Forest Gods, by Ryan Campbell – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Forest Gods, by Ryan Campbell. Illustrated by Zhivago.
St. Paul, MN, Sofawolf Press, September 2015, trade paperback $19.95 (343 [+ 2] pages), Kindle $7.99.
This is the direct sequel to Campbell’s September 2013 God of Clay, and the middle novel in his The Fire Bearers trilogy. As with all too many trilogies of this sort, The Fire Bearers is a single novel in three volumes more than a series of three novels. If you have not started it yet, get and read God of Clay first, then immediately read Forest Gods. Be aware that it ends with a cliffhanger, and that it may be another two years until Book Three is published.
In a fantasy prehistoric Africa, the great Saharan savanna is drying up. Animals and human tribes migrate south and further south again to the forest-jungle as the new desert inexorably spreads after them. But the forest itself will not let them enter. The trees and vines come alive and kill any humans who venture among them. This is apparently because the forest gods – Kwaee, king of the gods who looks like an anthropomorphized leopard; Asubonten, the giant crocodile goddess of the rivers; Atetea, the little ant god; and many others – have turned against them. Most of the forest gods blame the humans for turning to Ogya, the powerful god of fire and destruction, and becoming his worshippers. But Kwaee, sulking on his forest throne, isn’t doing anything about it. Kwaee doesn’t even believe in the Fire Bringers (humans).
Doto, Kwaee’s son who also looks like an anthro leopard, worries that his father is abdicating his responsibility by ignoring the desert’s spread. When Doto begs Kwaee to Do Something, Kwaee angrily orders Doto to capture a Fire Bringer if they’re real.
The forest gods’ story is intermixed with that of two young human brothers whose tribe has slowly been pushed from the shrinking savanna to the edges of Africa’s forest-jungle. Clay and Laughing Dog, the second and third sons of their tribal ruler, hold different beliefs: Clay worships the tribe’s traditional animal gods, while Laughing Dog is an atheist. Clay is captured by Doto and dragged into the forest-jungle to be presented to Kwaee, who will almost certainly kill him.
Over the course of God of Clay, Clay convinces Doto that the humans still worship the animal gods; they have never heard of Ogya or the Fire Bearers. Doto, feeling responsible for having kidnapped Clay, worries about protecting him from Kwaee. The two youths gradually become homosexual lovers. Meanwhile, Laughing Dog is exiled from his tribe for his iconoclasm; and alone, he is easy prey for Ogya.
God of Clay was the winner of the Furry Writers’ Guild’s first Cóyotl Award, for the Best Anthropomorphic Novel of 2013.
Forest Gods begins several weeks or months later, in the tribal village. Clay is assumed by all to be dead. Laughing Dog, now secretly possessed by Ogya, has returned to renounce his disbelief in the gods, and been readmitted to the tribe. But Ogya engineers the elderly tribal king’s death. His successor, Clay’s and Laughing Dog’s older brother Great Ram, becomes the new king. He swiftly falls under Laughing Dog’s (Ogya’s) influence, to the unease of old Cloud, the tribal healer and one of the old king’s advisors.
Meanwhile, Clay and Doto have left the forest-jungle and ventured into the now-thin savanna, in search of Lord Sarmu, the god of the savanna. This puts off their confrontation with Kwaee, but Doto is dismayed to discover that, without the spirit of the forest to draw upon, he has become even weaker than Clay.
Forest Gods is told in alternating chapters. One is centered upon Cloud as she watches, dismayed, as Laughing Dog destroys her former influence in the village and urges the tribe to burn the forest back.
[Cloud goes to the King’s tent to tend his pregnant wife.]
“‘Good morning, Grenadier, Broken Stump,’ she [Cloud] said, doing her best to sound pleasant and unworried. ‘Do you know if the King is about?’
‘He’s not here right now,’ Broken Stump said, holding up a hand. He was a short man, though still taller than her, his frame thin and angular. Though he had not yet seen thirty rains, his hair was already greying, but he was renowned for his wiry strength. He could throw a spear so fast and so far that it might have been an arrow and his body the bow.
‘Only Hibiscus,’ Grenadier added.
‘That’s fine. It’s her that I want to see.’ Cloud made to enter the tent, but the two men stepped together, blocking her way. They stood stiff-backed, gripping their spears more tightly. What did they expect, that she would lunge at them like a lion?
Grenadier cleared his throat. ‘Sorry, Cloud, but you’re not to enter the King’s tent. And you’re not to see Hibiscus.’
She stared up at him. He stood head and shoulders above Broken Stump, but unlike the other man, was thick-fleshed and rounded in a way that befit his typically soft, gentle demeanor. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked, puzzled. ‘I’m an elder of the people. I’m an advisor to the King, and the healer besides. You boys have no place to stop me.’
He rubbed at the back of his neck with a mitt that was more paw than hand. ‘Sorry, Cloud. Prince Laughing Dog says to stand guard and not let anyone in.’
So. It was Prince Laughing Dog now. She pressed her lips together.” (p. 85)
The other is centered upon Clay and Doto as they encounter unexpected dangers that take them far from their goal.
“‘Frogs!’ he [Doto] called. Clay could understand him, but the words were not the language of his people. If he considered any of them, they turned strange and meaningless in his mind. ‘I am Doto the mighty, god of the forest, god of Clay. I visit the land of Sarmu on urgent matters. Tell me, frogs, where is your savannah god? Where might I find Brother Sarmu?’
He waited. There was silence from the stream; the frogs had ceased their croaking with the sunrise. After a time with no reply, he called again. ‘Do you hear and understand me, frogs? Where is Sarmu? It is a god who addresses you. You must answer!’
Again, silence. The wind rustled in the rushes. Clay sat up in the grass, about to suggest that perhaps the frogs had all left, or were sleeping deep in the mud during the day. But then a low, mournful answer creaked from the stream. ‘Looooooost.’
It was joined by another voice, croaking in agreement. ‘Looooost.’” (p. 39)
The two stories are separate until about page 200, when Clay comes home to his village to urge his tribe to continue worshipping the forest gods; and Doto reenters the forest to urge Kwaee to stop the forest from attacking the humans. But Forest Gods still has 150 pages to go. What Clay and Doto do – and become – sets up the final volume to come.
Forest Gods – well, both Books of The Fire Bearers – are tremendously imaginative, with intelligent characters in a constantly suspenseful plot. And wait until you find out what Ogya, unmasked, materializes as! This is excellent fantasy. Both books have covers by Zhivago, who has ten interior illustrations here.