Hero’s Best Friend; An Anthology of Animal Companions – book review by Fred Patten.

by kiwiztiger

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

Hero’s Best Friend; An Anthology of Animal Companions, edited by Scott M. Sandridge
Lexington, KY, Seventh Star Press, February 2014, trade paperback $20.95 ([iv] + 447 pages), Kindle $3.99.

Hero's best FriendHero’s Best Friend; An Anthology of Animal Companions is a fantasy anthology of “twenty stories of heroic action that focuses on the furries and scalies who have long been the unsung heroes pulling their foolish human buddies out of the fire”. Superficially, this is not necessarily a furry book. The blurb cites comparisons with Gandalf’s horse Shadowfax, the Vault Dweller’s dog Dogmeat, and the Beastmaster’s “fuzzy allies”; all famously loyal animal companions, but under their human partners’ control. Those animals are no more anthropomorphic than the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver.

But these are stories by fantasy authors, and they emphasize the animals’ conscious partnership or dominance over their human companions. “[T]he unsung heroes pulling their foolish human buddies out of the fire” is the operative m.o.

In “Toby and Steve Save the World” by Joy Ward, Steve is the human and Toby, a Pembroke corgi, appears to be his dumb pet. But the story is told from Toby’s view, and it’s clear that the dog recognizes the menaces and deliberately maneuvers his clueless human into taking care of them. The story is definitely anthro. It also wallows in self-conscious cuteness.

“Dusk” by Frank Creed is narrated by Dusk, a housecat in the future. Dusk is the partner of a man codenamed Whisp, but here the human is aware of the cat’s strengths, and they trust each other. Whisp and Dusk are undercover police agents seeking a criminal gang in 2038 Chicago’s Chinatown slums, and Dusk (among others) is bionically enhanced.

“I sniffed the alien scents on the shelves in my aisle – and also the faint charcoal bouquet of expensive whiskey – while Whisp did what the wanted. From the back of the shop I eyeballed inside the stairwell where sat a thin middle-aged yellow-skinned man on a stool. He wore suspenders over a plain white stained tee and held a cup. He looked at me, but it felt wrong.
Other eyes saw through his eyes, and the fur on my spine spiked.” (p. 18)

The hunter of “The Hunter’s Boy” by Cassie Schau is Teffa, a mother alley cat and the protagonist. Her boy is Grith, a strange kitten (“No cat spent four years a kitten.” –p. 32), but Teffa loves him anyway. But Grith is stolen by humans for no obvious reason, despite Teffa’s frantic clawing; then Len, one of the humans, returns claiming to be Teffa’s friend who will help her get Grith back. Teffa doesn’t know what’s going on, or trust Len; but what choice does she have? “The Hunter’s Boy” is deliberately confusing at first, but all is gradually clarified and revealed. A clever and well-written tale.

“Grit” by Steven Donahue, on the other hand, is one of the worst stories I’ve ever read. Supposedly every story in an anthology is praised by some readers and panned by others, but “Grit” has so much wrong with it that I can’t imagine anyone liking it.

“Hill 142” by Jason Cordova is set in a fantasy World War I where the German Höllenspinne Division rides giant spiders. But the U.S. Marines have their own horse-sized lions. Captain John Thomason’s Ghost is more than just a huge feline mount, though. He is a loyal friend all through the bloody action that follows.

“Dook” by Herika R. Raymer features two ferrets. No surprise, with a title like that. What is a surprise is that “Dook” is not a fantasy. Amber, in present-day Tennessee, wants the old brooches that their grandmother left to her; but she was away from home when Gram died, and Amber’s dishonest brother Barry took them. So she sends her well-trained pet ferrets, Sitka and Gizmo, to steal them back. The story is well-told despite the lack of fantasy.

“Brothers” by Essel Pratt is told as a flashback as Jakel, an ancient wolf, enters an abandoned cemetery and reminisces about the final battle in which he and his human foster-brother Manfred defeated an evil wizard, but at the cost of Manfred’s life. It would be easy to criticize the overly-florid description (“Each squall uplifts loose dust from the forgotten entrance, exciting the specks as they travel along the windy waves. Decaying leaves retreat to dark corners, revealing an unkempt path into the hushed cemetery,” – p. 153), but the overall somber mood is surprisingly successful.

“Ezra’s Girl” by Lisa Hawkridge is told from the viewpoint of Ezra, a snake, although it is very unusually told in the present subjunctive tense:

“A few hours later, the Ghisic ex-Navy ship comes into view of those on the main deck, and everybody flocks over to the starboard railing to stare at it. You slither your way over and climb up onto the railing to get a glimpse of it because you can’t see over the heads of all the humans. You were sure you were just going to dismiss it after one look, just to be on the safe side. Instead, what you see makes you stare. The entire hull of the other ship is glowing and pulsating with magic, which is far from normal.” (p. 171)

Ezra’s girl is Elena, a young freelance battle mage, and Ezra is her familiar. The two are part of a war that is both physical and magical. They are assigned to smuggle something that will help their side into the enemy nation. Ezra is more of an equal partner than a loyal companion. He can’t talk, but he is fully sentient and he and Elena consult each other regularly, This is a rich, complex story.

“Look What the Cat Dragged In” by S. H. Roddey switches between Delilah the human and Miko the cat. Both narrate in the first person. When Miko drags home a human foot, Delilah calls the police and is arrested for murder. The exasperated Miko has to find the real murderer to get her released, so she can resume providing his regular meals! Miko seems more self-centered than a loyal companion, but this is still an enjoyably funny story.

“The Wolf Sentinel” by Steven S. Long is Greylord, an ancient pack leader who has lost a dominance battle and been driven off to die alone. He meets Vorgath, a minor warlock who is being pursued by agents of Lord Elgard, determined to stop him from revealing Elgard’s treachery to the king. The old wolf summons enough strength to perform one last fight. Nice, but Greylord’s noble death is telegraphed.

“Memorandum” by Laura Anne Ewald is an account of two galactic observers stranded on Earth who pose as locals; a human woman, Dr. Reni Lira, and a feline, Dr. Mroweo Hsstu. They seem just “weird” enough that they are taken by their neighbors to be a witch and her familiar, despite this being modern small-town America rather than medieval Europe. This may be a parable against prejudice, but the contemporary American setting makes the stereotyped torch-waving, “burn the witch!” mob of townsfolk less believable.

“The Hat” by Cindy Koepp has a completely confusing setting. Ingrid, Frank, and Mick are human secret agents trying to catch Gregory Brown stealing information about the castle’s defenses to betray the king. Ingrid is posing as an entertainer with six trained cockatiels. The story is from the viewpoint of Cloud, one of the cockatiels. The six birds squabble, but Cloud, who idolizes Ingrid, is trained to fly over and steal Gregory’s hat with a map of the castle defenses hidden in it. The story is nicely told, but the contemporary American names and dialogue just don’t fit the references to “the castle defenses” and “the king”.

“Scarheid in the Glisting” by Ian Hunter has an unnamed setting that is clearly medieval Scotland. A wildcat and its kittens are killed. The wildcat’s spirit is saved(?) by a Seer, a wizard who takes it to the Glisting, “the world within the world, the refuge of the Seers.” (p. 287) The Seer is the enemy of the Laird who ordered the wildcats killed. He slowly trains the wildcat, Scarheid, in the Glisting before they return to the real world for their vengeance against the Laird.

“The Masterless” by Steven Grassie starts out very much like the previous story, but it’s medieval Japan and the characters are Kojima, a rōnin huntsman, and Shiro, his akita companion. Shiro is described on the first page as “the big akita looks uncannily like a wolf.” (295) This is one of the longest, best-written (so complex that any summary would give away spoilers), and most exciting tales in Hero’s Best Friend.

“Wind of Change” by David Wright seems to be set in a fantasy world like the prehistoric American plains. The main characters are a human native warrior, his coyote-headed warrior opponents, a hawk, and an enigmatic dove. This tale combines excellent writing with so many loose ends that it seems to be an excerpt ripped from a novel-in-progress.

“The Emerald Mage” by Renee Carter Hall has a great opening paragraph:

“We snowcats may be born for swirling blizzards and icy cliffs, but for myself, I’ll take a cozy cottage hearth any day. A bellyful of roast rabbit, a fire of crimson embers, the old rug covered with layer on layer of my gray-and-white fur – that’s comfort.” (p. 353)

Jiro the snowcat has been the companion of Korrinth the emerald mage for decades. Now he’s basically the nursemaid of the senile wizard, using magic that he picked up from Korrinth over the years. When Korrinth insists on attending the mages’ council meeting, Jiro has misgivings:

“When we were alone, I could help him without him noticing, but the other mages wouldn’t be so easily fooled.” (p. 357)

This is certainly the most colorful story in this anthology, with a crimson mage, an indigo mage, a yellow mage, and a beige – no, ecru – mage, each with a companion; a scarlet mini-dragon, a falcon, and so on. Jiro tries to keep the secret that Korrinth has become too weak to remain the emerald mage. Hall’s writing is simultaneously funny, sad, and touching; I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

In “The Violet Curse” by Nick Bryan, Theo the warrior and his loyal dog Ally go after Venion, the evil wizard who killed Theo’s family. But they don’t know that Venion has placed a curse on Ally to make her kill Theo. Will Ally be strong enough to resist it?

Laura is “The Restless Armadillo” by Lillian Csernica & Kevin Andrew Murphy; a zombie armadillo reanimated by Nettle, Ivy, and Wasp, three enviro-freaks who use black magic to call back the spirits of roadkill, oil-disaster animals, and similar victims of human carelessness to wreak revenge. The enviro-freaks get more than they planned for.

“Stuck on the Squigglybounce” by Douglas J. Ogurek contains such names as Smackbrat, the Miroom Tummygrowl statue, the esteemed Wiggly Scissors Academy, Daddysmackers, Wedge Medge, and gilpans. I have no idea what the story is about.

“Passage” by Sheila Deeth is narrated by an everybeast:

“You don’t know me. I’m a cat, or dog, or bird, or fish. I can look like a human, too, when I want; I’m whatever I wish. But you don’t get to choose who I’m going to be.” (p. 435)

The narrator, which usually chooses to appear as a cat, follows Sinead. Who is Sinead? You don’t want to know.

20 stories. “The Hunter’s Boy”, “Ezra’s Girl”, “The Masterless”, and “The Emerald Mage” are the best – are my favorites, anyway; you may like others. As usual, this anthology is a mixture of tales that you’ll like and some that you won’t. On the whole, there are enough other good ones to justify the price. The last few get pretty surrealistic. But I was disappointed that the fine cover by Enggar Adirasa doesn’t illustrate any of the stories.

– Fred Patten