by John Cladue Bemis
First sentence: “The Forest was green with summer when the bear lumbered up from the creek bed where she had been cooling off.”
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I’ve read a lot of fantasy. Not as much as some, but definitely a lot. And so, especially this Cybils season, it takes something really unique to get my attention.
And, impressively, this one did.
I found myself marveling at the world that Bemis created; it’s one of the more unique ones that I’ve read.
in this distant future, the humans have disappeared (Died off? Destroyed? We never really find out), and the animals have basically taken over. Under the “leadership” of the Ogeema (he’s not very nice), the rest of the animals are managing okay. They have their clans — divided into predators and prey — and they basically have enough food. Our main character, a bear named Casseomae, is content. Until a pod crashes in Casseomae’s forest. Most of the Skinless Ones (her word for the humans) in it were killed, but a child survived. The coyotes want to kill the child, but Casseomae saves the child and adopts it as her own.
I should mention that even though the title says “prince” and the picture is of a boy, I never really felt like the child had a gender. Or that it was really of much importance to the story, which may bother some readers. But, I felt like it was the animals’ story more than it was the child’s. It’s the animals, after all, who are going on the journey and experiencing hardships, and it’s their eyes that we see everything through.
Of course, Casseomae knows that in the forest the child, ‘s life is in danger. She she needs to take him someplace safer, someplace far away from the Ogeema’s domineering grasp. So, she takes the child out of the forest, heading toward a place called the Havenlands. Along the way, they meet a rat named Dumpster and a dog named Pang, talk to some vulture oracles.
If this is sounding a little weird, it’s because, well, it is. (Talking animals, in my opinion, are always a little weird.) And, truth be told: if it were told with humans, it would be your typical post-apocalyptic journey book, just a group of people running from an evil overlord, trying to make a new life for themselves.
But, with animals, it’s an amazing story. The way that Bemis writes about how the animals interact with the destroyed human world is completely fascinating. The rat, Dumpster, the Memory keeper (in other words: he knows all about humans and their stuff) for his mischief, helps the bear get along and make this perilous journey. And as they went along, I found myself time and time again being drawn into world — both familiar and strange — seeing through animal eyes. Additionally, Bemis wove together the classic animal stories — Watership Down and Jungle Book are two that come to mind — in with the post-apocalyptic setting, which gave what could have been a trite story added depth.
I do have to wonder about kid-appeal with this one, though: did I like this story so much just because of the world, or because, as a mother, I related to Casseomae’s fierce protective streak? Will kids actually wander through this world, and this adventure, and become as excited by it as I was?
I can only hope so.
(Just for the record: because this is a Cybils nominee, I’ve been asked to make sure y’all know this is my opinion only, and not that of the panel.)