ROAR vol. 5 – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer, submits this review:

roar ROAR vol. 5, edited by Buck C. Turner

Dallas, TX, Bad Dog Books/FurPlanet Productions, July 2014, trade paperback $19.95 (325 pages). 

ROAR vol. 5, the approximately-annual anthology of “literary” (non-erotic) anthropomorphic short fiction under the Bad Dog Books imprint, contains stories on the theme of Secrecy. Editor Buck C. Turner says in his Foreword:

“This volume features stories based around secrets, a theme which brought out amazing plot twists and tense revelations. Keeping secrets brings an inevitable tension to life, one which no one fully escapes. […] Secrets can give their holders power and pain as they must wrestle with the decisions on how – or if – to utilize the information they possess. This is the task these fourteen authors, the largest number I’ve accepted to a ROAR volume, have undertaken.” (p. 10)

Warning: this is a long review, to cover fourteen stories.

Searska GreyRaven leads off with “Reynard and the Dragon”, a seemingly traditional fantasy-adventure based upon Old Norse mythology with an anthropomorphic cast. Vandrhoggr is an unkillable dragon, despoiling the Kingdom of Aberfew and eating every animal knight sent against him. Desperate King Leonine (lion) offers any request to the one who slays Vandrhoggr, but he balks when a scruffy fox, not a warrior, says that he will do it for the king’s daughter, Lady Idun (vixen). The author has smoothly combined the characters of the Norse god Loki, a trickster, with Reynard Jr., the son of the notorious animal trickster (who has guessed that a vixen cannot be a lion’s natural daughter), in an Old Norse-imitation tale that takes Reynard to Niflheim and back, looking for the secret of Vandrhoggr’s immortality before confronting him. This story is illustrated on the fine wraparound cover by Rukis.

In “The Wharf Cat’s Mermaid” by Mary E. Lowd, Mari is a forlorn crippled white kitten cast out on the unnamed San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf. She is envious of the mature stray cat Buttercup, who can beg or steal chocolate from the Ghirardelli tourist-center chocolate shop. But Buttercup doesn’t eat it; she brings it to the mermaid Lady Elayne for a glamour that makes her a more successful thief. Mari asks Elayne for a similar glamour, and is given the appearance of a young human girl. But under the glamour, Mari is still only a small kitten. So she asks Elayne for a more powerful magic … Ghirardelli may specialize in dark, bitter chocolate, but this is an “awww!” sweet story for cat-lovers.

“R & D” by Ryan Campbell features Michael Trask, an ordinary human employee in a high-tech R&D firm whose executives are all werewolves. Except that he’s not really Michael Trask, and what he’s caught stealing isn’t what the smug werewolf elite think it is. Campbell’s tightly-written story rapidly reveals secrets within secrets, with clever wordplay. “‘Don’t be such an omega,’ Hogdson [a werewolf leader] sneered.” (p. 70)

“Once Upon a Time …” by Alms is set in a modern civilization of anthro foxes. Mark Gladstone, an actor, and his ex-wife Mary have divorced amicably and trade off living with their young daughters, Alicia and Anita. But Alicia blames her parents’ divorce completely on her mother, and she has a secret plan to get rid of her so they can live with Daddy permanently, with her little sister’s unknowing help. The story is well written, and is very furry with constant mentions of thick fur and wagging tails. But I could never really get into it. This is a funny-animal story with no reason for the cast to be anthro foxes instead of humans, and Alicia, the main character, is such an unsympathetic little bitch.

I couldn’t help comparing it with the next story-

“The Painted and the Plain” by Huskyteer. This is a real anthropomorphic world, developed by and for canines. Pep (Pepperflank) is a young female who has come home from the university to her rural family:

“The two Painted turned stiffly in a circle, noses twitching as they sniffed each other for new scents. When they were back where they had started, Boss Dad cocked his head forward and sideways and they stretched forward to lick each other’s muzzles.

Once Boss Dad and Boss Mum had given her the traditional greeting, it was the turn of the rest of the pack, male and female alternating. Uncle Redmoon and Pep’s mother, Spiderweb; Cousin Coldfang, Aunt Wigglebum; Boldheart and Summersong, Pep’s brother and sister; and finally, Coppertoes, another cousin and the baby of the family. By the end of it Pep was dizzy from circling and drunk on the familiar scents of her people.” (p. 100)

You almost wish that Huskyteer had spent her whole story developing this world, and had forgotten about the plot. But there is a real plot here, of prejudice between the Painted (Pep’s people have spots and stripes) and the Plain (Pep’s boyfriend Bakari is furless and the same color all over). What Pep has learned at university and living among the Plain helps her to break her pack’s reactionary isolationism.

“The Color of Mantis” by C. Casey Gardiner is set in the Medieval or early Renaissance Benedictine convent priory of Conte-Pinento, where young Maria Verdelando di Conte-Pinento has been packed off by her family’s head for incessant Questioning rather than just Believing:

“‘Better a sister than a witch.’ Francisco scowled. ‘Always prattling on about lodestone properties and tinctures what might resurrect the dead… How can the Kingdom of God be held aloft in the sky?’” (p. 116)

Maria is actually eager to go, hoping that the learned Sisters will be able to answer her questions. But while they are not, they encourage her to question within the limits of religious doctrine. When Maria finds a praying mantis within her contemplation cell, and begins to have a dream every night of becoming a four-armed girl meeting with a handsome, man-sized combination of human youth and emerald insect, she brings her confusion to the priory’s abbess – who reveals a secret of the Church’s own. A very intellectual story, slightly enigmatic but ultimately satisfying.

“Eels for Heels” by Sarina Dorie is a comedy narrated by Kerstin, who is not exactly a mermaid but she does have eels for heels:

“‘What does that mean? Are you saying I’m too human? Or is it my feet?’ I have blond hair and blue eyes just like my mermaid grandmother – though my hair color comes from a bottle. I lack the tail of a full-blooded mermaid, but I do have, well, eels for feet. Long story.

‘It’s not like that. Your feet are cute, honest.’ Mervin winced when one of my eels bit him. ‘It’s just that Gordon… He has a boyfriend.

Just my luck. ‘Are all the good mermen either gay or married?’” (p. 143)

How Kerstin came to have eels for heels, and what she intends to do about it (it’s ruining her love life), is her highly amusing secret.

“Alter Child” by H. A. Kirsch is deliberately confusing, but it starts out with a punk rock group with a werewolf as lead singer, which will keep you reading until you figure it out. You better like the word ‘fuck’, though. “‘Fuck you, man! This music fucking sucks and you’re a fucking asshole!’” (p. 162) Fuck, fuck, fuck, and an occasional shit.

“Fear of the Dark” by Ben Goodridge is set in the Lapin village of Maar, a fortified warren inside an artificial clay hill to protect the anthro rabbits from the fierce Preds who would eat them. Leven is a Lapin child who has grown enough to become a Crop Guard, patrolling the village field from deer and other wild herbivores. But the Preds also eat deer, and what Levin discovers about them shatters his world forever.

“Oakdale” by W. F. Albone is also about a wolf, Markus Henderson, and a rabbit, Alton Travers. They’re adolescent students at Oakdale academy, a conservative institute run by the White Wolf religion, where Markus is sent by his reactionary father. This world’s mixed-species civilization is tolerant, and all institutes of learning are legally required to be mixed by the Inclusivity Directive. Only Oakdale has been able to mostly avoid it as a private religious institute; even so, Oakdale has had to accept a token non-Pack student. That’s Alton, who is assigned Markus as his roommate. Markus, the narrator, is okay with this, and the two become best friends; but Markus’ father goes ballistic and demands that Alton be expelled immediately. Oakdale can’t do that legally, but its administration is on the lookout for any technically to get rid of him. Oakdale’s wolf students’ assumption that Markus and Alton are not only friends but Queer lovers may create that technicality. Surprisingly, before that happens, Markus’ father’s prejudice leads to divorce between him and Markus’ mother; and Oakdale is also rigidly committed to “the preservation of The Pack”; in this case, meaning that its students’ family has to stay together. The adolescent Markus has to figure out how to beat Oakdale’s adult administrators to stay faithful to Alton, and to dance between technicalities to keep from being expelled – more importantly, if he even wants to stay in Oakdale. This story is for those who appreciate clever legal maneuvering.

“The Harvest Moon Ceremony” by NightEyes DaySpring brings together Maleekie, a white fox of the White Moon Tribe, and his rival, Rata of the black foxes. Rata and Maleekie’s sister Aki are lovers, starting Maleekie’s hatred of Rata. What happens increases that hatred, then evaporates it.

“The Letter from Brundisium” by Allen Vigilis is another funny-animal story, but set about 2,000 years ago in the colorful last days of the falling-apart “Roman Empire”. Gaius Agrippa (wolf), a courier from Brundisium in the East, is carrying a letter that agents of the newly de facto independent German and Celtic nations are trying to intercept. Who can he trust? There are a bear nobleman, a marten innkeeper, a hare waitress, a weasel barmaid, a badger stable boy, and more.

In “Should Have Known” by Yannarra Cheena, Dillon (ferret, the narrator) and Rhea (squirrel) are lovers and video-game fans. Both are exuberant species, and Rhea is no exception:

“Tossing my controller to the table, I watched Rhea do her special version of a couch-bound victory dance. Her pert little ears slanting sideways as she continued to wiggle and flip her long bushy tail about. It was moments like this that I could only sit back, smile, and wait out the hurricane that was Rhea. Dating a squirrel had very few sedentary moments – being force fed crow after being beaten in your favorite game sure wasn’t one of them. ‘Alright, you’ve had your fun. Pick a movie for tonight and I’ll go do the dishes.’” (pgs. 267-268)

But suddenly Rhea stops being exuberant. As time passes, Dilly goes from barely noticing to unsure if anything is really happening to becoming increasingly certain that Rhea is keeping a Secret from him. What would be a funny-animal story is kept furry by the detail of the social anthropomorphism:

“Ears folding back a little, I shook my head. Stripping down to my shorts, I lay my clothes on the patio and stepped onto the grass, the warm heat seeping up into my paw pads as I wiggled my toes in the blades. The neighbors had gotten used to the sight of Rhea and I doing our [fur] brushing out of the house, and some even picked up the activity themselves. I was an unremarked sight.” (p. 274)

In “Variables” by Roland Joviak, Esten is a ferret in a coffee bar, and Corey is an easily-flustered young fox barrista who is trying to hide that he is really turned on by the mustelid. Except that Esten isn’t a real ferret. He’s a top-secret prototype robot trying to pass as a normal anthro. Experiment successful; but Esten, who is emotionless and only faking responding to Corey’s clumsy passes, wonders mechanically what these things called emotions are really like. He finds out. (Joviak? Jovaik? It’s both ways.)

Fourteen stories. Which are “best”? My favorites are “The Painted and the Plain” by Huskyteer; “Eels for Heels” by Sarina Dorie; “Fear of the Dark” by Ben Goodridge, and “Oakdale” by W. F. Albone. You may have others; they are all well-written. Bad Dog Books started the ROAR series in 2007. In 2011 BDB was completely absorbed by FurPlanet Productions, but one of the terms of the sale was that FurPlanet would keep the BDB imprint alive and continue producing the ROAR anthologies. ROAR vol. 5 is a fine addition to the series.

– Fred Patten

See also: ROAR 4 review on Flayrah