If the idea of a narrative poem about the Sumerian gods and goddesses gives you pause as you search for the next good read, cast aside your doubts and forge ahead. Anne Sheldon's verse speaks in the clear voice of a skilled storyteller, giving us the tale of Inanna, Queen of Heaven, and Ninshubur, her Faithful Counselor, along with other gods and supernatural characters, as they make their home in the city of Uruk on the Euphrates River. They thrive and love in a country of sensual delights—a world that, like the poem, mixes ancient and modern (Inanna's shrine, for instance, includes a jacuzzi and a gym along with clay tablets incised with cuneiform). But Inanna wants more: she wants civilization, and this necessitates obtaining the Holy Creatures of Civilization from Enki, or "Grandfather Wisdom." These creatures are little sentient statuettes, with such names as Rejoicing-of-the-Heart, Shepherd-in-His-Sheepfold, Carpentry, Setting-Up-Of-Lamentation, and Art-of-Song. Inanna therefore goes to visit Grandfather Wisdom:
They drank and ate and drank and ate and then
they only drank. The drunker Enki got,
the more he admired her beauty
and the honor accorded her
by the little stone gods.
She gave Enki a backrub and tousled his white wisps
and, even though she did not let him
reach beneath her flounces,
by daybreak he had given her
all his murmuring idols. (p8)
Grandfather Wisdom—alas, not so wise that he couldn't be conned out of his most precious possessions—subsequently recovers from his drunkenness, regards Inanna's removal of his little stone gods as theft, and sends a troop of monsters to recover them.
I won't give away the outcome, because it would be a reader of stone who would not enjoy experiencing this adventure directly, but what would a fantasy be without a Descent into Hell? And this hell is suitably grim, distinctively of our times. Lured to visit her sister Ereshkigal, who reigns as Queen of Hell, Inanna journeys downward, escorted by metal-liveried guards, into an authoritarian regime where even the dignity of a goddess is not respected:
First they took the lapis charm from her throat,
"for the Land of Ereshkigal is a Perfect Land."
They wiped the sky-blue ointment from her lids,
"for the Servants of Ereshkigal require no paint."
They tore the silver measuring rod from her hand,
"for the Justice of Ereshkigal is a Perfect Justice."
They dented her golden bracelets with their boots,
"for the Servants of Ereshkigal require no bangles."
They tore the linen from her shoulders,
"for the Land of Ereshkigal is a Perfect Land
and the Servants of Ereshkigal ask no questions." (p33)
The descent into hell is a turning point, when a witty romp is transformed into an engrossing and suspenseful narrative. The betrayal of Inanna by her sister leads to the goddess's death and her rebirth, at the price of another's life. But whose? The gods' struggle against jealousy, betrayal, and death itself should keep the reader turning pages until the final resolution.
Unfortunately, the book is not well served by its uninviting cover: a simple title superimposed on a purple starry sky, and, at the bottom, a vignette of a pensive-looking Mary Shelley. (All the books in Aqueduct Press's "Conversation Pieces" series share the same cover, hence the generic look.) Worse, the back cover says nothing about what the poem is about, merely advising the reader that the Conversation Pieces series "celebrates the speculations and visions of the grand conversation of feminist SF," probably more of a discouragement than an enticement to potential readers, who are given no clue of the delightful narrative voice, story, and characters that lie within, and who may dread a heavy-handed treatise. But you have been advised. Buy this slim book and open it without hesitation. The Adventures of the Faithful Counselor is a small but masterful story.
Donna Royston lives and writes in Fairfax, Virginia. Fantasy, with its grand adventure and themes, is her literary love. She has written a novel, The Unmaking, which is in search of a publisher.