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Stinz: Playthings. By Donna Barr. Bremerton, WA: A Fine Line Press, 1999. 64p. $6.00. ISBN 1-892253-06-2.


Fantasy; funny animals (sort of)

Adults, teens; very mild language.

Stinz Lowhard is a half-horse, mayor of the Geiselthal valley, grandsire of nine children, and major in the Army (outside the Geiselthal) thirty years ago. At The End Of The War, returning home, he threw his machine-pistol over a cliff. Now, one of his grandsons and a two-legger boy discover the rusty old weapon and, not knowing what it is, bring it back to show the other kids. Although the gun is harmless, Stinz snatches it away from the children--it is literally the last such weapon in the world, all the rest having melted away at The End Of The War. Initially repelled by the thing, he boils it, intending to disassemble it and get rid of the pieces. But the weapon has been having a strange effect on him, and he reassembles it and digs out a box of bullets (preserved in skunk oil). Unfortunately, his unpleasant eldest grandson, Stinzl, is extremely curious about the weapon and trails Stinz, wondering what's up as the old stallion sets up pumpkins on a log in a remote part of the Anger (mountain meadows).

Reminiscing about how he had ditched the gun, Stinz loads and finally fires the weapon, which scares Stinzl out of hiding and sends him galloping down the meadow in terror. The sound also attracts Stinz's friend and war-mate Sgt. Gift (a "two-legger," though he only has one left). Gift is astonished not only at the existence of the gun but that Stinz's firing it didn't set off the Skin Effect--a dreadful, unexplainable flaying whenever anyone tries to recreate the prewar technologies. Another effect of The End Of The War is that no one who witnessed it is able to talk about it without being flayed. With great glee, Gift fires the weapon himself. However, the two are chased out of the Anger by a thunderstorm.

Meanwhile, the various colts and two-legger children have found the box of bullets, and they are quickly scattered amoung the kids, who themselves scatter with their illicit booty. Stinzl, recovering himself, begins to covet the gun and starts to collect the bullets from his puny siblings.

Another effect of The End Of The War, which is not fully explained here, was that humans and animals tended to consolidate, resulting in humans with fangs and claws and other animal characteristics, such as antlers or lizard tails. One of the more grotesque examples of this consolidation is Kilan, a man-faced, fanged, carnivorous, extremely stupid black horse in the care of the Baron and Baronin of the Geiselthal. One of the little girls who took a bullet encounters Kilan, who saves her life when she loses her grip on the rocks she's climbing. The Baronin chastizes the "riding monster" for seemingly trying to eat the girl, but Kilan is distracted by the presence of the bullet on the grass and picks it up in his mouth, trying to prevent the humans from getting at it. He inadvertently swallows it--and in a flash and a shower of flesh, he separates into two soldiers and a very old dog. The men and the Baronin have only a few minutes to gawk and talk at each other before the dog coughs up the bullet and dies... and the Skin Effect is triggered, with horrible consequences. Kilan is reborn as a white, normal-toothed, intelligent man-faced horse, and he (they) immediately rejects further confinement at the Baronin's castle, running off to try to hide at Stinz's house, where Stinz and Gift are warming up after being rained upon.

As Stinz gapes at the transformed Kilan, Gift makes some casual comments about how this effect of The End Of The War is well known outside the Geiselthal--and Stinz, slightly drunk, explodes in anger, blaming Gift and his men for bringing this "disease" into the valley. As Gift and Kilan are unable to talk about this subject, and Stinz doesn't dare tell his people about it without being flayed himself, Stinz ultimately orders the two off his land. But nothing has been solved, and Stinzl has six bullets now....

Stinz is a great character, and Stinz is a terrific series. I have never failed to be impressed by the originality of Donna Barr's work, and it's fascinating to watch it mature and become ever more subtle and complex in viewpoint while remaining highly accessible. For example, the concept of "playthings" covers not only the gun and bullets but also the unfortunate humans subject to the whim of whatever Ended The War and inflicted the Skin Effect and Consolidation on them. Or witness the gun's many effects on Stinz: horror, disgust, fascination, perverse pride, exultation, power, regret--sometimes at the same time. That's awfully good writing, and it shows a keen understanding of human nature. But then, Barr has always understood people and horses extremely well. I've said elsewhere that there's no one to touch her for human-animal characters. Witness the flashback where Stinz, panicky after he threw the gun away, desperately tries to control himself lest he dances himself "right off the cliff."

I love Barr's art. Her black-and-white line drawings are perfect for the Internet; go check them out. On occasion her work can be a bit rushed, but not here. There's a lot of emotion in her work, as well as a humor, such as when Kilan (still black) licks Stinz's face, or when Stinz opens the box of skunk-oil-preserved bullets, which affects both him and the hidden Stinzl.

This is a thinking person's book and deserves a place in all adult collections. Most teens may be too addicted to superhero stuff to appreciate it, and it's not a kid's book--too sophisticated--though bright kids might like it.


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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