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At One's Beast Paperback – July 24, 2014
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The key physical feature in the story is a mysterious well in the forest, which the villagers use in an annual cleansing ceremony, as a receptacle of all their ill-will from the past year. The well no longer contains water, but exudes an accumulated dark menace; however, "No one has ever fallen into the well."
The three main human characters are Zosimos ('Zos'), Alcina and Aethon, who are very well depicted. Barnard's writing style is good, easy to read, and a comfortable fit with the content.
The village is strangely isolated (perhaps intentionally), and the Jackal is oddly enormous, at least in my impression. But this is a fantasy.
It's a great story. There is drama, there is a mysterious beast of the forest which the villagers perceive as a destructive enemy and which they try to appease by offering an annual sacrifice. There is romance and tension. There is love, there is quick judgement and rejection, there is the eternal struggle of conflicting human emotions. The characters are endearing, particularly Zos and Alcina. There is the sway of influence between the chaotic forest and civilized village life. The story grips, the characters struggle with themselves and with one another, and with the revelation of buried truths.
First, let me say, I was 'in' immediately and was driven to keep reading to the end - always key to a great read!
It starts with fairly traditional basics of Zos absorbing all the hate and evil of the town, and Alcina moving from fear and wanting to take him down, to seeing that he is something more. But the way the journey unfolds is uniquely modern from my perspective. For one, there's a tricky twining of three characters that create a love triangle with Aethon. He is supposedly a friend, but has a fierce or even controlling streak that is a definite character flaw. Zos, while supposedly dangerous, shows gentleness and encourages Alcina's strength. He is fearsome but magnetic in his caring and vulnerability.
Alcina, while having fears and showing her impetuous youthfulness, comes from a general stance of strength and independence that makes the reader believe she will conquer the beast. But as she spends time with Zos and on her own away from her family and community, she shows a vulnerability to love of nature, adventure, and love in general. Instead of making her seem weaker, her genuine emotion and new experiences develop her into her own woman - not Zos'. That's not trite or typically fairy tale black and white. When she then comes to appreciate Zos, it makes her even stronger in my eyes and she lives and breathes instead of being a one dimensional fairy tale 'princess-type' heroine.
The only weakness to the tale I thought was the townsfolk, especially families, seem a little too hostile toward Alcina. This is chalked up to the evil influence, like a spell on them, so I can let it go. It's just that all the other emotion in the story is so realistically supported that this actual fairy tale simplification of that point seems out of place in comparison. (Kind of a back-handed compliment!)
There is a lovely mix of grey tones throughout this story. There is a well-crafted atmospheric quality to the world - kind of an abstraction that allows complex contemplation while the clear action proceeds without dropping the reader for a single moment.
After reading Barnard's debut novel, ATAXIA AND THE RAVINE OF LOST DREAMS, I was interested to see where this promising young author would go next. AT ONE'S BEAST exceeded my expectations and is very well developed. It's a solid work that I would highly recommend.
ALL TOGETHER IT WAS WELL WRITTEN, BUT VERY DARK. ALTHOUGH IT WAS CLEAN.
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