Jumpdrives & Cantrips


Dun Lady’s Jess

Dun Lady’s JessDoranna Durgin‘s Dun Lady’s Jess first made it to print in 1994, and it was Durgin’s debut novel plus a winner of the Compton Crook Award. And it has, sadly, been out of print for quite some time up until this past year. While Durgin has gone on to write a number of other books, including mysteries, suspense novels, media tie-ins, and other fantasy novels, I’d always wondered about her first book. And the Star Ink/Red Deer Press reprint has some big names attached to it as well: Julie E. Czerneda was the editor, and Elizabeth Moon penned the foreward.

On first glance, the book looks like one more book in the long line of girl-and-horse fantasy that pops up occasionally. However, there’s a big difference between a girl-and-horse story and a horse-made-human story. The author has a wealth of experience with horses (being the rider of a Lipizzaner plus other horses) and clearly doesn’t hold out. Though I don’t know much about horses, I know enough to know when someone else does.

The titular character, Dun Lady’s Jess (Lady in horse form and Jess as a human), is a courier’s horse who is simultaneously transformed to a human and transported to Earth when her rider triggers an experimental spell to avoid capture. She appears naked with her riding gear in a park, where she is found and taken in by a group of friends, but we soon realise the situation is more complicated than that. Jess has to learn to be human, but she also has to evade the minions of an evil wizard trying to get the spell her courier was transporting–that of travel between worlds. And without the “checkspells” of Jess’ world to limit forbidden spells, all sorts of nasty magic can be unleashed on Earth–and all of Earth’s violent technology can be used in a world innocent of it.

Despite all the action, the core of the book is Lady/Jess and the people around her. Jess must learn language, how to walk on two legs, and how to manage the complexity of human emotions. She doesn’t always succeed–she kicks people when angered, spooks until calmed, sees no point in clothes, and has an obvious affinity for horses that makes her new-found friends suspect that she just might be what she says she is: a horse made human. Their involvement in her journey is part of what makes the book so worthwhile. Not to mention it’s fascinating to read about the details involved in Jess’ equine behaviour.

Dun Lady’s Jess offered me an examination of transformation, not just from horse-to-woman-and-back perspective, but also that of two worlds colliding in novel ways. It looks at what changes a person, and how that change moves through others. Durgin also has themes of choice: can, and even should, Lady/Jess choose what she wants? What changes beliefs, and how is choice involved in the interplay? What about when you have no choice in what happens to you, or even others?

To be perfectly honest, some of the fantasy world logic didn’t always work for me, and seemed to be there just so that a world with wizards and magic was around. For instance, why are wizards stationed in solitary isolated keeps if they are generally co-operative? How are checkspells determined? And why, if magic is such a wonderful technological advance in the area of cleanliness and health and interworld travel, are humans limited to horses for transport of a spell’s hardcopy form? There may even be answers to my questions, but they did not show up in this story.

Despite the unexplained areas, the plot moves along at a nice brisk pace and the writing flows well enough that it didn’t matter much. To be honest, the nit-picky thoughts were interesting in their own right. The characters in the story engage you quickly, and experience their own transformative experiences throughout the book.

Overall, Dun Lady’s Jess is a notable book, and one that deserves to be reprinted. The themes that Doranna Durgin presents resonate deeply, and demonstrate her deft words and clear perception of humans and horses alike. Dun Lady’s Jess is one of the best shape-shifting stories in the genre, and certainly one of the most thoughtful. Which makes me hope she will return for another sojourn in fantasy…

Read an excerpt and download the first chapter from Doranna Durgin.

Durgin, Doranna. Dun Lady’s Jess. Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2007. 295 pages. $22.95 (Canadian), trade paperback.

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1 Comment so far
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thats it, bro

Comment by Candisml




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