Here is an appreciation of writer-songwriter-singer Leslie Fish’s song “The Horseman’s Daughter” and related novella “Tower of Horse,” together recognized with a 2014 Special Prometheus Award.
With its very believable and human characters, suspenseful plot and resonant coming-of-age and temptations-of-power themes, Fish’s novella is certainly one of the most satisfying, and emotionally involving.
Together with Fish’s epic folk-song “The Horsetamer’s Daughter,” the novella received a Special Prometheus Award in 2014 – the first time within the history of the awards that a song was recognized, and the first time that a paired song and novella have received a joint award.
Surprisingly but all the more impressively, the novella was the first published story by Fish, a well-known “filk-singer” among science-fiction fandom.
Filk-singing, by the way, for those who don’t attend sf cons, is fandom’s term for folk-singing with sf/fantasy themes, a popular activity for decades at science-fiction conventions. Those who attend such gatherings know quite a few filk songs tend to touch on libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes.
One of fandom’s most prolific singer/song-writers, with many songs dramatizing libertarian themes and others exploring the dream of humankind exploring outer space (such as her Folk Songs for Solar Sailors CD), Fish adapted and expanded her novella from her Pegasus-award-winning song.
Here’s a representative early excerpt from her song lyrics:
“So poor we were, but free we were as the wild herds on the Plain-
And I was a child as free and wild as the wind in my tangled mane.
My grand-dam told me cradle-tales of the great days long ago
When the wizards ruled and the land was taxed and the lords would come and go.
“But the land was torn by wars,” she said, “the Tower was broken down,
So the lords appear no longer here to rule over Hali Town-
And neither do the wizards come take our children, one in ten-
So grateful be that we’re poor but free, and you are not living then.”
Once the royal government threatens the province, the free citizens receive a wake-up call from one of their own:
“Oh, come to me, my free friends all! Oh, come to my right hand!
We must prevent these lords’ intent of the claiming of our land.
If they should rule this land once more, we shall all be servant-men-
And you, my dears, shall be captives here and never run free again!”
I bound my mind to the Wild Ones’ minds, and I called as I never did call,
‘Til seven mares and a stallion bold came into the ancient hall.
Just seven mares and a stallion bold, the Magic Mirror and me,
To stay the command of the Wizards’ band and keep the Plains-folk free…”
“The Tower of Horses,” published as part of a Darkover anthology “Music of Darkover” (Darkover Anthology Book 13), charts in greater detail than the song the coming of age of a young woman who loves horses and discovers that she has a special connection with them and all of nature.
With its coming-of-age focus and 14-year-old central character, “Tower of Horses” offers an excellent example of Young Adult fiction that’s been recognized by the Prometheus Awards over the decades.
Suggested for readers of age 10 and up, the novella also can be profitably read together by parents and children even as young as seven or eight years old, if broken up into several chapters and stints.
Overall, the novella is a gripping page-turner, especially enjoyable if read and shared together by mother and daughter, father and son or grandparent and grandchild (as one of this review’s co-authors did a few years ago, forging a wonderful cross-generational family bond while introducing the next generation to a good story with libertarian themes.)
Younger readers, in particular, should easily grasp the story’s very plain and human message that most adults simply don’t like being told what to do, especially when it comes to their own lives, property and hard-earned money.
Listening first to the song (written in 1983), or even after reading the novella (written decades later and first published in 2013) can enhance one’s appreciation of both. For younger readers, though, the song may be the best starting point.
Basically an underdog’s inspiring tale with quite a few plot twists, “Tower of Horses” focuses primarily on young Cath, a rural girl growing in in the country with her family, all struggling to survive without modern technology (or any knowledge of its existence) in a provincial community of farmers, ranchers and local farmer’s-market traders.
Through nice use of selective detail, Fish conveys the sense that these good and struggling people are living amid ruins of an older and perhaps more advanced civilization.
Several basic libertarian themes emerge early and naturally in the story’s dialogue:
“Do we care who rules us?
“What do I care who rules in Thendara, or Valeron, or anywhere?” Barris Horse-Tamer laughed, sliding the saddle onto the back of his gray mare,” “So long as they don’t rule here.”
Brian Wheelwright looked around almost fearfully. “Your first phrase would save you well… but the second might get you hanged, do the lords hear of it.”
Theses rural men’s attitudes are pretty plainspoken and direct… “trade may be poor, but life is good now that the lords are gone.”
As the focus of Fish’s story broadens, it includes the local community as well as alternating chapters about a far-distant and separated aristocracy of royals and trained telepaths with a variety of psychic powers – that can be used to spy on the people or help them, enslave them or heal them.
One appealing aspect of the novel is the way it equates the people themselves, the much-taxed commoners, with the natural yearning for freedom – thereby smashing the false stereotype that only the rich “capitalists” (a word coined by Karl Marx) want liberty.
These common people go so far as to hide themselves and their goods, maintaining the appearance of poverty amid ruins whenever distant overlords intrude, with the clear hope to prevent forcible expropriation by aristocratic rulers of the people’s land and hard-earned wealth. And they resist being bribed with wealth and trade, if it means giving up their birthright of freedom and independence:
“What did they give us in my father’s day anyway, but laws and orders, taxes and wars?” Barris said.
‘Tis well worth the loss of trade to be rid of such, and their wizards’ tower is long broken, anyway?”
And when Cath wonders about the long-gone era when there was “magic in the world,” her father quickly responds: “magic wielded by a few, to enslave the many….”
“Magic to prop up arrogant lords, who ruled and taxed and made wars for their own gain, wars that slaughtered innocent folk and ruined lands and houses.”
“‘Tis just as well the wizards ruined themselves in their wars. Now we have our freedom, and peace.”
Structurally, the novella is set up well. Each of the two groups – the common farthers and the distant governing rulers – aren’t really aware of the other, at first, beyond a vague memory of the old days.
As the characters grow and learn, they discover more about themselves and their world – a classic trope of both juvenile sf novels, a la Heinlein, and mainstream coming-of-age stories of any genre.
In a natural development paralleling her adolescence and growth into womanhood, Cath discovers to her delight and curiosity that she has growing powers – talents that she applies first to help and play with her beloved wild horses, but that she slowly understands and develops as ways to explore her world and perhaps help her own community.
Cath also grows into a feisty womanhood that modern libertarians and other feminists will respect: She rebels against the prospect, traditional in her community, of being married to a man she doesn’t love just because he’s rich.
“I’ll not be sold into slavery to some lout,” Cat insists, “just because he has coin!”
Ultimately, as the separate characters and strands of the novella begin to intersect and clash, Cath discovers that her powers may help defend her family and community from aristocratic and military outsiders who arrive and mean to rule.
Cath is forewarned about the supernatural aspect of the authoritarian threat by her Granny, who wisely reminds her of the bad old days, when wizards and lords directly ruled over their village. It’s a sad and grim memory that underscores the casual cruelties and abuses of power of long-entrenched rulers who exploit and corrupt their psychic talents… with “their lighted word compelling the folk to serve.”
While the young may be lured by the glamour of power and magic, Granny urges Cath not to be fooled and to appreciate what they have:“…all things weighed in the balance – we were better off now. Poor but free, my girl. Poor but free.”
“No one comes to take tithes of our goods nor order us about, and the wizards no longer take a tenth of our children, and our menfolk are not levied off to fight for some lord’s pride and there’s no more monstrous destruction of war. It’s a good life, my lass,” Granny says.
Even Kieran, the psychically talented brother to a rapacious and power-lusting baron, leans sympathetically toward a relatively laissez faire-attitude. Uneasy from having to deal with a lifetime of manipulation by his brother, Kieran would prefer that the ruling class similarly leave the people alone rather than prey upon them.
“It was misery enough dealing with… his politicking,” Kieran thought.
As Cath and her community eventually learn to their dismay, the return of military representatives of the distant royal ruling class in an invasive community take-over also will mean a return to taxing the farmers to death while kidnapping some of their beloved children, to be trained and indoctrinated elsewhere if they’re identified as having psychic potential for the darker arts.
Fish also underlines the always-welcome historical reminder that the road to hell – and tyranny – is often paved with good intentions.
For instance, she writes: The wizards “doubtless thought they were doing good.”
Fish plays fair with both sides, building plausible characters who from their own perspective aren’t villains. Even as one roots for Cath and her family, one feels some sympathy toward Kieran and his young and largely innocent team of psycho-kinetics-trained wizards, especially as they are themselves manipulated by the baron, Kieran’s immature, power-hungry brother.
Without revealing any ultimate plot twists, suffice to say that the novella both surprises and satisfies while offering both tragic drama and some realistic grounds for hope and inspiration.
Yet, we can’t resist quoting the novella’s lovely grace note, which extends its metaphor of liberty to Cath’s wild horses running free:
“Not bound.. Not bound like them. Free, free to run. Free to fight. Fight together, as herd. We fight. We choose. Free.”
Interestingly, Fish’s novella “Tower of Horses”, as well as so much Darkover fiction, reads very much like classic fantasy, yet ultimately and loosely fits within the broader category of science fiction.
Even if it were pure fantasy, the novella would have remained eligible for Prometheus Awards consideration, since it’s good to remind ourselves that the award – even if it tends to lean more often toward classic sf – is broad enough in its focus and eligibility to honor both science fiction and fantasy, either of which can and do explore libertarian themes.
Although it doesn’t become explicit from Fish’s song or novella, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover universe – which includes her novels and short stories set on the fictional lost-colony planet of Darkover but also encompasses many other novels and stories by other writers to extend that future history, including a series of fiction published after Bradley’s death and mostly by Deborah J. Ross, with the permission of Bradley’s trust – imagines the Darkover planet as having long ago been colonized from a crash landing by a disabled colony-starship from Earth.
Then darkness fell, with the loss of most modern technology or star-faring abilities, leaving much of the planet isolated to develop its own culture. The society that develops over the millennia largely resembles medieval Europe with peasant farmers and horsemen, restive under the rule of barons and princes, with fiefdoms and power struggles.
Except there’s one major difference, explained in some stories: The biological evolution, from interaction with local alien species, of some humans with extra psychic powers, from potentially benevolent far-seeing and healing abilities to coercive psycho-kinetic manipulations that violate basic libertarian rights and open the door to new extremes of tyranny.
One can enjoy this “fantasy” novella without such background, but if you’re primarily a hardcore sf fan, it’s good to know.
Biographical note: Leslie Fish is a folk musician, author and anarchist political activist who often weaves anarchist and pagan themes into her music.
Involved with many causes, Fish most notably was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War. She’s also well-known as a gun-rights activist, known for her view that private gun ownership is the only true safeguard for individual liberty against rapacious governments.
On anarchism, Fish has said: “What sort of anarchist future would I like to see? There’s no reason for a government-free society to be nothing but agrarian, no reason at all that it couldn’t be industrial and space-faring.”
According to her online biography, the character “Jenny Trout” in Fallen Angels, a science-fiction novel by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Michael Flynn that won the 1992 Prometheus Award for Best Novel, is “clearly meant to be Fish, although Trout is portrayed as a Marxist.”
In 1976, she created, along with The DeHorn Crew, the first commercial filk recording, Folk Songs for Folk Who Ain’t Even Been Yet. Her second album, Solar Sailors (1977) includes the song “Banned From Argo,” a comic song parodying Star Trek that has inspired more than 100 parodies and variants.
She was interviewed for and performed in the film Trekkies 2 and sings and appears in the film Finding the Future: A Science Fiction Conversation.
* Read the introductory essay of the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade-plus history, that was launched in 2019 on the 40thanniversary of the awards and continues today.
* Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to the full set of published appreciation-reviews of past winners.
* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.
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