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Priests can get their noses out of joint, and old women still have their pride. I’d been a priest of Micah for 68 of my 82 years and a woman for all 82 of them; when my congregation began drifting away to the flashy new temple down the street, something snapped. If my parish wanted a new priest, I wasn’t going to stay and hang on by my nails.

So begins Marian Allen’s newly released novel, Eel’s Reverence, and so begins the great karmic irony of the book: The speaker and central character –82-year-old priestess of Micah “Aunt Libby”—abandons her temple and sets off on a “Final Wandering.” The “wandering” seems to be motivated primarily by self-pity; when a former parishioner offers her a ride and food she is irritated that he has spoiled the “effect” of her leaving, rather than grateful for his generosity.

In short order her “wandering” leads her to The Eel—a coastal region populated by mermayds, reaver priests, mercenaries, and a cowed and fearful citizenry.  When the Aunt Libby is exiled and the innkeeper who gives her shelter burned out she finds herself faced with the very situation that prompted her to abandon her shrinking congregation in the first place—in spades.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I won’t tell you how it turns out. Be warned, though: don’t take anything for granted. Nothing is quite what it seems.

I started Eel’s Reverence expecting a good read; Marian Allen knows her way around a keyboard and a red pencil. She has numerous books and short stories to her credit and hangs out from time to time over at the Blood-Red Pencil, where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a great writer or editor.

What I hadn’t expected was a book that raises so many questions about issues: One of the central conflicts in the book is driven by the uneasy relationship between private spirituality and established religion. Another issue explored is the advantages—and disadvantages—of citizenship. The mermayd population of The Eel is resistant to the citizenship—and taxation, and curbs on behavior—being offered by the reaver priests. Their resistance raises an interesting question about how we outside of The Eel deal with alien populations. How do we balance the right to one’s culture with the need for a certain level of assimilation to the national culture?

Perhaps the most interesting conflict, though, is the one played out in Aunt Libby’s character. She leaves her temple because her parishioners are increasingly choosing the spiritual short cut—the financial salvation the reaver priests offer, rather than the personal soul-searching the “true” priests offer. Faced with the same situation—though magnified—in The Eel, she comes to see that there is a place for both. While some crave personal spirituality, there are also those for whom the simplicity of a finanacial transaction is sufficient—and people are best served by having both options available to them.

Writing a fantasy that feels real is a delicate balancing act, one that Allen manages with deft humor, all-too-believable characters, and the occasional fantastical reference that reminds us that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Take, for instance, the reproductive cycle of mermayds. Like seahorses, the females lay eggs—but the males gestate them in a belly pouch. Like some amphibians, they are capable of switching gender at need. And yet they are physically like mermaids—half human, half fish. The fantasy is real, and believable, because it is rooted in similar structures in the “real” world.

Perhaps that’s the key to Eel’s Reverence both as a darned good read, and as a book that provokes questions about our own world—the fantasy is fantastical enough to be fun, and real enough to be believable.  If you’d like to read more about Marian Allen, her books, and Eel’s Reverence visit her online here. If you’d like to order Eel’s Reverence, click here.

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