This anthology is a collection of five furry novellas, each about 80 pages long. The theme? All the main characters are taking steps forward to choose and shape their own futures. I’ve read work by all of the contributing authors before, but for most of them it’s been a while, so I was curious to see what their recent output would be like.
“Chosen People” by Phil Geusz:
This is set in a universe previously established in Geusz’s story collection, The First Book of Lapism, which I haven’t read, but there’s enough exposition here that it’s not a problem. Lapism is a new religion in the U.S. in which people can have themselves bio-engineered into anthropomorphic rabbits, as a statement of peace, kindness, and striving for personal betterment. The procedure is expensive, and has been mostly limited to people with very high incomes. (Supporters who can’t afford it wear ears and tails.) Still, enough people have made the transition that they’ve started their own upscale town in Nevada called Oaktree Village.
The protagonist is Juniper, a world-champion marksman who’s made the change to Lapism and has been hired as the Village’s new sheriff. While still being relatively new to this level of responsibility, he’s professional, approachable, and outgoing. (Small nit-pick, I never got an impression of his age.)
Part of the story involves character- and universe-building, plus a crime to be solved. Juniper is also faced with a more long-term problem: the surrounding communities resent the Lapists’ higher economic bracket, and many Lapists are starting to feel superior and isolationist. So the sheriff makes a dedicated effort to integrate himself not just into the local community, but into the surrounding communities as well.
The main excitement, however, comes from having to deal with an unexpected, local emergency. With a lot of people’s lives threatened, I was very much caught up with how Juniper managed his situation. Nicely tense! There’s a lot going on in this story. While the crime-solving element was a bit underplayed, Geusz still balances everything pretty well. And furry? Definitely; there are lots of references to how Juniper’s form affects his daily routines, right down to a discussion of shoes, or lack thereof.
“Huntress” by Renee Carter Hall:
This is my top pick from the book! Imagine a more primitive Africa with anthropomorphic lions and wild dogs, engaged in hunting and trading. What impressed me the most was the amount of depth and scope squeezed into this novella – not just establishing the details of the lions’ tribal culture, but how it follows the life of a young lioness, Leya, from her teenage years all the way into adulthood. It covers quite a long period of choices and personal growth.
More than anything else, Leya wants to join the nakaranja, a special caste of nomadic huntresses. But this new way of life also requires sacrifices, and Leya questions whether her choices were sometimes the right ones. Has she lost the chance to fall in love? What happens if she loses those few people to whom she’s gotten close? In a society where the kinds of roles a person can fit into are limited, Leya never quite fits, and the main arc of this story is how she tries to find her place in the world.
I really have to praise the detail that went into this, like the tribes’ spiritual beliefs and mythology. (Although I never figured out what social role an “aumah” held.) I especially liked how the many secondary characters all got more development and depth added to them along the way, with some honest surprises. Leya’s life and her difficulties were very touching and believable, and I say this as someone with a background in anthropology. The ending felt a little too ideal in terms of being able to easily break from societal norms, but wow, her story was really hard to put down.
“Going Concerns” by Watts Martin:
Gibson Scava is a cat with disposable income, who works as a detective for the Ranean Guard. He’s good at his job, but his forthright, independent and (most of all) eccentric nature don’t endear him to his superiors, especially when he’s willing to take matters into his own hands. Annie Swift is a professional accountant who’s recently moved to the city to find work, but her wolf stature and no-nonsense attitude intimidates people during her job interviews. Together, they’re going to fight crime!
Not that they have a choice. Annie was hoping to leave her past behind her (she accused her former employers of illegal activity), but now someone wants her dead. Gibson is working her case, to the detriment of Annie’s patience and sanity. This is essentially a buddy-cop story, two opposing personalities being forced to cooperate to solve a crime. Gibson encourages Annie to participate in his detective work, while also making use of her forensic accounting skills.
Gibson is also constantly flirting with her. On one hand he appears to be serious; on the other it seems to be part of an effort to break down Annie’s walls and make her laugh. For a buddy-cop story this feels typical; in this furry story it feels cliché. I don’t know why… I’ve read other furry stories with one character pursuing another romantically, and I haven’t minded, but in this case there’s something… commonplace about it. I’ve got some kind of subconscious bias here that I don’t know how to articulate. But honestly, I don’t think anyone else will have a problem with it. Regardless of my brain, to remove this element from the narrative would cause serious damage, and vastly reduce the tale’s charm.
Seriously, this is the most downright fun story to read in this anthology. Gibson is entertaining and quite the character, but he’s no clown. He’s deeply concerned with stopping criminals and keeping Annie alive. Underneath the comical elements, there’s genuine danger and tension at a whole bunch of points. The combination works really well. I feel kind of sorry for the Ranean Guard; the law and bureaucracy are more of a hindrance than help, at least when it comes to organized criminals who know what they’re doing. This is what propels Gibson and Annie into taking unexpected risks, and it really fuels the story.
When it’s all over and settled, there’s the potential for Gibson and Annie to have future adventures together. I definitely look forward to that, if more should appear! Also, I should mention that Watts Martin’s writing in the fandom goes all the way back to the early 1990s, a time when furry fiction was much scarcer. His stories were certainly among the better ones at the time, and his skills haven’t diminished since. So if you’re interested in reading more of his work set in the world of Ranea, I can definitely recommend one that was very popular during the fandom’s early years: A Gift of Fire, A Gift of Blood (revised in 2013).
“When a Cat Loves a Dog” by Mary E. Lowd:
This is set in the same world as Lowd’s earlier Otters in Space novels, in which Earth is inhabited by anthropomorphic cats, dogs, and a few other intelligent species. Cats are still second-class citizens who are slowly gaining more civil rights. The main character in this story is a cat named Lashonda, who works in a university research lab. Going against social taboos, she legally marries Topher, a dog and stand-up comedian. Both of them have to deal with the resulting prejudice. Topher’s stand-up career takes off, but at the expense of making depreciating jokes about cats. Lashonda’s job suffers due to extreme discrimination by the dog members of the research team she works with.
Despite initially not wanting children, Lashonda changes her mind and begins researching the possibility of adopting puppies or kittens, only to be turned down on all fronts. Finally a long-shot possibility presents itself, involving experimental medical reseach. Lashonda manages to become pregnant, but there’s a high risk of failure, and the stress is increasingly difficult. (Biology fail: the fertility of her offspring is never discussed.) The last third of the story is an emotional rollercoaster about having to deal with unknown pregnancy complications.
Things take an unexpected, dangerous turn when a betrayal by the one of the medical staff puts the whole operation in danger from protests and riots, requiring everyone to flee to the more technologically advanced and more progressive space station run by the otters. Regardless of the changes to the legal system for cats, dog society simply isn’t prepared to deal with new social boundaries.
In fact, I’m amazed this society manages to progress at all. The main cat character (both in this story and in Otters in Space) gets constantly distracted by emotional speculations and daydreams. Dogs seem prone to 180-degree prejudicial mood swings that completely override any intelligence or logical reasoning. The betrayal I mentioned earlier literally comes out of nowhere: a huge wrench given almost no context, caused by a minor character who was barely described, and only occasionally seen. The final conflict feels artificially imposed, with otter society as a sort of Deus ex machina.
That sounds pretty harsh, but if you can forgive the weirdness of this story universe, what this novella really has going for it are two things: an exploration of how prejudice can effect people’s lives, and the psychological stresses of getting pregnant for the first time. For everything else, you need to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. I’m no longer fond of this story universe, but I really liked how the conflict gradually built itself up over the course of the narrative; I felt very sympathetic for Lashonda’s situation from start to finish.
“Piece of Mind” by Bernard Doove:
Reviewer honesty: I’ve never especially liked Chakats or the Chakona Space story universe. Now that I’ve compromised my objectivity here, this story is still a good contribution to this anthology, regardless of my own biases.
Arrak is a young Caitian who’s immigrating to the Chakat homeworld and taking on a new job as a geologist. For safety purposes he’s teamed up with a Chakat named Windrunner in case there’s an emergency in the wilderness. Aside from Arrak finding out that a number of assumptions about his new life were wrong, there’s not much character development.
I made some assumptions too, that Windrunner would have no significant negative character traits, that Arrak would fall into a relationship with them by the end of the story, and that Arrak’s integration into Chakat society would solve all his problems. I was right; although the way that the latter occurred wasn’t quite what I’d guessed. Good curve-ball, Doove! Also, thanks for only one reference to the characters’ breasts; I appreciate that.
The driving force of the story, the part that held my interest the most, was an extended flashback explaining how Arrak ended up immigrating in the first place. There’s a nice bit of world-building going on here, and Arrak is truly the victim of the universe dealing him a bad hand.
Growing up on the Caitian homeworld, Arrak discovers he’s a natural telepath. However due to an earlier brain injury, he’s unable to tune out the thoughts of other people around him. To make things worse, Caitian society despises telepaths, to the point of ostracism and violence. Arrak gets some help, except he retains an emotional flaw which gives him away on multiple occasions – despite having years during which he could have practiced more self-control. Suspension of disbelief is necessary for this, because without this flaw, there’d be even less plot conflict.
Still, due to his situation it’s best if he immigrates to an established colony of fellow Caitians who’ve given up on their close-minded homeworld. A Caitian news article describes the colony as being populated by the “bizarre and perverted”, however Arrak “discovered that the colonists were basically people whose lifestyles clashed with the hidebound morals and prejudices of Caitian society”, such as openly gay couples. As a reader, I couldn’t help myself from thinking that the Chakonan settlement sounded more like an escapist utopia for furry fans than a haven for Caitian pariahs.
It’s not essential to have a working knowledge of Chakona Space to enjoy this story, although knowing a little in advance can bring out some extra details. (For example, I’m not sure if the story explicitly mentions that Caitians are a kind of feline.) Doesn’t matter; Doove is a very clear, descriptive writer and I never felt left out. Although between my first and second read-throughs, I went and refreshed my memory as to how he ranks the different levels of empathy and telepathy.
I found most of the story to be rather simplistic; well-written if slightly predictable. Although it didn’t do anything to change my attitudes towards Chakats, I enjoyed reading about a hidden layer within Caitian society, and the tale of Arrak’s tragic background.
There are some notable similarities between Doove’s Piece of Mind and Geusz’s Chosen People. Both involve people entering into a new line of work. Both protagonists show a slightly exagerrated lack of self-confidence, an angsty trope that’s fairly common in furry fiction. Both involve moving into a self-made, partially separate and idealized furry society. But while Doove’s story ends with an incredibly convenient and almost-perfect solution to the protagonist’s problem (if initially a bit awkward), Geusz’s story doesn’t have an easy fix to its underlying conflict. The Lapist society’s relationship with its larger, surrounding non-furry community still looms, and there’s no simple solution. It felt all the more realistic because of it.
Five interesting story universes, five very different writing styles, all commendable and engaging in multiple ways, with my favorites definitely being the first three, especially Renee Carter Hall’s Huntress. Good long reads all around; I think the novella format really suits what the authors wanted to express. I don’t have any problems recommending this book as a whole; I really enjoyed the variety, and the positives definitely outweighed any of my quirky personal preferences. Definitely check it out!
(Disclosure: Watts Martin, one of the contributors to Five Fortunes, is Claw & Quill’s head editor.)