Though Harcourt blurbs it as a “first novel,” most of us will probably know that artist and author Ursula Vernon had already published several books, including multiple volumes of her comic/graphic novel Digger and Black Dogs which I take to be intended as the first volume of a series. In one sense, though, Harcourt is correct. Nurk: the Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew is written for a juvenile audience, and is Vernon’s first published venture in that particular field.
Don’t dismiss the book as merely kid stuff, though. The author’s droll wit and ironic sense of humor is clearly evident in a manner that will tickle the fancy of the adult reader as well. Nurkus Aurelius Alonzo Electron Maximilian Shrew (no wonder everyone shortens it to just plain “Nurk”) is an orphan, having lost his parents when they were eaten by owls (shades of Mervyn Peake’s Lord Sepulchrave) under unclear circumstances. He continues to live alone in his family’s former home at the base of a large willow tree on the river bank, loosely watched by a great aunt who “looks in” on him once or twice a week. Though he is quite self-sufficient, he yearns to follow the example of his grandmother, Surka Aurelia Maxine Shrew, whose portrait hangs in the front hall of his home. Surka was noted for her ferocious and adventurous nature, evidenced by the fact that the artist portrayed her holding a sword and a severed head in her hands. Nurk isn’t quite sure he has the courage to achieve his goal, though, and certainly he has never been far from home.
When a grumpy hummingbird arrives to deliver a letter with a smeared address that appears to direct it to “…URK… UPSTREAM” Nurk assumes it is intended for himself and manages to convince the suspicious bird to hand it over. After he opens it and reads a waterstained plea for help, he realizes that it was in fact intended for none other than Surka, who has been missing for several years and presumed dead. In a quandary for what to do now that he has opened and read a letter never intended for his eyes, and that he can’t deliver to the intended recipient, the young shrew seeks advice from his friend the salamander, who tells him to return the letter to the sender. This is easier said than done, since there is no return address or signature. Finally Nurk decides he has no other choice, and prepares for his journey downstream by converting an empty snail shell to a boat and provisioning it suitably, not only with food and drink, but with plenty of clean, dry socks.
Carried by the current, he soon finds himself entangled in any number of small adventures, but the real story unfolds only after he rescues a waterlogged dragonfly princess named Scatterwings. It turns out that Scatterwings herself is the letter writer, and her family needs help to rescue her brother, Prince Flicker, who is being held captive by the Grizzlemole, a blind wizard “half the size of a mountain.” I’ll let the prospective reader discover the outcome of the quest, the nature of the odd difficulties encountered by Nurk on his way, and the wry witticisms introduced by Vernon as she relates the tale. Naturally, the author has provided the jacket art and internal black and white drawings herself, and they complement the story very well.
I believe this book is deliberately left open for sequels in which we may get to meet Surka Aurelia Maxine Shrew as well, and I look forward to the experience. The fact that Nurk reaches the end of his adventures without using a sword or severing any heads does not reflect badly upon him, and I suspect that his grandmother Surka will eventually be convinced of that too (though perhaps not at first.) While Surka may well resemble the ferocious shrew clans of Brian Jacques’ Redwall stories, Nurk has started out more in the character of Kenneth Grahame’s Mole, a mild-mannered creature who follows a yearning in his heart and gets much more than he thought he was seeking. I recommend this book to any reader who appreciates small creatures who can get into terrifying situations and yet see the ironic humor of their self-induced plights.
(Though my hoped for sequel hasn’t yet appeared, much more of author Vernon’s wit and quirkiness has since arrived in the form of her Dragonbreath series, which I can also recommend highly.)
Nurk: the Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew
Harcourt Children’s, 2008 (ISBN: 9780152063757, $16.00)
Also available in audio and for e-readers.
New Tibet is a colony world, a frigid land of permafrost and snow, far from the centers of galactic civilization. The economy is officially based on mining, and the government, such as it is, consists mainly of corporate policy and security forces. The world is populated by furry folk, largely those who are well adapted to cold: wolf, fox, bear, lemming, rabbit, mink. I wondered briefly what the tigers were doing there, but they are, after all, Siberian. Though we think of them in connection with subtropical forests, their ancestors were common during the last ice age.
In Common and Precious author Tim Susman gives us the first novel length view of life on New Tibet. Two previous volumes, Breaking the Ice and Shadows in Snow, have included short stories by Susman and others set on his ice-bound planet, and all of those stories are of top-notch quality. In this book, though, we get a much deeper and more detailed examination of the culture and environment.
The main protagonist, Melinda, is the daughter of wealthy Tiger Barda, the president of TeraMine Corporation. Her mother is gone, run away or vanished, possibly dead, though she really doesn’t know the details. Her father protects her zealously but obviously doesn’t tell her everything. Like many wealthy and sheltered young people, she has little awareness of the nature of life or the hardships experienced by others less fortunate than herself. She is spoiled and arrogant, but not insensitive and far from stupid.
When a traitor within Barda’s own household helps to bring about an assassination attempt on her father and her own abduction, Melinda experiences quite a revelation. In spite of herself, she begins to understand what life on New Tibet is like for her captors, and for most of the world’s population who are trapped there by their own lack of economic clout.
A powerful suspense novel in its own right, Common and Precious is also a political and economic diatribe. One cannot read it without learning through Melinda’s experiences just how large the gulf can be between wealthy privilege and impoverished servitude. Ultimately, she begins to understand her mother’s many absences and the source of the mysterious conflict and tension between her parents.
Meli is not alone in her dilemma, though. As she starts to appreciate the difficulty faced by most dwellers on New Tibet, Barda is trying to use his political and economic power to recover his daughter. His erroneous assumption that her abductors are the Shivers, a Mafia-like organized crime syndicate under the leadership of another powerful tiger, Tyrrix, leads him up a false trail. Barda summons Tyrrix to a meeting even while he is still in the hospital himself, recovering from the attack, only to learn that the Shivers deny responsibility for both the attack and his daughter’s disappearance. The wealthy businessman faces a dilemma every bit as intense and crucial as the one before his daughter. He can admit his own weakness and ask Tyrrix to help him, or rely only on his own security forces and risk losing Melinda completely.
The book shows us how father and daughter adapt and react to their individual situations. It is not easy for either, and both will be substantially changed by the experience. Tim Susman hasn’t yet given us much in the way of happy stories, and this one is no exception. The novel is dark, and offers little hope to the people of New Tibet or the reader, but the story is told in masterful detail, with imagery that demands thoughtful attention. Common and Precious is not light entertainment, but rather a novel to be read more than once and absorbed thoughtfully. Certainly this is not frivolous entertainment, but it deserves strong consideration.
Illustrations by Sara Palmer show wonderful versatility, matching the mood of the subject matter in a major turnaround from the light and cheerful nature of her familiar drawings in Kyell Gold’s Volle and Pendant of Fortune. Heather Bruton’s cover art is also worthy of note and finely detailed.
Common and Precious
Sofawolf, 2007 (ISBN 9780976921295, $17.95)
E-reader editions also available.
I would describe Michael Bergey’s 2005 book New Coyote as a must read for science fiction and furry fans alike. The Plains Indians and many of the southwestern tribes as well had an archetypal legend of Coyote, the Trickster. He was a demigod who had mystical powers of self-reincarnation and recreation and he loved to catch others in tricks that could be very nasty indeed for the victim. Of course, in our modern age, hardly anyone believes in the ancient spirits, and consequently they have declined in power until they are nearly forgotten.
Coyote doesn’t accept this state of affairs, however. He always has a plan, and his new plan requires that he be born again into physical flesh, without memory or knowledge of who he is, so that he can study modern society and culture and perhaps find a way to restore himself and his fellow gods to their rightful places. His avatar, if we may borrow a term from Asian thought, looks like an ordinary coyote, but we quickly learn that he is both smarter than the average human, and can both understand and speak human language when he chooses.
So where does he set himself down to begin his study of human society? Why, in the middle of an illegal marijuana plantation in the western US, where he acts like an ordinary dog, herding goats for the human owner, Mooney. When Mooney narrowly escapes capture by narcotics agents and has to run, Coyote goes too. This is where the adventure really begins. He manages (mostly) to keep humans from trying to kill him, and pries into everything that is going on with a little help from some of his fellow demigods.
Unfortunately, Fox seems to have it in for him and begins to campaign for Coyote’s death, claiming that it would be best all around, and Coyote must find a way to foil the Fox as well as the human villains. The story is largely told in first person, as seen through Coyote’s own eyes. The author, a veterinarian by profession, has an excellent feel for the heightened awareness of the canine, and reminds us frequently of the things he smells or hears that mere humans would miss. He also has a magnificent feeling for the trickster tradition of the Native American demigod, which manifests itself repeatedly as Coyote evades capture and turns the schemes of humans back on themselves. I won’t give away the outcome, other than to say you’ll be hoping for more. As it happens, there is more to be had, as Bergey’s second book, Coyote Season, was released in 2007.
New Coyote was re-released in paperback format in 2009 from Anthro Press. Both editions are available from used booksellers, but if the price seems too steep, try your library. Five Star is an imprint of Thorndike/Gale, a publisher that sells primarily to libraries so even if your local library doesn’t have the book, they should be able to borrow it for you from somewhere else.
Five Star, 2005 (ISBN 1594143226, $25.95)
Also issued in paperback.
Ah, Mossflower! I’m filled with yearning to return to the Summer of the Late Rose. Furry readers who are not familiar with the books of the late English author, Brian Jacques, would do well to put at least one or two near the top of their reading lists. I particularly recommend the earlier titles, beginning with the eponymous Redwall itself, followed by Mossflower and Mattimeo. British writer Jacques spun the tales of the mythical countryside around Redwall Abbey nonstop from 1986 until his passing in 2011. Indeed, some might suggest that he could have stopped sooner, as later offerings became rather repetitive. However, this does nothing to take away the charm of the original stories.
You must begin your nostalgic voyage at the beginning, with Redwall itself. (There are many editions from various UK and US sources, and translations into other European languages also exist.) In the forest of Mossflower, located somewhere up an idyllic river from the seacoast, the gentle mice built Redwall Abbey, under the protection of their great warrior Martin. That was long ago as our story begins, though, when Cluny the Scourge, a notorious sea rat and pirate, brings his crew up the river to capture and plunder the fabled wealth of the Abbey.
Like most of Jacques’ later books, this one relates an epic of courage and valor on the part of the animals of Redwall, when pitted against the black hearted and wicked villains who seek to conquer them. Cluny and his gang of rats, weasels, and foxes strike terror into the hearts of the gentle mice and their friends the squirrels and moles, but the otters, badgers, and hares who are their protectors plan a bold defense anyway. Meanwhile, Matthias, the youngest mouse novice (whose sandals are too large and whose robe drags the ground) sets about solving a puzzle to recover the Abbey’s greatest relic, the sword of Martin the Warrior. A complex riddle in rhyme, combined with clues from the architecture and a tapestry in the great hall, must be assembled and decoded. While Matthias begins this task with the aid of the Abbey’s historian and his own young friends, the warriors of his own time mount their determined defense of the walls and send out spies to find out what Cluny is up to.
The clever puzzle is interspersed with the action scenes to provide a story that I still find hard to put down, though I admit I’ve read it several times before. Readers unfamiliar with the regional accents of Britain and Scotland may well find some of the dialog a bit obtuse. The moles speak with a thick Yorkshire accent, while the hares use a sort of upper crust schoolboy idiom. The birds, who are depicted as a sort of primitive tribal society that inhabits the Abbey’s forgotten garrets and rooftops, are equally hard to understand. The villains use lower class idioms and pronunciations as well. With a little persistence, it can all be puzzled out, though I imagine some American children find it very difficult and may even turn away from the book.
Overall, it’s a rollicking adventure, a suspense novel, and a mystery combined into one, and a pleasant if rather fluffy read. I do have to admit that Jacques has his flaws. His works clearly owe much to authors of a hundred years earlier, particularly Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, with a dash of Lewis Carroll thrown in. A few characters are well developed and stand on their own, but many are rather thin stereotypes. The landscape of Mossflower is populated entirely by animals you would find in Britain, which is fine. It lacks any human occupants, which is also fine. However, I have trouble with the unrelenting stereotypical portrayal of many species. As in the works of Potter and Grahame, foxes, rats, and weasels are invariably villainous traitors. Mice, badgers, moles, squirrels, otters and hares are virtuous, brave, and heroic. Birds are largely untrustworthy, with a few exceptions. The abbey itself, though modeled on English religious foundations of the 15th century and earlier and borrowing from their hierarchies and architecture, does not appear to serve any religious purpose. Instead it is a secular hospital, in the old sense, a charitable home and establishment for the service of creatures in need. It has a deep history and a powerful tradition, and is beset again and again by piratical villains who wish to plunder its riches or use it as a headquarters for further thievery.
The series eventually grew to more than 20 volumes, and by the end the tales were somewhat redundant and even recursive at times. Individual books, though, have explored new territory and presented new species as their protagonists. Furry fans may well find much of the series if not all quite worthwhile. It has something for everyone, literally. Jacques’ own ability to turn a phrase or cast a spell has not faded over the years. These books are readily available in hardcover and paperback editions, used, new, or on loan from libraries. Ebook versions have appeared recently, and a British television series developed from it as well. I urge you to explore Mossflower and the surrounding countryside. Chances are, you’ll find something there to your liking.
Philomel, 1986 (2007 Anniversary Ed. $23.99 ISBN 978-0399247941)
Many editions, audiobook, ebook, paperback also available.
C. J. Cherryh is a versatile and powerful science fiction writer with many different races and worlds to her credit. However, the species most likely to interest the furry fan is almost certainly the Hani, anthropomorphic bipedal felines, lionlike in appearance and social behavior. The five novels about the Hani and their first encounter with humans have been reissued many times since their first appearance and remain readily available as used books or in electronic book formats.
The Pride of Chanur (DAW Books, 1981) is the first of the series, and begins with Pyanfar Chanur, captain of the Hani-owned trade ship after which the book is named, about to leave her ship in dock to meet with the stationmaster at Meetpoint, a trading center for many spacefaring races. She is headed out the loading ramp when a dishevelled and smelly alien creature rushes in at her. She doesn’t know what it is and her first reaction is to stop it from entering the ship, which she does with difficulty and only after injuring it with her claws. She summons her crew to restrain the thing and treat its injuries while she can figure out what it is and from whence it came. While cornered and not yet in bonds, bleeding heavily from its injuries, the creature begins writing what Pyanfar is sure are mathematical figures on the deck in its own blood, demonstrating that it is sentient and intelligent.
As it happens, only female Hani travel into space, since the males are considered too unstable and violent for the closed environment of a ship and to meet alien races. This explains an immediate consternation among the well-disciplined crew as they care for and house the stranger, and in the process learn that the alien is male. This strange creature is of course a human, sole survivor of a crew that were captured and tortured by members of another race, the Kif, enemy to the Hani. Thus begin Pyanfar’s “interesting times,” once she decides to shelter the human Tully and refuse to hand him back to his original captors.
It seems that Tully is a valuable “property” since he could reveal the location of his home world and open up new avenues of trade. Both the Kif and the Hani need the economic boost that an exclusive treaty with the humans might offer. The skirmishes and space races that follow, while Tully struggles to learn enough Hani to make himself both understood and useful and Pyanfar fights to keep both the human and her ship out of Kif hands make for an exciting and active story that Cherryh spins out expertly.
Along the way, we spend time on the Hani home world, Anuurn, and get a fair glimpse of Hani culture, in which alpha males own landed estates and are cared for by harems of their mates and sisters. Hani males live only to breed, fight each other for dominance, and believe the illusion that they are in control of their lives and property while the clever females actually run the planet by careful manipulation and management of their males. All this is very leonine, of course, and presented in vividly detailed action. Even at the end of five volumes, the reader is left quite willing to follow the further adventures of Pyanfar Chanur and her cousins, and perhaps even a little cross-species romance, as the author hints at something of the sort between Tully and Pyanfar’s niece Hilfy.
I recommend the Chanur series without reservation to any reader of furry fiction or ordinary science fiction. The five volumes in sequence are The Pride of Chanur, Chanur’s Venture, The Kif Strike Back, Chanur’s Homecoming, and Chanur’s Legacy.
C. J. Cherryh
The Pride of Chanur
DAW Books, 1981 (and many other editions)
Ebook (Epub format) available here
H. G. Wells published The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1896, and though it isn’t as well known as The War of the Worlds it has been in print almost continuously since its first appearance. This brief novel is readily available from libraries and new or used bookstores. Several audiobook versions have been released, and it has been adapted to film several times. The most recent film was released in 1996 and featured Marlon Brando as Moreau, though for a darker feeling you might prefer the 1932 release with Charles Laughton, entitled The Island of Lost Souls.
Film and television adaptations notwithstanding, I really suggest that anyone involved in furry fandom read the original. The book is not long, and can be finished in an evening or two. You will come away with an understanding of the peculiar revulsion that some people feel about furries and anthropomorphics, based on its roots in the morality and religious attitudes of Western culture.
Edward Prendick survives a shipwreck only to end up in a dingy on the South Pacific, without food or water, and doomed to an unpleasant death. At the end of his endurance, he is picked up by a mysterious ship that carries a cargo of live animals under the supervision of a medical man named Montgomery. Montgomery cares for and revives Prendick, but when the ship arrives at an island port of call to discharge the cargo, its drunken captain also dumps Prendick into his dingy again and abandons him. Eventually the dingy and Prendick arrive on the island, where he is decidedly unwelcome to the master of the tiny dwelling there, the mysterious Dr. Moreau.
Moreau, we learn, was exiled from civilized society (meaning England) for his experimental abominations. Soon he is explaining himself to Prendick in an effort to win the Englishman over to his side, and the protagonist views those experiments in surgical modification of animals to make them more “human” as utterly blasphemous. This is of course the view taken by most of Judeo-Christian tradition: the animals were created for the service and convenience of humans, and only humans were made “in God’s image.” This makes Moreau’s attempts to construct humanity from animal flesh utterly horrifying, even without the concerns Prendick seems to feel about the pain inflicted on the animals in the process.
When he ventures out into the wilds of the island, Prendick observes and becomes entangled with many of Moreau’s experimental subjects, some of whom are nearly successful, while others are dismal failures. The story draws to a rapid and suitably moralistic conclusion in which the guilty parties receive their deserved end, though there seems to be no happy ending for the many experimental subjects.
Wells spins an entertaining tale, as always, and will hold the reader’s attention readily enough. I suspect that most furries will not agree with the attitudes expressed by Edward Prendick or the author, but will find themselves rooting for the various underdogs, undercats, and so forth. This is a novel that might well be retold from a different viewpoint by a modern, furry-sensitive writer. It will also give you second thoughts if you’ve ever considered whether you’d allow medical science to “make a real furry” of you.
H. G. Wells
The Island of Dr. Moreau
Many editions and publishers, public domain
(Available from Project Gutenberg free of cost)
McKinley is a malamute who lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado with a boy named Jack. There is no question but what McKinley is a very good dog: obedient, orderly, attentive, and loyal. Then Lupin shows up. Lupin is a she-wolf, or maybe half-wolf hybrid, and she lives the wild life with a wolf pack. She begins to tease and encourage the dogs of Steamboat Springs to leave their homes and human companions to join her pack. Of course, McKinley is tempted…
Anthropomorphic fiction can take a number of directions, ranging from the cartoon animals who are often little more than humans in disguise to the stories where a human author tries to give us the realistic animal’s viewpoint entirely. In The Good Dog, Avi has chosen the latter approach and the entire book is told from McKinley’s viewpoint. We see how the world changes with a dog’s powerful senses of smell and hearing, and how a dog’s interactions with humans are limited by inability to speak even though he may understand much of what he hears. Some human activities, such as reading, remain mysterious to McKinley. Human technology, an example being the refrigerator, is simply magic that he accepts.
On the other paw, this protagonist has a strong sense of loyalty and responsibility. Even though he learns what it is to run with a pack, and live outside the bounds of fences and the human routines that are governed by clocks and custom, he never completely forgets his boy Jack. By the time he makes his final decision, readers can’t help but understand how much the dog must give up no matter which way he chooses to turn. McKinley’s dilemma shows that he has learned what it means to be a leader and a teacher, both among his peers and for the humans in his life.
Avi does a very fine job of depicting the dog’s eye view of the human world, though his representation of communication between dogs is perhaps a bit too anthropomorphic and verbal. The dogs speak to each other, in their own language of course, which Avi translates to normal English for us. I can’t help but suspect that the nuances (and limitations) of canine communication fail to come through very well here, though certainly the author’s approach makes the story much easier to follow.
We have heard this story before, of course. Jack London’s brilliant and beloved novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang tell this same story in two different ways. The domestic dog becomes wild in the first, and a wild wolf becomes domesticated in the second. The setting, language, and length of London’s work is not always suited to younger audiences, but the more advanced readers who have finished The Good Dog and are looking for more stories like it could be steered toward London, or perhaps the many dog stories of Albert Payson Terhune. Teen and adult readers may also enjoy the north country tales of James Oliver Curwood, most particularly Kazan, or Baree, and perhaps The Grizzly King.
We should note that while this book was first published in 2001, the last wolf packs roaming the Colorado Rockies were exterminated before 1942 or so. Avi’s story is told without many references that would allow us to date the setting, giving it a flavor compatible with many small towns and suburbs even in much more recent times. No doubt this helps young readers to relate to the story without too many questions, but parents and teachers may wish to be prepared for questions about actual wolves. There have been wolf sightings reported in Colorado as recently as 2007, but none have positive confirmation. Conservationists would like to see the wolf returned to more wild lands in the American west, but public opinion and resistance make this seem unlikely.
Avi [pseudonym of Edward Irving Wortis]
The Good Dog
Atheneum, 2003 paperback (ISBN 9780689838255, $6.99)
Also available in many other editions and as an audiobook