I’m not a big fan of the speaking animal story. After The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, few such stories have had much to say to me. There are, of course, exceptions, like Richard Adams’ excellent The Plague Dogs, but most in the genre seemed more like fad-chasers than strong stories of their own. That fad has mostly run its course. It seemed strange to me, then, that a writer as strong and original as A.A. Attanasio would jump in, even under a pseudonym.
The mystery is compounded by the fact that Brave Tails is not really aimed at children, as most talking-animal stories are. The vocabulary is too complex, the tone too adult, and there’s quite a lot of gore. Yet it’s largely light-hearted. I’d peg it as Young Adult, but I’m not sure how many of today’s young adults want to read about talking mice (Reepicheep aside).
What makes this even more interesting is that Attanasio, in a somewhat contrived, but surprisingly moving afterword, is keenly aware of the flaw. In the guise of Shagbark the owl, who writes as Jonathan Sparrow, he explains exactly why he’s written the story. This is not your average afterword, and even if you don’t normally read them, give this one a shot.
What to make, then, of this late-to-the-party, mixed-audience epic fantasy of shrews and polecats?
As with anything by Attanasio, it’s well written – smooth, complex, and full of vivid imagery. The characters are likeable, reasonably deep, and interesting to follow. Perhaps because the tone is YA, they’re not always as credible as one might like. There’s not as much grey in this world as the writing suggests there should be. On the other hand, for those who normally find Attanasio too cerebral, this story is distinctly approachable.
Disappointingly for a recent book aimed (perhaps) at youngsters, there’s a tinge of sexism. Females tend to the protected, males to the protecting. It was only explicit toward the end, and partly offset by a feisty female mouse, but it’s there.
Another factor that makes it less effective for young people is some fairly massive hypocrisy. In the book’s world, herbivores and omnivores banded together to expel carnivores. It’s not quite clear cut – the book’s enemies are omnivores, and there’s a good carnivore. But what limited my sympathy for the ‘good guys’ is that they themselves rely pretty heavily on eating insects – in other words, the formerly oppressed are themselves oppressing others without much concern.
There’s some magic that’s only vaguely, and somewhat inconsistently, described. It’s more peripheral than central, but it is occasionally distracting.
The book as Attanasio himself admits, just stops. There is a resolution of a sort, but it’s not as effective as he would hope. The book is explicitly intended as the first of a series, with the sequel named in the afterword, but not, as far as I know, written. It’s too bad; I’d read it. The second afterword may be intended as a way to fill this gap.
The illustrations are very nice, by the way.
All in all, a good kids’ story that most kids won’t have the vocabulary to read, or an adult story some adults won’t have the patience for. If there were ever a book for your precocious young niece or nephew, this is it. And if you’re willing to give talking animals another try, this isn’t Watership Down, but it’s a good story and a quick read.