An illegally literate rabbit must help defend sapient animals against humans out to steal their speech in this fantasy novel.
In Mankahar lives healer’s apprentice Theo, a short, gray rabbit of almost 17, who has twice been caught breaking the strict taboo against reading, or “word-catching.” Solving an odd puzzle requires Theo to break the taboo a third time, which causes him to be formally ostracized outside the village. But he’s suddenly abducted by Brune, a battle-ax–equipped bear whose mission is to take Theo on a dangerous journey to Mount Mahkah for training as an Ihaktu warrior. The Red Emperor Dorgun seeks total “Pacification”: that is, taking sapience from animals and using them for work, raw materials, and food. Opposing the emperor is his brother, Lord Noshi, and the Order of free animals. With war looming, Noshi believes only someone with the Forbidden Knowledge can turn the tide. Most, including the Order, see reading and writing as sacrilegious—but some “say that if the Library of Elshon is ever found, it may bring back Mankahar’s Golden Age.” If the Order can make a desperate last stand, perhaps Theo and his allies can survive long enough to mount a search for lifesaving answers at the fabled library. Ansley (The Queen and the Dagger, 2016) writes an imaginative good-versus-evil narrative, providing some extra chills and food for thought in the treatment of sapient beasts. Arguably, beasts without language aren’t “mindless,” but it makes sense that horrified sapient animals would see them that way. A few scenes of animal treatment are upsetting. While the animal cultures are captivating (such as the appropriate proverbs; bears say “Why worry about bee stings when you haven’t even found the honey?”), it’s impossible to picture how these beasts can speak, use tools, handle weapons, and get about on two legs because they still seem to have animal forms. The book’s ending raises hopes for a sequel.
Complex and compelling worldbuilding, with some exciting battle scenes and cunning strategic maneuvers.