In Amanda Leduc’s novel The Centaur’s Wife, flowers harbour spirits and mountain soil has the power to transform bodies.
After a devastating natural disaster, the city at the foot of the mountain struggles with food shortages, harsh winter, and the inexplicable encroachment of wild vines onto urban territory. Nothing the survivors plant is able to grow, however, and they begin to look with suspicion upon the usual scapegoats in a catastrophe: the leaders and the outcasts.
Newcomer Tasha steps into the leadership role as the only doctor in the community, organising food rations and scouting trips even as others chafe against her rule and accuse her of false promises. In the second role, the outcast, we have Heather, a new mother with cerebral palsy whose history with the mountain and its rumoured magic make her an object of fear and ridicule for some of her neighbours. But Heather is not the sum of their contempt – she is the keystone of the story, a survivor long before the apocalypse, and an unwilling mediator between the two worlds of the book: the desperate city and the ominous magical mountain.
Leduc alternates between the central plot and a series of original fairy tales which function as both backstory and counterpoint. Her fluid, unpretentious style lets the novelty of her genre-blending shine, but this is not always to the book’s advantage. Sometimes the magic makes sense, and sometimes it does not. In the first half of the book, a portal between worlds is mentioned twice, but never explained or (as far as I could tell) used.
The mountain seems belligerent towards humans – but is that only because they believe it to be so, or because the mountain contains the bones of a bereaved centaur who blames humans for his pain? Not all kinds of magical or supernatural force need to be explained down to the smallest detail, but I do like them to be consistent. Within scenes, and within each fairy tale, plot and character develop more naturally, and this patchwork comes together into a fascinating if disorienting novel.
Then there are the centaurs, described as familiar but strange, beautiful but frightening. They are perhaps too familiar, too human in their thoughts and behaviour, but that may be Leduc’s point: despite their vastly different bodies, the centaurs are no more monstrous than the humans. (Side note: I love that Leduc uses a less common mythological creature – no vampires or werewolves here!)
Readers of Leduc’s previous book Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space will recognise many of her themes in The Centaur’s Wife. I would certainly recommend Disfigured to anyone, but The Centaur’s Wife is still an impressive demonstration of how diversity, disability, and co-existence can be written into fiction without being didactic.
I’d recommend The Centaur’s Wife if:
- You’d like to see what happens when the apocalypse meets fairy tales
- You want a believable depiction of people coping with extreme (even supernatural) events
- You love stories that mix science fiction and fantasy with observations of modern society
- You don’t mind being slightly confused as you read
I wouldn’t recommend The Centaur’s Wife if:
- You like everything in a story to have a clear explanation
- You don’t like fantasy or fairy tales
- You like fantasy that doesn’t mingle with science fiction
- You want stories to end happily for everyone