Friday, July 3, 2015

The Testament of Tall Eagle review

    There is a serious problem in fantasy, albeit it's kind of a minor First World problem which only exists for privileged geeks who are snobby about their literature tastes (like me), and that is a lot of fantasy is kind of samey. As a friend of mine who is an author said, the vast majority of fantasy literature looks like some variant of The Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons. He said this, despite the fact that he was writing a Dungeons and Dragons-esque novel, to me, who had written a novel deconstructing some of the The Lord of the Rings' themes.

    Which  means what I'm about to say comes from a place of massive hypocrisy.

    Specifically, there's too much Medieval European fantasy and not enough set in other settings.

    History is full of various interesting times and places to be inspired by. Ancient Rome, Napoleonic France, Czarist Russia, mythological China, and so on. Part of what makes the Witcher so good is that it's inspired by Medieval Eastern Europe, which is pretty different from Western Euope. Even moving fantasy to modern day has resulted in a gigantic thriving subgenre from The Dresden Files to my own Esoterrorism.

    So what about Native American fantasy?

    Written by a white guy?

    I was cautious but optimistic.

    One of the biggest things which has plagued the First Nations of the United States has been the "Magical Native American" stereotype. White people plundering their cultural heritage for New Age beliefs, very often against tribes' will, and using them as stock characters. This, despite the fact Native American mythology is incredibly rich and diverse. Full of awesome tales of gods, heroes, fun, and humor. Could John R. Furtz write a novel whcih avoided all of the baggage which accompanies the past 300 years of exploitation and cultural appropriation?

    I think he did, yes.

    The Testament of Tall Eagle follows the adventure of the titular character as he goes through his rite of manhood, proceeds to discover his affinity with Eagles, finds out the world is being threatened by monsters from another dimension, meets a race of humans from another world, and proceeds to deal with the more personal problems of tribal politics. It is very much a fantasy novel and while issues of dealing with the White Man and ancient tradition are there, they are minor issues to the larger epic storyline.

    The fact this isn't set on Earth anymore than Drizzt's adventures in the Forgotten Realms gives the author a bit more freedom and you can't really say a magic-using character is a "Magical Native American" when every other character is a Native American. Hell, they're not even Americans since this is a fantasy world like Toril or Krynn. Readers can and should judge Tall Eagle as an awesome fantasy protagonist on his own without predisposition, the same way Conan is a Cimmerian but this gives no insight into real-life Celts.

    Tall Eagle is a likable character who, if a bit on the stately side, is no more so than Connor Kenway from Assassin's Creed 3. He can and does a great number of stupid things in his desire to do the right thing with these flaws making him a more likable protagonist. Watching his empathic and sensitive nature clash with his own people's beliefs as well as those of other cultures is an enjoyable read. I also responded well to his very human desire to continue loving a woman he wanted to take as a wife but who was taken by another man. That is a plotline which transcends cultural boundaries.

    I also approve of John R. Furtz giving us a series of villains and complications for our hero to deal with. Tall Eagle has to deal with rivals inside the tribe, rival tribes, the expected evil Europeans (though they're, again, not European), giant monsters, and his own self-doubt. The author crafts a rich world full of strangeness and oddity that, nevertheless, feels quite grounded.

    I could easily see more books set in the setting without feeling like it was played out. The fact he managed to introduce concepts like aliens, alternate dimensions, and Cthulhuoid monstrosities without overwhelming poor Tall Eagle also shows he was pretty good at conveying information in a culturally appropriate context. When confronted with the fantastical, Tall Eagle reacts with astonishment but rolls with the punches.

    One area I was surprised by is that I really enjoyed the love story between Tall Eagle and White Fawn. We don't get to spend much time with either but their longing is conveyed in the few scenes they get together before things go to hell. I was actually surprised to find I didn't know where the story was going with them, especially when Tall Eagle's other love-interest was introduced. While I continued to root for Tall Eagle and White Fawn, the story kept me guessing and props for that.

    A small complaint I do have about the novel is the use of scalping by Tall Eagle's tribe as a method of dishonoring defeated enemies as well as ensuring their ghosts do not haunt them. The history of that particular technique has a long and ugly sort of history which I think would have been best avoided in this book. Otherwise, I have almost no complaints about his conception of his Fantasy World Native Peoples.

    This is a good book and while I would have preferred a more causal, less formal set of interactions for the characters, I note that actually wouldn't have been true to the practices of the tribes which inspired Tall Eagle's people. If you want a change from your usual fantasy diet of goblins, elves,, and guys in platemail you could a lot worse.


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