LET'S FACE IT: Traditional fantasy writing is terminally tapped out. The literary descendants of J.R.R. Tolkien have become so unhealthily inbred that the Norse Sagas and Arthurian legends that inspired that nice Oxford don have been reduced to a bunch of warrior-and-wizard clich鳬 as a glance at the nearly indistinguishable clusters of new fantasy novels make clear. To escape this elves/dwarves/orcs rut, you need either a quirky sense of humor (hello, Harry Potter) or an entirely different mythological source to draw from.
Dream Keeper: Myth and Destiny in the Pacific Northwest
by Morrie Ruvinsky (Sasquatch Books, $23.95)
Which is where author Morrie Ruvinsky starts with Dream Keeper, his new novel that uses legends and stories from Northwest Native Americans as the background for a modern urban story. He's not the first to do so, but the early chapters of this new book, the first work of fiction from local publishers Sasquatch Books, certainly create an unexpected and surprising impression, right from the moment that protagonist Jason Ondine is pulled up in a fishing net far out at sea, gashed, naked, and blue from drowning. There's no way he could still be alive, but then, lying on the ship's deck, he starts breathing. Once he begins to recover, we discover that he's got a memory that goes back about 200 years.
Jason, it seems, has been under a sort of curse from an early age, when as a boy he was (grudgingly) adopted by a local Native tribe due to certain signs pointing to a mystic destiny. As a young man, he falls under the sway of a trio of powerful goddesses, Hanging Hair, Sedna, and Adee, who save him from drowning by transforming him into an immortal sea lion. And there he stays for many years until lured back into human form by Lizzie, a beautiful young woman in the '70s who now, over 25 years later, is imprisoned in a sanitarium thanks to the influence of her rich and ruthless father.
The farther Ruvinsky strays from his retelling of Pacific Coast myths, however, the more his protagonist becomes another weak clone of the sort of superhuman immortal we've seen on Highlander (which Ruvinsky wrote for) and similar TV-fantasy fare. Watching his preliminary attempts to create some original minor characters become increasingly dispirited, one wishes he'd dropped the comic-strip action sequences and trusted to his more potent, and poetic, source material. There's a great modern fantasy novel to be drawn from Northwest Indian myths, but this, disappointingly, isn't it.