Fellowship of the Ringtails, by Angela Oliver – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Fellowship of the Ringtails, by Angela Oliver. Illustrated, map.
Seattle, WA, CreateSpace, June 2013, trade paperback $15.49 ([iii +] 406 [+ 9] pages), Kindle 99¢.
Technically the title of this book is Lemurs (A Saga). Book One: The Fellowship of the Ringtails. But the cover doesn’t say so; Amazon.com doesn’t say so; and I’m pretty sure that nobody else is likely to say so, either.
This title makes it sound like either a parody of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, or an unimaginative imitation of it. Fortunately it’s neither. Its opening paragraph is:
“‘There will be others, Fiantrana,’ the soft voice drew the young lemur from her reverie. She turned her gaze from the great stone tomb: the final resting place for her ancestors, relatives, and most recently, her own son. There was a deep ache inside her: the memory of his tiny, fragile body as she had cradled him to her breast, watching his life breathe out of him.” (p.1)
Angela Oliver, of Christchurch, New Zealand, is devoted to lemurs. In a two-page “Why Lemurs?” afterword, she explains that she was introduced to lemurs while working at a local zoo park, went to Madagascar where lemurs come from in 2007, and fell in love with the whole island-nation. The Fellowship of the Ringtails is an adventure fantasy featuring anthropomorphized lemurs in their Kingdom of Madigaska, a fictionalized Kingdom of Madagascar before it became a French colony in 1897.
An important fact is that there is not just one kind of lemur. There are many different species, roughly divided into the sifakas that are almost entirely arboreal, and the “true lemurs” (which she has dubbed the hazosaka because it sounds better for a fantasy novel) that can walk on the ground, including the famous ringtailed lemurs. For The Fellowship of the Ringtails, she has made the sifakas into the royal family and the aristocracy of Madigaska, while the hazosaka are the commoners.
Fiantrana is a young hazosaka of the maky (ringtailed) tribe, living in Morombe, a small coastal fishing village. She has just lost her first child, a deformed infant who died after only a few days. She is still lactating, so when a badly mauled (by a predator), heavily pregnant sifaka comes to her village, the Ombiasy (healer) sends for her to be a wetnurse for the baby. The dying mother, who fled to escape deadly sifaka court politics, says that her child’s name is Aurelia, and that she is the last true heir of the royal family.
Oliver makes her lemurs anthropomorphic yet as realistic as possible, so the babies mature quickly. Aurelia looks considerably different than the other makys, and she is picked upon by the bullies among the maky children. Most other villagers accept her, but the bullies make Aurelia aware that she is different. When Fiantrana will not explain why makys and sifaka are different, Aurelia sneaks off to find a sifaka village. She finds something else first.
“‘What are you?’ She asked. ‘You don’t look like a maky and I don’t think you’re a sifaka either.’
Chike made a low rumbling noise.
Aurelia startled, wondering if he were growling, then relaxed. He’s amused, she realised, and this is how he laughs.
‘I’m neither,’ he said. ‘I’m a vervet. A monkey from the mainland.’
‘The main land? What’s that?’ Aurelia licked the last of the stew from her fingers, catching a stray crumb in her fur.
The vervet rose one large hand and gestured. ‘Across the water there is another place: a vast expanse of land – deserts and mountains, rainforests and swamp. That is where I live. I came here to teach and learn.’ He shrugged his hairy shoulders, ‘but now I am forced to hide in this desert forest.’
‘Because she has decreed that I am an outlaw,’ he said with a sad shake of his head. ‘And will kill me if she can catch me.’
‘Who’s she?’ Her whiskers and fur clean, Aurelia gave Chike her undivided attention. Ears perked, looking alert – as Fiantrana taught her. Listen, ask questions.
‘Your Queen, Ranavalona.’” (pgs. 50-51)
Aurelia goes on and makes a friend of Matthieu, one of the first sifakas she meets. He returns her to Fiantrana, who has come looking for her, that evening. Over the next days, Aurelia learns that she must stay in hiding because her blue eyes and pure white fur mark her as of the family of old Queen Ramavo, and the new queen, Ranavalona, is a usurper who will kill her on sight. Yet Aurelia matches a prophesy of one who is destined to unite the sifakas and the makys. Aurelia and Fiantrana eventually leave their home and maky friends to venture into an unknown wider world on a quest to escape Ranavalona’s killers.
But prepare for a cliffhanger ending, because this is only Book One of Aurelia’s saga.
The Fellowship of the Ringtails shows what Malagasy wildlife (anthropomorphized) is like.
“Chuckling, Fiantrana reached out her arm to her little brother [by her mother’s later mating]. He scrambled up it, eager to get away from his boisterous sister and clambered up her belly, tiny fingers clutching handfuls of fur. Fiantrana lifted her lamba and the tiny lemur wriggled up under it, seeking the teat. Fiantrana’s milk would not go to waste, not when Reniko [her mother] had her paws full with the two kits.” (p. 6)
“Fiantrana was frantic. I told her [Aurelia] to stay close but she’s gone and bounced off again, she thought, furiously licking her belly in an effort to alleviate her frustration and concern.” (p. 71)
“A loud, high-pitched shriek sounded somewhere off in the distance, startling them both. Matthieu stood and scented the air.
‘What’s that?’ she [Aurelia] asked.
‘Alarm call,’ he explained. ‘The Hunters are coming.’ He scooped her up in his arms almost tossing her onto his back. She clutched tight to his thick fur as he scrambled up the nearest tall tree.” (pgs. 89-90)
The novel is full of words from the Malagasy language, and wildlife names that are all obvious from the context. Misaotra = thank you. Salama = hello. Lamba = a large colorful scarf. Azafady = excuse me; please. Miala tsiny aho = I’m sorry. Veloma = goodbye. Vonjeo! = help! Votsoa = a giant jumping rat. Fossa = the deadliest Malagasy predator, evolved from the mongoose, until the arrival of man with his dogs and cats. Vontsira = a smaller mongoose-based ground predator that can’t climb.
Queen Ranavalona I (1778-186l; queen from 1828) was a real human; one of the more bloody “off with her head!” tyrants who ever lived – according to European news at the time, mostly from British and French sources trying to justify conquering the island. Wikipedia says, “Recent academic research has recast Ranavalona’s actions as those of a queen attempting to expand her empire while protecting Malagasy sovereignty against the encroachment of European cultural and political influence.” Unlike Oliver’s fictionalization, she was legitimate – but the legends are more colorful.
Oliver has also included several full-page illustrations, and the cover. That’s Aurelia in the foreground, Chike behind her, Manjoretra with the hat, and Matthieu wearing a lamba.
The Fellowship of the Ringtails shows a skilful blend of Malagasy natural history and fantasy adventure. Oliver’s characters are certainly not just animal-headed humans. Read for fun and for something different.