Tinder Stricken, by Heidi C. Vlach – Book Review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
“By dawn’s feeble light and one smoldering candle, Esha stared into the polished tin mirror, full of dread like every other morning. The goat had stolen a little more of her body through the night.” (p. 1)
Esha lives in a world in which most people turn into animals during their lifetimes:
“Only the luckiest people got to see their faces turn distinguished and their human hair go silver. The heavens gave humans precious little time in their ideal bodies and capable minds, before they slid back into more bestial form. Esha had reached her forty-eighth year of life and she was still mostly presentable – after physicians telling her she would be a bleating beast by her thirty-fifth. To some degree, Esha was doing well.” (ibid.)
Esha may be doing well physically, but socially she is among the lowest castes. Her world has an Eastern Asian aura; her greeting is “namaste”, her currency is rupees, bamboo grows everywhere; she is a farm woman working in the fields – her official name is Esha Of The Fields – of the Janjuman Farms, along with many identical low-caste women of the Fields. Most of them chew betel, a common narcotic. Esha has many field-sisters, but she has only one close friend; Gita Of The Fields, who is turning into a deer.
Workers of the “Of The Fields” caste earn barely enough to live on. Gita has a plan for a scam that will bring them both rupees. She has seen a phoenix in the fields. Such a firebird could burn down the fields. She will report it to the Janjuman overseers and suggest that she and Esha be sent to drive it off. Instead they will secretly capture the bird and sell it.
The attempt proves more dangerous than expected, complicated by an earthquake during the midst of it. Gita is killed, her body gone but not her identification. Esha runs into soldiers inspecting for earthquake damage and uses Gita’s identification. As Tinder Stricken progresses, Esha worries more and more about using Gita’s identity.
Esha’s world is so strange that there is no easy way to summarize what she wants and what she does. Some glimpses, though:
Esha has trouble traveling long distances. She is gradually turning into a goat, and the in-between transformation of human legs into goat legs makes walking difficult. This is unfortunately normal.
“Some farm women weren’t so fortunate. They worked slower each day, bodies warping, their rags and wraps overgrowing them like blight but unable to hide the inevitable. Eventually, the moment came when they weren’t a person any longer. Just a confused animal making a scene.” (p. 12)
Esha runs into more phoenixes than she expects. One of them takes her valuable knife. It’s stealing as far as Esha is concerned; the phoenix feels it’s hers by right. In this world, the birds are semi-intelligent and can talk, although what their speech means is a riddle. Phoenixes cannot burst into flame like this world’s mythical birds, but they are attracted to fire. They regularly steal iron objects like knives to strike against pyrites to set plants alight to enjoy the fire; hence Gita’s and Esha’s ploy. Here is how it works:
“By the time Esha split bamboo into kindling, the phoenix returned with his beak packed full of withered pine needles.
‘He’ll look after it,’ Atarangi offered. And so Esha put down the kindling and watched the phoenix work – arranging a tent of sticks around his gathered tinder, and picking open two knots in his stringfeathers to release his iron and pyrite, and proceeding to strike sparks.
For all the terror it stirred up in Esha’s farming mind, the technique certainly was arresting to watch. The bird held the glittering pyrite in his beak, and the iron between his talons; a liquid snap of his long neck brought the two together. Into the fire pit sprayed hot sparks, once and twice and again until smoke began twining out of the tinder. A flame needled up and the phoenix immediately hopped away to set his striking tools on bare ground, in plain sight. And then, stick by stick, and he dropped bamboo fuel onto the growing flames.” (pgs. 81-82)
Other animals are intelligent enough to have their own languages. One of the rarer human occupations/talents is that of animist, a person who can talk with animals or who knows what the animals are saying. Esha becomes deeply involved with Atarangi the animist, at first just to ask Atarangi what “her” phoenix wants to return the knife. Esha learns that phoenixes have a more complex culture than she realized. And then Atarangi introduces her to other animals and their cultures …
I’ve spent this review talking less about the plot than about how strange and exotic Esha’s world is. Don’t worry; there is a coherent story in Tender Stricken that comes to a definite conclusion. You will be glad that you read it.
Tender Stricken, with a cover by the author, “is set in a magical fantasy world inspired by Nepal, Tibet and China,” according to the blurb. It does not look like a furry-press book, but it debuted at What The Fur in Montreal in May 2015.