Review: 'Light on Shattered Water', by G. Howell
It was the spring of 1998 when I first became a fan of Light on Shattered Water by Greg Howell, an era when stories were uploaded with hard line breaks. It was becoming increasingly evident that my interest in Lion King fandom had run its course and probably wouldn't stick with me much longer. But the interest wasn't so much dying off as morphing into an interest in furry fandom in general, particularly works of literature. I asked for suggestions of works of furry literature that would be good to read, both published and online. Light on Shattered Water, which at the time had recently been completed, came highly recommended to me. I began reading and quickly became immersed in this story.
And now, fourteen years later, Light on Shattered Water (Life of Riley, Book 1) is available in a Kindle edition. (June 2012, ASIN B008GASFDA, $4.99)
Michael Riley, a digital graphics specialist, was encouraged to spend some time away from his job. While hiking in the mountains near Montpelier, Vermont, he is knocked unconscious by a nearby lightning strike. Upon awakening, he finds all of his possessions intact, including most notably a laptop computer (with a solar recharging unit), but his GPS isn't working, many of the landmarks he had relied upon are mysteriously absent, and his maps seem to be wrong. After hiking for days, he finally discovers a village where everything appears to be oddly primitive. But the biggest shock of all comes when he first sees its inhabitants.
There was a pause before the barn doors pushed open. What stepped out wasn't a person.
It took a second to register. I just blinked moronically at what was standing in the door, at first thinking costume, then for the first time in my life I knew what it feels like to have your heart miss a beat: realizing it couldn't be a costume, realizing it was too goddamn REAL and then not believing what my own eyes were showing me: a monstrous jigsaw that refused to resolve. Catlike, but standing on two legs. . . a misshapen and distorted human with a cat head, clothing. No, not human. The way the muscles moved. . . it wasn't human. An organic patchwork, Frankenstein's creature. I remember. . . parts of it. Like a David Hockney work: a jumble of needle-sharp detail joined to make a whole. A feline head with wide copper eyes locked on me, a distorted furry hand with a chunky silver and greenstone bracelet dangling at the wrist holding the door, a stocky fawn-furred torso, baggy grey pants with flashes of gold, a twitching tail and inhuman, twisted legs and wide-splayed shaggy feet.
He quickly turns and runs away. Unfortunately, Michael's supplies and survival skills are too limited for him to go it alone in the wilderness, and he has no choice but to keep watching and learning, scavenging food and supplies from the village as he is able.
Inevitably, he is discovered. The cat-like creatures are called Rris and the village is named Westwater. Michael ends up in the care of the local school teacher, whose name is Chihirae, who helps him learn their language. Due to the inability of the Rris to make the 'L' sound, his name sounds like Micah Ri'ey when spoken by one of them. His problems start almost right away. There has been criminal activity including a murder in Westwater, and Michael is almost immediately identified as a suspect. It is during this investigation that he has his first encounter with a Mediator, described as 'a cross between police and judges', named Shyia.
Aside from that, however, is that Michael's laptop computer has, among other things, a comprehensive encyclopedia. Since the Rris are at a level of technology comparable to mid-1800s, the laptop is a treasure trove that can be used to create more advanced technology. Shyia soon realizes the potential this kind of information has to disrupt lives and industries, and to create political upheaval in a region where neighboring countries are sometimes at war with one another, and this leads to a decision to bring Michael and his computer to Shattered Water, the capital city of Land-of-Water. Shyia accompanies him on the journey, where at the end he meets Hirht, the king of Land-of-Water, among many others.
And this is how Michael Riley is introduced to, as the book description puts it, "a world where humans had never existed, but where greed, intrigue and betrayal were as common as ever."
Once in Shattered Water, it seems there is no rest for Michael. Way too many Rris are interested in him and the information on his computer. He is plenty willing to share the information for peaceful uses but is very concerned about its potential use to develop weapons of war. Dignitaries from neighboring countries are concerned that Land-of-Water may gain an advantage from this, either in terms of trade or for defense, and there is concern that they may attempt to deal with the advantage in their own way. He is very different to them, and some of their efforts to learn about him prove to be quite invasive, while others are afraid of or repulsed by him. Many of the behaviors and social norms of Rris are very different from what his human sensibilities would indicate, leading to several incidents. The living arrangements he is given are luxurious by Rris standards, but given the monitoring and the restrictions he is subjected to, he is living in a proverbial gilded cage, and some of their attempts to placate him proved to be misguided. It's enough to make a sane man suicidal.
It would be difficult to list all of the interesting and colorful characters we are introduced to along the way, but two in particular deserve mention. Chaeitch, an engineer who is tasked with designing and building machinery, is one of the few Rris Michael is able to relate to as a friend. Maithris, a female physician, becomes a mentor and companion to Michael at a time when he desperately needs some sanity in a life that has become insane. There is a lot going on in this novel, and it would be difficult to summarize it all without making this review ten times longer (and spoiling the plot).
The only new content in the Kindle edition is two maps and a short Foreword chapter, and these are among the pages visible in the preview available on the Amazon website. The story has been through some editing to make minor improvements throughout the text, but nothing approaching new chapters or scenes. The descriptions of the laptop computer and its contents, which were based on predictions of future technology at the time it was written in the mid-1990s, have been revised to reflect current technology.
The novel is 293K words long, making it quite a hefty read. The Amazon page gives a figure of 793 pages, which pretty closely matches my page count calculations if it were published as a mass-market paperback. One minor complaint I have about the presentation is that other than at the very beginning, the story is not broken up into chapters or parts at all; it is essentially nearly 800 pages worth of text with only scene breaks. Content-wise, I would give the story an 'R' rating due to occasional graphic violence and a few semi-explicit sex scenes. Don't let the length deter you; this is a well-written and fascinating story which I highly recommend.
Light on Shattered Water is the first of so far three books chronicling the life of Michael Riley among the Rris. Book 2, Storms Over Open Fields, and what's been written so far of book 3, Lies in Red Leaves, are available from the author's website. Also available are Howell's other works, including The Human Memoirs, which also follows the formula of a human transported to an alternate reality populated by felinoids, but which is set in a completely separate story universe.