The Prophecy Machine and The Treachery of Kings – Book Reviews by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
The Prophecy Machine, by Neal Barrett Jr.
NYC, Bantam Books/Spectra, November 2000, 0-553-58195-3 paperback $6.50 (342 [+ 1] pages).
The Treachery of Kings, by Neal Barrett Jr.
NYC, Bantam Books/Spectra, August 2001, 0-553-58196-1 paperback $6.50 (326 [+ 1] pages).
In works of fiction, usually the focus is upon the plot, or the main characters. In The Prophecy Machine by Neal Barrett, Jr. and its sequel, The Treachery of Kings, it is the setting: the weird, wonderful world in which the stories take place. In its land of Makasar, to quote The Prophecy Machine’s blurb, “Its two major religions are Hatters and Hooters. During the day, Hatters, wearing hats of course, wander about jabbing pointy sticks into bystanders. The night is ruled by the Hooters, who hoot and set fire to people and things. Hospitality is considered a capital crime. And Newlies, the humanized animals, are treated lower than scum.”
The protagonist in this fey world is Master Lizard-Maker Finn, who runs The Lizard Shoppe in Ulster-East, where he makes mechanical lizards such as the one on his shoulder when he is introduced aboard the ocean vessel Madeleine Rose:
“‘What I thought is,’ the captain said, rubbing a sleeve across his nose, ‘I thought, with the salt air and all, the ah–object on your shoulder there, that’s the thing I mean, might be prone to oxidation, to rust as it’s commonly called.’
‘I’ve been some curious, as others have as well, just what it might be. Now don’t feel we’re trying to intrude . . .’
‘Of course not, sir.’ Finn smiled, taking some pleasure in finding the captain ill at ease. ‘What you speak of is a lizard. I design and craft lizards of every sort. Lizards for work, lizards for play. Lizards for the rich and poor alike. I make them of metal, base and precious too, sometimes with finery, sometimes with gems. The one you see here is made of copper, tin, iron, and bits of brass.’
The captain closed one squinty eye, looked at Finn’s shoulder, then looked away again.
‘And these–lizards, what exactly do they do, Master Finn?’
‘Oh, a great number of things,’ Finn said. ‘When we have some time I’d be pleased to explain. It might be I can make one for you.’” (The Prophecy Machine, p. 3)
But the metal lizard on Finn’s shoulder is special, unique of its kind. It is sentient and can talk – unfortunately:
“‘Ornament, am I? Doesn’t do anything at all?’ said a voice like a croak, like a rattle, like a saw cutting tin. ‘A fine thing that is, Finn.’
‘Shut up,’ Finn said. ‘There are ears everywhere. You can’t talk, Julia. Try and remember that.’
‘Oh, I’ll remember, all right. Next time you need Julia Jessica Slagg to save your neck from some terrible assault, to drag your bony flanks out of the fire, to—‘
With nary a glance, Finn tapped a copper scale at the tip of a brassy tail. Julia gave a hiss and a sckruk! and went silent at once.” (The Prophecy Machine, pgs. 4-5)
Julia Jessica Slagg, the anthropomorphic metal lizard, is one of a kind, but this world is teeming with the Newlies, the Chosen Nine, the species of humanized animals who are oppressed by the humans as the lowest social class: the Bowsers, Yowlies, Foxers, Dobbins, Bullies, Mycers, Badgies, Snouters, and Grizz. (Nobody mentions the Vampies. Be afraid! Be afraid!) They each have their specialties. Foxers are personal servants. Yowlies are prized ships’ crews:
“And there, in the dizzy heights above, leaping from the shrouds, scrambling up the masts, was the very source of Letitia’s nightmares – screeching, howling, loathsome creatures with pointy tufted ears, flat pink noses and pumpkin-seed eyes: striped, spotted, ginger, black and white. They all wore mulberry, plum, or lilac pantaloons, and little else at all.
Here then, the crew of the Madeleine Rose, likely a hundred of the dreaded Yowlie folk, maybe more than that.” (p. 7)
Why does Letitia Louise fear them so? Instinct. For she is a Mycer, the former prey of the Yowlies in their unhumanized days. Today, the Mycers have nothing to worry about from the Yowlies. It is the humans who would tear her and Finn apart if anyone suspected that she is not his housekeeper/slave but his beloved, whom he treats with equality and gentleness.
Letitia exhibits the distinction between her original species and true humans: “Granted, her ears were perhaps a bit long, but they came to a soft and lovely curve, peeking like furry pink secrets through her long ashen hair. Her lips were small and shapely, and, while her nose was somewhat pointy, Finn found it to be a very nice nose indeed. Her form was quite slender in all the proper places, and not too slender where slender wouldn’t do at all.” (p. 21) And: “Letitia was mostly a woman, and a breathtaking woman at that, but she would always be a part of what she’d been. Her kind were not animals now, but they would never, ever be human.” (p. 27)
Master Finn, his housekeeper/love Letitia Louise, and his shoulder ornament Julia Jessica Slagg are on a vacation, bound for Antoline Isle in the Misty Sea on the good ship Madeleine Rose. They go ashore at a stop en route at the port of Nakeemo in Makasar, and due to an unexpected and quite life-threatening encounter with Hatters and Hooters, they miss returning to their ship before she sails.
What is Nakeemo like? Imagine the old nursery rhyme, “There was a crooked man … and they all lived together in a little crooked house”, expanded into a whole city of crooked houses inhabited by crooked homicidal maniacs. But, it must be said, Master Finn is not totally rational by our standards, either. He is brave, but sword-waving hot-tempered and rash. He is proud, stubborn, and argumentative, fond of epithets like “Onions and Leeks!” “Pickles and Pots!” “Tomatoes and Toads!” “Custard and Clams!” “Butter and Bread!” He too-often ignores the irritating but prudent advice of Julia Jessica Slagg, the lizard made of seventeen kinds of metal and with a ferret’s brain, who has unexpected powers of self-defense when all seems lost. The long-suffering Letitia Louise seems the most practical one of the trio, but even she eventually runs out of patience.
The exasperated trio, who at this point just want to get out of Makasar, are harried further when it seems that they are trapped by the insane and deadly human customs and politics. If they cannot trust the humans, there is always Nakeemo’s Newlie community. But the Newlies have their own politics …
The Prophecy Machine annoyingly focuses principally upon humans, but there are enough scenes with Newlies (mostly the Foxers) to make it worth reading to Furry fans. The Treachery of Kings shows more of Master Finn’s world than just Nakeemo city in Makasar. Master Finn’s home city of Ulster-East is in the County of Ploon in the Principality of Fyxedia, ruled by Prince Aghen Aghenfleck the Fourth. Prince Aghen is a longstanding patron of Finn’s mechanical craftsmanship, which Finn appreciates although he is cautious to appreciate it from a distance. The mercurial prince has the habit of having members of his closest circle unexpectedly chosen for drawing-and-quartering, skinning, mushing, or similar gruesomely spectacular executions for his sadistic viewing pleasure.
On this occasion, the Prince has ordered Master Finn to construct a wonderous lizard rampant clock, all gold and bejeweled with the clock in its belly. Finn outdoes himself at creating the gaudily tasteless timepiece, and all goes well at the court presentation until Prince Aghen decides to present the clock to his rival, King Llowenkeef-Grymm of Heldessia – “‘They say he’s got clocks everywhere. Eats with clocks, goes to bed with clocks. At any rate, it’s his bloody birthday, can’t forget that.’” (pgs. 24-25) — for a birthday present; despite the fact that Fyxedia and Heldessia Land have been at grim war for seven hundred and thirty-nine years. And Finn is to personally take the clock to Heldessia, by hydrogen ascension balloon piloted by Bucerius, a Bullie merchant aeronaut.
“And, like all of the Newlies, the Bullie kind retained some reminders of their past. This fellow was tall, hulking, broad-shouldered, immense across the chest. His neck was thick and his eyes were the color of muddy glass. Short, stumpy horns were nearly lost in his braded hair. His great arms were covered with lewd tattoos, and he wore a golden ring in his nose, some rite from ages gone.” (pgs. 29-30)
Although officially honored, Finn is sure that this is no royal whim. The commission is designed to take him out of Fyxedia so the Prince can have undisturbed lustful access to Letitia Louise. Finn leaves Julia Jessica home to protect Letitia Louise. As mistrustful as Finn is about Prince Aghen, Bucerius makes Heldessia sound worse:
“‘They’s even more danger you gets to Heldessia Land, I be sayin’ that. Them human persons be crazier’n the ones you got here. Meaner, too. Make that prince an’ his mushin’ and skinnin’ look like a bunch of chil’ren pullin’ legs offa ants.’” (p. 54)
Finn gets his first taste of this as their balloon approaches its landing in Heldessia, and they are fired upon by gold-rimmed-monocle-wearing Bowsers in natty striped jackets, red bow ties, and straw boater hats:
“Finn’s words were lost as a volley of musket fire rang out in the night. A lead ball thunked into the wicker basket, close to Finn’s head. Another whined overhead and snapped a line.
‘What do they want? What’s going on here?’
‘I shoulda remembered, damn me,’ the Bullie said. ‘It’s Thursday again. Tuesdays and Thursdays, they be try an’ kill the king …’” (p. 71)
After a nighttime of dueling with murderous Bowsers in the streets of Heldessia’s capital, Finn and Bucerius are saved by none other than Letitia Louise and Julia Jessica Slagg, who trust Prince Aghen as little as Finn does and have followed him to Heldessia in another balloon. The Treachery of Kings is the adventure that the human craftsman, the Mycer maid, and the tart-tongued mechanical lizard have in, what one should remember, is not merely a murderous but also an enemy nation.
The Prophecy Machine and The Treachery of Kings are a colorfully unique pair of novels aswarm with anthro Newlies who burst from the background into the foreground often enough to please the Furry reader. The Treachery of Kings seems to end with a setup for a third novel, but if one was planned, it was never written.
Among the bizarre aspects of these books are the covers. Artist Daniel Merriam has shown close-ups of a couple of ornate doorways; not your usual subject of cover art.