The Yarf! reviews by Fred Patten
Note: This is a fraction of the entire listing. If youre on broadband, you might want to try the high speed version instead.
Welcome to the Pattens 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-knownand best in qualityof furry zines. Started in 1990 by Jeff Ferris, YARF!s roster of contributors reads like a Whos Who of furdom in the last decade of the 20th Century. In any issue, the zines 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 Stanleys Freefall
and Fred Pattens reviews of furry books and comics.
Unfortunately, YARF! has been thoroughly inactive since its 69th issue, which was released in September 2003. We cant 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. Pattens review columnsincluding the final one, which would have appeared in the never-printed YARF! #70.
Full disclosure: For each reviewed item, weve provided links you can use to check which of four different online booksellersAmazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Alibris, and Powells Bookstorenow has it in stock. Presuming the item in question is available, if you buy it Anthro gets a small percentage of the price.
|Title:||The Blood Jaguar|
|Author:||Michael H. Payne|
|Illustrator:||Kandis Elliot (map)|
|Publisher:||A Tor Book (NYC), Dec 1998|
|256 pages, $22.95|
|Availability:||Am / BN / Al / Pw|
Michael Payne should be familiar to readers of Yarf! for his short stories published here around 1994-95. He has also had some morphic stories published in s-f magazines and anthologies, such as River Man in Asimovs SF Magazine, August 1993. The Blood Jaguar, his first novel, enables him to expand his storytelling into an adventure of much greater scope, and he takes full advantage of it.
Bobcat is a good-natured but shiftless neer-do-well with a catnip addiction living in Ottersgate, a forest animal community vaguely similar to Mark Twains boyhood Hannibal, Missouri. He considers himself a practical realist, the opposite of his superstitious neighbor, Skink. So he is especially shaken when he has a terrifying supernatural experience, just after Skink (whose good-luck charm has disappeared) quotes an old family warning from his long-dead grandmother:
I will tell you how it begins, she said, in hopes that you might somehow change the ending. If you should lose your luckand I pray it may never happen, for it is too terrible to contemplate, too terrible for everyonebut should you ever lose your luck, watch for Bobcat. An awful thing will happen to him, and after that will come the worst thing in the world. You will have to go to Fisher to try to stop it from happening, and I pray you do better than we did. (pgs. 20-21)
So Bobcat and Skink go to Fisher, the communitys no-nonsense shamaness and interpreter of the mystic signs of the twelve Curials, this worlds animal Gods (in which Bobcat does not believe). There is also an unmentioned thirteenth Curial, their enemy, the Blood Jaguar; deity of Death. Fisher discovers that, long ago, Skinks grandmother was part of an adventuring trio who embarked on a quest to stop the Blood Jaguar from unleashing a plague. They did not succeed, and 50% of the worlds population of Skinks grandmothers generation died; a disaster from which the world is still recovering. Now it looks as though the Blood Jaguar is coming back to finish the jobunless this generations Skink, Fisher and Bobcat can succeed where their ancestors failed. Bobcats opinion is that, if their heroic predecessors could not defeat the Jaguar, what chance do the grumpy old Fisher, the dithering and timid Skink, and a bum like himself have? Bobcats adventure is set in an anthropomorphic North America whose gods are patterned upon the Native American animal spirits, but whose politics and nations range from a Yankee frontier-style society of otters, beavers, and similar-sized American wildlife, to a Mongol-style kingdom of buffalo occupying the Great Plains, to an Arabian Nights-city of meerkats on the Colorado River. (Meerkats in North America) A map shows several large animal cities in parts of this North America that the novel never reaches at all. Is this the first adventure in a world which will explore different geographic areas in future stories, or is Payne just throwing in extra details and attention-catching background mysteries for the fun of it?
And then there are the characters and their dialogue:
Fisher rubbed her whiskers. Yknow, tea sounds like a good idea. You want some?
Ive got some mint tea in the kitchen. You wanna cup?
Bobcats ears had clamped themselves tight against his head, his whole body shaking, his heart crashing at his ribs. Tea? What are you talking about? Dont you understand? The Blood Jaguar is trying to kill me! And I havent done anything! Why are you doing this to me? Nothing makes sense anymore! Dont you understand? Nothing
Fisher rolled off her lounge chair and grabbed Bobcat by his scruff. The world doesnt make sense! she hissed into his face, her eyes cold and black, her claws digging into his neck. It never has made sense! Its a strange and twisted place that works on rules you have to work to read, let alone understand, and if you ever came down outta that catnip cloud, youd maybe have a better handle on it! Folks like you are worthless in the real world, Bobcat, absolutely worthless, and Ill be damned to the Stranglers claw if Ill put up with your whining in my house! Her dark eyes burned into him, and Bobcat felt every hair on his body bristle up. (pgs. 41-42)
Bobcat, who has always considered himself a tough survivor, is disgusted by his own unexpected weaknesses when faced with surviving getting caught up in a battle of the Gods; compounded by fighting catnip-addiction withdrawal shakes at the same time. The setting parades a steady flow of exotic animal individuals and communities past the reader, not the least of which are several of the Curials who make unexpected personal appearances. Each one of the nations visited by the Odd Trio questers is so intriguing that Payne could easily set a whole novel in it. The Blood Jaguar is not a story of realistic animals like Watership Down or of bioengineered animals living in a human civilization like Forests of the Night, because it is not set in our world at all. Call it a funny-animal Middle Earth based on Amerind rather than Nordic cultural elements. Or, dont analyze itjust enjoy it!
Two classics of interstellar funny animals available again:
|Title:||Hoka! Hoka! Hoka!|
|Author:||Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson|
|Publisher:||Baen Books (NYC), Nov 1998|
|307 pages, $5.99|
|Availability:||Am / BN / Al / Pw|
The Hoka stories, those zany misadventures of the uninhibited spacegoing teddy bears, have been famous for decades as among the best examples of humorous s-f. There have been two collections of the Hoka short stories and one Young Adult novel between 1957 and 1983, all now out of print. Its great to see the Hokas back!
First, a comment on what Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! is not. There are no new stories in it. Neither is it a complete collection of all the stories. It consists of all the material from the first collection, Earthmans Burden (the first six short stories plus the Interludes that were written to connect them), with the first two of the four stories in Hoka!, the second collection. It does not contain the last two stories or the novel, Star Prince Charlie.
The main viewpoint in the series is that of Alex Jones, a young, enthusiastic, and naïve Terran Space Navy ensign on a survey mission exploring new interstellar planets for the galaxys Interbeing League. Jones is shipwrecked on Toka, an Earthlike world.
The first expedition, [Alex] remembered, had reported two intelligent races, Hokas and Slissii, on this planet. And these must be Hokas. [ ] There were two of them, almost identical to the untrained Terrestrial eye: about a meter tall, tubby and golden-furred, with round blunt-muzzled heads and small black eyes. Except for the stubby-fingered hands, they resembled nothing so much as giant teddy bears. (pg. 9)
The Hokas have the personalities of human eight- to ten-year old children, and are incredibly psychologically susceptible to Terran popular culture. The captain of the space expedition that discovered Toka had left some of his ships recreational literature behindWestern novelsand Alex finds that his Hokan rescuers have remodelled their way of life into what they think Earth society is like: an unconscious parody of a B-Western town, with hard-drinkin cowpokes battling the bloodthirsty Injuns (their rival species, the reptilian Slissii), and ignoring the comedy-relief town sheriff to follow the lead of various heroic Lone Riders. (Any Hoka who wants to be a leader proclaims himself a Lone Rider.) Alex focuses the leadership of this disorganized mess upon himself, and inadvertently saves the teddybear cowboys from their tyrannosaurian natural enemies.
Alexs accidental heroism results in his being transferred (against his will) from the Navy to Terras Foreign Ministry and assigned as the Interbeing Leagues first official Plenipotentiary to Toka. His mission is to protect the simple natives from exploitation, and gradually uplift their culture until Toka is ready to become a full member in the League. Alex finds that Toka is divided into hundreds of Hokan tribes, and that they are much less interested in the ponderous educational manuals of the Cultural Development Service than in the popular novels that Earth traders sell cheaply. (If these stories had been written later than the 1950s, the novels would doubtlessly have been videos.) Depending upon which novels a tribe first sees, that Hokan society remodels itself into a teddybear parody of the Victorian England of Sherlock Holmes, a seaport dominated by swaggering Arrr, matey! pirates, the burning desert of Beau Gestes Fort Zinderneuf, a typical 50s boys Space Patrol adventure, and so on. The separate stories take Alex, during his career of ten+ years as the senior human representative, to various parts of Toka to settle emergencies. Alex must rely on local resources, which usually means entering the make-believe society and guiding it to his purposesin other words, playing Watson to a Hokan Holmes, becoming a Captain Greenbeard pirate king to rally the shiver me timbers teddy sailors to a rescue, or playing a stuffy Colonel Blimpish bureaucrat (which he hopes is not type-casting) in an Agatha Christie-ian scenario of mysterious spies and stolen secret treaties.
The stories are frothy farces, filled with the improbable coincidences of TV situation comedies:
The Secret Service chief came into the office on the run, tangled with his sword, and skidded across the floor. Somehow he got his head jammed into the waste-basket. Alex dragooned Brassard into pulling on the legs while he held the container. The Hoka emerged with a pop and looked wildly about him.
Sabotage! he hissed.
The beady eyes glittered suspiciously at Brassard. Has he been cleared?
The inspector huffed. Of course Ive been cleared.
The chief scratched his head. But have the people who cleared you been cleared? he asked.
Never mind, sighed Alex. Ill vouch for him. (pg. 194)
Much of the humor is caused by the physical disparity between humans and the three-foot-tall bears:
The Hokas had built quite a sizeable navy in expectation of imminent Napoleonic invasion, and HMS Intolerable lay almost side by side with Incorrigible and Pinafore. Their mermaid figureheads gleamed gilt in the light of the lowering sunthat is, Alex assumed the fishtailed Hoka females to be mermaids, though the four mammaries were so prominent as to suggest ramming was still standard naval practice. (pg. 153)
That evening he was issued a [French Foreign Legion] uniform and told by Sergeant LeBrute, with many oaths, to put it on. Since it was meant for a Hoka and Alex was rather tall and lanky, even for a human, the effect can be imagined. (pg. 206)
The popularity of the Hokas has ebbed and flowed during forty years. Artist Michael Whelan told at the 1998 World Science Fiction Convention about working on a projected Hoka movie that got as far as construction of an audioanimatronic Hoka by SFX expert Rick Baker before being cancelled. The publication of Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! will bring the stories to a new generation of readers, and hopefully renew interest in the friendly, furry aliens. Baen Books has kept to the spirit of the ingroup references in this new edition; its cover (by Stephen Hickman) is a parody of Baens Man-Kzin Wars paperbacks, with a furry Hoka impersonating the usual ferocious tigerish Kzin space-warrior.
|Title:||The Complete Fuzzy|
|Author:||H. Beam Piper|
|Publisher:||Ace Books (NYC), Dec 1998|
|454 pages, $15.00|
|Availability:||Am / BN / Al / Pw|
This is the first collection of all three of Pipers Fuzzy novels: Little Fuzzy (1962), Fuzzy Sapiens (1964), and Fuzzies and Other People (1984). The Fuzzies are one of the most successful combinations of a believable interstellar alien species and a funny animal designed for adult readers. When Star Wars appeared in 1977 and fans discussed all the popular s-f concepts blended into it, it was noted that Chewbacca was basically just a tall Fuzzy. (And the later, shorter forest-dwelling Ewoks were even more Fuzzy-like.)
To quote the original 1962 back-cover blurb of Little Fuzzy:
Friends of Little Fuzzy Vs. the Chartered Zarathustra Company
The chartered Zarathustra Company had it all their way. Their charter was for a Class-III uninhabited planet, which Zarathustra was, and it meant they owned the planet, lock, stock and barrel. They exploited it, developed it and reaped the huge profits from it without interference from the Colonial Government.
Then Jack Holloway, a sunstone prospector, appeared on the scene with his family of Fuzzies and the passionate conviction that they were not cute animals but little people.
The Company was aghast at this threat to their power and profits. If Holloway could prove the Fuzzies were people, Zarathustra would automatically become a Class-IV inhabited planet, the Companys charter would become void and the Colonial Government of the Federation would take over.
The Company did not hesitate to resort to coercion, murdereven genocideto prevent the Fuzzies from being declared the ninth extrasolar sapient race.
The Fuzzy trilogy tells two parallel stories; that of the human society on a newly-colonized world after the humans learn they are sharing the planet with friendly golden-furred marmoset-like natives, and of the primitive, innocent Fuzzies themselves. The human story focuses primarily on Jack Holloway, the outback miner who first discovers the Fuzzies and finds himself leading the movement to acknowledge them as intelligent people rather than to exploit them as animals. The Fuzzy viewpoint is dominated by Little Fuzzy, the first Fuzzy to encounter humans, who must learn the difference between good humans and bad humans and help guide his people to the right ones. The Fuzzies adventures include courtroom drama as their human supporters try to legally establish their right to be recognized as people rather than animals; scientific suspense in a race to find a cure for a genetic flaw that is driving the Fuzzies to extinction; detective action as Fuzzies are kidnapped to be trained for crime; sociological confusion as Holloway and Little Fuzzy experiment to learn how best to help the Fuzzies without overwhelming their cultural identity and turning them into dependent caricatures of the humans. There are enough scenes featuring the Fuzzies, both in the humans cities and in their own forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer society, to captivate any morph fan.
The story behind the novels is even more dramatic than the adventures. Little Fuzzy was a Hugo finalist for Best Novel of 1962. Based on that popularity, Pipers publisher authorized him to write two sequels. But a new editor sabotaged the publication of Fuzzy Sapiens (first published under a different title, The Other Human Race, without Pipers knowledge), and reneged on publishing the third novel, whose manuscript was lost after Piper shot himself in 1964. The two Fuzzy novels remained so popular that when Ace Books gained the literary rights to Pipers works in 1975, they commissioned William Tuning to continue the series. Tuning wrote only one novel, Fuzzy Bones, before dying of acute alcoholism; another author, Ardath Mayhar, wrote a fourth novel, Golden Dream: A Fuzzy Odyssey. Then the lost manuscript of Fuzzies and Other People was found, which was not only better-written but which contained plot developments that contradicted Tunings and Mayhars novels. As a result, there is general agreement in s-f circles that the genuine Fuzzy series is Pipers trilogy alone; and that Tunings and Mayhars novels, although well-meant, are best forgotten. Little Fuzzy and Fuzzy Sapiens have been reprinted frequently since 1976 (and Fuzzies and Other People since 1984), but this is the first time that all three have been published together. If you have not read them, this is your chance to get all three in one handy volume. If you havewell, betcha cant resist reading them again!
|Title:||The Power of the Bear|
|Paintings:||Susan Seddon Boulet|
|Publisher:||Pomegranate (San Francisco, CA), Aug 1998|
|95 pages; $25.00|
|Availability:||Am / BN / Al / Pw|
This glossy full-color art book of the paintings of Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997) is a tribute to her and her work by close friends. Babcock knew her from 1982 until her death, and was very familiar with her artistic and spiritual philosophy; particularly her kinship with the bear as an avatar of a fierce protector, loving ally, and shamanic guide. Pomegranate, a fine-art press, was the primary publisher of Boulets work during her final decade, on cards and calendars and as an illustrator of its books. So both author and publisher had a close personal relationship with her. They selected these 43 images of bears from among thousands of her fantasy paintings and ink sketches.
In this book, we explore the intersection of the world of Susan Seddon Boulet and the world of the bear, focusing on the place of the bear in her art and how it relates to her life and to mythological themes. [ ] We meet Bear Woman, part of world mythology for thousands of years, and the Bear Mother, who echoes back to the Great Goddess of Neolithic times. Here are shamanic voices who call on the bear as helper, healer, and protector. Here are bears who metamorphose into humans and humans who metamorphose into bears. (pg. 14)
Boulets earliest paintings here, from the 1970s, show an interest in European mythology, notably Scandinavian and Laplandic. As her work progressed, her interest focused upon North American Native influences. Her bears become less like individual bears in scenes from mythology than a series of less-representational studies of Bear, the nature spirit.
Bear is usually shown guiding or protecting a Native Americanusually Northwest or Plains, sometimes Arcticas in Bear Woman Dreaming and Earth Family. The bear is not the only animal spirit in her paintings. Many show an abstract assemblage of animal spirits (fox, antelope, hawk, puma, coyote, raven, salmon), dominated by bear; with Native American design elements.
Each picture is textually described and interpreted by Babcock.
Bear Woman and the Dream Child (1995; page 54) clearly portrays bear as mother, bear as nurturer. The dream child looks like a child who has come from the stars; light spills from the bears left paw, which again resembles a human hand. Once more, the bear makes it safe to dream. I find a poignancy in this piece, painted in April or May 1995, soon after the removal of cancer from Boulets lungs: it mirrors her fragility and seems to speak of a need to be held. (pg. 80)
The appeal of this book (other than its general appeal as a gorgeous art book) will be more to those interested in mythological animals and in the artistic interpretation of Native American themes than in anthropomorphized animals in the funny-animal sense. The closest parallel with which fans may be familiar is the art of Alicia Austin, although Austins colored pen-&-ink depictions of anthropomorphized American wildlife in scenes of Native American activities are more mundane and illustrative than Boulets abstract, spiritual oil pastels.
|Title:||Black on Black|
|Author:||K. D. Wentworth|
|Publisher:||Baen Books (Riverdale, NY), Feb 1999|
|341 pages, $6.99|
|Availability:||Am / BN / Al / Pw|
Heyoka Blackeagle is a hrinnti, seven feet tall, furry, and equipped with retractable claws, who was stolen as an infant from the planet Anktan and was rescued from an interstellar slave market by a Amerindian space trader. Raised on Earth, Heyoka is too ferocious-looking when he reaches maturity to have any social prospects except in the human-dominated Confederations military. After a successful ten-year career in the Ranger Corps, something happens which casts doubt on Heyokas ability to control his own feral nature. He may be unable to remain in human society, unless he can learn the secrets of his species violent psychology and physiology. But nobody knows anything about the hrinn. No hrinnti has ever been off Anktan, and the natives are so savage and deadly that no offworld scientists have lived long enough to study their culture. Nevertheless, Heyoka has no choice but to return to the world of his birthaccompanied, against his wishes, by his Ranger partner and only real friend, Mitsu Jensenand try to find out just how much of his nature is uncontrollable instinct.
Heyoka quickly learns that, while he may be the deadliest killing machine in the Confederations commandos, he is (at first) little more than a helpless cub compared to the hrinn raised on his harsh world. The reader quickly discovers that Black on Black is less about Heyoka himself than about the whole hrinn society, which is thrown into deadly tribal turmoil by the appearance of this stranger with Black/on/black fur. The novel features many hrinn characters in exotically primitive settings:
A scratch at the door broke her train of thought. She snarled. Enter at your own risk!
A gray-and-white form edged in, then prostrated herself on the red carpet. Seskas nose twitched at the scent of her direct-granddaughter, Khea. A message from the Jhii, Line Mother, the prone figure whispered.
Seska flexed her handclaws. The subservience of this child almost provoked her into attacking. How her birth-daughter, Akea, had ever bred such a disappointing cubling was entirely beyond her. Young as she was, Kheas black eyes should glare up at her from the floor, scheming for the chance to send the old female through the Gates of Death. Instead, she was cowering like a frightened yirn, sure to be culled in the next gleaning. (pg. 9)
Rakshal sauntered into the subterranean chamber and his bristling, disapproving presence immediately crowded Nisk, even though the two of them were still separated by a fair amount of space. Several younger males gave way without protest as he approached, but Nisk turned his back, both to avoid a direct confrontation and to demonstrate disdain. There were all too few priests left among the people these days, and he failed to understand why this one was so abrasive. He should be spreading the wisdom of the Voice to males houses up and down the river, creating structure and strengthening association, not sowing dissention among those already bonded. (pg. 56)
Heyokas search into his past reveals a threat of imminent extinction for all life on Anktan, but only an offworlder like himself recognizes the danger. Will he be able to convince the hrinn tribes? And can he persuade the proudly individualistic warriors to organize a coordinated defense to save themselves instead of throwing away their lives in suicidal unorganized bare-claws charges?
Black on Black is full of non-stop drama and excitement. However, it is the same kind of cinematic drama and excitement as in the movie Independence Day. Characters act in ways that make for good suspense rather than for logic. Some of the implausibilities are so obvious that Wentworth feels the need to acknowledge them, such as why Heyoka is found in an offworld slave market if no hrinnti has ever been allowed to leave Anktan:
It doesnt make sensewhy would a pilot risk his license just to steal a single juvenile from a Grade Seven Culture? (pg. 2)
Another example is the above citation questioning why Rakshal the priest is spreading dissention instead of wisdom. By turning these apparent inconsistencies into deliberate mysteries, the author is presumably hoping that the reader will get too caught up in the action to realize that not all of them get answered, and not all the answers make good sense.
But the scenes showing the hrinn as intelligent thick-furred vicious carnivores are vivid enough to make Black on Black enjoyable reading for morph fans. Unlikely as it seems, the basic plot is a bloodier, more mature variation of that of the 1965-66 Kimba, the White Lion TV cartoon series. Like Kimba, Heyoka is a carnivore stolen from his home in his infancy, raised by humans where he observes the advantages of a cooperative society, and returns to the native land he has never known to force his people into a humanlike civilization for their own good, fighting his own feral instincts to do so.
The descriptions of the hrinnti bristling fur, twitching ears, unsheathed claws, and double rows of gleaming white teeth seem clear and profuse enough to describe them vividly, but they are actually vague enough to have raised some debate among fans as to just which Earth animals they most resemble. Giant canids? Felines? Mustelids? This is one mystery which really does not matter, and is probably best left to readers to envision according to their own preferences.
|Publisher:||Crown Publishers (NYC), Feb 1999|
|155 pages, $17.00|
|Availability:||Am / BN / Al / Pw|
Dick King-Smith is the popular author of numerous English talking-animal childrens fantasies such as The Terrible Trins, A Mouse Called Wolf, Magnus Powermouse, and most notably The Sheep-Pig (U.S. title: Babe, the Gallant Pig). Godhanger (originally published in Britain in 1996) is an unusual change of pace; a somber allegorical fantasy for older readers, more similar to Bachs Jonathan Livingston Seagull or Wangerins The Book of the Dun Cow crossed with Adams Watership Down than to his usual light adventures starring cheerful, perky animal children.
Godhanger Wood is an ancient British forest, inhabited by the normal wildlife. Normal in this case means that the animals live realistically. King-Smith emphasizes in the first chapters that this is the world of Saltens, not Disneys Bambi. The birds selfishly steal food from each other. Baldwin the omnivorous badger will eat anything including the rabbits babies if he can get at them. Glyde, the tawny owl who puts on pious Wise Old Owl airs, is scorned as a hypocrite by Eustace, the little owl who points out that Glyde greedily eats cute furry mice just like the rest of them.
But Godhanger has two special inhabitants. One is its human gamekeeper. Gamekeepers are appointed to protect a forest and its game animals, culling the predatory vermin such as hawks, foxes and weasels. But this gamekeeper is an animal-hater who grows progressively psychotic. At first he merely takes a ruthless delight in his efficiency in killing all the animals that he can rationalize as deserving to be exterminated. Eventually he is snaring and blasting every bird and animal that he can find, including the songbirds and game animals. The gamekeeper is presented as an allegorical power greater than nature, unchecked, answerable to nothing except his own fevered passions.
The other is a majestic bird, the Skymaster, who settles in Godhanger. Almost without realizing it, the other birds come to recognize the Skymaster as their leader. Each sees him as an idealized heroic figure of its own species. He is a benevolent patriarach who tries to gently educate the birds and even the mammals into an understanding of cooperation and morality insofar as it is compatible with their physical natures. Yes, a carnivore must kill to eat, but it does not have to torture its victims or kill more than it needs for its survival; unlike the human who wastefully slaughters for the joy of killing. Soon the gamekeeper becomes such a deadly menace that the Skymaster must take an active role in protecting Godhangers wildlife from him. A fatal confrontation is inevitable.
The Skymaster is depicted in such divinely ethereal terms from his first appearance that it will be no surprise that he is more than mortal (although it is eventually revealed that his mortal form is a golden eagle). But with the Nativity scene, and the formation of the birds who become his loyal followers into 12 Apostles, it becomes evident that the Skymaster is literally an avian Christ whose mission on Earth is to well, is there anyone who does not know why Christ was born among mankind? And what happened to Him?
King-Smith excels at describing naturalistic scenes of only slightly anthropomorphized wildlife; rather like an uncensored Watership Down. His mysticism, in comparison, is a trifle heavy-handed:
In your long life, Loftus, the Skymaster said, you must have seen the sea in all its moods.
Indeed, replied the raven. It can wear a pleasant face, as now, but it can be very cruel.
Like life, said the other. You never know what the next day may bringcontent or worry, triumph or disappointment, safety and security, or hardship and danger. Death, even.
I never thought about death when I was young, said Loftus. Now that I am old, very old, I wonderis there something beyond?
So I believe, said the Skymaster. So, one day, may you. (pg. 70)
The action and the plot are slightly inconsistent. At times the gamekeeper seems to be a personification of evil, or to signify that man is more deliberately cruel than the forest animals who only kill to feed themselves. But the gamekeeper is also described as a fanatic who believes that it is his duty to rid the wood of all animals, not as someone who is deliberately evil; and as a madman, not a typical human. There are also two animal characters, Rippin the polecat and Gilbert the feral cat, who are even more sadistic killers of anything that they can catch, than is the gamekeeper. If Godhanger were not so solemn throughout, it would almost seem as though King-Smith was deliberately showing the fallacy of the claim that man is more vicious and wasteful than any animal.
This is a quibble. A more serious problem for some tastes is that, as soon as it becomes obvious that the Skymaster is duplicating Christs life, it is equally obvious (to any reader familiar with Christianity) what will be his ultimate fate. This undercuts the novels dramatic suspense. To be fair, Godhanger is not supposed to be a suspense story. It is a religious allegory, and it succeeds nicely at creating an uplifting inspirational mood. Serious nature-lovers will appreciate Andrew Davidsons detailed fine-line animal portraits, which neatly straddle the line between anthropomorphization and realistic zoological studies.
|Illustrator:||Michael Gilbert (maps)|
|Publisher:||DAW Books (NYC), Mar 1999|
|597 pages, $6.99|
|Availability:||Am / BN / Al / Pw|
This is the fifth volume in Normans Sholan Alliance interstellar adventure series. The previous four are Turning Point, Fortunes Wheel, Fire Margins, and Razors Edge, reviewed in Yarf! issues #29, #39, #46, and #52.
Frankly, after four previous reviews, I am getting bored with repeating myself. The novelit is not a series as much as a single non-stop novel which continues smoothly from volume to volumeis still enjoyable, but there is little new to be said about it. It is roughly comparable to Star Trek or Babylon 5, except that most of the alien characters look and act like standard humans wearing feline or reptilian costumes rather than like TV actors with weird facial makeup.
The main viewpoint in Turning Point is that of Carrie Hamilton, a young woman on Keiss, Terras first colony planet. Keiss has recently been conquered by a brutal reptilian space empire. Carrie encounters a strange cougarlike animal who turns out to be Kusac Aldatan, a handsome felinoid commando from Shola, yet another world which is also fighting the reptilian Valtegans. Carrie and Kusac help Keiss commando resistance overthrow the Valtegans, during which the two become inseparable lovers à la Beauty and the Beast. Carrie, as Kusacs betrothed, returns with him in Fortunes Wheel to Shola, and rather fades into the background as the viewpoint fragments to jump between many catlike Sholans engaged in that planets politics. The Sholans and the humans, who have just discovered each other, are nervously forming a military alliance to jointly fight the Valtegans. Several more humans come to Shola in the course of establishing diplomatic and cultural relations, resulting in numerous mixed marriages to the cultural shock of both species. In Razors Edge, the volume just before Dark Nadir, the Sholans learn that a group of Sholans and humans kidnapped by a Valtegan space raider have been sold into slavery on Jalna, a planet previously unknown to them. Carrie and Kusac are part of the commando mission sent to Jalna to rescue them.
By Dark Nadir, there is no longer a central viewpoint. The story jumps back and forth between numerous characters, feline and human, on Shola, among the rescue party, among the Valtegan villains, and among a brand-new menace that nobody ever heard of before which springs out like the Spanish Inquisition in a Monty Python sketch to ruin everyones plans. If there is a difference between Dark Nadir and the previous volumes, it is that the action up to now has mostly been planet-bound; on Keiss, on Shola, or on Jalna. Here it is largely on spaceships flying between worlds. The mission to Jalna has introduced the Sholans and humans to several new spacefaring species linked in a Free Trader alliance. Portions of Dark Nadir are strongly reminiscent of the interstellar political balance in the Compact Space federation of C. J. Cherryhs Chanur novels. (The opening sentence of Dark Nadir is, No sooner had the young Sumaan pilot, Ashay, landed the shuttle back at the Hkariyash than he was ordered to return to the UChurian vessel, the Rryuks Profit.) Norman skillfully keeps her readers interested in the fate of her characters, but Cherryh does a much better job of making her hani, kif, and other species convincingly alien. Normans characters never feel like more than humans in well-made furry and scaly costumes.
Norman seems to enjoy keeping both her characters and her readers off-balance. The Sholans and humans are bewildered by all the new Sumaan, Jalnians, Touibans, Chemerians, Cabbarans, TeLaxaudins, and others whom they encounter. The Sholans and the UChurians look so much alike that they can easily disguise themselves as each other. It gets so confusing that there are occasional conversations whose main purpose seems to be to help the readers sort them out. (A fictitious synthesis: Your fur is shaggier than ours! Yes, but we can walk upright more easily on our plantigrade legs. Well, digitigrade legs are more convenient for dropping down to all fours when its desirable to run really fast. I envy you your prehensile tails. We cant do anything more with ours than swish them back and forth.) And the similar names! Between pages 532 and 540, there appear Prince Zsurtul, Medic Zayshul, Sub-Lieutenant Zhaddu, and Sister Zhiko; and there is this bit of dialogue on pg. 538: Lieutenant Dzaou, you are in charge of this unit. Your liaison will be Commander LSeuli from Dzahai Stronghold.
These are all petty annoyances that do not keep Dark Nadir from being an enjoyable continuation of the adventure for Sholan Alliance fans. It is not a good book to start with for newcomers. There is no introductory synopsis, and the book starts in the middle of the action with over a dozen characters whom readers are expected to be familiar with. The Sholan Alliance novel/series is worth taking the trouble of finding Turning Point and starting at the beginning. (The total pagecount is now up to 2,920.) ww