Review: 'Striking the Root', by Kris Schnee
You cannot always judge whether a novel will be good or bad by its first line, but I’ve found that a story with a good first line rarely turns out to be bad. The first line of Striking the Root is, “Rowan hung upside-down from a branch and drew emerald knots in the air, hoping to please the Lord.” Yep, that’s a grabber. And Striking the Root just keeps getting better.
In an apparent dungeons-&-dragonish magical world, young Rowan Janiceson is an “awakened” gray squirrel in a joint civilization of humans and squirrelfolk. The world was originally inhabited by just humans; but several centuries ago, the human wizard Lord Veles, Great Lord of the Forest, planted the seed that grew into the massive Great Oak and awakened the first squirrels in size and intelligence. Since then, Veles has mostly withdrawn to let the squirrelfolk run their own civilization under their own Council in what has become the squirrel nation of Great Oak. Many squirrels have left Great Oak to settle among the human city-states.
Rowan is one of the squirrelfolk who worship Veles as the god of the squirrelfolk, and he is unhappy that more and more squirrels are drifting away from the True Faith, calling Veles by the disrespectful name of “Greenie” and considering him as just a human wizard, not a god. When the Council of Great Oak intends to send a representative into human lands on a trade mission, Veles arranges for Rowan to become that messenger. Rowan is both scared to venture from the squirrel nation into the human world, and proud to be the ambassador of the squirrel’s True Faith.
Sorry, but the above synopsis includes several spoilers. Striking the Root is a semi-mystery that very slowly reveals the details of both the human and squirrelfolk civilizations, and more importantly, the conflicts between them. It is both an adventure about Rowan’s and his companions’ getting involved in that conflict, and a coming-of-age story for Rowan, who learns that the world is a more complex place, and the squirrelfolk are not as united, as he had thought.
Schnee does an excellent job of blending the two. It is hard to decide which is the more intriguing, the adventure or the world. For example, it is a dozen pages into the story before it is clear that the squirrelfolk – or cloudtails, as the humans call them to distinguish them from normal squirrels (and Rowan discovers that it is a demeaning term among some human chauvinists) – are larger than ordinary squirrels:
Tail Town made Rowan feel small. Already there were as many humans around as he’d ever seen at once: guards with spears, farmers here for market day. He made for a row of trees that shaded one street, set down his heavy pack, and climbed up to have a proper look around. Nearby there was a wooden balcony built onto a stucco building. A few of his kind relaxed there at cafe tables.
A human girl giggled below. ‘Big squirrel!’
‘It’s not polite to stare,’ said the man holding her hand.
Rowan climbed down head-first and hopped to the ground. Even the girl was chest high to him, and the man several heads taller. ‘Hello. Welcome to --’ He stopped, laughing at himself. ‘Sorry. Normally when I see humans, they’re visiting my home.’ (p. 13)
They retain some squirrel instincts:
He stomped the little patch of flame with his sandals. He kicked dirt at it and shouted for help. The front wagon was on fire too! He spotted a shadow moving near the rear wagon to his left, lighting a third fire near where the others were sleeping. Rowan yelped and skittered away from the frightening fire and intruder. He heard the horses waking too.
‘What is it?’ shouted one of the wagon drivers.
‘Fire! And someone’s here!’ Rowan made himself get up from where he cowered in the tall grass. (pgs. 34-35)
Some squirrelfolk have adopted some human customs and rejected others:
Holly the farm girl passed around some venison jerky. The tough meat smelled salty and full of energy in a way that no salad could ever be. Some of Rowan’s kin denounced the eating of meat, but he gnawed the stuff without shame. The Lord had nothing against meat if it was gotten with respect and mercy, so there was no sane cause for objection. And since the world had been given to his people to tame and cultivate, why shouldn’t Rowan enjoy? Besides, it was good for keeping your incisors filed down. (p. 32)
‘Striking at the root’ is a common saying among the squirrelfolk for identifying the basic cause of a problem before trying to fix it. Striking the Root is the adventure of Rowan and his companions finding the hidden problems that are leading to both a civil war among the squirrelfolk, and a war between the squirrels and the humans; and what they do about the situation:
Tom handed back Rowan’s lost lumina knife. Rowan looked at the trace of griffin blood still on it and thought of simpler days. He said, ‘If I end up fighting anyone, it’s going to be for the sake of bringing people closer together, not cutting apart the world we’ve built. I’m tired of factions.’
‘Us too,’ said Caraway.
Holly said, ‘Of course. That’s the point of my Guild’s work, and the League’s church.’
Tom appraised them all. ‘Good that we’re all together. Now we just need to get the Lord, the Council, Brightshade, Highreach, Perrin and the griffin knights to agree on what we’re unified about, before things get worse.’ (p. 135)
But, faced with at least a half-dozen different factions, which of them is “right”?
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I like Virmir’s cartoony but expressive artwork on the Metamor Keep website, but his cover does not do Striking the Root justice. It is so cartoony that it is misleading as the cover of a serious adventure fantasy. It is also confusing, showing three furry anthro animals snarling and holding weapons. They are so generically furry animals that they could be anything from wolves to dogs; you have to read the story to find out they are squirrels. You also cannot tell if they are protagonists defending themselves, or villains threatening the protagonists. I like covers that show specific scenes (page 168) rather than abstract art, but they should not be this vague.