Terrouge E-zine Archives
Spellsinger and The Welkin Weasels: Thunder Oak
By: Geo HolmsDual Badger Reading Corner Review
Ah, the lands of fantasy, full of high adventure and swashbuckling conflict, characters both heroic and slimy, and lands filled with cozy details nothing like our world. Or so we hope. In such a genre as fantasy, clichés are made, and the dozens upon dozens of fantasy book covers blur and the plots become utterly generic. But this is the case of any genre, from mystery to romance.
So this month I turn to fantasy with a familiar anthro twist. This month I have not one, but two books - the odd gem Spellsinger by Alan Dean Foster, and the not quite so gem-like novel, The Welkin Weasels: Thunder Oak by Garry Kilworth.
Spellsinger is the story of a college student, Jonathan Thomas Meriweather, who finds himself sitting in a forest with a five foot tall otter in shirt and pantaloons towering over him. He soon discovers that he is in a new world, primarily populated by sentient creatures of all sorts, including humans. The otter, Mudge, takes Jonathan to the famed wizard turtle, Clothahump. The wizard informs Jon that he has been brought to this strange world to help defeat an unknown evil creeping on the horizon. If this isn't enough to take in, he finds that his sub-par rock guitar skills come to use as his music and words can conjure some powerful, if unpredictable, magic. So he is lured forth to take a quest the edge of the world. Along for the ride are Mudge, Clothahump, a flame-haired human known as Talea, and other colourful characters. The companions set forth into the dangerous wilds to seek unknown dangers with, obviously, many conflicts barring their way ...
Welkin Weasels is another world populated by animals. The humans in Welkin Weasels have long since disappeared to an unknown location. Stoats are in command, stepping upon the hides of weasels, who are slaves to their every whim. Only Sylver and his ragtag band of jacks and jills choose to stand up against the oppressive stoats. Since the entire land is at risk of flooding due to crumbling dikes, Sylver takes it upon himself to find the humans and bring them back to recreate order and sense in the world. He and his band set forth into the wilds, encountering dangers and creatures unexpected, many conflicts barring their way ...
You can see that despite the differences in detail, the plots are essentially the same. These are both part of a sector of fantasy I call ‘questing fantasy.’ Though these plots differ in areas - one of a human awaking in a fuzzy world, one of band of weasel outlaws fighting for right - they use the same elements of conflict – solution – repeat. There is nothing really wrong with this formation. Let’s face it, Redwall (and dozens upon dozens of other fantasy tomes) does it exactly the same way. Every story is made up of formulas, and its how they are executed that makes the stories readable.
The two books contain various similarities. For one thing, neither of them are really a high fantasy. Spellsinger proceeds with dashes of truly exceptional magical explanations (science and engineering are basically a form of magic in the world) and sweeping descriptions of the world Jon finds himself in. Some of the details are quite intriguing, and bring back memories of Redwall. It is a slightly darker realm than Redwall though, with a town called Lynchbany named after a ferret who was lynched and then embalmed in his hung state as a memorial. The otter Mudge's humor is raunchy at the least. From the hodge-podge of creatures that Foster uses - who sometimes appeared to be chosen by Foster opening up a biology book and pointing randomly at an obscure entry - I liked his handle on avian species. I was most amused by his choice for the police force. As Mudge puts it, "I don’t like cops and I cannot abide anyone fights with ‘is rear end."
Yet with all this fun detail and information, it seems Foster stops himself from making the world too deep. It reads almost as if he considers that the book is just going to be a fantasy paperback and the readers are not expecting anything extensively fantastic. One of my all-time favourite fantasy moments comes in Spellsinger – it can be summed up with two words: Marxist dragon.
Welkin Weasels runs into the same problem of the author trying to fit to genre, except with much more jarring results. Kilworth sets off in this book with a great idea – a world of creatures that have advanced into society since humans have gone. He spreads out different groups and personalities and occasionally goes into interludes of weasel religion and animal philosophies, but almost always comes to a halt before going too far. Many times in the book I started to be drawn in when the book appeared to whack me over the head with a sudden reversion to children’s-book level of story telling. This was exceptionally startling when I read Foxes of Firstdark later and found what Kilworth was like when he wasn't holding back his talent of spinning exceptional detail, with a deep foundation of mythos and legend.
What saves Spellsinger and almost saves Welkin Weasels are the characters of the tales. None of them are exceptionally deep, but some of them are just deep enough. The core of Spellsinger, as with any story of its kind (stranger in a strange land), is strung together by Jon-Tom's quest to fit into this new world long enough to find a way home, and his discovery of his new magical powers. It's his supporting characters that really make the story enjoyable. There's the incorrigible and selfish skirt-chaser Mudge alongside the abrasive Talea; the Brooklyn accented bat, Mog, who is Clothehump's apprentice working his way towards a spell to change his form to a raptor bird … the list goes on. Also included are a silver-tongued hare and an oddly blood-thirsty cheerleader brought from Jon-Tom's world. (And, of course, the Marxist dragon.)
As for Welkin Weasels, I can honestly say that the only reason I finished reading the novel was because of the characters. Well, one character in particular. At about one hundred pages in I was becoming frustrated with the fact that all the protagonist characters were so amazingly shallow that I was hoping that their current antagonist would skin their hides and make drums - as I've said, nice mythos, no depth. Then without warning a new weasel, Sciff, entered the scene, a creature who's main profession title is ‘dung watcher’. From the moment he started babbling in an orthodox and eloquent matter, in such unpredictable circumstances, the book became worth it just to read any of his parts. This hit a climax when Sciff went into a long oratory on the simple, admirable nature of dung. The other ‘notable’ character was Mauk the Doubter, who I was hoping would be killed off because of his excessively self-centered, whiny behaviour. Mauk the Doubter was much like the hopelessly selfish Mudge in Spellsinger, except utterly unlikable (not like the slimy likableness of Mudge). As for the rest, I still can't get over the weasel who's main characteristic was being more ‘sensitive’ than the others. This was especially bothersome when one of the weasels died and both the narrative and characters repeated the fact about the ‘sensitive’ character half a dozen times in two pages.
In the end Spellsinger won me over much more than the uneven Welkin Weasels, with a vaster view of the world, and slightly more veiled formula. It came down to the point that whenever Spellsinger had a conflict, they had ensuing events and quirks that brought the story forward. Welkin Weasels had a conflicts like being trapped behind enemy lines or stuck within a Valhalla-like hall filled with spirits hunting in the afterlife .The entire plot stopped while Sylver, the main protagonist, literally halted and said ‘let us consider this problem’ every time. I groaned far more than laughed during Welkin Weasels. Both stories have good dashes of humor, but Welkin had much more unintentional humor in its narrative while Spellsinger did wonders with its odd details and fun character dialogues There is a large section of Spellsinger that draws humor from ’80s music references that I don't think I properly appreciated. Both books have their moments, those points in a book where I could commend the author for their creativity. Welkin only had some great moments. Spellsinger was more consistent with those moments like during an epic bar room brawl complete with wolverine, armadillo and marten., Thieves hall gamble with unorthodox booty, and, because it bears repeating, a Marxist dragon. Admittedly, the later books in this series have much more ridiculous conflicts than the first book, which stays conventional, if still imaginative.
I would recommend a search for Spellsinger in the local used bookstore, or even a purchase of the re-release. If that is enjoyed, there are seven other books in the series - which due to a guilty pleasure reading binge, I read six of this last summer. My only complaint of those is Foster's tendency in later books to cast aside likable characters of previous books in the series. As for Welkin Weasels, I would only recommend it if a great deal is stumbled upon in a bookstore or, perhaps, online if really interested. This is also the first book in the series, but I'm wary to read any of the ensuing tomes (though, one with vampire voles does seem a rather tempting read). I can't fully recommend it unless one wants to read something hilariously bad, despite its great potential. I would rather recommend Kilworth's vastly superior Foxes of Firstdark instead.
For more information on the Spellsinger series, visit Wikipedia for a list of all available titles.
Also, Welkin Weasels has further information on the series here.
Correction from last month: One of the re-releases of Kine was renamed Marshwood, the main setting of the book, hence, another title to search for it under.