Review: 'Spur', by Phil Geusz
It is not easy to tell the setting of Spur at first. It seems to be our world, but Merle Castison, the first-person narrator, is a talking Andalusian stallion which nobody seems to consider strange. Disreputable, maybe, but not strange. Merle has agreed to accept the curse to be turned into a horse of rich industrialist Arthur Beckmann, for $10,000 a month, upkeep in a palatial stable with phone, TV, and computer on Beckmann’s luxurious horse-farm, his oldest and best friend Cole as his personal groom, a customized spell to allow him to keep human vision and speech, and frequent visits from his human RPG-playing friends.
Merle’s workaholic father disowns him for choosing Easy Money over Hard Work, but Merle doesn’t see what’s wrong with taking advantage of a cushy offer that is honest, although he privately agrees with his father that he has not accomplished anything notable in his thirty-eight-year life. Nobody would want to become a horse permanently, but this is just until Beckmann dies; then Merle will revert to human with all the $10,000 monthly payments he’s saved.
Except that Beckmann dies and Merle stays a horse.
There are frequent clues that this is not really our world. Cole sets Merle up with an online support group for cursed individuals.
I was the first person in many years known to have accepted a cursing voluntarily. […] Since horsehood was one of the more common animal curses – right up there with being turned into a rat or a frog or a newt – I was able to learn a lot from my fellow previously human equines, including ways to improve the edibility of my fodder and ride a bit easier in my trailer. (p. 13)
Merle’s and his human friends’ favorite role-playing game is Sorcerer’s Tomb, which is more than just a fantasy game to them; it is an obsession because it is so close to this world’s real magic. Art Beckmann and Merle arranged for their transfer of the curse through a straightforward contract with the sorcerers of the House of a’Fallorn, with Apprentice Sorcerer Delany a’Fallorn (or Delaney; Melange’s proofreading leaves much to be desired) personally handling the case. When Merle does not become human again after Beckmann dies, Merle and Cole are called to the House of Fallorn’s very prominent Tower of Fallorn headquarters in downtown Atlanta to be examined.
The sorcerers finally decide that there is no problem. Merle has not reverted to human because Beckmann is not really dead. Even though all human authorities are positive that he is dead, he has been buried, and his estate (which is much less than everyone expects) is transferred to his heirs — which causes other problems for Merle and Cole — the sorcerers’ position is that Beckmann is still alive somewhere; therefore they are not involved. Merle and Cole have to figure out how to find Beckmann with everyone insisting that he is dead. One thing that they feel sure of is that wherever Beckmann has disappeared to, he did not go voluntarily. Meanwhile, Delany/Delaney Fallorn has become intrigued enough in the situation to investigate the original curse that turned Beckmann into a horse.
In the interim, Merle and Cole must decide how they are to live with Merle as a horse. Talking horses are rare but not completely unique, so nobody is interested in Merle as an enchanted celebrity. His sister Bethany offers to help him, but one thing that Merle refuses to do is to accept charity.
For that matter, I need a ton of specialized care and attention nowadays. It takes time and quite a bit of money to keep a horse healthy. (p. 42)
Then Merle has a horrible dream that he subconsciously knows is not a dream, about a blurred-face, black-clad cowboy blended with his father cruelly trying to geld him and break him for riding. He resists until he awakes, but the scars of his mistreatment are still on him. This is enough for Delany Fallorn to take a closer look and determine that a black sorcerer is involved, and that Beckmann’s “death” needs to be more closely investigated by the Council of Sorcerers. So in addition to the problems of having to live as a horse in the human world, Merle (and Cole) are caught in the crossfire of a wizards’ war.
Merle becomes his own detective. There are around seventy magical Houses around the world. Arthur Beckmann’s business was located around Chicago and New York, so why did he go to Atlanta for help? Beckmann’s lawyer reveals that he did go to the local sorcerers first, and they all refused to accept him as a client. Finally the head of the House of Fallorn approached him. “Hers is a relatively young House […] though one that is gaining stature with great speed.” (p. 54) Merle also learns that Beckmann’s financial reversals began at the same time his curse began, which seems too suspicious to be coincidental. Merle learns enough to favorably impress Delany.
Well … Actually, as it happens, I sort of dropped by to see if you’d be willing to come and join me on a long, dangerous and exciting magical adventure. One that’s liable to get you killed or worse on an entirely different level of reality, and which you’d have to be nutty as a granola bar to want any part of. (p. 57)
The adventure takes Merle and Delaney to “the Common World”, an alternate dimension like our world but without any civilization. It is from here that the evil sorcerer whom they call the Cowboy is operating. Spur grows similar to a Western here, as Delaney and Merle try to rescue or put out of their misery other white sorcerers turned by the Cowboy into horses, and to keep ahead of the Cowboy’s riders, bushwhacking them along the trail. This sub-adventure does not last long; Merle then returns to his own world, to find that the Cowboy is attacking there as well. Cole is lost, the white sorcerers appear to have given in, and Merle is seemingly the only holdout between the Cowboy and world domination!
Fans have been arguing for years whether there is a significant difference between Furry fiction and Transformation fiction. If there is, Spur is a good example. All the characters are human except for the protagonist, who is very prominently a transformed Talking Horse. (There is a brief scene with a White Buffalo.) The bottom line is that, whether you call this Furry or Transformational, Spur is a well-written (if poorly proofread) and enjoyable fantasy detective/adventure.