by Nica Berry, historical/fantasy (2008)
Torquere Press, $5.95, ISBN 978-1-60370-400-7
Remember Jean M Auel's Earth's Children series? Of course you do, just admit it - you are hot for Jondalar's twenty-inch penis just like every woman has been since the Cenozoic era. Nica Berry's gay historical fantasy Hart And Soul takes place among some primitive tribes in a setting reminiscent of those plains-and-shaman soap operas that flooded the book market in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
When he was five, Jennar of the Kehani tribe watched as a pregnant woman stumbled into their camp only to die after giving birth to her child. Jennar picked up the baby while the other women were preparing the poor woman for burial - not that these women cared about an infant from who-knows-what-tribe, seeing the poor thing as another mouth to feed - and felt some kind of bond between him and that baby. He gave the baby his name - Niann - and spent the next two years playing the big brother to Niann. Alas, Jennar would soon be considered an adult at seven and be separated from the women to learn how to be a macho man with the males of the tribe. This is a tribe where the single guys openly have sex with each other before they settle down with some wife, by the way. At any rate, this was how he and Niann became separated.
Over the next few years, Jennar became worried when the ritual pilgrimage to the mountain that every man of his tribe does failed to reveal to him what his particular animal totem is. He lied to the tribe that the spirits had revealed to him that his totem was the bobcat and this is one lie that will continuously eat at him as the years pass. Meanwhile, Niann becomes acutely aware that he is an unwanted outcast in the tribe. Because Jennar is too busy playing the golden jock of the tribe high school, so to speak, Niann finds himself constantly assisting the tribe shaman Heyka while wondering whether he will ever be allowed to ascend the mountain and learn of his totem.
Niann is a Very Special person with Very Special Undiscovered Abilities, of course. However, the grand destiny that Heyka has in mind for Niann may not be what Jennar would wish for Niann, so the stage is set.
I've spent more paragraphs than I usually would to describe the synopsis, but that's because this story is so rich in detail both in the setting as well as the culture of the tribes that I don't think I can ever do any justice as to how... vibrant the story is. Sure, there are some obvious tropes here that a reader may recognize if she has read enough shaman-and-plains soap opera in the past, but Ms Berry puts everything together in her story in a way that is both fascinating and gorgeous, for the want of a better word.
I'm also pleased to discover that Niann and Jennar are not complete cardboard Jondalar and Ayla types like I initially feared. The author has given these two characters adequate depths to make them come off like two-dimensional people with fears and vulnerabilities. But character study isn't the main priority or draw here - it's the story that is the most memorable thing about Hart And Soul. The author sets up the relationship between Niann and Jennar very well to the point that while these two may be apart, the sense of intimacy and bond between those two is always present.
Oh, maybe I should warn some folks who may not like such things: Jennar has sex with several folks that aren't Niann here, but that's because sex is treated by those folks in a way that is different from how folks in romance novels usually view sex. What can I say? It's a different culture we are talking about here.
Back to the story, Hart And Soul also has some very well-written and gripping chapters leading to the grand denouement. All in all, this is one story that is just plain fun and entertaining to read. It's also well written enough to be beautiful at places. From lizard sex to this, I'm starting to very well believe that Nica Berry could easily become one of my favorite authors if she keeps this momentum of hers going.
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