Most people know of Richard Adams as the author of Watership Down – you know, the one with the talking rabbits that seemed to spark a craze of talking animal books. More recently, he published Traveller – the story of a US Civil War horse. In between, though, he did a whole lot more, including some without any talking animals at all.
Adams has long been a favorite author. I came to him via the excellent Watership Down, as most probably did. But he came to mind recently when I was on Goodreads, and noticed that Shardik and Maia were not listed as being in the same series.
Shardik, which followed Watership Down, is about an animal, but other than that, it’s about as far from Hazel and Fiver as you could imagine. Shardik is a huge bear, and though this is a fantasy, he doesn’t talk. It’s never clear who Shardik is. In my reading, I saw him as a purely natural creature – a large but ordinary bear. To many of the characters sharing the Beklan Empire with him, however, he’s the incarnation of a god. The book is a fascinating and totally unexpected look at Kelderek, the man who follows Shardik for reasons of his own.
Shardik makes a brief appearance in Maia, a loose prequel also set in the Beklan Empire. Here, though, the story is largely about Maia, a girl sold into slavery and ending up as a priestess. The book shows violence and degradation, but also survival – physical and emotional.
One other book is worth specific mention. The Plague Dogs, written after Shardik, is about two laboratory test dogs who escape. They meet up with a fox, and eventually are the subjects of a substantial hunt. It’s hard to pin down books that affect your life, but I’m pretty sure this is one of them.
Adams largely specialized in animal characters, a genre that feels cheapened by his imitators. But his books are excellent, and as Shardik and Maia showed, Adams is far more than a one-trick writer. While his fourth, more literary, novel The Girl in a Swing didn’t have the power of those that preceded it, it was still a good book, and those above are fantastic – in all the best ways.
If you haven’t read Shardik, or all you know of Adams is talking rabbits, I strongly urge you to take a look at some of his other work.