Friday, March 6, 2009

Five animal fantasies

1. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

My favorite fantasy novel, this is the story of a group of rabbits who leave a doomed warren and set out to find a new home. The worldbuilding is excellent. The rabbits have their own culture, which includes stories of their god, the trickster El-ahrairah. I love these, since El-ahrairah always goes up against far more powerful opponents and beats them with his quick wits.

And the rabbits themselves are wonderful characters. There’s Fiver the mystic, Blackberry the thinker, Bigwig the fighter and Hazel the nobody who slowly develops into the leader who can hold them all together and get them out of danger. The antagonists, from Cowslip to General Woundwort, are just as well-written and distinctive. It’s a book I’d recommend to anyone.

2. Duncton Wood, by William Horwood

The characters of Duncton Wood are moles, although they’re much more anthropomorphic than the rabbits – they smile and cry, for instance. The story is also much more complex, focusing on three generations of moles who worship the Stone but who are threatened by followers of the Word.

Most of the characters are great. Mandrake and Rune are one-dimensionally evil, but they’re disturbingly evil. And there’s a strong theme of redemption in the story. My favorite character is Mayweed, a mole who’s scarred in mind as well as in body, but who’s got the guts and heart to make up for both. When he finally falls for another mole and she turns out to be working for the other side… well, I won’t spoil the story.

Much more detailed review of Duncton Wood here.

3. Tailchaser’s Song, by Tad Williams

When his friend Hushpad disappears, a young cat called Tailchaser sets out to find her – a quest that will lead him into cat councils and twisted nightmares alike. And the reason for that admittedly vague summary is that I honestly don’t remember much of the plot.

Not that Tailchaser’s Song is a bad book – I’d give a copy to any cat lovers - but while the climax is tense and gruesome, it also depends on a deus ex machina. One of Tailchaser’s companions (Redlegs) sheds his guise of senile babbler and reveals himself as a cat god (Firefoot), except that I spotted that from the name already.

The rest of the cats, though, are mostly fun, and if you liked the stories of El-ahrairah’s trickery in Watership Down, you’ll love the one where Firefoot “helps” a tribe of dogs.

4. Kine, by A. R. Lloyd

If you ever get tired of weasels being the sneaky, cowardly bad guys in The Wind in the Willows, this is the book for you. It’s been reprinted as Marshworld - the sequels are Witchwood and Dragon Pond - but I like the original title.

Kine is a handsome, boastful weasel who fears nothing and guards his territory fiercely, but there are two intruders whom he can’t keep out. One is Kia, a female who eventually becomes his mate, and the other are a tribe of savage mink who have escaped from a fur farm. After the leader of the mink slaughters Kia and nearly all of her litter, Kine leads a pack of weasels against the much larger predators.

The descriptions of the English countryside are even more lyrical in this book than they are in Watership Down, though the battles in field and hedgerow are just as intense.

5. The Plague Dogs, by Richard Adams

Loving Watership Down as I do, I was very eager to read this, but it’s not the same kind of book. The Plague Dogs is about two dogs who escape from a research facility and try to find safety as they’re hunted down for fear that they may be infected with plague.

The opening scene – where one dog is being slowly and deliberately drowned – sets the grim tone of the book, and is only the first of two dozen different ways to inform readers that tests done on animals are wrong wrong wrong. Still, the two dogs are sympathetic characters when the book focuses on them. One has had experimental brain surgery, which means he’s not altogether in touch with reality, but this gives him a chance at the Fiver role that Adams pulled off so well in Watership Down. And there’s a happy ending.

The best parts for me, though, were the songs that the dog hears throughout the book. These are beautifully written, and sum up his situation as he searches for the master he lost when he was illegally sold to the facility.

From Warsaw and from Babylon
The ghosts will not release the lives.
A weary burden falls upon
The groping remnant that survives.
So this distracted beast contrives
His hopeless search as best he can.
Beyond the notebooks and the knives,
A lost dog seeks a vanished man.


Anonymous said...

A couple of these summaries encourage me to try an animal fantasy. Normally I'm not a fantasy reader, but every once in a while I get pulled in. Sounds like a couple of these will be pulling me. Thanks for sharing. Btw, I found you at AW.

Anonymous said...

Watership Down is a masterpiece. I'm sorry that some people refuse to even try it because "it's about bunnies".

Do you watch the show, Lost? In the first season, Sawyer was reading the novel. Loved that!

One day, I plan on buying a bunny and naming him, "Fiver".

Marian Perera said...

I wonder if people think a novel about rabbits is going to be soft and fluffy, sort of a Pat the Bunny or Peter Rabbit for grown-ups.

But all you have to do is read Fiver's speech on the Warren of the Snares to realize just how adult a novel this is.

Marian Perera said...

Hey NL Beshear, thanks for commenting. :)

There are a couple of other animal fantasies I've heard of but haven't read yet - Traveler by Richard Adams (protagonist is a horse) and Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel (protagonist is a bat). It's just fun to see the world from such a different POV.

Hazardgal said...

I loved Plague Dogs. I have another one for you... The Cockroaches of Staymore by Donald Harrington. Read it awhile back but still have it. Clockroach and Smockroach and many more great characters. Great book!

Marian Perera said...

Marge, you're serious? The main characters are cockroaches?

My skin crawls just thinking about it. I'm terrified of roaches. Especially the big brown ones that fly. I don't think I could even pick up a book about them. Thanks for the recommendation though. :)

Unknown said...

Those first two are definite classics. Loved Watership Down and I think Duncton Wood is one of the most underrated works of fantasy literature ever. Hardly anyone knows about it, but it puts all that Brian Jacques crap to shame. It's as in-depth as Watership Down, and more.

Barbara Martin said...

I have never read "The Plague Dogs", but am placing it on my TBR list as I'm certain I would like it. Thanks for the mini review, Marian.

Marian Perera said...

I think there's a lot to like about it, Barbara - some of the passages are sheer poetry. The songs stayed in my memory even though my copy of the book is still packed away.

Glad you liked the post.