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Hader and the Colonel. By Donna Barr. Seattle, WA: MU Press, 2000. 124p. $12.95. ISBN 1-883847-36-2.

Fantasy; funny animal

Adults, teens; mild gore

"Hader was a rabbit... nothing more, nothing less, just a rabbit," until a witch threw him in her magic bag, and he popped out with hands and a (mostly) human head. Now, in order for the witch to make him completely human, he has to gather a variety of magical ingredients, all of which are dangerous and potentially deadly to obtain. Luckily for Hader, the first ingredient he goes after--the chief flight-feather of a Vetschau colonel (sort of a German army harpy)--is attached to Colonel-of-the-Air Viktor Natovski. The Colonel appreciates Hader's courage in asking for the feather so much that not only does he willingly undergo surgery to give it to him, but he also ends up flying Hader out of the Vetschauer lands and joining the "quondam rabbit" to help him get the rest of the ingredients (and, incidentally, going on a Bloodflight, in which he kills everything he sees and eats everything he kills). Through it all, Hader and the Colonel grow to be good friends, despite their inherent predator-prey relationship.

From fetching the silver ring from the snout of the Kapowsin boar to killing a basilisk for its eyelid to plucking out the jawbones of the Guard-Captain of the Warrior-King of Dethenia, the pair find plenty of adventure--not to mention hunters eager to stuff and mount the Colonel, and a female Vetschauer who just wants to mount him! But the biggest challenge of all comes when the pair triumphantly return home, only to have Hader plucked from the Colonel's back by an eager young Vetschauer soldier....

This is a delightful book in many ways. For one thing, nobody does animals and half-animals better than Donna Barr. She proved this in her classic Stinz, and she's proving it again here. The Colonel is at once a cruel bird of prey and a mannered, civilized individual; for example, he's distressed that he keeps poking his claws through the gloves that he likes to wear on his wing-hands. He is a ferocious warrior with... interesting teeth, and a strategic planner, but he is baffled by, and highly fearful of, "walkers" (humans). On the other hand, Hader-the-rabbit is a peaceable, rustic soul who speaks his mind--occasionally to his detriment--and who, possibly because of his transformation, is not afraid of the walkers, or at least doesn't react with the near-mindless fear that the Colonel feels when one gets too close. Hader has charming speech pattens; for example, he describes human singing as "whoopin' lungy over the clover fields." The two characters play off one another very well indeed.

The story moves along rapidly and is loaded with details and ideas. Rather than turn the story into a retrieval-fest, Barr balances the quest with other adventures, such as the extended pursual of the Colonel by the she-harpy, which turns into a confused life-or-death scramble with two hunters out for a trophy. In between, Barr gives us a good sense of Vetschauer anatomy and lifestyle (she focuses less on Hader, no doubt because he springs from much more familiar stock). The narration can be a tad repetitive because the various chapters in the book were originally published as short pieces in ZU and New Horizons. But this isn't a major problem.

(Speaking of chapters, the table of contents is completely incorrect. Not that this is a major problem either, but it certainly was startling to see how off it was!)

As always, the art is a joy to follow. Barr is one of the holdovers from the Black-and-White Revolution, and all I can say is, thank God she's still working. The sequence where the Colonel, blindfolded, fights a basilisk is extremely interesting, sort of a cross between expressionism and Southwestern Native American art--which is appropriate, given that the fight takes place in the desert. There are a few panels that look rushed, and on occasion the various shades of black blend into one another confusingly, though that may have been the fault of the printer rather than the artist. But even the most complicated panels can be puzzled out, which cannot always be said for other purveyors of complicated B&W art (e.g., manga artists).

Anyway, this is an excellent book for adult and YA collections. First-time Barr readers might prefer to start with the more developed Stinz books, but this one is certainly worthy of attention.

Buy it directly from Donna Barr!

Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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