DESCRIPTION: Since his parents sold him into slavery, the human boy Alex has belonged to others. Even though he was bought by the prestigious College of Animists, to be trained in the art of bonding to nonsapient creatures - an opportunity many students across the Archipelago of sapient Trading species work hard to earn, and a far better lot than most slaves get - he still feels the chains of bondage. At sixteen, he's ready to set out on his spirit quest to find his first Anim, a bonded animal partner... but he won't truly be free until he pays the College back the price of his purchase and training, a seemingly impossible task that will require a powerful bonding.
Alex never meant to bond with the little rat Mote. Nor did he intend to wind up on the island of Mariposa, where a ruthless king seeks conquest and encourages genocide against the Rodeni, a Trader race that's all too often treated like the rats they resemble. As the fates of two cities rest on Alex's talents in the face of deep-rooted prejudice and a malevolent magical force, buying his own freedom quickly becomes the least of his concerns.
REVIEW: It looked like a fun fantasy in a different world, one populated by various sapient races like the Lemyri (descended from lemurs), Delphini (bright dolphin-like beings), and even a representative of the rare feathered reptile Theropi (inspired by velociraptors), with a decent - if sometimes sketchy - magic system involving conflicting practitioners and disciplines, all drawing on the astral "Oether" plane. In this world, where Animists are considered the least of all magic workers and of little value without an impressive Anim companion, the slave boy Alex struggles to find his way... and so, unfortunately, does the reader. The narrative often drifts between viewpoints, even backing out for omniscient summaries that don't always matter to the plot; for some reason, this style put me in mind of older fantasies, maybe from the 1980's or earlier, yet this was first published in 2000. Also contributing to the throwback feel was the treatment of racism (well, speciesism) - I sincerely hope I was reading too much into the ratlike, tunnel-dwelling Rodeni who ultimately need a fair-skinned human to be their voice for fair treatment and equality, and even then might be biologically incapable of maintaining it. For the few dark-skinned Humani characters, it also relies on go-to descriptions like "chocolate" and "ebony", which these days tend to be frowned on for negative slave trade associations. I smelled a fair whiff of sexism, too, in the way women with power come across as entirely unworthy of that power, when they aren't mere objects for Alex to ogle. Speaking of Alex, though he's supposed to be sixteen, he seems more like a young man in his early twenties. Other characters tend to treat him as an adult, if a somewhat naive adult, and he just plain doesn't act or think like a teenager most of the time. As for his partner Mote, she's a fun little ratling, thinking in sensations and emotions rather than sapient thoughts or complex ideas - easily my favorite character in the book. Other characters tend to drift around the edges as little more than names, for the most part, with fairly shallow characterizations and motivations, though the villain is decently nasty. The story, loosely inspired by the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, doesn't quite seem to know where it's going half the time. Early developments and hints are entirely forgotten by the end of the book, the various magical systems remain vague throughout despite their pivotal roles in the plot, and the finale feels like a jumble of sudden twists and revelations designed to pique interest in future tales of the Archipelago. (The gambit thus far has failed to produce a published sequel.) Ultimately, despite some nice descriptions here and there and decent ideas, Animist fails to live up to its potential.
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