Song of Mavin contains the kernels of everything I love about Tepper’s work. There’s the character herself; a little dreamy but becoming determined and practical, coming into her strength by developing self-reliance and thinking far outside tradition. The threads of horror running through it, and the struggles of sexism, of being assigned by birth to baby-making with only limited freedoms. The convoluted and slow punishment of wanton destruction–very few authors could develop a wicker basket into an instrument of torture. It has her focus on chosen family, empowerment, greed and harmony, but so subtly done compared to her later work.
Where it really differs from later Tepper is the love of words and playfulness in the writing–I felt in the first few pages like I was reading “The Jabberwoky” put into prose form–lots of alliteration and wordplay. “Through the p’natti the shifters of all the Xhindi clans came each year at Assembly time, processions of them, stiff selves marching into the outer avenues only to melt into liquid serpentines which poured through the holes in the slything walls; into tall wands of flesh sliding through the narrowing doors; into pneumatic billows bounding over the platforms and up onto the heights all in a flurry of wings, feathers, hides, scales, conceits and frenzies which dazzled the eyes and the senses so that the children became hysterical with it...” By the time I was finished, I started imagining how it would sound aloud, deciding that it would make a lovely bedtime story read.
Since few other reviews have a synopsis, let me just say briefly that there is a young shape-shifter girl named Mavin who comes into her shape-shifting Talent, and discovers it includes obligations that anyone would fear. She encourages her older sister, Handbright, to follow her dream, and then flees the keep with her brother, five year-old Mertyn. They travel, meet the entourage of a Seer and a Wizard, and journey to their first city. Mertyn becomes deathly ill and Mavin sets off seeking a cure, meeting the legendary Shadowpeople and encountering a Ghoul.
Alas that it feels so short, and the development of their new selves so truncated; the pacing is a tad uneven, and perhaps not enough on how Mavin’s inner journey progresses once outside the keep. Alas as well for the short acid-dream passage near the end. But for that, it would be a five star book for me. It’s also notable for being a young adult book with a very strong message on sexual inequality and dysfunction, unfortunately just as pertinent now as thirty years ago.
And kudos for the most innovative characterization of a sloth ever.