Fragments of Life’s Heart: Vol. 1 – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

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

41o2zwqenjl-_sy346_Fragments of Life’s Heart, volume 1, editors: Laura “Munchkin” Lewis [&] Stefano “Mando” Zocchi.
Manvel, TX, Weasel Press, June 2016, trade paperback $19.95 (400 pages), Kindle $4.99.

Fragments of Life’s Heart is a new anthology of anthropomorphic stories of Love. “Join us as we explore the many different forms of love—family love, forbidden love, love that embraces what society always taught was wrong.”

This volume 1 contains “seventeen anthropomorphic stories with all different forms of sexuality and relationships, in a journey across genres, worlds, and time.”

“Tending the Fires” by Jess E. Owen features nomadic desert fennecs. Nara, a successful young bard from the Wadi Ocar, returns home for her sister Sarayya’s wedding after six successful years of traveling and learning in foreign lands. Nara looks forward to rejoining her loving family, but although her father, brothers, and sisters embrace her warmly, she is shocked when Arwa, her mother, greets her formally but coldly as an honored guest, not family. Arwa hasn’t even read the six years’ worth of letters that Nara sent home regularly. Nara must discover what she has done wrong in her mother’s eyes, and how to correct it in the midst of a colorful tribal wedding celebration.

Owen creates a rich North African (though it is another planet) setting:

“Nara sat with her family while Sarayya and her new husband made their vows in the blended light of the dying sun, the rising moon and emerging stars, and distant, blue Ocarus.

Time stilled as Nara watched her little sister’s face, glowing, and linked her heart and her life to a new tent, a new family – Nara’s new brother, a whole new addition. Their family had grown. Nara’s heart seemed to swell and expand and encompass the new foxes her sister had come to love, and now, they were all one. As darkness bloomed over them, Nara mingled with the in-laws, rapidly learning names and gossip.

It was not long before the men produced their tablah drums and a stringed rebab, and they broke into long recitations of songs by desert poets, all memorized and passed down for hundreds of years. […]” (p. 33)

In “Transitions” by Mog Moogle, Geoffrey has a secret. Or Freya does. He/she is transgender. The male otter has felt that he was really female ever since puberty. Geoff’s mother has accepted his decision, but his father has stubbornly insisted that he is 100% his son. So Geoff has gone through middle and high school as Geoffrey. Only his best friend, Douglass, a mole, has known his/her secret and has recognized her as Freya – and become her lover. Now that they have both graduated from high school and Doug is going into the U.S. Army, Geoff is set to leave for the university – and he/she’s decided to openly start her new life as Freya. Her mother is supportive, but confronting her father as a girl –

Will his/her father’s love for his offspring transcend his/her sexual identity?

“The Mistress of Kidwell Manor” by Renee Carter Hall is the first story here that isn’t just funny-animal. Mattie is a bioengineered Papillon dog by GenFront, made to be an old-fashioned domestic maid for Miss Emma. She’s served for so long that she has become the senile Miss Emma’s nursemaid, the last servant in the vast, empty manor, trying to keep up the pretense of normality as civilization disintegrates outside. Because Mattie loves the dying Miss Emma.

What will Mattie do after Miss Emma dies?

In “Yet Time and Distance” by Kris Carver, Danny (cougar) insists on dragging Reno (wolf) to a social get-together with Sam (leopard), their old friend whom they haven’t seen in a long time. Sam has gotten married and divorced, and his little son Jake is also visiting. During the social evening, it becomes clear to Danny that Reno used to have a homosexual relationship with Sam that he’s still not over, although Sam is. Danny shrugs. It’s Reno’s problem to work out.

In “Polynomials” by Fever Low, Cass (African wild dog; the narrator), Madison (Lapphund dog), and Jessie (bull) are housemates, with Cass and Maddie as lovers and Jessie as a tolerant friend. Cass, a leading physics student at the U. of O., invites them with her to a snowy department cocktail party. It becomes obvious to Maddie that Cass is open about their relationship to the other students, but she introduces Maddie as her “childhood best friend” to the professors, as though she’s ashamed of her. Cass admits it. “‘I’m fine telling all of the other graduate students. It’s just the professors, they can put my whole career on ice, and so many are so conservative.’” (p. 102) Cass bites the bullet and announces it openly. It’s worse than she fears – until a more liberal professor comes to Cass’ rescue.

“Polynomials”, like “Tending the Fires”, is lathered in anthropomorphism. “Watch your horns,” Cass warns Jessie as the bull climbs into a car. “‘Hey guys, y’all manage to get yerselves sorted?’ Her [Madison’s] warm tongue brushed up the fur on my cheek, mussing it.” “The sound of Madison’s tail thumping against the upholstery filled the rear of the car.” Dr. Tremblay, a chameleon, comments at the party on how California is more suitable for a reptile like himself than Ottawa is in winter. He performs his usual party trick for a large audience:

“‘Yellow watermelon? Oh, Millicent, you challenge me! Wherever did you find such a fruit out of season?’

As we approached, a tongue longer than I am tall, tipped with a sticky bulb the size of a large apple shot past the gaggle of office staff and returned to its owner laden with a slice of yellow and green fruit. It disappeared into Dr. Tremblay’s mouth and he chewed thoughtfully for a long moment. His skin morphed from the iridescent orange it had been to a striped white and green. He held the rind of the melon between his lips and took a bow. The audience applauded and tittered.” (p. 99)

Later, his chameleon’s ability to see in two directions at once becomes an important story element. Yet because of all the real place-names, around Ontario and especially Ottawa, I never felt that the story was more than a funny-animal story; basically a human story in fancier-than-usual anthro dressing that would still be too easy to turn into a non-anthro story with an all-human cast. The furry overlay is enough for many furry fans, but for those like me it feels like a bit of a cheat. The furry overlay is much thinner on other stories.

“Raise Your Voice” by Stefano “Mando” Zocchi is a genuinely anthropomorphic story. The protagonist is Edith, a motherly voice over an intercom to Treyo, a humanoid fox being raised in a sealed, sterile laboratory. As Treyo grows up, it becomes increasingly dubious whether Edith is a person or a computer program. Can a computer program feel love?

“Going Out” by T. C. Powell is an animal fantasy. EJ Raccoon is a paranoid who has spent the last two years, following a serious injury, huddling inside his tree nest inside Griffith Park in Los Angeles. His younger brother Skip has brought him food every day. When Skip disappears, hunger eventually drives EJ out to look for him. Skip’s wife Nona is not supportive:

‘You know,’ Nona said, turning a sharp eye on EJ, ‘I always told Skippy – I always knew – that you could leave that blasted tree of yours. If you needed to. Just let him get a little bit hungry, I said. Just let him feel it for a while, and he’ll get over whatever problem he supposedly has.” (p. 141)

EJ and his former girl friend Elsa go looking for Skip, EJ’s brotherly love for his sibling keeping him out of his nest until he becomes self-reliant – and rekindles his romance with Elsa — once again.

In “Harvest Home” by Altivo Overo, Argos Weaver (wolf) and “Red” Fennec (fox) are ancient lifelong friends. Argos is the former mayor of Westvale, and Fennec is long retired. Both are bachelors, and popular with the older animal citizens of Westvale. It gradually becomes obvious that although Argos and Fennec have never been homosexual lovers, their friendship is unusually close and lasting; a form of love.

“The Foreigner” by Dwale is Esi, a giraffe chimera, but the protagonist of the story is Ms. Fjola, an elderly wheelchair-bound horse chimera. Esi has come from Sapayo – São Paulo many generations ago – to learn how to make perfume from flower petals. It has been a long time since Ms. Fjola had an unaccompanied male caller. As they discuss their backgrounds, what happened to the world and to mankind becomes clear. A truly anthropomorphic story, with a memory of romance if not love woven through it.

“Trade All the Stars” by Watts Martin is definitely furry, and in the same setting as his “Tow” in The Furry Future. In fact, the rat-teenager Gail here is the same older rat-woman Gail Simmons in “Tow”. “Trade All the Stars” is part of a longer story that Martin is writing, set in the future when the Asteroid Belt is colonized and humans can have themselves transformed into semi-animal “totemics”. The protagonist is Sky (Blue Sky), an older adolescent two-meter-tall wolf-woman. She was raised in the New Coyoacán space colony by Judith Simmons, a leader of the totemics and foster mother of several including Sky, who has just left to start her own life in the smaller colony of Lariat Station, and the younger Gail, who has recently come from Earth and become a rattess. When Judith is assassinated, Sky rushes back to New Coyoacán to assist in the turmoil and to settle Judith’s affairs. The question is what to do with Gail, who is twelve and not old enough to live alone. Send her back to human Earth, now as a rat-girl spacer? Send her to a foster home in the Asteroid Belt colonies? Sky isn’t secure enough as a new spacer at Lariat to bring Gail to her tiny one-room apartment there. Over the course of the story, sisterly love leads them to a solution. This is a fine story, though it feels like a fragment of something longer.

“Draw to the Heart” by Ocean Tigrox rubs me wrong from its opening paragraph:

“‘This is amazing!’ Sammy exclaimed, eyes wide, taking in the sea of stars. The millions of tiny lights danced over him, filling the vast Saskatchewan horizon as far as the eye could see. The short, chestnut-brown beaver laid in the back of Cindy’s old, tan, ’86 Dodge Ram staring up at the wide night sky, unable to blink.” (p. 223)

Yep, it’s a funny-animal story. Sammy, a teenager from one of Canada’s big Eastern cities, has resettled in a small Saskatchewan town when his parents move there for a dam-building job. He is taken in hand by Cindy Petrenko, a doe who quickly makes him a part of the local teen social life and a player on the high school’s curling team. It’s very well-written, with lots of friendly animals – Linda, the cow moose proprietress of the town restaurant-bar; Josh, “a short and tan prairie dog” and his younger brother Jay; Mikey, “A tall skunk wearing a green Roughriders jersey”; and others – but there’s no reason for the anthro-animal cast instead of humans, except this story is in an anthro-animal anthology. The love is the camaraderie of the Saskatchewan townsfolk, especially the teens, and how Sammy becomes a fan and player of a game he’s barely heard of. Be prepared for an in-depth submersion into the sport of curling. (Ocean Tigrox is from Saskatchewan, and the story shows his love for Canada’s wide western plains provinces.)

“Paint the Square Cut Sky” by Slip-Wolf is about a war between mammals and birds, and two adolescents, Zaci (fox) and Leida (falcon) who become friends despite it. Do falcons eat birdseed? Never mind; it’s still a good story.

In “Hearth Soup” by Laura “Munchkin” Lewis, the vixen Huang Li Xia case worker is trying to place Natalia, a difficult rabbit orphan (not quite, but she has been abandoned by her parents), in a foster home. Li is running out of potential foster parents and is reduced to trying to place Natalia with two wolf farmers – a prey girl with two adult predators. But Piercing Thunder Claw and Gentle Snow Meadow have adopted other prey children into their family – their pack. “‘Why should species matter? So we need to look up recipes for roasted vegetable kabobs or make sure we wash extra well after a hunt. It’s worth it, for pack.’” (p. 308) “Hearth Soup” is so carefully a blend that I’m not sure whether it’s a funny-animal story or anthro. But it is heart-warming.

“Brass Candy Girl” by M. C. A. Hogarth is one of her Pelted stories. Rayne Starfallen, a foxine Tam-illee with a brown pelt and silver-furred mask and gloves and socks, and pointed ears, has come to the brass candy planet Ciracaa with her children, looking for an old college friend whom she hasn’t seen in decades. Ciracaa is a marvel:

“The planet was inhabited by giants. The Ciracaana were another race Rayne had never seen in person and they were more unlikely in the flesh than they were in pictures. Centaurs Rayne could encompass, particularly short ones like the Glaseah. But the Ciracaana looked like very normal Pelted folk that someone had stretched until they were almost nine feet tall. And they were riotously colored, with patterns that ranged from sensible felid rosettes or vulpine masks to coats that looked like someone had splashed buckets of paint on them. They were an arresting people, but she’d only been on-planet an hour and already her neck hurt.” (p. 319)

Rayne learns that her friend Carevei walked into Ciracaa’s outback ten years ago “to warn one of the aboriginal tribes about a seismic fault … and never came back?” She apparently joined the nomadic Lifehawk tribe. The Ciracaana aren’t worried; but if Rayne and her three children and her pet marshound want to go meet the Lifehawks, that’s easy. What isn’t easy is for Rayne and Carevei to reestablish their old friendship after ten years, after Rayne’s getting married and divorced and adopting human children, and Carevei’s going native among the nomadic huge centauroids. Rayne has come to bring Carevei home, to Tam-ley. But which world is Carevei’s home today? Fans of Hogarth’s Pelted stories will not want to miss this one.

“Footsteps” by Televassi is set on a future Earth ruined by warfare, with poisonous gases and a thorny wilderness outside the Havens. The nameless narrator is a human ex-soldier exiled from the Havens for his bloody lungs, who falls in love with one of the Modified:

“Half human, half animal; engineered to solve manpower shortages and reduce the length of casualty lists. It never worked. The Modified had our intelligence, so they were smart enough to revolt. When The War ended, plenty of them exploited the situation and escaped into the wild. Now they outnumber a humanity that has retreated from the world it messed up. Safe inside the Havens, cities for humans alone, we went on pretending the world was ours.” (p. 348)

The Modified have established their own civilization in the ruined cities outside the Havens. He accepts the half-human stag and doe neighbors, and a tiger child, but it is a wolf bachelor that he finds romance with. As the ruined Earth slowly heals itself, but his health deteriorates, the doe nurses urge him to be honest about his condition with his lover.

Uh-oh. “Rain Check” by Field T. Mouse is another funny-animal story. Ketchy (her) and Kody (him) are listlessly enduring another rainy morning at home. There are references to the Indiana Five Hundred and to Cheerios cereal. They’ve been saving up for a delayed honeymoon for ten years, and they have $4,000 now. Should they finally go, to the Caribbean or somewhere closer like Chicago or Milwaukee; or should they keep on saving? They’re in their mid-thirties; are they still a young couple, or have they become middle-aged?

“He shrugged, lowering his arms to grip her hips. She was dressed nearly as casually as him, wearing only a tank top with bra-straps visible beneath it and shorts that even go halfway down her thighs. He looked into her brown eyes and suggested, ‘Have my cereal, instead.’” (p. 378)

At the end (I guess this is a spoiler), they go into the bedroom for more sex, still in love with each other. Does it matter what species they are? They’re humans! (Okay, she’s a squirrel and he’s a rabbit.)

The final story, “The Soul of Wit” by Daniel Lowd, is shorter than this review of it.

So. Fragments of Life’s Heart, Volume 1 (cover by Darkomi) is 17 stories. They’re all very readable. Despite the usual rule that an anthology is a mixed bag and every reader won’t like every story, I found these all good, even those that I kvetched at for being funny-animal stories and not really anthro. A couple are set in their author’s worlds and will be especially enjoyed by those authors’ fans. I did feel that some had to work to justify fitting into the “love” theme. But this is a fine anthology. Enjoy it.

Fred Patten