Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Huntress, by Renee Carter Hall.
Dallas, TX, FurPlanet Productions, September 2015, trade paperback $9.95 (213 pages), Kindle $4.99.
Leya is a young adolescent lioness in an anthropomorphic African veld who lives in the village of Lwazi. But she doesn’t want to grow up to become just another tribal wife and mother. She dreams of becoming a karanja, a member of the nomadic band of female expert huntresses who hunt for meat for all the villages. Becoming a karanja is a prestigious, almost religious goal, but it means rigorous training and the renunciation of living with men — of ever getting married, or having children.
“The first time she’d seen them, she had been very young. But she hadn’t been afraid. The other cubs, male and female alike, had hidden behind their mothers, frightened by the huntresses’ fierce eyes and sharp weapons. Where the villagers wore beads or stones, the karanja sported necklaces of bone and hoof and claw, and their loincloths were made of zebra hide in deference to Kamara’s first kill, a material only they were permitted to wear.
They were all mesmerizing, exotic and dangerous and beautiful, their eyeshine flashing like lightning-strikes as they took their places around the fire. But there was one Leya could not look away from.
Masika, the karanjala, first among the karanja. Her headdress of fish-eagle feathers stood out from her noble face like a mane, and her loincloth was of giraffe hide, just as their first male wore. Her eyes were sharp and watchful, her every muscle toned and tensed, and like all the karanja, she proudly bore the twin scars on her chest where her breasts had been cut away. Leya sat silently, drinking in Masika’s presence, watching everything the huntress did, every movement, every manner.” (pgs. 10-11)
Leya follows her goal relentlessly, tirelessly as she grows up. She leaves her village to follow the karanja on their outskirts, and finally her perseverance impresses them enough that she is made one of their group.
But this is only half the story. Goals change over the years. What someone wants to be at six years old, or at eleven, or fourteen, is not the same thing at eighteen or twenty-one or older. Leya begins to regret parting from the village playmate who had just begun to become a lover. She feels longings when the karanja visit a village and she sees mothers with their children.
“Every woman in this village, Leya realized, understood Ayanna’s joy. But not one of them would know what it meant to watch that zebra crumple to the ground, to hold a knife and cut its throat because it meant everything you’d ever wanted. She could tell Ayanna about it, and her friend would smile and nod in the right places, but that would be all.” (p. 83)
No huntress has ever left the karanja (or have they?), but by this time the other karanja are all her friends, and wish her well. But Leya’s hard life, her scars and her lack of breasts have marked her irrevocably. What is an ex-karanja to become? There is no role model for the rest of her life.
“Huntress” is harsh, tender, exhausting, gentle, thoughtful, and beautiful. It won the Cóyotl Award as the Best Anthropomorphic Novella of 2014, presented at the RainFurrest 2015 convention where this book went on sale. It was also a finalist for that year’s Ursa Major Award.
“Huntress”, the novella, was first published in the anthology Five Fortunes in January 2014. But if you’ve read it there, don’t think that you’ve read all there is. Huntress, the book, contains three more, brand-new short stories set in the same world.
“The Shape of the Sky” features Mtoto, the young apprentice of Ndiri, the painted-dogs’ wandering healer:
“The young dog stretched, enjoying the soft breeze on his fur and how the warmth of the sun came back when the breeze stopped. As he preferred, he wore only the clay amulet he’d had since he was born. When he went among the villages to trade his pots and cups, he tied on a loincloth to respect their customs, but here among the baobabs, there was no custom but his own.” (p. 139)
Mtoto is now living alone when a young leopardess with her eland treks across his home. Masozi, the leopardess, is proud but desperate, and Ngoma, her more-than-a-pet who gives her milk and blood, is about to give birth. Mtoto helps them, and without knowing it, he is helped as well.
“Kamara and the Star-Beast” is a story that Leya, as an older cub, tells the still-younger cubs of Lwazi about the legendary first karanja.
“You know Kamara the Huntress was the greatest of all her kind. There was nothing that ran on land that she could not bring down, no bird she couldn’t snare, no fish she couldn’t catch. She was strong, and she was swift, and she was clever – and yes, she was proud.” (p. 160)
One day Kamara comes across a trail of strange hoofprints that suddenly change to the tracks of other animals, even birds. Kamara follows the trail for days.
“At last she caught up with it, and if anything could have been stranger than its trail, it was the beast itself. It had the hindquarters of a zebra, the front legs of a heron, the great ears of the hare, the snout of the red pig, and the tough skin of the elephant.” (p. 161)
The thing taunts Kamara that she can’t catch it. She finally gives up, but complains to the god Yaa about it. Yaa’s decision isn’t exactly what Kamara wants.
“Where the Rivers Meet” tells how Ndiri, the painted-dogs’ wandering healer, grew up to such a lonely profession. She was orphaned when she was too young to know her parents, and she was taken in by a grandmother who was a healer. To her village, a healer was the same thing as a magician, and everyone else feared both Ndiri’s grandmother and her.
This is the story of how Ndiri discovered boys. And Mtoto. And death.
Hall says in an afterword that her fantasy Africa is based on elements from throughout the continent. (And elsewhere – karanja is a Hindi word.) But it feels vividly real, jus as the cover by Sekhmet is so realistic that you almost believe in anthropomorphic lionesses. I cannot recommend Huntress highly enough.