Off the Beaten Path, by Rukis – book review by Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

Off the Beaten Path, by Rukis. Illustrated by the author.
Dallas, TX, FurPlanet Productions, July 2014, trade paperback $19.95 (385 pages).

(publisher’s advisory):
“This is a mature content book.  Please ensure that you are of legal age to purchase this material in your state or region.” 

Rukis_OTBP_web“When I turned thirteen years of age, the village elder told me I had become a woman. When I had turned fourteen years of age, my mother told me I had become a burden. When I had turned fifteen years of age, my father told me I had become a wife. He had been paid [by] a man from the Anukshen to take me away from everything I knew and every person I cared for, to become his third wife.” (p. 9)

This is one of those books that is almost impossible to review without giving away spoilers. Basically, except for the anthropomorphic-animal and fantasy-world aspects, the setting is North America shortly after the British colonies along the Eastern Coast have won their independence. Shivah, the narrator (bobcat), is a young woman of a native tribe in a valley beyond the “Otherwolf” lands. She has only known two tribes, her own Katoshen and the neighboring Anukshen. They barely tolerate each other, grudgingly trading together. Both are extremely patriarchal, treating women as little more than slaves and baby-making machines. Shivah is married against her will to Methoa’nuk, an arrogant and brutal Anukshen Honored Warrior for two horses and a brick of salt. Despite her attempts to be a “good wife”, she disgraces him (or maybe he just blames his disgrace on her). Methoa kills their year-old son, and encourages the Anukshen to stone her to death. She recovers consciousness weeks later, having been nursed back to health by two wandering trappers from faroff differing tribes, Ransom, a tall coyote, and Puck (Puquanath Roatok), a blind white fox medicine man who “sees” with his ears:

“His ears twitched more than most people’s I’d seen, picking up sounds around us I certainly wasn’t hearing. His nose flared as he looked my way, taking in my scent … which I was beginning to realize was as bad, if not worse, than the coyote’s.” (p. 27)

Shivah learns from them that, after her “death”, Methoa had led the Anukshen to war with the Katoshen, and the two tribes had wiped each other out; so she could not go back to either even if she had wanted to. Ransom and Puck had not planned for her to stay with them beyond their nursing her back to health, but she obviously has no place to go and cannot survive on her own, so they allow her to join them as they journey toward the fabled (to her) Otherwolf lands.

This takes the story to about page 50. What Shivah learns and does in the Otherwolf lands (they call it Amuresca), besides look for revenge against Methoa’nuk, is the rest of the novel – and more. Off the Beaten Path ends with a cliffhanger, and a notice that Book 2 will continue the story. (It’s unclear whether it will be “Off the Beaten Path; Book 2” or a new title.) The rating is NC-17 for “violent scenes; some sexual scenes”, but this is not an erotic novel.

Ransom and Puck remain important characters throughout the book. They are an Odd Couple. Ransom is a “civilized native” despite his contempt and distrust of the Otherwolves. He dresses like one of their backwoodsmen, carries a rifle, and smokes hand-rolled cigarettes. Puck is more of a traditional tribal healer and shaman. Shivah learns about the Otherwolves from them.

“‘Are there different tribes?’

‘Different Nations.’ Ransom snorted, spitting. ‘Y’don’t often meet the desert-dwellers though; they actually keep to their own land most o’the time. Most of the settlers are from Amuresca. Dogs. Rats. Cats here an’there.’

‘I thought they were all wolves.’ I blinked, surprised.

‘Even the dogs ain’t ‘wolves.’’ Ransom laughed. ‘Wait ‘til you see ‘em someday. Some of ‘em’s not recognizable as much o’ anything. Got their faces all mushed in. There’s a few wolves, I guess … but most of ‘em don’t look like real wolves. Not tribal wolves.’

‘The Wolves of the Northlands think they are cursed,’ Puquanath said, stopping on a rocky outcropping and sniffing the wind, his tail prickling on end for a moment. ‘That the Spirits changed their bodies so as to show us they were apart from us … that they could not be trusted. They vehemently opposed the Alliance with the Otherwolves, even went to war with several of the tribes that agreed to it. It was bloody …’

‘Bloody stupid.’ Ransom snorted. ‘I don’t trust an Otherwolf – any Otherwolf – but killin’ ourselves off faster is just makin’ it easier for them to move on in. If the tribes had allied at the start, they’d never’ve gotten a foothold. Then we could’ve taken their shit, and kept our land. But the leadership just wasn’t there, an’ there were too many old grudges.’” (pgs. 54-55)

Rukis makes it obvious that her furries are thinly-disguised humans. Shivah, a bobcat, suspects at first that Ransom, a coyote, intends to rape her. But Rukis does a good job of making this a superficially furry world. There are otter, mountain lion, rat, and husky characters, plus a Crow who may be an imaginary animal spirit, and even a rumored saber-toothed tiger. Rukis’ wraparound cover shows all three main characters: Ransom and Puck looking on as Shivah draws an arrow. There are also over a dozen interior illustrations by her.

The NC-17 rating is deserved. There are scenes of brutal violence, gore, and graphic romance, both heterosexual and homosexual. But the violence is justified, and the eroticism is brief and pertinent to the story. The worst criticism that I can make is that the anthropomorphization is too superficial, resulting in such scenes as a sentient furry trapper loading non-sentient pelts onto a non-sentient mule. Off the Beaten Path is a fine adult novel with three well-developed protagonists, including a strong woman. Recommended, especially to those who like fiction about the 18th-century North American continent beyond the Eastern seaboard.

– Fred Patten