Ben Gadd, Raven's End (Sierra Club Books, 2001)
Let's just get one thing out of the way right now. Since 1972, when Richard Adams published one of the finest anthropomorphic animal fantasies ever conceived, lazy and ignorant book reviewers have introduced almost all reviews of animal stories with some version of "In the tradition of Watership Down...." Wait, let me qualify that anthropomorphic wild animal novels are compared to Watership Down. Domestic animal fantasies are often said to resemble Charlotte's Web.
Raven's End is not Watership Down; it is not Charlotte's Web, or The Wind in the Willows, or Winnie the Pooh, or Duncton Wood. Thankfully, it's not The Sight. I suppose, being about self-actualized birds, that it bears some resemblance to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, though it treads a much different metaphysical path than JLS.
Raven's End begins with the abrupt awakening of Colin, a young raven who seems to have had some sort of mysterious accident; he's found unconscious by Zack C.C. (Corvus Corax, the Latin name for ravens). Zack takes Colin back to his nest and nurses him back to health; then he introduces him to the Raven's End flock. The flock lives at Yamnuska, in the Canadian Rockies near Banff. Zack, his mate Molly, the old and wise raven Greta, and the rest of the Raven's End birds welcome Colin into the flock, and help the amnesiac raven relearn the proper ways of raven life. Colin strives to learn who he truly is, and with the help of his second sight and the intervention of the Great Raven (who speaks to him telepathically) he sets out on a life-altering journey into the unknown.
Ben Gadd is a trained geologist, naturalist and guide, and also authored the highly praised Handbook of the Canadian Rockies. This is his first novel. His incredible wealth of knowledge is apparent in the fine detailing throughout the book; he describes everything from the habits of ravens, wolves, and pikas to the weather and topography of the region to proper rockclimbing technique with equal authority. When writing about the natural world, his descriptive abilities are first class; consider this passage:
Dawn at Carrot Creek came with clouds. Spidery filaments of cirrus appeared from the west, and long before the sun cracked the horizon the high clouds lit up, filling the sky with pink streamers. One spot on the silhouette of Princess Margaret Mountain grew impossibly brilliant. From it a sheet of sunlight shot across the front ranges, then reached gradually down into the valley of Carrot Creek.
The book is rife with beautiful passages about Gadd's beloved Canadian Rockies, and these make up the majority of the charm of Raven's End. This charm, though, is offset by clumsy characterization and dialog. Gadd's tendency is to tell the reader all about each character, rather than allowing the reader to discover the character's persona through the action as it unfolds. Ravens with run-of-the-mill human names such as Cathy and Garth mingle with ravens with more classical fantasy nomenclature like Dolus and Zygadena; a minor quibble, perhaps, but it's a distracting intrusion of the mundane world into this fantastical wilderness setting. Bits of dialog such as "Dolus did a number on you" and "Yeah. Uh really. Um... really cool" are terribly jarring.
On the whole, though, Raven's End is a truly enjoyable novel and a great first effort ... until page 317. What happens on page 317? Well, you'll notice I've been fairly vague about the plot; this is deliberate. The final 28 pages of Raven's End take such a far-out direction that I very nearly strangled on my outrage. Unbelievable? Ridiculous? Irritating? All of the above but. But, I can't condemn it out of hand; like readers of the aforementioned Jonathan Livingston Seagull, some readers of Raven's End will find the ending of this novel truly mystical and life changing. Others will choke on it. I found it unbearably silly.
My final word on Raven's End? Some people hate to travel; they want to take the quickest form of transportation to their vacation destination. Some love to take long meandering drives, because they believe that it's not the end, but the trip itself that's meaningful. I'm one of the latter, and so even though I felt as though I'd set out for Banff and ended up in a New Age bookstore in Sedona, I had a pleasant enough time getting there. I'd like to see more fiction from Mr. Gadd, as this book shows real fantasy potential.