A WOLVERINE, AN ELEPHANT A TIGER …AND SOME HUMANS

The Song That Sings Us, my novel set in a fantasy world, where gifted humans have always been able to talk to animals, was published in the Uk in October 2021. I sent it out to selected readers in advance of publication in the hope that we’d have some quotes for the cover. And people said some very nice things 

‘Beautiful. Heart wrenching, gripping, strange and glorious.Liz Hyder 

Beautiful, lyrical and fast paced. A powerful and daring story,  Gill Lewis 

‘…an extraordinary weaving of fierce action and tender poetry,’ Sophie Anderson 

A brave, bold, epic story, with huge imaginative reach, thrilling adventure, marvellous characters and a deep true heart.Julia Green 

A captivating eco-fable Linda Newberry 

‘A heartsong. And a song of active hope in a dark world. Jackie Morris 

A very special book. Inspiring, important and innovative –. Simon Fisher 

How to classify this great book? Ecofiction, thriller, fantasy, parable? Page turner from the outsetEva John 

Now there’s a 2nd hardback edition and reviewers have said some nice things for that cover too

Praise like this is literally life preserving. But real readers, people who aren’t reviewers, friends or blood relatives, are what every book needs, and as more people get round to reading this novel, I’m getting asked about the characters. Jackie Morris created motifs to symbolise some of them, but I’m finding readers want a bit more. 

I’m not going to tell you much about what most of the human characters look like because they exist in my head as consciousnesses, rather than appear as figures; plus I want you to be able to imagine yourself inside any of them, the way I put my self in side Eowyn in Lord of the Rings, but here is a little background information to help you imagine my cast!

Toren Sisal

Is the mother of the three main human characters, Harlon, Ash and Zeno. At the time of the story she is still a relatively young woman, in her lat thirties. She’s a little above average height I think, strong and athletic. She is the daughter of retired a military man and a beautiful heiress and trained in the military herself, as part of an elite force a bit like our SAS. But shortly after her training she ran away to join the eco-rebel forces fighting oil exploitation in the White Sea, my world’s equivalent of the Arctic. Toren is a warrior and gives the care of her first born daughter, Harlon, to her partner Tui, while she goes on to be a leader of a very successful, and rather violent, group of eco activists, Green Thorn. 

At the time of Tui’s death she is travelling back to rejoin and revitalise Green Thorn. But she discovers she is pregnant with twins and, to protect her children, she runs to the mountains to raise them in isolation, giving herself a false name Breen Avvon.

Toren isn’t naturally motherly. But she tries. She loves her children with a deep, fierce passion; she cares for them, educates them and prepares Harlon in particular to be a warrior like her. When the time comes, something in Toren is relieved to return to the life of an activist and soldier, but this time without bloodshed…well, not much bloodshed. She does still shoot somebody in the head..

Harlon

Harlon is much more her mother’s daughter than she realises. At the start of the story she’s in her mid teens and has been raised by her mother to be the protector of her younger siblings, twins Ash and Zeno. This has created a little separation between her and the twins. Harlon’s sense of responsibility for them has made her a bit stiff and fierce at times. The fact that she isn’t a Listener, as they are, makes her feel very different from her siblings. Sometime she feels she the sensible one, while they are both a bit dreamy, and sometimes she feels like the stupid one because she can’t do what they do. 

Harlon is strong and fit and well trained but doubts her abilities at first , blaming herself for things that are beyond her control. But she is mentally tough and resilient and keeps going ins spite of her doubts. She is also Tui’s child, and although she lacks his talent for Listening – the name for the ability to eavesdrop on animal thoughts and communicate with animal minds – she has his ability to connect in another way. The song he and his friends the humpbacked whales have planted inside Harlon’s brain is there, waiting for the right moment which she must recognise when it comes. Harlon’s intelligence and bravery, her ability to to analyse and then act, are ultimately what save the world. 

Xeno

Xeno’s words pepper the story of the Song That Sings Us. She speaks in riddles, but riddles that prove to have a deep meaning. Living alone on the mountain has allowed her family to get used to her strange, disconnected way of communicating and her eccentric behaviour. They come to accept the fact that Xeno is really more comfortable communing with birds than with humans.

But Xeno hasn’t really chosen to be this way. Her listener power is the strongest of anyone in the story, stronger even that her father Tui, so strong in fact that she cannot tune out the consciousness of birds. She connects with them automatically, like a radio tuned to multiple stations and perpetually on. Some of what flows into her mind she loves, but often it leaves her overwhelmed and confused. Not really able to exert her own will or personality. 

She seems vulnerable, fragile and the character least able to take care of herself. Yet she is the one who engages most directly in conflict with the evil leader of the Automators, Doada Sisal. It is the making of her. She finds her will to resist him, and she finds a power that she thinks does not belong to her but to the birds with whom she connects so powerfully. But she discovers at the end of the book that she is indeed powerful, and that she can be herself.  

Ash

I’m after asked (or even sometimes told) which of the characters is most like me. Harlon and Toren are who I would like to be…warriors with the ability to think fast and make good decision under pressure. Aspects of Xeno, her alienation from the world, and her struggle to make herself feel autonomous, are like me. But the human character who was easiest to write was Ash. He has a strong sense of fairness and looks at the world with clear eyes which sometimes find human behaviour strange or even ridiculous. He is the one who I used to make a commentary about some of the aspects of the Automators plans which I find unacceptable in our world. 

Ash loves his sister Xeno as if she were a part of himself. He looks up to Harlon and his mother and is afraid when his support system is taken away. But Ash is pretty flexible, and very resilient – he can adapt to hardship very easily and find something to make him happy in the simplest of things. He has a wry sideways sense of humour, which he finds he shares with the Gula. 

If you ask Ash at the start of the story, when he is about 12 where he would like to spend his life, he would say, here on the mountain of course. He would never expect to end up the mast of a ship sailing the oceans, and absolutely loving it. He is an unexpected adventurer, who lives in the moment. 

Doada Sisal

Doada is Toren’s older brother, a fact that he is desperate to conceal in case it undermines his rise to complete power in Rumyc. He was his mother’s darling son, spoiled by her. But he had inherited the listener talent from his father’s side of the family, something his mother would disapprove of. Throughout his childhood he conceals this talent and through that grows a desire for secrecy and control and a taste for cruelty. He sees that his greatest chance of complete control, of complete power lies through the Automators and their rise to power. So he must rid himself of the listener power, which he does through a hideous self experiment. 

Like his mother Doada likes beautiful things, clothes objects any kind of luxury. He see them as his right. He’s good at manipulating people but has no real relationships in his life because no one would be good enough for him and anyone who got close might find out things he would be too ashamed to reveal. Doada is vain and deluded to the point of insanity. He is the only character who I would describe: he looks exactly like the Uk politician Jacob Rees Mogg.  

The Gula

The Gula is a wolverine, an animal with a bad reputation with humans for wanton destruction. But wolverines are just supreme survivors, incredibly tough and with a steely determination to get what they want. I did a lot of research about wolverines for another, non fiction book, and unearthed lots of recent discoveries made through radio tagging. These studies in some ways reinforced the image of the wolverine as an indomitable survivor – one radio tagged wolverine went straight up a 2000 foot vertical rock face in winter, in a blizzard in the dark, because it was the shortest route to the next place it wanted to be. But they also showed that wolverines are not so solitary, that their bonds with their children are lifelong, reinforced by children visiting both mum and dad’s territtories to hang out with them as adults.

The Gula’s vision of the trail come out of research too. Many indigenous hunters, when tracking animals, using sight, sound, and smell cues, plus knowledge and memory, report the trail manifesting as a golden thread that they can actually see. It isn’t hard to imagine that an animal with such acute senses and high intelligence as a wolverine might experience something similar. 

The Gula is wise, and intuitive. She trusts her senses, and what they tell her, and she trusts her brain’s intuitive ability to interpret that sensory information and give her an unshakeable direction in which to go. Having lost her own cubs, Ash becomes her cub substitute and she will never, ever give up on him. But in following Ash, she has experiences that no wolverine would normally have, and it makes her into something even more extraordinary. 

Enkalamba

I find it incredibly moving that many people’s favourite character is Enkalamba and that her story arc moves many readers to tears. She is another character who grew out of research for other books and from my own interest in elephants and in animal intelligence and consciousness.

Elephant’s like humans are social beings.They communicate with sound, smell and touch and form strong life-long bonds with family members and friends. They rely on each other and in particular on the matriarch of their group, who is the repository of knowledge. Her long life and long memory are the group’s insurance policy against drought and famine as the matriarch remembers where food and water can be found in a range of different seasons and conditions. 

Studies of elephants show that they grieve over dead relatives and friends and even return to the place where a loved one died at the same time that the death occurred. 

So they are complex beings but their huge brains are arranged very differently from our own. Experiments have shown that they are very intelligent but the nature of that intelligence and the workings of their minds we can only guess at. Enkalamba find human minds very different, very difficult to navigate, but she is bright and very motivated to understand. Without any of her own kind left to talk to, she seeks communication with other beings and through that feels, ever more strongly, that all life is one kin. And I agree with her.

Skrimsli

Everyone’s favourite tiger sea captain! Skrimsli is a hero in a striped coat. His long associations – both very bad and very good – with humans have made him into a being not quite tiger, not quite human, but entirely himself. 

I’m not going to say much about him here, as I’m right in the middle of writing his back story for the next book in the series. But he is based on a Siberian tiger, not a Bengal. So he’s a tiger whose ancestors hunted in the boreal forests of the north, who is used to frosts and snow. 

In writing about Skrimsli I’ve thought and read quite a bit about how language influences our thinking, on the sorts of thoughts and the sorts of communication that are only possible with language, because language is what changes Skrimsli. I’m not sure what all his story is yet, but you’ll be able to read about it in 2023. 

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