Leah R. Cutter,
The Caves of Buda
(Roc, 2004)

In the heavens of fantasy, Leah R. Cutter is a new, brightly shining star distinguished as much for her attention to historical/legendary detail as for her sharply poignant prose. She does not describe the settings in which her fiction takes place; she transports you there in such a way that you experience all the sights and sounds of the drama for yourself.

In her first novel, Paper Mage, she recreated the world of China during the Tang Dynasty. Now, in The Caves of Buda, she takes the reader on a detail-oriented excursion to the living world of Hungary, where a powerful demon waits for the curses that turned him to stone to be eradicated -- and for the former young child with whom his destiny has become intertwined to return and so begin the end game of his release from captivity deep within the caves outside Budapest.

We all have our demons; in the case of Laci (pronounced LAH-tsee), an old man now living in Arizona, the demons are all too real. As a young boy in war-torn Hungary, Laci encountered the demon Belusz in the caves of Buda. Forced into the foul thing's presence by horrific magicians who used to be men, Laci loses his own magical sight but manages to return the demon's curse before escaping. Twelve years later, Laci flees Hungary with his little girl after the Communists kill his wife.

Now he is an old man suffering the loss of his mental faculties. Dementia has taken away a large part of the man that Laci's granddaughter Zita knows and loves, so the young lady puts little stock in her grandfather's ravings about returning to Hungary to kill the demon. Then her grandfather escapes from the hospital, and Zita finds herself hurrying across the world to search for him in the land of his birth, unaware of the dark and painful part she will play in the end game of demonic infiltration. The lifting of the first four of five curses is linked to dark events in human history, and only Laci knows the danger that the whole world will face should Belusz be freed completely of his bonds.

Ephraim Cohen also makes his way to Hungary, breaking free of the chains of ritual and changelessness that have always bound him. In the land of his ancestors, Cohen discovers that the rituals he has always relied upon subconsciously are more than just empty motions, for he has magic within him, the kind of magic Belusz needs to gain his freedom -- and the kind of magic Laci, now joined by Zita, needs in order to stop and kill the demon. By the time the trio comes together, the reality of demonic forces is no longer a matter of speculation, and the three unite in a desperate attempt to save the world from unimaginable horror.

These are complex characters drawn with masterful touches by Cutter. Past and present interweave in Laci's troubled mind, drawing the reader into Hungary's troubled past as well as its demon-threatened present. Zita and Ephraim are deeply human characters battling their own demons in preparation for the fight to come with Belusz. Laci must overcome his great fear and the dementia that makes his thought processes a tangled web of reason and unreason; Zita must conquer the fear that she will fail and disappoint the grandfather she loves so dearly as well as overcome her weakness for external control currently represented by her unfeeling boyfriend back home; Ephraim must come to terms with the unhappiness of his old life and recognize the intrinsic self-worth of his own existence. The ultimate confrontation with Belusz, when it comes, holds surprises for the reader and plays out in a marvelously crafted fashion.

Cutter's commitment to her writing is impressive indeed. At the end of the book you will find a rarity among novels -- a bibliography of works consulted in the construction of the history, myth and tradition of the entire novel. The Caves of Buda is a product of both extensive research and the magical creativity of Cutter's inspired imagination, and the end result is a highly literary novel that takes on a living and breathing life of its own.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 5 March 2005

Buy it from Amazon.com.