Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Anyone coming to a book like this can regard it in two ways – as either an anthology of stories with a common theme, or they can relish them as an addition to a mythos they are already familiar with. Although it is worthwhile coming to the anthology with some idea of the world in which it is set, this is not essential as there is a comprehensive glossary of the shared world terms.
When Storm Constantine invented her post-apocalyptic world where the race known as Wraeththu are the inheritors and humans are mostly gone, she probably didn’t anticipate the way that her characters would catch the imagination of her readers, and the fan-base that keeps the world alive. Para Animalia and the previous two volumes in this sequence – Paragenesis and Para Imminence – showcase stories by the best of the writers who have produced fan-fiction in this shared world. In this volume, the focus is on the relationship between the Wraeththu and the animal world and since many cultures have a shamanistic view of animal spirits it is unsurprising that many of these stories have a spiritualistic dimension to them. One of the differences between Wraeththu and humanity is the degree to which the emerging race have a greater connection to the spiritual plane.
Even though it is fair to assume that the authors had a free hand in the crafting of their stories, several themes recur. It is recognised that one way to get in touch with your totem animal is through strong emotion. It should not be surprising, therefore, that of these twelve stories, the three have the central character enduring a period of intense grief. The initial story, ‘Beneath My Skin A Vein Of You’ by Storm Constantine is subtle and the animal connection has an equally light touch. The Wraeththu tribes have totem animals. For the Colurastes it is the serpent. Barley has been the partner of Shaska for five years, then Shaska inexplicably disappears. No amount of searching finds any trace of him. The hints and clues are delicately placed within the story.
The other two are more upfront about the animal connection. ‘Running Under A Cold Moon’ by Nerine Dorman is, unusually, set in Africa. She devises a new social structure in which har may be chosen as pack leaders by painted wolf cubs. There is already tension between certain members of the community when packs begin to disappear, killed by gangs of hyena who were not normally a problem. Setu’s emotions are put into turmoil when his best friend and his pack are destroyed. Her other story in this volume, ‘Harbinger’, has the same African setting but is seen from a different perspective. Teniël is a young har who wants the excitement of nights out with friends. His father has other ideas, using him a bargaining chip by partnering him with an older har for business reasons. There are spiritual elements in this story, introduced by a mysterious story-teller foretelling disaster. The animal associated with the dire warnings is an owl. Of the two stories, the former is more satisfactory.
‘The Heart’s Howl’ by E.S. Wynn is the other story with grief at its heart. The narrator is mourning the loss of his partner who was taken by wolves. Wanting to follow, he forms a relationship with a white wolf that may not be exactly what it appears. A wolf is also the featured animal in Wendy Darling’s ‘A Wolf In Wolf’s Clothing’. This is an interesting re-telling of the Red Riding Hood story.
Snakes also feature in two other stories. In Marina Bellovičová’s ‘Two Kinds Of Pain’, Setesh is a member of the Colurastes tribe and is accompanied in his travels by a snake. These take him to what used to be Las Vegas. It is curious that the new name for the place is Patala, which in Hindu mythology is the underground home of demons, including the Naga – demons who are half snake. Storm Constantine’s other story, which concludes the volume – ‘Clouds Like Hair’ also uses snakes as the totem animals but tells the story in a traditional way, almost as a ballad and is a new fairy tale relevant to the new race. By contrast ‘Liminality’ by Amanda Kear is another story that draws on the mythology familiar to readers. In this case it is the idea of the selkie.
One of the problems in a volume like this, is the connection with the concept of Constantine’s original novels. Sometimes the issue is whether the story needed to be set in the Wraeththu world in order for it to work. One that does is ‘Dream Dragon’ by Maria J, Leel which actually adds to the Wraeththu mythos. Set in the period when humans are in retreat from the new race, Morvan lives with his mother in a coastal cottage away from population centres and has an imaginary dragon as a friend. This story does what I would like all the others to do but don’t always succeed and push at the boundaries, adding to the new mythos.
It is always useful to have a touch of humour in a volume like this. It prevents readers from taking themselves too seriously. Here it is provided by ‘Medium Brown Dog’ by Fiona Lane. When Bel reinvents photography he is told that it will never replace portrait art – a familiar cry – but he knows that his skill with the brush is mediocre at best. Then he loses his job and acquires a follower – a medium brown dog which speaks mind to mind with him. Dog regards Bel as his pack-leader and gradually his fortunes change.
The remaining two stories have elements of obsession in them. In ‘The Bird Har’ by Wendy Darling Djenni’s passion is birds but in ‘Eight Legs’ by Daniela Ritter the obsession is spiders. Each story is woven around their respective animals.
Although a couple of stories mention deer as totem animals, all these stories use carnivores as the focus. I doubt that this intended as a reflection of the predatory natures of the early Wraeththu as they hunted humans to extinction but more of a recognition that animals that hunt are usually associated with a higher level of intelligence than herbivores. Since many of the animals involved in these stories are able to communicate with har, this makes sense.
It is certainly worth mentioning the interior illustrations. These have been created by Storm Constantine and greatly enhance the book. On the whole, this volume is likely to appeal most to readers already familiar with Constantine’s creation.