Originally released in 1994 by AvoNova, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is Jane Lindskold's first published novel. She is better known for her Firekeeper books and her collaboration with Roger Zelazny but this book was popular enough for Tor to reprint in in 2006 (and providing it with some decent cover art). Her more recent work is considered (urban) fantasy but this book strikes me as more of a near future science fiction novel. Like in a lot of her novels, there is a strong connection between animals and people, although not quite in the way the title seems to suggest. The utter strangeness of the main character and the first person narrative make this book a very interesting read.
At the opening of the book, our main character Sarah is staying in the Home, to most outsiders known as the nut house. Sarah is indeed a special girl, she speaks only in quotes, has conversations with a two headed, rubber dragon and is thought to be autistic. Her stay in the Home comes to an abrupt end when Dr. Haas visits. She is looking for patients ready to leave the Home, after a brutal cut in fund, the institution cannot keep all of the residents on. Sarah is one of those Dr. Haas deems fit to make their own way in the world.
Once on the streets, Sarah is picked up by The Pack, a group of thieves, beggars, drug dealers and prostitutes who's social structured is modelled to that of a pack of wolves. The law is hard, simple an strictly enforced, everyone must contribute in some way, hangers on are not tolerated. To avoid being turned into a prostitute Sarah partners up with Abalone, a cyber-criminal mostly involved in car theft. She settles in well with the Pack and becomes one of the favourites of Head Wolf. At the Home in the mean time, someone seems to realize they sent someone with a unique talent away. They are looking for Sarah and want her back badly. Neither Sarah nor Head Wolf is about to let that happen.
Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is a fairly short novel, it reads quickly. It is not without it's challenges though. Sarah cannot choose her own words and communicates with other people by quoting whatever was read to her in the past. She has a nearly flawless memory as long as she can attach some meaning to the quotes. Many of her favourite quotes are from famous plays (Shakespeare in particular). The title of the book is verse from the book of Job, the Bible is another prime source for Sarah's quotes. Lindskold wrote this book entirely in the first person so we read her thoughts, which are not so different from that of another human being, as well as conversations. The reader often witnesses her frustration at not being able to express herself properly. Because of the way Sarah responds to questions, the dialogue in the novel is often quite cryptic. Lindskold eases the reader into it by the way she introduces Sarah though. It takes a few pages before the reader can put a finger on what exactly is different about the girl. I thought this aspect was very well done.
The plot of the novel is not quite as thrilling as the main character. Sarah and her wolf pack attempt to stay out of reach of the people trying to find her and figure out why they want Sarah so badly. The answer to this question also sheds some light on Sarah's past, something Sarah herself does not seem to remember too much of. Although she is made to seem younger, Sarah is in fact in her thirties by the time we meet her. Lindskold uses a slightly futuristic setting in an unnamed metropolis for this book. Futuristic in 1994 that is, in 2009 not everything she wrote has become reality but most things certainly within the realm of possibility. I thought her description of Abalone's cyber-crimes particularly interesting.
With her attention mostly on main her character, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is not the most balanced novel by Lindskold I have read. The setting and plot are not memorable and the climax of the novel is rather predictable. Still, her unusual main character and the first person narrative, I admit to having a weakness for books written in that style, make up for the novel's flaws. I thought Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls a very good and quite unusual read. Lindskold took on a risky project for her first published novel, but as far as I am concerned the risk paid off. I'm surprised this book didn't receive more attention.
Title: Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls
Author: Jane Lindskold
First published: 1994