us the Jonathan Livingston Seagull tale,” Eleanor Friede; and “Yes, Ramar (the central character) is a rabbit because Darrell’s last name is Hare. With that out of the way […]”
   I find that I am having to struggle to write my own review, because St. Martin’s publicity is so clear, interesting, and succinct that it is very tempting to just quote from it at length:

   In a distant land, known as the World-in-Between, a magical place that precedes earth, a young, gossamer-winged rabbit named Ramar is being readied for his mystical voyage to earth as a human being. Guided by other animal spirits who tell of their own earthly visits, Ramar gradually gains the wisdom of what lies ahead. As Ramar’s consciousness and understanding of the ways of the world grows so do his wings, gradually adding beautiful colors—changing them from black and white—until they are finally transformed into a glorious pair of rainbow stain-glass wings.

   It is also difficult to pull out of the book itself because the World-In-Between is such a soft, lovely, dreamy, feel-good place. Despite the fact that one of its most prestigious inhabitants is a radiant white lamb named The Shepherd—“A sheep who is also a shepherd?” he asked. “Yes,” said the lamb. “For life has taught me that each of us must learn to care for ourselves, and to care for ourselves, we must also care for those around us. Thus I am a sheep and also a shepherd.” (p. 103)—it is less like Christianity’s Limbo than like Roman mythology’s Elysian Fields, inhabited by friendly animal spirits. Ramar is definitely an original story concept; at the same time, its spiritual similarity to Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull is so pronounced that the Publicity Dep’t’s credit to editor Eleanor Friede for both novels is helpfully informative.
   The theological setup seems mainly Buddhist, heavily into reincarnation, with a Greek-Roman-Christian veneer. The World-In-Between is the home base of the spirits. They go to Earth to be born into mortal bodies, over and over again, for their edification and betterment, until they become perfect in love. This is an almost impossible goal, for there is always something new to learn. The implication is that anyone who does finally achieve perfection rises above this plane of existence to something better. Ramar is the first new spirit born into the World-In-Between in ages, so he needs to be educated in these ground rules. The three main friends whom he makes are Lydia, the cat with aqua eyes; The Dove Who Rhymed With Love; and Leonardo, the butterfly. Others include Micah the turtle, Yolanda the swan, and Bahrue the man; many more pass briefly by.
   One of the more appealing aspects of this cosmology will be the apparent equality of the animals and the humans. In fact, it is not clear how much Hare distinguishes between them. In an early scene, Lydia explains to Ramar about how the animal spirits go to Earth to be born:

   She told him that all the creatures who lived in the World-In-Between were once human beings, most of them just recently. This was not their permanent home, she said. It is just that when a person dies, each may choose to rest here for a while … to think, to dream, to contemplate what they learned on Earth.
   And one way to learn your lessons well, she told him, was to let your spirit be changed into the form of whatever creature you were like on Earth. You might become a cat. You might become a robin. You might come home as a puma or a peacock or a tapir or a spider.
(pgs. 30-31)

   This sounds as though Hare is using ‘human being’ as a synonym for ‘mortal’, rather than specifically homo sapiens. A ‘person’ may be any creature, not just a man. Frankly, Hare seems more concerned with casting his characters as parables than as consistent creatures. Some seem to be one animal or another because that is the form of their most recent mortal life. But others are fresh returnees who are shaken to find themselves transformed into animals because they are still used to their lives as humans—such as Micah, who is a turtle because of the ‘shell of loneliness’ that he built around himself in his human incarnation.
   Consistency aside, most fans will appreciate Hare’s basic attitude of human-animal equality on both the mortal and spiritual level. The book is filled with lovely spidery drawings of Ramar and his friends, which begin in black-&-white and grow more chromatically complex as Ramar’s wings add new hues.

Title: Thomas (The Deptford Histories, Book 3)
Author: Robin Jarvis
Illustrator: The author

Macdonald Young Books Ltd. (Hemel Hempstead, Herts.), Oct 1995

ISBN: 0-7500-1744-9

Hardcover, xii + 441 pages [pgs. 442 - 450 are adv’ts], £9.99

Availability: Am / BN / Al / Pw

ISBN: 0-7500-1745-7

Paperback, xii + 441 pages [pgs. 442 - 450 are adv’ts], £4.99

Availability: Am / BN / Al / Pw

   This is the sixth, and presumably last, of Jarvis’ Deptford funny-animal horror novels. The Deptford Mice trilogy was set in the present, chronicling the desperate struggle of a group of British mice to keep the rats’ evil god, Jupiter, from destroying the world. The Deptford Histories are set in the past, answering some of the questions raised in the first trilogy by showing their origins: how an innocent pet in 17th-century London was corrupted and transformed into the sadistic Jupiter (The Alchymist’s Cat); and how the squirrels and bats in medieval England were betrayed into becoming eternal enemies (The Oaken Throne).
   Thomas returns to the present, or at least the very recent past. One of the Deptford Mice (and one of their few survivors) was the old midshipmouse, Thomas Triton. He was the most reluctant and mysterious of the group, refusing to tell of his past except to constantly mutter that he should leave because he was a jinx; bad luck followed wherever he went; he only brought doom to his friends, especially his best friend…
   This is the tale of the bold young mouse, then Tommy Stubbs, who went to sea looking for adventure. Tom stops in a small village on his way to the coast long enough to become friends with a young teen, Woodget Pipple (think of a fieldmouse version of Beaver Cleaver). Due to a misunderstanding with his girlfriend, Woodget runs away to become a sailor like Tom. The flattered Tom promises to protect his innocent hero-worshipper until he can bring him safely home to Bess. But when Tom and Woodget fall afoul of the evil Oriental serpent cult of Suruth Scarophion, the maritime menaces multiply until it becomes clear that the two mates are both babes in a vast world more ancient, cruel, and horrific than they ever dreamed.
   As the two mice muddle through from one deathtrap to the next, Woodget grows in experience and confidence until he seems almost ready to take the lead from Tom. But Thomas is told as a flashback by the despairing, drunken old sailor, so the reader is aware from the outset that this saga of sorcery and skullduggery in the sleaziest seaports of the sinister Orient will end in tragedy and crushing anguish. (This will be no surprise to the readers of Jarvis’ previous novels.) The only real questions are which well-meant action of Tom’s will bring about Woodget’s doom, and how gruesome it will be.
   In the meantime, supporting characters are wiped out individually and in wholesale lots. An example: Tom and Woodget are tricked by an old salt, Mulligan, into embarking in a human cargo ship which regularly transports animal passengers in a hidden ’morphic community in its hold, amidst all the boxes and bales. Then a sorcerously violent storm tosses the ship about:

   Like a shrieking tide with flailing arms, thrashing legs and whisking tails the mice, rats, shrews, hedgehogs, stoats, voles and moles were washed to and fro. Lethal and hopeless was their plight, for no one could spare a paw to help them and those who valiantly struggled to save some poor, tumbling wretch were torn from their anchor and fell headlong into the screaming, steerless crowd.
   But soon the violent, brutal shaking began to reap a horrible harvest.
   Mothers screamed as children were ripped from their aching arms and went flying down the tilting deck to be lost amid the surging flow of tortured bodies. Breath was punched from lungs as feet and elbows drove heedlessly into stomachs. Many of Mulligan’s snooty neighbors were already dead but their limp frames continued to be hurled across the hold. Heads cracked against the metal bulkheads and backs snapped when they struck the corners of great quivering crates. Skulls split open as they slammed into the hull and bones splintered, their fragmented spikes piercing mangled, flapping limbs.
(pgs. 156-157)

   In this sixth Deptford book, Jarvis plays variations on his writing style. Scenes begin in ways that readers of the previous novels will find predictable, only to veer so abruptly that you can practically see the author chortling, “Fooled you!” Jarvis’ major villain is usually hidden among the main cast until his or her unmasking at the climax, but in Thomas he is revealed unusually early, so that the reader can watch over his shoulder as he sabotages the unsuspecting heroes. Jarvis is still the master of anthropomorphic morbid horror.
   According to the advertising, the first and third novels of the first trilogy, The Dark Portal and The Final Reckoning, are available as ‘talking book’ cassettes narrated by Tom Baker and Jon Pertwee, respectively. Funny; the Deptford books don’t seem particularly Whovian…

Title: The Son of Summer Stars (The Firebringer Trilogy, Book 3)
Author: Meredith Ann Pierce

Little, Brown & Co. (Boston, MA), May 1996

ISBN: 0-316-70755-4

vi + 250 pages, $17.95

Availability: Am / BN / Al / Pw

   Most anthropomorphic fiction features talking ‘real’ animals such as cats or rabbits or hawks or mice, rather than fantasy animals such as unicorns or dragons or griffins. This may be because the appeal of anthropomorphism is partly that it enables us to feel in closer understanding with our actual neighbor-species in this world. Also, fantasy animals usually appear as incidental players in stories where the main cast are human knights or warriors. When a fantasy animal has a major speaking role, its animalistic aspects are seldom more than window dressing. It could just as easily be a human loyal companion or a villain.
   Pierce’s young-adult Firebringer Trilogy (Birth of the Firebringer, 1986; Dark Moon, 1992; and at last The Son of Summer Stars) is a rare exception. It is set on a world without man, or at least where man is primitive and distant enough to be little more than a myth to the intelligent unicorns, gryphons, and others who are the ‘people’ of the story.
   The main focus is upon the unicorns of the Vale, exiled from their true homeland for 400 years since its capture by the evil wyverns; and upon Aljan, the Dark Moon, their prince who dreams of becoming the prophesied Firebringer who will finally lead them to reclaim their ancient Hallow Hills. Much is shown of the unicorns’ herd life, which is a richly anthropomorphic society mixing aspects of Bronze-Age Greek and Plains Indian cultures with the actual sociology of horse herds. Also, the unique aspects of each species—the unicorns’ use of their horns as weapons and to strike sparks to create fire; the gryphons’ flight; the dragons’ fire-breathing; and the wyverns’ multiple heads and poisonous stings—are used as important plot elements, not mere costumery.
   Although The Son of Summer Stars does stand on its own, readers who would enjoy it would appreciate the whole trilogy, and would benefit by reading the novels in proper order. Birth of the Firebringer introduces the impulsive young Jan, adolescent foal of Korr, proud prince (war leader) of the exiled unicorn herd. The exploits which lead to his learning caution and battle wisdom also set the scene of the exotic societies of the unicorns, the gryphons, and the wyverns. (Other animals and birds also talk, but have only incidental roles in the three books.) In Dark Moon, dramatic events mold the personalities and the relationships between key characters. The very existence of the unicorns is threatened, particularly of Jan’s pregnant mate, Tek. These adventures are summarized succinctly in the final volume, but readers ought not to miss the full details.
   The Son of Summer Stars begins with the mature Prince Aljan having restored the unicorns to their full strength, finally ready to march against the wyverns entrenched in their distant former home. But events separate Jan from his herd once again. His new wanderings lead him to a different ‘nation’ of unicorns with their own culture, and eventually to the land of the dragons. These societies are also vivid, and distinct from those of the other animals’. The question arises of whether Jan’s personal destiny lies with his own herd’s, or elsewhere.
   This final novel does have one annoying flaw. The unicorns’ religion is introduced at the beginning of the series, along with their ancient legend of a mystical ‘Firebringer’ who will bring them home. Jan dreams that he might be this fabled warrior. Occasional hints in the first two books nicely flesh out both the religion and the myth. But in this climax, they merge and intensify to an overpowering degree. It becomes clear that the unicorns’ goddess, Alma, is real and is manipulating events. Jan is reduced from an intelligent war-leader to an unconsciously-guided puppet. By the time the climactic battle between the unicorns and the wyverns arrives, it is so obvious that Alma is not going to let the unicorns lose that there is no real suspense.
   In fact, this and a couple of lesser riddles seem so telegraphed as to raise a suspicion that Pierce is deliberately cluing her Young Adult readers, to give them the satisfaction of guessing what is about to happen before it does. After all, the main strengths of The Firebringer Trilogy are the rich portrait of its fantasy world, its colorful animal peoples—usually literally so: Jan trotted beside the crimson mare. Her pale-blue filly pranced alongside. The mare’s sire, the brindled grey, led them over grassy, rolling hills, with the mare’s brother-belovèd […], pale gold, bringing up the rear. (pg. 53)—and its intelligent and sympathetic characters. If it is a bit too blatant that the good guys will win and the bad guys will lose—well, this doesn’t really pretend to be a cliffhanger-type story.

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