The cover art and superb interior illustrations from Sam Nielson are what first drew me to Neversink by Barry Wolverton. The fascinating setting and detailed characters kept me reading. Books populated with societies of anthropomorphized animals are rarely my first choice when picking a book. Of this type of book I often thought (very wrongly, I see now) "Why not just tell the story with humans?" Wolverton, who has written for National Geographic and Discovery Networks and long been fascinated by arctic wildfowl and Scandinavian folklore, is a wonderful writer who makes the importance of telling his story through animals rather than humans evident from the start of Neversink. The characters, the cast of which is large, exhibit an interesting blend of human and animal traits but it is their experiences living in the arctic habitat that make it clear why this is a story to be told with animals and not humans. While they may have human qualities, the animal natures of Wolverton's characters are what drive the plot and affect the way they experience the natural world around them. To this, Wolverton weaves cultural aspects and communal mythologies into the story of these creatures that is as compelling as the foreign, icy setting.
That said, Neversink was not an easy read for me at first, but it was ultimately rewarding and will live in my memory for a very long time. Perhaps Neversink required more from me as a reader because this is a genre (heroic adventures that take place in the society of animals along the lines of Richard Adam's Watership Down) that I don't normally read or perhaps it was because there is a little bit more required of the reader with character traits, habitats, mythology, folklore and language that are all somewhat outside of the usual fantasy novel setting. Set in the Arctic Circle, the cast of characters includes various auks (puffins, murres, guillemots, razorbills) and owls (snowy, pygmy, Scops and grey) as well as a handful of other birds, mammals and sea creatures. The auks are a passive lot, so much so that they allowed the owls to exile them from Tytonia to the island of Neversink because they did not like the smell of the fish the auks ate. There are also references to defeat in the Cod War (despite the fact that owls don't eat fish) and the loss of the rights to cranberries, which the auks liked to put in their scones. When the well-meaning enthusiasm of an exiled walrus and delectable fish smidgens created by the wife of the main character and rogue puffin, Lockley, collide with a despotic pygmy owl, lives are changed forever.
While the Arctic setting is fascinating and foreign, the strength of Wolverton's story comes from the characters that he creates and populates this frozen world with. Not only does he imbue these animals with detailed inner lives, but he crafts characters that feel in tune with their animal natures as well. When we first meet main character Lockley, he is practicing soaring through the air, something that puffins just don't do, can't do with their "squash-shaped bodies." This secret desire is one of the many ways that Lockley is bound by his physical self but different from other puffins psychologically. Unwilling to sit by and let the owls use politics (with and underlying threat of tyranny) to manipulate the passive puffins, Lockley makes waves. It was Lockely who raised the issue of the "transportation tax" that the Parliament of Owls imposed on the inhabitants of Neversink island with the Great Auk, the colony's law speaker. The rest of the birds were shocked by this act and, when the Great Auk agreed that it should be voted on, every bird voted to go without cranberries rather than make waves with the owls. It is this unwillingness both to be bullied by the owls and live a quiet life like the rest of the islanders that gets Lockley noticed, in both bad and good ways. The aging Great Auk sees a future leader in the puffin and Rozbell, the usurping pygmy owl, sees an enemy in him. In Rozbell, Wolverton has created an increasingly unhinged despot who's only real claim to power is the (unexplained) loyalty of Feathertop, the giant raptor who serves him. Rozbell takes the sighting of a diseased mammal, a possible sign that the plague of the past that left many owls starving, has returned and strikes fear into the hearts of the other owls. With this premise, he manipulates the king into eating a diseased animal that in reality has been poisoned by Rozbell. When Rozbell assumes the throne, he revives an old political group of loyal hat-wearing owls, then does away with the Parliament all together. Along the way he has Oopik, brother of Asta, both seemingly loyal servants to Rozbell, killed for questioning the king, which was shocking to me at first. After I took a breath, I reminded myself that these are animals, hunting predatory animals and this violence and seeming brutality fits in with the natural world, even if Wolverton is having his characters act out for anthropomorphized reasons.
The increasingly demented behavior of Rozbell, who is prone to physical and verbal ticks, sometimes blinking his eyes repeatedly and muttering "Gewh, gewh, gewh," supplies the suspense and is the catalyst for the adventure in the story, but it is Egbert, the exiled walrus, who provides the heart. One thing that I especially liked about Neversink (besides Egbert) is the narrator who explains that this story happened so long ago that, "the dinosaurs were long gone, humans did not yet roam the earth, much less rule it. In short, it was a bird's paradise." The narrator interjects to explain things about life in this era and occasionally to (humorously) point out anachronisms. At one point, one auk says to another, "you know the old saying. Act like a doormat, expect to end up in front of a door." To this the narrator adds, "It made more sense back then." My absolute favorite passage in Neversink comes about two-thirds of the way through when the narrator is describing the poetry of Rozbell, which he has commissioned (ordered) Egbert to transcribe since walruses invented the written word. The narrator says, "Rozbell's poetry was probably the worst stuff ever written. In fact, for eons afterward, dictator poetry was regarded as the most deplorable trend in publishing until the dawn of celebrity children's books." Right on, brother Wolverton! But, back to Egbert. While Lockley fulfills his destiny, Egbert comes to terms with his. Once a revered scholar among his clan, respected for his knowledge and studies, Egbert was exiled from this group of nine for wanting to study other animal cultures. The walruses believed that their own culture and their knowledge was of singular importance and superiority - a trait that lingers in Egbert, making him a bit puffed-up but never ill-intentioned. Keeping this a secret, Egbert presents himself as the academic that he is to the island of auks, graciously (or annoyingly, to most of the auks) sharing his knowledge and love of learning with the birds. By the end of the book Egbert chooses to reveal his secret and return in shame to his ancestral home to help Lockley save the auks from starvation. In doing so, Egbert also saves Lockely from the jaws of a polar bear by flopping over and playing dead, earning the scars of a warrior that make him more than just an egghead. Although he only reveals it slightly in his dialogue, Egbert grows the most as a character in this story in my opinion.
I haven't even begun to talk about the Spirit Journey that the Great Auk suggests Lockley make while they are imprisoned by Rozbell on Tytonia. Lockley's escape leads him through old badger tunnels with the seeming aid of a star-nosed mole, on to a marsh where he meets and is helped by more birds, and to the edge of the island where he heads to Ocean's End to find out what exactly he must do to win back the favor of Sedna, the goddess of the ocean. When he reaches the undersea World Tree, a fascinating part of the animals' mythology, he finds Sedna living in a pool of filth, polluted by the waste of his fellow foul and mammal alike. The allegorical nature of Lockley's spirit journey was not lost on this reader, however, it is not dogmatic. In fact, Lockley's spirit journey stands out for the fantastical nature of his undersea pilgrimage, the descriptive and humorous nature of the writing (with distinct echoes of Lewis Carroll) and the power of the moment when he realizes what he can do for Sedna. Wolverton has done a phenomenal job creating and populating this icy world of birds and the animals with characters you will come to love and never forget.
I love wrap around covers and Nielsen's work is so gorgeous, I just had to share this!