Skelter is a blue mountain hare from the highlands. He lives a relatively good life for a wild hare, even though predators and other dangers must be constantly avoided- not far into the book there is a bloody scene of a deer dying, which firmly introduces the reader to the fact this story doesn\’t shy away from death. Lots of animals die. Even main characters. Just when I was beginning to like them. Well, Skelter is looking forward to the upcoming mating season, when he will box with other hares to earn his right to a female. But men sweep across the fields catching wild hares to use for coursing their greyhounds. Skelters is shut in a cage, transported to the coursing field, has to run for his life. He narrowly escapes and finds himself in the lowlands, a strange countryside very different from the highland slopes he used to live on.
Skelter has to find ways to adapt in the new land. He takes up with some rabbits for a while, then tries to live among some lowland field hares. He becomes companionable with some females and wards off rival males. He has to face prejudices and superstitions galore- in this story, the differences between rabbits and hares are constantly pointed out, hares scorning the smaller rabbits\’ company. Skelter also lives near a badger\’s sett, gets to know a few otters and a short-tempered hedgehog. There are foxes that skulk across the fields, farmer\’s dogs that let them in on what humans are doing, and many other animals in the story. But strangest of all and most threatening is a giant exotic eagle. Through the whole story the eagle is described but never quite identified- the rabbits and hares simply call it a monster- its hunting patterns are different than any other predator they\’ve met, and it threatens them with extinction. Turns out it is a harpy eagle, an exotic pet released when it couldn\’t be kept. All kinds of implications in that part of the story. The oddest part was that the tower the eagle nested in talked to it. The tower talked. That was a bit much.
Well anyway Skelter the hare goes out on this insane quest to find the harpy eagle\’s hideout, learn more about it in case it can help them deal with the predator. And I won\’t tell you more about that part of the story- you\’d have to read it. I can see why this book has been compared to Watership Down. Lagomorph leaving its homeland under duress, searching for a way to find a safe new home. It even gives a few serious nods to the other book: in one place some of the rabbits mention a rabbit in a different warren who tells prophecies of the skies and fields turning red with blood. It\’s as if Richard Adams\’ rabbits lived just over the hills from those in this book, who heard faint rumors of their doings….
But this isn\’t as deep a story. Details of the highland countryside are nice, but later such depictions of nature are less frequent as the story has more action. The characterization isn\’t nearly as good. There were some inconsistencies in the story that bothered me- a hare feeling indifferent to one thing, then hating it later on with no real explanation for the change in attitude for example… Also a few odd spellings or words combined into one- chickensfeet isn\’t really a word, is it? And I’d never seen the word small used as a verb before: “Skelter smalled himself as much as possible.” Maybe some of it was error in the formatting for e-reader?
There were other things that seemed not-so-well thought out. The mythology and culture of the rabbits and hares just had too much going on. In the beginning of the story there was an info dump on hare beliefs- something like a hell full of tempters that dead hare spirits pass through while trying to reach heaven- and I was ready to buy that, to accept it as part of the story. But there’s also ghost-hares that guide the living, hare spirits that get turned into flowers, racial memories that some of the animals access when in a kind of trance (like in Nop’s Trials). In addition, the hares and rabbits have tons of superstitions including human-made objects seen as good luck items. Really reminiscent of The White Bone. It was just a lot of various belief systems and mythologies going on when I would have rather sunk deeply into just one.
It was nice that things were shown solidly from the animal perspective. They observe a murder that happens on a farm, but don’t know what\’s going on, although the reader is able to piece it together. They see a new feature arrive on the land, and something described as a \”rigid bird\” which I thought was an albatross (for a few pages). All the animals speak, although in different languages and dialects, and humans are the ones who make meaningless, superfluous sounds so the animals assume they communicate by gesture only. While reading this book I learned a new term, that applies to stories told from non-human viewpoint (be it animal, alien or other): xenofiction.
I almost feel sorry to give this book a low rating, but I really had to force myself to finish it in the end. There\’s an overly dramatic chase scene and a last-minute encounter with the harpy eagle that ends with unexpected suddenness. I have to say the way the author worked that final encounter into the story was quite clever. I feel like I’ve said quite a lot now, especially for a book that in the end, I didn’t care for that much. If you look on Goodreads, there’s someone who really goes on and on about it.
Read it on my e-reader.
Rating: 2/5 400 pages, 1992
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