Originally released in 1994, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is Jane Lindskold‘s first published novel. She is perhaps better known for her Firekeeper books and her collaboration with Roger Zelazny, and her more recent work is considered (urban) fantasy, but this book strikes me as more of a near future science fiction novel. As in a lot of her novels, there is a strong connection between animals and people, although not quite in the way the title seems to suggest. The utter strangeness of the main character and the first person narrative make the novel a very interesting read.
At the opening of Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls, Sarah is staying in the Home, to most outsiders known as the nut house. Sarah is indeed a special girl; she speaks only in quotes, has conversations with a two-headed rubber dragon, and is thought to be autistic. Her stay in the Home comes to an abrupt end when Dr. Haas visits. She is looking for patients ready to leave the Home; after a brutal cut in funding, the institution cannot keep all of the residents. Sarah is one of those Dr. Haas deems fit to make their own way in the world.
Once on the streets, Sarah is picked up by The Pack: a group of thieves, beggars, drug dealers and prostitutes whose social structure is modelled after that of a pack of wolves. Their law is hard, simple, and strictly enforced: everyone must contribute in some way and hangers-on are not tolerated. To avoid being turned into a prostitute, Sarah partners up with Abalone, a cyber-criminal mostly involved in car theft. She settles in well with the Pack and becomes one of the favourites of the Head Wolf. At the Home, in the meantime, someone seems to realize they sent someone with a unique talent away. They are looking for Sarah and want her back badly. Neither Sarah nor Head Wolf is about to let that happen.
Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is a fairly short novel and it reads quickly. It is not without its challenges, though. Sarah cannot choose her own words and communicates with other people by quoting whatever was read to her in the past. She has a nearly flawless memory as long as she can attach some meaning to the quotes. Many of her favourite quotes are from famous plays (Shakespeare in particular). The title of the book is a verse from the book of Job, as the Bible is another prime source for Sarah’s quotes. Lindskold wrote this book entirely in the first person so we read Sarah’s thoughts, which are not so different from that of another human being, as well as conversations. The reader often witnesses her frustration at not being able to express herself properly. Because of the way Sarah responds to questions, the dialogue in the novel is often quite cryptic. Lindskold eases the reader into it by the way she introduces Sarah though. It takes a few pages before the reader can put a finger on what exactly is different about the girl. I thought this aspect was very well done.
The plot of the novel is not quite as thrilling as the main character. Sarah and her wolf pack attempt to stay out of reach of the people trying to find her, as well as try to figure out why they want Sarah so badly. The answer to this question also sheds some light on Sarah’s past, something Sarah herself does not seem to remember too much of. Although she is made to seem younger, Sarah is, in fact, in her thirties by the time we meet her. Lindskold uses a slightly futuristic setting in an unnamed metropolis for Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls. Futuristic in 1994, that is; when I read the book in 2009, not everything she wrote had become reality, but most things were certainly within the realm of possibility. I thought her description of Abalone’s cyber-crimes were particularly interesting.
With Lindskold’s attention mostly on main her character, Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is not her most balanced novel. The setting and plot are not memorable and the climax of the novel is rather predictable. Still, her unusual main character and the first person narrative (I admit to having a weakness for books written in that style) make up for the novel’s flaws. I thought Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls a very good and quite unusual read. Lindskold took on a risky project for her first published novel, but as far as I am concerned the risk paid off. I’m surprised this book didn’t receive more attention.