Mickey Zucker Reichert, The Beasts of Barakhai (Daw, 2001)
Mickey Zucker Reichert, The Lost Dragons of Barakhai (Daw, 2002)

These books are the first Iíve read by popular author Mickey Zucker Reichert, and though trying out a new author is often a gamble that ends in disappointment, in this case I got lucky. The first two installments in The Books of Barakhai series read fast and fun -- you will find no boring, lengthy descriptions here -- but Reichert has a talent for cramming a lot of story into relatively few words. Consequently, the world of Barakhai and all those who inhabit it are crystal clear and fascinating.

When I first began this series, I was a little worried. In the world of Barakhai, almost all creatures are cursed to spend half their time in human form, and half in an animal "switch form." This necessitates strict laws regarding the treatment of animals, and in particular against eating meat. It occurred to me that these books might turn out to be one big sermon on vegetarianism or animal rights. I neednít have worried. If Reichert has intentions in this area, she hides them very well.

The Beasts of Barakhai introduces us to grad student and research assistant Benton Collins, Reichertís highly sympathetic hero. Itís Thanksgiving Day, and Collins is in trouble. His girlfriend is chewing him out over the phone because heís hours late for a dinner with her parents, but although heís starving, he canít leave the lab until all the animals have been fed and cared for. Just as her tirade reaches a peak, Collins spots a white rat loose from its cage and hangs up on her to chase it. Just as with Alice and her white rabbit, this chase marks the beginning of an adventure that will turn Collinsí world upside down.

By the start of the second book, The Lost Dragons of Barakhai, Benton Collins is happily back in his own world, recovering from the many physical and psychological injuries sustained during his time in Barakhai. Itís been a year since his big adventure in that magical world, but although he misses his Barakhaian friends, heís a wanted man there and it would be suicidal for him to return. Therefore, when a horse and a rat turn up and insist he is the only one who can help them, it is against his better judgment that Collins agrees to go back.

There is much to enjoy in Reichertís writing, but what really kept me reading were the utterly believable, unique characters. Collins might be the star of this show, but every one of Reichertís characters is a whole person with a story to tell. No one -- not even the bad guys -- feels like an afterthought. After having finished these books in no time flat, Iím left wondering how she managed to squeeze it all in.

I canít find much to complain about with The Books of Barakhai. They are pure action and humor, with a little romance thrown in for good measure, and each is remarkably self-contained and satisfying. Easily read in one to two sittings, either book is a recommended method for whiling away an afternoon.

[Christine Doiron]

Although we were unable to find a Web site for Reichert, The Fantastic Fiction site has a thorough bibliography of Reichert's work.