Monday 5 August 2013

Book Review | The Days of the Deer by Liliana Bodoc

It is known that the strangers will sail from some part of the Ancient Lands and will cross the Yentru Sea. All our predictions and sacred books clearly say the same thing. The rest is all shadows. Shadows that prevent us from seeing the faces of those who are coming.

In the House of Stars, the Astronomers of the Open Air read contradictory omens. A fleet is coming to the shores of the Remote Realm. But are these the long-awaited Northmen, returned triumphant from the war in the Ancient Lands? Or the emissaries of the Son of Death come to wage a last battle against life itself?

From every village of the seven tribes, a representative is called to a Great Council. One representative will not survive the journey. Some will be willing to sacrifice their lives, others their people, but one thing is certain: the era of light is at an end.


For generations, the Husihuilkes have lived off the land, making "use of all the forest and the sea could offer. Here at the Ends of the Earth, the Creatures faced the wind and the rain with strategies almost as old as the elements themselves," (p.6) and though they have become comfortable in the years since a real threat arose, they have not forgotten their nature. The Husihuilkes are a warrior people, the most fearsome fighters in all the Fertile Lands, and in the months to come, they will be called upon to take up arms again.

Why? Because there's a storm coming, of course! What epic fantasy saga would be complete without one?
As had happened every winter in living memory, another long season of rains was returning to the land of the Husihuilkes. The storms came from the southern seas, brought by a wind that spread heavy clouds over the Ends of the Earth and left them there until they had exhausted themselves. (p.5)
The Days of the Deer does not chronicle the Husihuilkes' war with the weather, however. Instead, the storm is an ill omen; a symbol of some encroaching force. But what shape will it take? And what might its appearance mean for the peaceable Creatures of the Fertile Lands?
The Magic of the Open Air has learnt beyond a shadow of a doubt that there will soon be a fleet from the Ancient Lands coming to our continent. It is known that the strangers will sail [across] the Yentru Sea. All our predictions and sacred books say the same thing. The rest is all shadows. Shadows in the stars and our books. Shadows that prevent us from seeing the faces of those who are coming. Who are they? Why are they travelling here? (p.57)
These are the questions that the central characters of Liliana Bodoc's debut are asked, and the longer they take to arrive at an answer—any answer—the worse the consequences will be. "The fate of everyone living in the Fertile Lands" (p.57) hangs in the balance, in fact... a responsibility so very terrible that it should be shared, surely, rather than shouldered by a single soul.

To wit, representatives of each of the Creatures who call the continent home—including Dulkancellin of the Husihuilkes—are called to the far-distant city of Beleram in the Remote Realm. There, they form a council of sorts, to talk about the right and proper response to this dangerous state of affairs. They're well aware that their situation grows more desperate by the day—or rather, some among them are; primarily our protagonist—but without more information, what else are they to do other than discuss and debate?

As they hum and hah, however, the host of Eternal Hatred—led by Misáianes, the Son of Death herself—draws closer and closer to shore.
"Hear this and remember. Misáianes came to destroy the time of mankind, of animals, of water, of living green and of the moon, the time of Time. Many will be intoxicated by his poison; many more will fall in battle. Better to fall in battle. [For] if we are defeated in this war, Life will fall with us. If we are defeated, light will be condemned to drag itself over ashes. And Eternal Hatred will stride through the twilight of Creation." (p.94)
Eternal Hatred, eh?

Initially, I cringed at the blunt terminology too, but the more I read of The Days of the Deer, the more fitting it felt. Above all else, this is an elemental epic, and its author is particularly interested in the opposition which exists between the aforementioned forces. Thus the Ancient Land's army of darkness and death invades a continent of bright light and life. The natural is set starkly against the unnatural; order against chaos; and this trend extends to the narrative's depiction of good and evil in the old mould. 

Ultimately, then, the idea of Eternal Hatred makes a certain amount of sense, but that doesn't detract from the bland fact of it at first. Nor is this the only obvious genre shorthand made use of over the course of The Days of the Deer: a book of broad strokes, at best.

That said, there remain reasons to recommend Liliana Bodoc's debut. Originally published in Argentina in 2000 as Los Dias del Venado, The Days of the Deer is the first part of an acclaimed fantasy trilogy—namely The Saga of the Borderlands—that has gone untranslated for thirteen years, and I am pleased to see it in English... though the translation is, I think, too literal. I'm certainly no expert, but I had Google go to work on a short Spanish language excerpt and it spat out something surprisingly similar to the text Nick Caistor and Lucia Caistor Arendar render.

So there's an abundance of clunk and some frankly laughable Fantasy Capitalisation: a problem given how very seriously we're asked to take The Days of the Deer. Nevertheless, its setting is excellent. Both historically and ecologically, Bodoc develops her world deftly; if the characters who inhabit it lack life, the Fertile Lands themselves positively vibrate with vim and vigour and taste and texture.

I'm not quite convinced that the author is "the Tolkien of the Americas," as the publicity promises, but I can understand the comparisons. There's a fellowship and some songs; an unknowable evil and a complex yet credible setting. By and large, alas, this is unhelpful hyperbole, and it does The Days of the Deer few favours.

More useful is the cover quote from Ursula K. Le Guin, who, when asked who she admires within her genre, can only come up with one name: Liliana Bodoc's, obviously. Understand, though, that her genre—environmentally-aware fantasy, shall we say—must be a small one, because though The Days of the Deer is indeed decent, if it represents the best of anything, there simply can't be much competition.


The Days of the Deer
by Liliana Bodoc

UK Publication: August 2013, Corvus

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  1. The Conquest that happens in this book is different, it has an important magic element, but... the consequences for the natives weren't the same?
    Bodoc's powerful and beautiful storytelling, full of tragedy, magic and endearing characters present us a book that is a must within its genre.

  2. This was different because at times it frankly just felt..well too real. Like yes that could have happened, those people could have lived in the Americas. Some fantasy books are just too easy to put in a special country or place. But it still worked because in the end, yes in the end it was different. So very different.