So. None of these are real animals — or rather, they’re neither real animals nor representations of real animals. You probably knew that. But you also probably knew they were supposed to be animals, even though they’re not real. You probably also knew that they’re two vertebrates and an invertebrate — a bird, a mammal and an insect, no less. Maybe you even would broadly class the top as a hunter, the middle as a hunter or forager, and the bottom as a forager or grazer.
Or maybe you’d peg them as something else entirely, but if you did you’d probably still have Reasons, and even if said Reasons were chiefly imagination-based they’d still probably be grounded in personal real-world observations. Pointy faces and forward-looking eyes belong to those that pursue and subdue; small eyes and heavy armor suggest a less active lifestyle. And so on. There are obvious influences here; falcons, civets, rhinoceros beetles, ants, and so on. There are also deviations from those models that make them look, subtly or blatantly, “wrong” in comparison. We can see both the real and the unreal in made-up or mythical animals because we tend to have a lifetime of personal experience looking at real-life beasties for one reason or another. More or different experience leads to finer discrimination or varying conclusions.
Why am I going on about all this?
As usual, blame a book.
Rant mode: Activate
I saw “The Princess and the Hound” sitting there when I was straightening a bookshelf in the library, and figured I’d give it a go based pretty much on the interesting title and a quick look at the first page. And, as sometimes happens with such chance encounters, we actually got on surprisingly well at first. The story seemed intriguing, despite some quirks of language (if you’re going to coin a term specifically for your book, and use it several times per page, COME UP WITH SYNONYMS or at least an abbreviation for variety’s sake), and I was getting to like the characters. But then the animals came in.
I mean, there were always animals in it if you want to get technical. It is ABOUT animals, though in that odd sort of way where it isn’t really about them at all. It needs animals, so to speak, but doesn’t really do much with them directly. Apparently, neither did the author. Now, normally I’m willing to forgive a few faux pas and difficult suspension-of-disbelief situations in a fantasy story, especially one set in a slightly different world that could easily just go, “Magic!” to hand-wave away any anomalies. You know, like every dramatic film or TV show does with “Science!” and/or “Martial arts!”
But there’s really no indication that this world’s fauna are measurably any different outside of the “susceptible to magic” sphere. Well, there might be a couple things, but none of it’s actually spelled out (more on that). There aren’t wacky made-up names or weird environments or even dragons. Not a single dragon! I assume this means it was supposed to be kind of realistic in that aspect? And yet this is a world where it’s implied that boars (routinely!) hunt medium-sized children for food, where wild rabbits in a lowland forest environment are white OR spotted, and dogs … well, dogs are deeply confusing at best, and we’ll leave it at that.
I still soldiered on because the story itself had been going so well, but really, I should have just given up there. The story got weird fast (and I do like a good weird story, don’t get me wrong; what I don’t like is a bad weird story that smacks of “oh man, I didn’t actually think of how I’d resolve any of this — heck, I’ll just throw all the storylines together and have the main character act like it makes sense, that’ll fool ’em”). I’m still not entirely sure what happened with the bear. I’m not entirely sure the author knows what happened with the bear. I’m not entirely sure I want to know what happened with the bear. Either it all falls under the “Magic!” umbrella or it’s one of those hazy folktale-type settings where you can totally be a bear-dude with a dog-wife or whatever, and nobody gets eaten or abandoned in the forest. If she was going for metaphor, which frankly even hazy folktales often manage well enough, I think she was trying a bit too hard.
But honestly? That’s not the part that bothered me the most. I read on past that and finished the book, which was almost done anyhow at that point. It was just the overall feeling that, despite trying to portray characters that had a deep connection to wild animals, I felt like I was reading the work of someone who never really bothered to look closely enough at another living thing to develop that “well wait, this doesn’t really make sense” instinct. Like. Really. Have you seen a rabbit? ANY rabbit? Outside? On a lawn or something? I get that there are feral animals and all, and that the book establishes that there are feral populations of other species in the woods. But do you just go out into the woods and see like, three white rabbits with random black blobs and think, “yeah, those are some normal everyday wild rabbits there”? And there are just enough accurate things about animals in there, things that must have required some modicum of research, that the other things seem all the odder. I feel I must be missing something, and yet it doesn’t seem there’s anything to miss.
THIS BOTHERS ME.
But that’s just me. Literally, it’s just me — it has decently good reviews online, and the low-star reviews are for other perfectly-valid storytelling reasons (some of which I whined about above). Maybe there’s no reason to get into the little details if you already dislike the book for the really big obvious details? Anyhow, since I couldn’t point at a review and go, “Ha! See, my complaints are justified by this internet person!,” I had to complain about it here. I can wail and whine, but I don’t have to be held accountable for an actual star review that people look at. Which, incidentally, seems to be the purpose of a large portion of the Internet. Lucky me!