Years before she struck gold by writing as Robin Hobb, Megan Lindholm (still a pen name, but one much closer to her real one) got her start as a fantasist with this modest but absorbing series of tales starring the widow Ki and her unlikely traveling companion Vandien. Harpy's Flight, the first volume of four, is set in a world populated by numerous sentient and semi-sentient humanoid species, and it introduces us to Lindholm's heroine as tragedy has struck her life. Ki's husband Sven and two children have been slaughtered right before her eyes by a pair of harpies, on whom she later takes bloody vengeance. The event alienates her from some members of Sven's family, who believed the harpies to be spiritual creatures worthy of prayer and reverence. A magical "Rite of Loosening", in which Ki shares the memory of Sven's death with his family, has left many of them angry, shaken and bitter.
Out of respect for Sven's mother, Ki stays awhile with the family, but relations with most of them just go from bad to worse. It transpires that the harpies who attacked were a renegade pair. Ki learns that one of them has survived her vengeance. (Though Ki hasn't told Sven's family of her revenge killing, it's implausible that it takes so long for anyone to make the connection.) Sven's mother and the handful of family who are sympathetic to Ki help her finally to flee. Ki, who worked with Sven as teamsters and wagon masters, agrees to smuggle some rare jewels for a longtime merchant acquaintance across a dangerous mountain pass in the dead of winter, something she'd never be crazy enough to do if she weren't running for her life. It is as she embarks on this trip that she meets Vandien.
It's an inauspicious meeting; he tries to steal one of her horses to get across the pass himself. But soon they are journeying together while slowly and stubbornly building trust. The question of just who Vandien is, what he wants, and where he comes from hangs over Ki just like the harpies who pursue her over the mountains.
Harpy's Flight is a slow-moving story. But its languid pace is helped immeasurably by Lindholm's warm and heartfelt approach to character. Granted, there's probably little here of what fantasy fans like to think of as sense-of-wonder storytelling. But the novel is something else quite unusual for the genre. It's a rumination on grief, and how lives are inexplicably changed following tragedy with the whole notion of "closure" merely a frail illusion. It drives home the theme that once decisions are made they cannot be unmade. And, especially daring for this genre, it's a study of religious fundamentalism, and how stubborn adherence to beliefs that are not worthy of belief causes more harm than good. Sven's family, who persist in worshiping the harpies because they are so "close to the Ultimate," eventually have an opportunity to see for themselves just what cruel creatures they are. But for many of them — helped, no doubt, by an itinerant mage named Nils who plays the wild-eyed, guilt-tripping evangelical nut role to a tee — this makes their resentment of Ki, and their misplaced guilt and faith, stronger. An attack on one of the family's livestock is seen not as evidence of the harpies' vicious nature but as just punishment for the family's "poisoning" by the unrepentant Ki.
True, the seriousness of these themes does weigh on the proceedings. There's little humor here to enliven the aura of sadness and guilt enveloping the characters. Fans of swashbuckling derring-do will be well advised to avoid this book like hot lava. But for readers who like their fantasies to be as steeped in real humanity as they are in myth and magic, Harpy's Flight should prove a rewarding, if somewhat enervating, read.