Path of the Stray by Kim Falconer

Path of the Stray

a review by Nalini Haynes

Path of the stray is an epic fantasy story spanning two generations of women in one family. The prologue is not referred to again within this novel, so disregarding that, the story opens with Janis, a techno-witch who believes in the power of thought to control one’s world. Janis works for ASSIST, a scientific organisation whose motives and goals are suspect. Janis meets Luka, a male co-worker, and develops a working relationship that encompasses working for the good of Mother Earth outside of work hours. This working relationship includes working together as parents of Ruby, the child of a one-night stand whose DNA holds a great secret.

In their attempts to recreate wolves from stored DNA, Luka and Janis accidentally create werewolves. The matriarch of the pack is Celia, a wise and gentle leader, but after the loss of one of the pups another wolf, Daos, rebels. The ramifications of the loss of the pup, Raynar, are felt both on Earth and on Gaela, a parallel world accessed through a portal with a sentient guardian. Global politics on both worlds are a crucial element tied to this familial saga.

Path of the stray includes many elements of stories that may be familiar to the reader, all strung together in a fresh, new story. Elements that come to mind include an infinite improbability drive (at which I laughed out loud), a techno-witch is the new techno-mage (Babylon 5), an uber-powerful computer takes on the role of Gandalf and goes AWOL as in Lord of the Rings, werewolves and a portal between parallel worlds with its own ‘wormhole alien’ as in Deep Space 9. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books have also heavily influenced Kim’s work. The sacred feminine is the source of conflict on Earth where men seek to scapegoat women for the problems of a dying world and flawed society, but greed and power are the source of conflict on Gaela, a parallel world where women appear to rule. Path of the stray stands on its own merit while utilising recognisable themes, tropes and archetypes.

The supernatural appears to be unlimited in this story: it includes positive visualisation as a means of controlling the world, astral travel and chakras as well as what might be more traditional ideas of magic and psychic power in spell-casting, glamours, telekinesis, telepathy, mind-control and brain-wiping.

The science used appears to be feasible in the beginning but rapidly expands to the field of the supernatural, where a sentient computer builds himself a body in a parallel world that world only existing for that purpose. He then brings his body across to Earth, inhabits said body and then goes into another parallel world where he appears to be wirelessly connected to the entire planet.

There were a few glitches in the story. For example, once someone calls a stranger by name, then a few lines later asks who he is.

[SPOILER ALERT] The biggest such glitch is late in the story, so don’t read this if you dislike spoilers. Ruby goes to hospital knowing she is going to have her blood tested, then freaks out when it comes to the point of taking blood. At the time this seemed like a huge hole in the story, so much so that I put down the book and worked through the story threads, then I created an alternative storyline that could have had the same outcome, before continuing to read. Quite a bit later it turned out that Ruby had justification for freaking out, but I didn’t get that explanation when I needed it. This, therefore, ceased to be a hole in the plot.
[END OF LATE-IN-THE-BOOK SPOILER]

Rowena Cory Daniells said that she used to read books three times: the first for enjoyment, and the second two times to analyse the book. I would love to have that much time to read as reading critically the first time through detracts from enjoyment. I’m constantly analysing, measuring, assessing. This being the case I found two points in Path of the stray that are points of minor concern that should not detract from the enjoyment of readers.

Firstly, when ASSIST (the scientific organisation) decides to choose a scapegoat, management reinvents the idea of witches in order to target women. A gambit like this is much more likely to be effective if it starts with a specific individual as a scapegoat, then characteristics of the individual are used as determining factors in order to find replacement scapegoats in the future, thus victimisation snowballs. For example, if a particular woman was chosen as a scapegoat and that woman was known to be a witch or wiccan, then when looking for a new scapegoat ASSIST could look for known associates, later typecasting all witches and wiccans as the troublemakers. As Janis was not the initial target due to her usefulness to ASSIST, this is not a plot killer. What I have described could have happened in the background while the reader is focused elsewhere, but this is not made clear.

The second point is that Luka had an incredibly valuable estate: an oasis of power, clean water and thriving plants. In an atmosphere of paranoia and scapegoating I think that it is likely that he would have been under much greater scrutiny and threat than was apparent due to the value of his asset. Again, Kim can justify the time she took to explore these issues as Luka was acknowledged to be valuable to some extent. It just seemed to me that someone higher up the food chain would have seized the asset early on, claiming superior entitlement as occurs in abusive relationships. And yet, if you do too much in the first book, you could cut short the story… this is the problem with reviewing the first book before you’ve read the trilogy.

Sex is mentioned in Path of the stray but descriptions are not explicit; about the most explicit text I recall are references to someone’s hand going into someone else’s pants, or someone straddling her partner while partially dressed before being caught. I think this book is acceptable for teens, but that does depend on the teen and the caregiver.
The issues and themes explored in Path of the stray would make excellent fodder for discussions in book clubs, feminist groups, climate change groups and more. Path of the stray is ideal for the reader who can suspend disbelief and just go with the flow, following the twists and turns. Being pedantic about the science detracts from enjoyment of the story. Suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. I think readers who enjoy Anne McCaffrey and similar fantasy stories with a strong magical component will enjoy Path of the stray.

Originally published in Dark Matter issue 6, November 2011.  This blog has been pre-dated to reflect the date of original publication.