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The Serpent Dreamer    by Cecelia Holland order for
Serpent Dreamer
by Cecelia Holland
Order:  USA  Can
Forge, 2005 (2005)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Serpent Dreamer follows The Soul Thief and The Witches' Kitchen as the third in a planned quintet, whose action has moved from 10th century Ireland to England to Denmark, across the Atlantic to Vinland and back again. As this third episode begins, Corban Loosestrife has left his grown sons in Europe, his beloved wife Benna has died, and the Vinland colony has been destroyed. Corban's fey sister Mav has been so damaged by her experiences that she lives wild in the woods - called the 'Woman Who Walked in the Forest' by the Indians, Mav is treated by them as a powerful spirit.

Now, Corban exists on the fringes of the violent Wolves, led by their sachem Miska to conquer surrounding tribes. Miska hates Corban and only barely tolerates him because of his obsession with Mav who has borne him a daughter. Ahanton, who has prescient dreams, has picked up her people's (and especially her adored father's) distrust and dislike of her uncle, who nevertheless loves her. Despite his marginal existence, Corban has become husband to the tribe's healer, Epashti, and they have two sons. After Corban takes Ahanton to meet Mav, she tells him they must go west, where he will find what he seeks. A pregnant Epashti accompanies them on this long journey, and Miska follows with his warriors.

The three travelers are separated after they encounter the Itzen, leather-clad conquerors from Cibala in the south (ruled by the evil Itza Balam who I expect will show up in future episodes). The Itzen bring maz (maize), gather slaves, and play a sacred ball game. Their leader, Tok Pahal, and his dwarf Erkan are both intrigued by Corban, whose wiliness eventually wins his own escape, the freedom of the slaves, and Miska's victory. But of course this does not diminish Miska's ill will towards Corban, which is eventually unleashed. Over time, Corban's journey evolves into a spiritual quest that brings him closer to both his niece and Epashti, and finally to an understanding of where he belongs.

As always, Cecelia Holland, my favorite of historical writers, does an excellent job of portraying the cultural divide between different peoples, and the feelings and empathy that can build bridges. The Serpent Dreamer is brilliant, engrossing historical fantasy and I can't wait for what comes next in a series which the author tells us 'nurses a gut feeling I have that, after all, women do run the world.'

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