October 03, 2007
Book Review: Wind Follower by Carole McDonnell
The standard fantasy is usually set in a world based on medieval Europe. Sometimes you get a Greco-Roman base, or the rare Asian/Chinese setting as with the Tales of Otori novels by Lian Hearn, or the Arabic tales of the Arabian Nights. But no one, to my knowledge, has ever based their fantasy novel on a medieval Africa. Some have used Africa’s jungles as the setting for a story, but its characters were usually white adventurers and the black natives were the evil ones (think Indiana Jones).
Carole McDonnell (website, blog), in her fantasy Wind Follower, has turned all of that on its head. Based on an African medieval culture (and by medieval I mean between ancient and colonial) with its own kingdoms, culture, and politics, Wind Follower uniquely portrays some very human struggles.
The story follows a married couple, Loic and Satha, as they find themselves embroiled in a cultural and spiritual war. Ancestor worship is common in this world, and politics is a highly complicated affair with many detailed rules and customs. Beyond that, there are three distinct races, with different skin colors and personality types. Each tribe and clan shows a fierce loyalty to the others of their groups, and the smallest slight can lead to petty vengeance. When Satha’s honor is ruined, Loic seeks murderous vengeance.
Wind Follower is so unique in my own experience that I find it hard not to gush all over this novel. The tribal system is vividly portrayed by McDonnell, showing her intimate knowledge of African tribal systems, and the customs she gives the peoples of Wind Follower, while frustrating, are ones commonly ascribed to tribal cultures around the world. As is common with such systems, ancestor and spirit worship rules their daily lives. Loic has rebelled against that system, embroiling him in a spiritual war from which only the Creator can save him.
McDonnell packages the novel as an oral story being told by the same Loic and Satha who lived the events described. But unlike the thin veneer of storytelling common in other fantasy books (i.e. the prologue and epilogue mention the book being written down or transcribed from the words of the characters in their old age, but the rest of the book is standard third person) the oral nature of the telling of the book is embedded into its very fabric. Each chapter is told either from Loic or Satha’s perspective, each one alternating with the other. At times, the storyteller will make an aside that fills in gaps in the story, but doesn’t break the flow of the narrative. Some readers will find this hard to understand, (I had to keep reminding myself that this was an oral history of sorts) especially in the initial pages, but will settle in after the first or second chapter. This is a creative way to structure the novel, and it is done very well. I felt I was sitting at the feet of Loic and Satha as the told me the story of their lives.
The story is sexually and violently graphic. McDonnell has not feared to display wonderful acts of love and gruesome acts of violence in a disturbing and pointed way. She did not shy away from depicting any of the horrors of the evil spirits, or the sinful acts of man. Yet she does it in such a way that you are emotionally wrapped up in both the wonders and horrors of the events surrounding Loic and Satha. When they react in predictably human ways to both good and bad events we empathize to the point of remembering situations our own lives.
Some of the things about the novel that are difficult are its oral storytelling, as I’ve already mentioned, but that can be overcome with familiarity. There are a few major grammatical mistakes towards the end of the story, which interrupt important events, and are jarring for the reader.
McDonnell unashamedly calls this novel a Christian fantasy, and while that is not evident on the cover or in the back blurb, McDonnell's Pentecostal Christianity is part and parcel of the entire story. Those readers who are not Christians may be offended by the obvious references to a Creator and a Savior, a Trinitarian God, and the evil spirits (i.e. demons) who are at war with Him. However, I found that of all the explicitly Christian fantasies I have read, this one has best weaved the author’s worldview into the story without becoming preachy. The story stands alone as a good fantasy, even without the references to God. A Christian will enjoy the Scriptural elements of the novel, and dislike the explicit sex and violence, whereas the non-Christian may find those things powerful, while being offended by the Christian aspects of the story. Wind Follower is not a book that can be pigeon-holed and every person will find something he or she loves, and something he or she dislikes. And that is Mcdonnell’s greatest triumph. No matter your reaction to the novel, you will be called to an emotional response of some kind to the characters.
Other readers may be offended by the portrayal of the Angleni, a white skinned conquering race of people. However, white readers should not be offended. McDonnell does not, in the book hold up any one race as better or worse, In fact, Loic is light skinned and Satha very dark skinned. The theme of the story is the transcendence of the Creator over an above custom, race, and the evil schemes of the spirits. So while race is an important element to Wind Follower, it is not the primary theme of this fantasy.
I highly recommend this book. Wind Follower struggles with the religious nature of man, the effects of racial hatred on belief, the intimacy of a marriage ruled by custom, and ability of forgiveness to transcend all transgressions. If you leave this novel on the bookstore shelf, you will be the poorer for it.Posted by John on October 3, 2007 11:26 AM | Posted to Christian SF&F | Fantasy