December 07, 2006


Little Fur: The Legend Begins. By Isobelle Carmody. Random House. $12.95.

Fortress of Ice. By C.J. Cherryh. Eos/HarperCollins. $24.95.

     There’s always something new in fantasyland, but much of what is new seems a lot like what has gone before.  This is not necessarily bad – think of all the people who watch the same TV shows week after week, or read essentially similar romance novels – but it means that even well-written fantasies rarely reach out to people beyond those who already enjoy books of this type.  That’s a shame, because the very best fantasies – J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, for example – do have the power to attract and enchant people who have never read this sort of thing before.

     Isobelle Carmody and C.J. Cherryh are both fine writers, but they set their sights lower.  Both are content to use traditional fantasy themes – traditional at least since Tolkien, anyway – to present interesting adventures with moderately memorable characters, offering readers thrills of a familiar sort.

     Carmody’s angle is to make the heroine of Little Fur a small, fuzzy, humanoid but nonhuman creature (think of hobbits and you’ll be about right).  The eponymous heroine is half elf and half troll, the size of a three-year-old human child, with slanted green eyes, pointed ears and bright red hair.  And she has, of course, a mission that seems too big for her, but whose importance requires her to rise above her self-perceived limitations and find the inner strength to save herself and many others.  This sounds very familiar indeed, but Carmody is a good enough writer to keep the story interesting despite its rewarmed elements.  Little Fur’s mission involves a journey to the human world, in which someone or something is responsible for destroying the trees on which she and many others depend.  This is therefore a fantasy with an ecological theme, and on that basis it should resonate with young readers who themselves are concerned about environmental degradation.  “It is not only the life of thousands of trees that is at stake,” the powerful Sett Owl tells Little Fur.  “If the tree burners are not stopped, they will keep burning until the flow of earth magic dies in this city.  Then will…a darkness ravenous enough to entirely devour the earth spirit…rise from it.”  Readers will empathize with Little Fur’s uncertainties, and will enjoy the well-paced story and the interesting illustrations of characters as unusual as a tree guardian and as mundane as a rat and a cat.  More Little Fur adventures are to follow.

     Fortress of Ice is a followup already, to C.J. Cherryh’s Fortress of Dragons.  Although this book can be read on its own – it takes place 16 years after Dragons, and relevant events of the earlier book are filled in – it will be of most interest to readers who enjoyed Dragons and want to know what happened to the characters afterward.  What happened was that Cefwyn became king and began rebuilding what was left of his kingdom, with the help of his young sons and his friend Tristen Sihhe.  Yet Cefwyn also has a bastard son from his relationship with a sorceress – and if all this sounds distinctly Arthurian, that is because it most certainly is.  That son, long unaware of his parentage, learns of it and is determined to claim his birthright.  At his command – or commanding him – is dark magic against which Cefwyn and his allies will have to fight to retain their kingdom.  This is not only familiar territory for fantasy but also a familiar region for Cherryh, for whom this is the fifth Fortress novel.  The language here will be instantly familiar to Cherryh’s many fans and to anyone who has ever read the long, rolling sentences of so-called “high” fantasy: “Best leave that sort of thing to Efanor, who cited holy writ back at the Holy Father with a scholar’s deep understanding, and had a knack for catching hold of the priests’ fervor and turning it to his own purposes.”  Readers unfamiliar with this series may be cool to this Ice, but existing fans will find it bracing.

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