Though Not Dead/ Dana Stabenow
Minotaur Books, 2011
Kate Shugak, five-foot-nothing, but extraordinarily strong, with lightning reflexes and amazing endurance, is the heir to a tiny kingdom called Niniltna. Her talking wolf Mutt is her closest friend. Kate was trained in the legacy of magic by her Emaa (grandmother) who was a goddess, and the Four Aunties, a powerful circle of witches, have tried to keep up Kate’s tutoring. Recently, Kate rebelled against the Aunties’ teachings and has come, uneasily, to the throne of her kingdom. She must engage in delicate diplomacy with the high-tech raiders from the dreaded Outside, as it is known, while dealing with the fractious factions of her own kingdom. A vortex of incredible, unknown power, power that can be good or evil, has opened at the edge of her kingdom, and she must address the creatures that spew from its maw. And, someone is trying to kill her.
Kate’s lover Jim is sent off on a quest of his own, to find out the secret of his parentage, where he is tempted by a lovely agent of the Outside. With magical Mutt, Kate searches for three powerful artifacts, one a symbol of wealth, one of knowledge, and one of spiritual power. Kate is aided by the ghost of the old wizard who helped raise her, a proud wounded warrior and his pure-hearted wife. As any fantasy reader would expect, physical and spiritual ordeals must be weathered if all three objects of power are to be found, and often, objects of power are much closer to us than we expect.
This contemporary fantasy—no, it’s a joke! I’m joking. This book is not fantasy, just the latest in the Kate Shugak mysteries, a series Stabenow started in the early 1990s. Before inventing Kate and Mutt, Stabenow wrote some science fiction, and she is a fantasy reader, so the tropes are intentional, although usually they are more subtle. Kate is the uncomfortable Chair of the Board of the Niniltna Native Association. The vortex is a gold mine that is opening on the edge of the park, bringing jobs, money, cell phone towers, modernization, pollution and erosion to the kingdom/town of Niniltna. Kate must negotiate with Global Harvest, the multinational corporation developing the largest gold mine in the known world. In Though Not Dead, her quest leads her to search for a missing Russian Orthodox icon that heals, and a manuscript allegedly written by Dashiell Hammett.
The last several Shugak mysteries have focused on the discovery of the gold mine and the reaction of the town. I found them to be unsatisfying. The mysteries were subordinate to the sociological changes, and Stabenow’s attempts to create conflict in the relationship between Kate and Jim were not successful. I’m not sure any of those problems are addressed in this book, but it is a quest and a quest is always fun. Kate’s primary relationship is with Mutt. Mutt is telepathic with Kate when she needs to be; she is a dog when Kate needs a dog; every inch a wolf when Kate needs a wolf. She is Magical Alaska walking at Kate’s side. With Jim out of the way in California, Stabenow could concentrate on the relationship she likes the best, and that juice powered the whole book. Stabenow’s descriptions also carry the book over the slow spots. Stabenow loves her home state and it shows. Some of her nature writing is as evocative as Nancy Lord’s. She also has a well-trained eye for the absurd, and delights in it, as when she gives us the scene of the belly-dancers practicing at the roadhouse; translucent veils fluttering over long underwear and stocking caps. Contrasting with Magical Alaska, characterized by Mutt, Stabenow is perfectly capable of giving us Real Alaska with its beauty, its contradictions, its strangeness and its danger.
I recommend the book. Think about traditional quest stories or modern fantasy while you read it. Throughout the book, Stabenow has Kate think that her departed foster grandfather has left her a trail of breadcrumbs. Is this a wink to the reader, that the fairytale elements are deliberate? What do you think?