Micky Zucker Reichert,
The Beasts of Barakhai
(DAW, 2001)

Mickey Zucker Reichart's The Beasts of Barakhai kicks off an inventive new series.

Graduate student Benton Collins is already in trouble with his girlfriend by the time he pursues an escaped white rat through a dark and crowded storeroom. By the time the rat leads him through the storeroom and into a strange ruin, his irate girlfriend is the least of his worries.

By this time ravenously hungry, Ben kills a rabbit and eats it while waiting for someone -- anyone -- to show up and tell him where he is. What he doesn't expect is a pack of guards who bind him and drag him to a cell, where he is informed that he is to be hanged the next day for the capital crime of cannibalism.

Ben is in an alternate world, Barakhai, where most of the population spends about half the day in human form and the other half in animal form. At another time of day, Ben's dinner would have been a kindly old woman named Joetha. He is horrified at the enormity of what he has done, but in Barakhai, "cannibals" don't get a second chance.

Yet Ben is reprieved when a curious duo rescue him from the gallows: Zylas, the rat who lured him into Barakhai, and Falima, a horse who is a guard when in human form. Zylas explains that royalty in Barakhai do not shift, and as the non-shifters do not have to spend the majority of their time on survival, which includes sustenance and sleep in both forms, they have control over the lives of those who do change, determining class and status and privilege. Zylas and his followers want their people to have control over their own lives. Since Ben does not change, Zylas believes that he can infiltrate the royalty to recover an important crystal that will strengthen one of the parties in the cause.

Reichart has created remarkably credible characters, many of whom are as expressive in animal form as they are in human form. Ben is a sympathetic, if somewhat feckless hero. Zylas is an unlikely candidate for the leader of a revolution which in many ways qualifies him superbly for the job. He is also sympathetic as the outlaw steadily in pursuit of his goal.

The plot is compelling, if plagued by the occasional hole, and the conclusion is strong and satisfying. The social theme of class struggle and domination give a firm underpinning to the quest story and prevent it from becoming banal. Reichart balances the adventure with just the right amount of humor as well. The Beasts of Barakhai is a pleasant and thought-provoking way to while away an afternoon or two.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 2 November 2002

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