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I have to confess that, today, reading Lynn Abbey's classic sword and sorcery adventure with its powerful female protagonist, I found it a little difficult to look at her heroine Rifkind, and not think of Lucy Lawless strutting her ass-kicking stuff as Xena. Oh, well, such is the power of the mass media over our minds. Yet at the same time, thoughts of Xena do make one aware of how ahead of the pop culture zeitgeist Abbey really was when she created this character.

But of course, Xena is a cheesy TV show, while this is a character study with slightly more serious literary aspirations. Rifkind is a warrior woman and empathic healer, the only one of her kind, who flees her desert home of Asheera after her clan is massacred. She finds she must make a new life for herself in Dro Daria, the dangerous, too-foreign land of her enemies. Everywhere she goes, she and her horned warhorse (with whom she shares an empathic mental bond) are met with hostility, and she is tormented by a vision of a dark, robed figure of unmistakable evil who demands the ruby amulet she wears around her neck.

Soon after, Rifkind rescues a young girl from a band of brigands and falls in with the son of a Dro Darian nobleman who warns her that a powerful wizard, An-Soren, threatens the royal court of Dro Daria and hopes ultimately to have power over the kingdom. Yet, An-Soren fears Rifkind as a genuine threat due to the fact she is a disciple of the goddess of the Bright Moon, whose power could vanquish him. So although An-Soren has warned all of Dro Daria that the "Asheeran witch" is an enemy to be feared and hunted down, the aforementioned nobleman shelters her and attempts to convince her to fight An-Soren to save Dro Daria. But Rifkind cares little for Dro Daria. Her fight with An-Soren is personal. He is one of a band of renegade Asheeran magic-user types whom she, as a representative of her goddess, is obliged to try to defeat if she can.

As in most fantasies of this type, the political, plot-driven bits are really heavy going and you pore through these passages with lots of patience, the occasional stifled yawn, and the nagging feeling you've misunderstood some important nebulous point. (Still, this book does it more painlessly than most. I can't think of all the books like this I've read where the plot is so overworked you just want Cliffs Notes.) There is also quite a lot of exposition that slows the pacing down, particularly in spots where I felt dialogue or action would have done the job better. Still, considering this was Abbey's debut novel, on the whole it is quite accoomplished.

Where Daughter of the Bright Moon succeeds best is in Abbey's excellent development of Rifkind's character. Rifkind's difficulties adjusting to a more acceptable, "ladylike" demeanor so that she can mingle with the Dro Darians are both funny and convincing. Also believable is the sense of isolation she feels at being an outcast, both from her own clan and in her new surroundings. I found it especially laudable that Abbey created a heroine who is tough and battle-hardened without being some sort of annoying arch-feminist, archetypal über-Amazon. (Oo, lots of A-words there; my alliteration-meter just broke.) Rifkind is coarse, abrasive, doesn't suffer fools gladly, has no time for trivialities or social ettiquette, and yet Abbey always manages to distinguish when and where Rifkind displays these traits as strengths, and when she does so as weaknesses. It's a nuanced characterization that makes Rifkind a real person, when so many other writers might well have gone to great lengths to make her an unconvincingly flawless, idealized example of Womynhood, a symbol rather than a human being.

Rifkind is also given a smartly-rendered cast of supporting players to interact with, making Daughter of the Bright Moon an unusual and stimulating character-driven entry in the not-always-respectable sword-&-sorcery genre. If only the story as a whole had been just a little bit leaner and meaner. Still, the climax is satisfying, even if Abbey is a little obvious in setting up the sequel, The Black Flame, in the denouement.