Dun Lady's Jess - Doranna Durgin

Author: Doranna Durgin
Publisher: Blue Hound Visions Tijeras, NM
Publication date: January 24, 2013
Pages: 352
ISBN-13: 978-1301722778
Type: Fiction, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Paranormal
Ray's rating: 4 stars
Characters: Carey, Lady/Jess, Arlen, Jaime, Mark, Dayna, Calandre, Eric, Sherra

Read: 12/04/2015

Fantasy books and movies have been rife with shape-shifting heroes and villains in recent years, mostly werewolves and vampires. The teaser for this book stood out from all that, however, in that it included a character who is transformed from a horse to a human. That intrigued me and so I read the Kindle version of the book.

The story is solidly a fantasy set in a parallel world to current-day earth, called Camolen. Camolen is very similar to our world, and is very much an Earth II, but not a duplicate. While it is Earth and is inhabited by human beings and the same species of animals, it is not the same people and animals. The level of civilization seems to be more-or-less medieval with the world ruled, or at least led, by wizards. And their level of technology is very low, with most of the functions that we handle by technology and machines, being handled for them by magic.

The storyline involves a spell that has been created by the good wizards (including the protag wizard, Arlen) that allows people to transcend dimensions and so travel between worlds (like between Camolen and our Earth). Work on the spell has been accomplished by a “networking” of the wizards via horse-riding couriers (which is less risky than using magic). But with the spell operational, the wizards are concerned that some “of the less conscientious” among them will use the spell to travel to other worlds to ravage them and bring back technology to wreak havoc in Camolen.

One such bad wizard is a woman named, Calandre, who has found out about the worlds-traveling spell and is seeking to obtain it. So Arlen purposes to send his lead courier, Carey, to an associate wizard, Sherra, who will create a “checkspell” that will prevent unauthorized use of the world-transversing spell (this is commonly done for all major magic).

It’s crucial that Carey not get caught with the spell (contained in a gemstone) and the documentation that goes with it. Arlen warns him to invoke the spell to escape if anyone tries to capture him. His escape will be to another world, where he can invoke it again to return to a safe-house in Camolen (since a connection between worlds will follow him and so give him access to the magic in Camolen). He’ll have to be careful, though, not to take along inadvertent stragglers within the spell’s range. Got that?

Now all of this struck me as pretty run-of-the-mill for fantasy stories and, while well-written, didn’t really grab me. Still, it held my interest enough to stay with it. I suspect strong fans of this genre will have no trouble remaining involved with the story.

So in a nutshell, Carey is attacked while on the road and flees riding his fast horse, Dun Lady’s Jess (he calls her “Lady”). To save his life and his mission, Carey is forced to invoke the worlds-transversing spell and it takes him and Lady to our Earth. One side effect of the spell is that is changes Lady into a woman.

About half the book concerns the adventures of Carey and Lady on our Earth. They find they have been followed by a minion of Calandre and so most of the action is the chasing and battling between them.

The strength of the book is the family of characters that develop around Carey and the transformed Lady (who as a woman is called, “Jess”). Ms Durgin handles those characters and their relationships very well. She also does well in developing Jess as a character—as both horse and human. Jess’ struggles to adjust to her new form are told believably and sympathetically, and are the fun of the book. And of course, there’s the complication of the transfer of her feelings of devotion for Carey as a horse, to her love of him as a human.

In the last half of the book, the action returns to Camolen where the worlds-traveling magic transforms Jess back to Lady. She is still a Point-Of-View character, however, and Ms Durgin handles those scenes well and we continue to pull for Lady as we pulled for Jess. We also see development in the other protagonist characters and their adjustments to a world where technology is replaced by magic.

Dun Lady’s Jess won the Compton Crook for Best First SF/F/H of the Year (in 2013, I suppose) and has a devoted following for it and it’s two sequels (it would make a good TV series, I think). And while it is a good book—well written with a great hook of the horse-to-human angle, and infused with an obvious love for horses, I do have a few criticisms.

First, while Ms Durgin does a good job with the characterizations of the protagonists, she leaves the antagonists (especially the bad wizard, Calandre) rather flat. We don’t really know what motivates Calandre other than just being a psychopath, and she’s not in very many scenes. Most of the “bad work” is done by Calandre’s minions and they are mostly just expendables without character. Actually, I think even Arlen could have been developed some more.

The idea of magic being used instead of technology in Camolen was kind of interesting but not quite believable to me. I did like, however, the idea that using magic has consequences of collateral damage and side-effects. Overall, though, the main storyline of the conflict between wizards struck me as weak. I didn’t get a feel of “high stakes,” and what battling there was between the wizards seemed to abbreviated.

Still, there were moments of insight that appealed to me. Like when Arlen asks Jaime (the horse expert) if there were evil people like Calandre on her world. She replies:

“Too many of them. Of course, they don’t have magic to play with. They have to make do with guns and bombs and blind political fervor.”

There’s a theme there that I think Ms Durgin could have enlarged on a bit.

I did like this book. I think Ms Durgin has come up with a unique, interesting, and sympathetic character in Jess the horse/woman who should be able to sustain a series. Ms Durgin just needs to ramp up her storytelling a bit and expand her character development to the bad guys.