For her sixth novel, a fascinating alternate history-cum-fantasy involving Native American mythologies, Tulsa native K. D. Wentworth chose local small press outfit Hawk Publishing. And while her major publisher Baen might well have been happy to take This Fair Land, the choice seems a logical one, as Oklahoma is a state very proud of its rich Native American heritage. (Or perhaps they just like the tax revenue from the Wal-Mart sized casinos you see immediately upon crossing the state line.) The disadvantage to K. D., of course, is that Hawk doesn't seem to be getting this book into every brick-and-mortar America as Baen could. But I guess that's where shopping online comes in handy.
It's 1763, and Father Declan Connolly is an Irish Catholic missionary sent to the new world to convert the heathen Tsalagi, better known as the Cherokee. What Declan discovers, much to his horror, is that the Tsalagi's spirit world is a lot more real than the one he's been brought up to believe in. For reasons shrouded in mystery, Declan finds he can access the magical powers of all four mystical elements, air, earth, fire and water, making him potentially a Spiritwalker, a shaman of rare and wondrous power. Naturally, Declan, devoted as he is to Christianity's God, recoils at this (when a young priest's hands begin to glow with magical blue light, he tends to freak out a little), and it falls to the Tsalagi shaman Two Hearts to train Declan in his newfound powers. "Your old life is dead," he tells the dismayed young man, and Wentworth does a good job of portraying the desolation someone would feel when they find that everything they've been brought up to believe is false. (If the religiously neutral Harry Potter novels have been sending fundamentalist Christians into a dither, this book might turn them psychotic with rage.)
The white settlers who have sought to tame this fair land so "a Christian can walk from shore to shore without fear" know full well of the natives' magic, which they naturally deem satanic. And Declan's apparent possession by the savages' demon spirits seems to be all the pretext General Sir Guy Carleton, martinet commander of nearby Fort Pembroke, needs to wipe out the annoying Tsalagi once and for all. And what the army's muskets don't kill, nasty European infections like smallpox will.
Truth to tell, there is something a lot like the origin story of a comic book superhero in Declan's transition. He's a callow young man who reluctantly finds himself in possession of superpowers he initially fears and doesn't understand. With the help of a mentor who gives him the old "with great power comes great responsibility" speech, he ultimately learns to accept his new identity and use his powers for Good. But while this is all boilerplate Stan Lee drivel on its surface, having been given an 18th century alternate history extreme makeover, it's a lot more appealing and interesting than usual. Though the first half of This Fair Land is slower than it should be, things pick up markedly in its second half. There are some very strong dramatic scenes, and one or two solid fantasy showstoppers (the water golem Declan creates to demolish a fleeing boat, f'rinstance). And Wentworth keeps Declan's — who takes the name of Snake as he comes into his shamanic powers — internal conflict strong by never straying too far from his turmoil at reconciling his Christian upbringing with the spirit world he has now interacted with.
One shortcoming of This Fair Land is that the story follows a fairly formulaic path, even if Wentworth does toss off some neat surprises. Declan/Snake is trained up in his powers so that he may save the world. QED, a superhero story. Also, most of the characters are too archetypal. Declan is the Hero undertaking the Hero's Journey. (And we don't really get very good insight into why the Above Beings chose an outsider like Declan to receive his powers.) Englishmen like Carleton and the ruthless Captain Evan Jones have no real dimension beyond being vicious bad guys. And I have no doubt that any Christian reader who gets his hands on this book will bemoan what he sees as evil stereotyping.
But I think such fears aren't entirely warranted. Father Fitzwilliam, the older priest who serves as Declan's mentor at the beginning of the novel, is sympathetically depicted not as a megalomaniacal cliché but entirely sincere in his goals. (He is horrified by the slaughter of Tsalagi villages, and filled with bitter self-recrimination at his role in bringing it about.) And there's at least one indian who isn't the Noble Savage: One Eye, one of the few survivors of the Catawba tribe, wiped out by the settlers' muskets and diseases. A broken man, he actually longs to see the Tsalagi wiped out, as he is bitter they have been able to survive for so long where his tribe was so quickly decimated.
One aspect of the book I did find puzzling is that none of the Christian characters sees fit to comment on the fact that, while the native shamans seem to be able to call down at will fire magic and mystical snakes that devour their soldiers, the Christian God isn't seeing fit to send down hordes of sword-wielding seraphim and fiery chariots in retaliation. The magical manifestations here are entirely one-sided, and while that might be consistent with the novel's premise — that it's set in a world where Native American theology got it right — it's kind of odd none of the Christians wonders out loud where God's manifestations are. But then again, the Christians in the book see the Tsalagi magic as the work of Satan, and themselves as God's warriors, so perhaps that is how they explain it to themselves. Would have been good for a little clarity on Wentworth's part, though.
Despite my nitpicks, this is an immersive, very earthy adventure that exhibits utmost respect on Wentworth's part for the traditions of the Cherokee. This Fair Land joins a handful of other novels in recent fantasy that have taken Native American, rather than medieval European, myths as its inspiration. It is a source of inspiration long ignored, that I'm happy and intrigued to see getting its time in the spotlight.