White Mare's Daughter
by Judith Tarr
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In White Mare's Daughter, Judith Tarr looks back further than any of her previous novels to a pre-Egyptians, pre-Sumerian civilization in Europe. Setting her novel in 4500 BC, Tarr places her characters around the time that the horse was first becoming domesticated and matriarchal society still existed. In her afterword, Tarr explains that she used Marija Gimbutas's model of European Neolithic cities as her inspiration.
Tarr chooses to follow several different characters from different societies, demonstrating the variety in her neolithic civilization. Agni and his twin sister Sarama come from a society which still clings to Goddess worship, but has begun to turn away from a matriarchal society. Danu is a male who has grown up in a matriarchal society, leaving his home at the instigation of Catin, a priestess of the Mother Goddess.
Although the novel begins slowly, painting a careful picture of a society in transition, the pace picks up once Tarr and the reader get to know the characters involved. Tarr's characterization is good. Despite coming from "primitive" societies, her characters are complex in their interpersonal relationships as well as their understanding of their own cultures. Agni's sense of comparison to his brother Yama, along with his love for Yama's youngest wife and desire to rise to the monarchy above Yama, is one of the major plot points throughout the novel.
Tarr's use of Indian-sounding names is a constant reminder that the majority of modern European languages came from the root Indo-European language. At the same time, they suggest attributes for the characters who bear the name. . . burning for Agni, paternity for Patir and so on.
In many ways, sex seems to form the basis of Tarr's civilization. Nevertheless, it is to Tarr's credit that, although her characters seem obsessed with sex and rut around as if there were no tomorrow, the author doesn't go into details, merely acknowledging the occurrences and treating them as a normal part of her civilization. Yes, sex is an important and integral part of Tarr's civilizations, but there are other aspects of survival which are as important. Her societies have also managed to move beyond a mere subsistance level and have been able to develop a variety of leisure activities.
White Mare's Daughter is not for every reader (but then, what novel is). This is an humanistic fantasy set at the dawn of mankind in a world moving from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society. More philosophical discussion than adventure, her characters are trying to survive in a world in ideological flux as much as a world in a state of conflict.
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