Book Review: Moontusk
by Bruce P. Grether
Lethe Press, 2011
Anybody who writes a fantasy novel set in neo-barbaric times and featuring woolly mammoths and (in a separate category, a completely separate category) ecstatic gay sex must be prepared for a certain amount of collegiate ribbing. If that author tells us that in his fantasy-land, the moon has a ring around it, well, that author is waving a red flag in front of an entire herd of earth-pawing critical bulls. Bruce Grether takes all these risks and more in his novel Moontusk: Rendezvous in a Ruined City, but he manages for the most part to avoid the fatal consequences. He manages this feat with that humblest of all matadoring skills: he tells an irresistibly good story.
Moontusk is set in the Conan-style pre-history of an Earth that never was. There’s a ring around the moon (again, settle), and the inhabitants of mountainous Loonapoore raise and venerate giant woolly mammoths they call the Luka Shadim, highly intelligent and sensitive creatures that often form quasi-telepathic bonds with their mahouts. Most of the land is presided over by the Kemnoan Empire, and handsome young Dare, a prince of that kingdom, is being raised at court in all luxury – but he’s impatient with that life, and when dangerous adventure finds him, he’s not entirely sorry about it.
He soon encounters Lady Dee, who introduces him to the wonders of, ahem, mystical sex – and another handsome young man, a Loonapoori named Hosis, who introduces him to the wonders of, ahem, mystical gay sex. Through all of this, Dare is the Tom Jones of the Hyperborean set – he’s happily open to anything anybody wants to do to his luscious body. Various men in this book find that body very attractive, and Grether has an ongoing bit of droll fun by constantly having Dare say some variation of “I’m straight” right before he engages in gymnastics that make a Fire Island weekend look like a Nova Scotia book club.
Hosis, it need hardly be explained (this is a gay novel, after all), is foremost among those men; there’s no doubt in his mind from the first moment he sees Dare that they’re meant not only to be in each other’s beds but in each other’s hearts, and Lady Dee is philosophical enough to let nature take its course. And despite the erotic detours that are a lamentably expected feature of the sub-genre , the steamy bits are far from the highlight of Moontusk. In the best tradition of his other sub-genre, Grether has created a fully detailed and inviting fantasy-world, and he’s populated it with flawed and three-dimensional characters who live and breathe. Grether has imagined his characters so elaborately that even their memories are vividly detailed, as when Dare at one point remembers a scene from his childhood:
For a few moments intense dreamlike memory absorbed him: At that age, perhaps four or five, he swims innocently naked. His pretty blond mother in a sopped bathing shift laughs while the breakers splash across them, surrounded by her giggling ladies-in-waiting. His mother’s long golden hair has been bound up, as she seldom wears it at court, in a fetching pile atop her head, which leaves her ears exposed in a manner that lends her a girlish charm. Queen Connivla extends her arms to take the hands of her small son, and lifts him in a kind of weightless dance-step as a wave rolls by, and showers them with white spray.
Such grace-notes abound in Moontusk, which is one of the most original entries in the always-strong catalog from Lethe Press. The novel is illustrated by its author, which has never been a good thing and isn’t a good thing in this case either, but the book’s plot promises to be a long and, eh, multi-pronged, which is a good thing – more visits to the Kemnoan Empire are welcome.