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Books To Look For
Eyes of Crow, by Jeri Smith-Ready,
I'VE SAID IT before: I like trying books by new writers. With a debut novel, you never know what you're going to get. It might be gold, or it might all turn to mud and twigs and leaves after only a few pages. You go into the story with no expectations, because this is a new voice, a fresh take, and let's face it, new territories are what we're looking for when we open a book.
Eyes of Crow is an absolutely delightful coming-of-age story, set in a world where the industrial age has yet to arrive. Our third-person viewpoint character is a young woman named Rhia, and the people of her agricultural-based tribe have a close connection with personal animal spirit guides. It has nothing to do with faith. They have an actual relationship with their guides and can often utilize certain of their animal attributes.
Rhia's known forever that her spirit guide is Crow, but she has avoided accepting it because in this culture, those rare people connected to Crow are the ones who can foresee death, and guide the spirits of the dead from this world into the next. It's an important task, though not a particularly cheerful one.
But her avoidance has a cost when she is unable to help her own mother's passage from this world. Heavy with guilt, Rhia finally accepts her burden and goes to a nearby hunter/gatherer forest tribe to begin her training.
Everything is different among the forest people, including the fact that for a person connected to Crow to carry out her functions for the tribe properly, she first has to die.
There's an abundance of riches in this book, and Smith-Ready handles them all so well. The cultures and customs are well thought out and rendered, the connections with the spirit guides are wonderfully magical and filled with Mystery, and the complicated relationships of the tribes people are handled with a realistic flare.
There is a war brewing (isn't there always in a fantasy novel?), but Smith-Ready focuses on the people as much as the mustering and movement of armies, which gives the readers a strong emotional connection to every element of the book, be it a complicated relationship between a couple of characters or a battle scene.
And best of all, while this is the first book of a trilogy, the reader is left completely satisfied at the conclusion of this book, while still wanting to read the next volume.
Thunderbird Falls, by C. E. Murphy,
We were first introduced to C. E. Murphy's half-Irish, half-Cherokee protagonist Joanne Walker in Urban Shaman, in which the Seattle-based police mechanic discovers a connection with, and a responsibility to, her magical abilities. Through the course of the story, she gained a sidekick (cab driver Gary), became a little more familiar with her abilities (while trying to deny that they exist), and saved the world from the Wild Hunt.
In Thunderbird Falls, she's now a policeman on foot patrol, though she still lives mostly in denial of her abilities. (A note to the author: that was interesting in the first book, but it's getting just a little old now; please don't keep this as an element of her personality in the next story, because if Walker still can't accept what she is after all she's gone through by the end of this book, she's too dumb to keep our respect.)
Reluctantly, Walker finds a spirit teacher to train her in these abilities she's not one-hundred percent sure she has, and it pretty much goes downhill from there—in terms of Walker's problems, that is, not Murphy's ability to tell a story.
Walker's first-person voice is charming, with just the right touch of self-deprecating humor, and immediately draws the reader in. The magical elements are personal and a nice blend of pragmatic and spiritual. And Murphy keeps us on track (and on the edge of our seat) throughout, no matter how convoluted the plot eventually gets.
As I said about Urban Shaman, this isn't a Big Think book, but it's thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, and in a time when too many books have a tired, same-old, same-old feel to them, that's reason enough to pick up one of Murphy's books and give her a try.
The Beast of Noor, by Janet Lee Carey,
At the length of belaboring a point I've made in this column before, I'd like to return for a moment to the late sixties/early seventies. If a fantasy fan from those days was to see the vast cornucopia of material available to us here in the first part of the twenty-first century, they'd think they'd died and gone to heaven. (Mind you, the cultural shock in terms of technological advancement might be enough to give them a heart attack, but I digress.)
At that earlier point in time, when I first began to read fantasy, you had to work to find the sort of book we take for granted now. We had the Unicorn imprint from Ballantine under the editorship of Lin Carter; Dover books with their reprints of classic books by Leslie Barringer, Robert W. Chambers, and others that had fallen into public domain; and the odd offering from other publishers that was usually hidden in their sf line. With so little material readily available, readers would scour used book stores for the grail of titles by the likes of Lord Dunsany and William Morris. Or we'd plunder the mainstream sections of the book stores for reprints by, say, Thorne Smith.
Or we'd look to the children's book section. (I might be wrong, but I think the term Young Adult was still to come—just as was the idea of a dedicated fantasy genre.)
One of the best sources for quality material in those days was Atheneum—the imprint that brought us such luminaries as Susan Cooper and Patricia McKillip, the latter still offering up perfect fantasy jewels at least once a year, albeit from a different publisher now. I have many fond memories of those early Atheneum titles, curled up in a reading chair late at night, letting the words take me away into the magical otherworlds to be found in their pages.
So it was with great delight that I found The Beast of Noor to be upholding that fine tradition.
Janet Lee Carey's new book has that same timeless quality of the best of fantasy. There's not a lot of exposition. Instead, we're immediately plunged into the island world of Hanna Ferrell and her brother Miles, finding out about the island community and the wide world beyond its shores only when necessary, and in passing. What's surprising is that her earlier three books have contemporary settings. Where did she get the authorial chops to write such a resonant fantasy novel, individual, but still touching on all the tropes that draw readers to this sort of a book?
It doesn't really matter. All we need to do is crack open the cover and slip into the story.
Hanna and Miles are outsiders. Their family is related to the Sheens, an island family that, long before the book begins, was responsible for bringing into being the Shriker, a giant murderous dog that lures its victims into the untamed forest.
Gone for some time, the Shriker has returned, and a young girl from the village is the beast's latest victim. Her death firms Miles's resolve to make right the errors of his ancestors—a determination that only grows stronger when he realizes Hanna has begun to have the dreams that will have her sleepwalk into the forest where the Shriker will be waiting for her.
As usual, I don't like to go into a lot of plot details—how a story unfolds should be the reader's pleasure. But let me assure you that Carey is a generous and lyrical author. She doesn't waste words, but the immediacy of her prose carries in it the brevity of good poetry, and a contemporary flair. The Beast of Noor reads like a fairy tale—but a sustained, substantial one, with plenty of solid characterization and the sort of magical moments that will have your heart sing in one moment then shiver in the next.
Is it a Young Adult novel? Yes, if you still consider McKillip's books to be YA.
Will an adult fantasy reader enjoy it? Without question.
Material to be considered for review in this column should be sent to Charles de Lint, P.O. Box 9480, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1G 3V2.
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