If you're looking for a book you can really sink your teeth into, you've found one. Amidst an endless stream of seen-it-before fantasy, Covenants stands out for its complexity, its compassion, and its meticulous worldbuilding. Whimsical touches of humor lighten the drama in just the right places. Lorna Freeman's vivid descriptions make every passage a joy to read.
This book also demonstrates conclusively that there is more to anthropomorphic fiction than just another piece of tail.(1) The issues surrounding the storyline include family ties, loyalty, tolerance, and the ethical use of magic. For authors, an important part of characterization means bringing in only what you truly need to create a believable personality—that is, if removing an element does not cause the story to unravel, you don't need it and it shouldn't be there. Many anthropomorphic characters suffer from the "humans in furry suits" phenomenon. These do not. The species differences play a crucial role in both characterization and plot. Each character is carefully crafted and portrayed, their various natures deftly woven into the story as it unfolds, as with this early interaction between Rabbit (who is human) and the cougarlike Laurel: "So it didn't bother me, a human, to be eating and drinking with someone who licked his claws clean with delicate swipes of a cat's tongue—but it did upset the troop." (p. 3)
The story begins with Border-born Rabbit and his fellow soldiers wandering lost, until rescued by Laurel Faena; the Faena serve the Borderlands as judges and wizards. Soon Laurel reveals his mission: to stop a smuggling ring that threatens to start a war between the Border and neighboring Iversterre, where the soldiers stand guard. The smugglers run live slaves ... and assorted pelts, claws and horns, spritewood staffs, and other treasures torn from the corpses of sentient creatures:
Laurel extended a claw and traced over the wood, careful not to touch it.
"Look, honored captain. What do you think this is?"
The sprite's openmouthed death throes stared back at us. (p. 53)
What first seems a moderate problem later develops into a situation of horrifying scope and detail. This raises uncomfortable questions about what it means to human, and humane. Rabbit has very good reasons for being a vegetarian.
Efforts to unravel the smuggling problem only lead to further complications as the political tangles emerge. The author does a splendid job of making the power struggles look truly stupid and pointless. In the process, Rabbit loses his comfortable anonymity:
"Trooper Rabbit, due to his Border experience, is promoted to lieutenant for the duration of this mission."
I forgot the captain's eyes as my own widened. What the bloody hell?
"But he's just a farm boy from the Border," Ryson blurted out.
"Lieutenant Rabbit's father is ibn Chause and his mother's eso Flavan." The captain waited a beat as the troop stared back, stunned. (p. 18)
Not just a minor soldier serving in a nowhere sort of post, Rabbit proves closely related to the king of Iversterre. While not quite a "lost prince," he comes near that archetype—but unlike most such characters, he wants nothing to do with court intrigue, much preferring his quieter and nondescript life. When he also manifests magical talents, Rabbit nearly kills himself through denial. He wants to be ordinary, and becomes less so the further the story progresses; and it is precisely this diverse array of abilities and influences that allow him to create a bridge between the Border and Iversterre.
The history of the two countries sets up the main conflicts in this novel, with some of the most innovative and intricate developments in fantasy fiction. Old story: humans invade a land populated by magical creatures, run them out, and set up housekeeping themselves. New story: the magical creatures settle neighboring territory, do just fine there, and kick humanity's butt during the next altercation (which leaves Iversterre fervently preferring peace to another war) instead of getting wiped out. Furthermore, the land itself remains magical—and it affects whomever lives there. The humans of Iversterre begin to manifest as magical creatures:
"You refuse a direct order, Lieutenant?"
Slevoic smiled, his face filled with taunting derision. "Yes, sir—hellfire and brimstone!" he shrieked as the very real dragon bore down on him. He scrambled backwards until he hit the wall, his gaze riveted on the flames licking out of Suiden's muzzle. I pulled my blanket over my head, hoping the captain wouldn't find me in the dark. (p. 226)
Since many of the humans are bigots with a distaste for "magicals," this creates a great deal of tension.
Instead of being able to ignore the past and walk away from the consequences of their own and their ancestors' actions, everyone—heroes and villains alike—actually has to deal with the increasing layers of complexity. It makes the story much less one-sided than the "kill the evil monsters and take their stuff" trajectory common in fantasy; contrast this with settings like Darkover where the "catmen" are bad and the humans are supposed to beat them, despite humans being colonists and the catmen natives of the planet. Ultimately, citizens of these neighboring lands will just have to learn how to get along; it's up to Laurel and Rabbit to make that happen, in spite of the smugglers' atrocities. This is the part that most sticks in my mind as original and captivating, and I look forward to seeing how it develops as the "Borderlands" series continues.
The character development also helps make this story engrossing. You get to watch Rabbit grow from an unassuming young soldier of little importance to a powerful wizard with connections to just about every culture mentioned. You get to watch Laurel pick his way through the intrigue of two governments as delicately as a cat tiptoeing between mud puddles. But the supporting cast is every bit as memorable—like Basel, the troop's cook, and King Jusson of Iversterre: "'Butterflies, ghosts, talking cats, mages, glowing circles, sorcerers, wind and thunder!' He eyed me over his glass rim. 'Until you arrived, cousin, the only things I had to worry about were the Turalian navy and overambitious lords.'" (Jusson, p. 299)
Unfortunately this also raises a problem. Here we have a main character named Rabbit, in a book that features many sentient species—but Rabbit is human, not furry. The nomenclature, the coming-of-age plot thread, and the presence of talking animals may also make some people think this is a children's book. It really isn't. The plot is complex; this book is about two inches thick. It has adult themes; there are some hair-raising descriptions of a rape that ended in suicide, of the historic massacre of the elven city Morendyll, and of the preserved body parts such as a dragonhide shield. I found that this combination of elements created some irritating confusion; for all its charm, this is an easy book to misjudge by its front and back covers.
I'm particularly intrigued by the villains though, some of whom come to their senses late in the book, like Groskin and Ryson; their gradual change of heart illustrates how easily people can get swept up in bad business, and how some may find their feet again: "Let me give you some advice: Never, ever encourage dissention." (Groskin, p. 347) Others—like Slevoic, a member of Rabbit's troop, and the mage Kareste—never learn, and ultimately reap the rewards of their own evil: "He grabbed his sword, raising it, but Kareste flicked his fingers and Slevoic's eyes rolled back as he collapsed, more steam billowing up as the ground hissed and popped under him." (p. 525)
Indeed, it is Kareste's abuse of his powers that gets him into the most trouble, for magical ethics play an important part in Border law. For instance, he bespells a bird to deliver a message to King Jusson, but the spell does not allow it to eat or sleep on the way—so it dies at the end of its mission. When the Fyrst, who rules the Border, finds out about this, he is furious:
For the first time, the Fyrst showed emotion. "You tread perilously close to being banished for sorcery, for in your arrogance you killed using your talent."
"Your Grace, if the bird did die, it was unintentional—"
"I don't know if that isn't worse! That you didn't care as long as it got you what you wanted." The Fyrst settled back into his throne, glaring at the Magus. "For the bird's death, you will lose what you turned the world upside down to gain." (p. 429)
Kareste goes on to much greater abuses, but this one neatly illustrates both his self-centered attitude and the prompt disapproval. Also interesting to watch are the different, and much more wholesome, ways in which Laurel Faena and Rabbit use their respective magic.
The thematic scope is what gives Covenants its backbone. First comes the issue of family ties; Rabbit grew up in the Border because his parents sought to escape Iversterre politics. Rabbit then fled to Iversterre after his parents gave him to Kareste as an apprentice. There his noble bloodlines soon bring him to the attention of King Jusson. Part of the tension between Border and Iversterre is that the immortal elves still remember losing relatives in the first war:
"Ask me where my wife is now, honored prince. Ask me about my children."
No one said anything.
The Enchanter lowered his cup and gave his gentle smile. "I understand that the Royal Garrison stables sit on top of the pit where their bodies were thrown, with the other muck and trash." (p. 477)
But family ties also help to bring peace. When people realize that King Jusson is evidently descended from the original ruling family, Rabbit recognizes him as a dark elf.
Closely related to this is the matter of loyalty. For instance, part of what makes Slevoic and Groskin so effective as villains is their constant undermining of the unit cohesion so necessary to military life. Conversely, Captain Suiden makes a convincing dragon because he views his troops as his "hoard"—and while he maintains strict discipline, he fiercely protects them from outside interference. Rabbit quickly finds himself torn between the oath he took as a soldier, and the new demands placed on him as he moves into higher levels of politics. There's just something about the man that makes everyone want a piece of him. By the end of the book, Rabbit's list of affiliations looks like this:
"Covenanted to Laurel Faena," Moraina replied, her brilliant eyes still on me. "Three times sworn to King Jusson. Cyhn to Enchanter Wyln. Declared of Loran the Fyrst's line. Lieutenant in His Majesty's Royal Army under Captain Prince Suiden. Ibn Chause and eso Flavan. Chosen of the moon ghosts. Nephew of Vice Admiral Havram ibn Chause. Mage-born. Son of Two Trees and Lark. Truth rune on his hand. Sixty-four degrees to the throne. Baptized and catechized into the human Church. Brother Paedrig's student. Keeper of my favor. A fourth time sworn to his cousin the king to bring peace." (p. 543-4)
Aside from the ugly history, another cause of tension is plain old prejudice. Most people of Iversterre don't even believe in 'magicals,' and those who do tend to look down on them. This is most glaringly illustrated when Groskin describes how he let his men commit rape: "I've always told myself that she wasn't like my sisters, but instead a soulless, poxy nymph who probably serviced more than a hundred whores combined." (p. 366) Contrasted with this is the Border's diverse population; Rabbit especially teaches tolerance by example, in his respect for the feline Laurel and other nonhumans. Thus, the least tolerant characters wind up destroying each other and themselves, while the most tolerant person brings everyone together.
Throughout the book, Lorna Freeman's descriptions of the land, the people, and the activities evoke a sense of wonder rarely equaled. One of my favorite passages is Suiden's salute to the allure of sailing:
There's nothing like being at sea. The tide race and that first shuddering jolt as the sails fill and the ship lets you know she's glad to be back where she's queen. As she dances before the wind, singing and laughing under your bare feet, riding the waves with the dolphins leaping before her prow. Even the mighty storms where you and she together wrest fate from the ocean's grip, and then fling it back, defiant and alive. (p. 152)
When this author tells you about something, you don't just imagine it, you feel it. You're there. That's magic. As her characters say, "Fiat." Let it be so.
Reading this book is like watching an avalanche from a safe distance. Small actions rapidly snowball into huge plot complications. Characters who seem simple and straightforward soon develop fascinating layers. The sheer scope of the spectacle takes your breath away. So pick up a copy of Covenants and let it sweep you off your feet!