Zadayi Red begins with a woman, Sunoya, who's been having dreams. In her culture—an imagined American Indian culture two thousand years ago—dreams may truly foretell the future, and a crisis is in the offing. War between tribes has been a low-level constant throughout the years, but now a strict taboo is in danger of being violated: intratribal murder and warfare. Each tribal village has three leaders, a White Chief of peace, a Red Chief of war, and a Medicine Chief. In the village where our heroine is training as a Medicine Chief, the Red Chief has seized complete control and is bringing warfare closer to home. When Sunoya travels to the spirit land of the Immortals (gods in the form of animals), she learns about what she must do in order to, if not avert, at least recover from the crisis. She is given an animal companion, a wry buzzard named Su-Li, who will help. Through trials and travails, sacrificing everything about the life she thought she'd have, she saves a young boy child who is destined to repair the damage done to the tribes and recover the favor of the gods . . . if he can survive the wrath of his gradfather, the rogue Red Chief, long enough to grow up.
Thus after one third of the book we switch away from Sunoya's story to that of Dhazi, the prophesied one. He follows the story arc laid out by Joseph Campbell pretty closely: he starts from home, as whiny a farm boy as ever Luke Skywalker was. He rebels against his fate, but his rebellion instead brings him closer to the path of his destiny. Eventually he embraces his quest and successfully persues it, winning leadership, respect, and the hand of his intended. We only get back to Sunoya at the very end, when a gun laid deliberately on the mantle in the early section of the book goes off, leading to her horribly unsatifying end.
In the author's afterword, Fox states that he's imagining a myth that might have fit into the pre-Cherokee American Indian culture long before European contact; it isn't a direct re-telling of any specific story. As such, Fox walks a fine line between a simple and mythic tale and a fleshed out modern fantasy. Unfortunately, as a myth it is too long (350 not terribly dense pages), and as a fantasy it lacks characterization. Several characters remain archetypal and thus one-dimensional. The evil Red Chief in particular is a purely moustache-twirling villain with not a single redeeming quality. This could work in a novella, where the heroes might be comparably underdeveloped, but in a novel such cardboard cutouts compare poorly to the very sympathetic Sunoya and the fleshed out Dhazi. Likewise the final transition of Dhazi from boy to wise man seems abrupt: we spent a lot of time with him, and the wisdom that he displays at the very end doesn't seem earned.
Also, as a myth it has some suspicious features. The culture it portrays clearly disapproves of romantic love-matches between men and women. They feel such pairings are unstable, and prefer to arrange marriages between families. However, Dhazi falls madly in love with a woman of his village, who returns the sentiment. Their families act to keep them apart, as per their cultural values. However, one of the carrots that he is offered by the most senior shaman of the tribe in order to actually get moving on his destined quest is that if he is successful he'll get his girl. So it seems that in the end the value of romantic love trumps the cultural establishment of arranged marriages: does that mean that the culture actually values romance, or is it an imposition from outside?
Likewise, there's the question of violence. None of the characters in this story espouse pacifism (and in fact the characters admirably avoid common Noble Savage stereotypes—Fox does an excellent job of portraying most of the background characters as folks simply getting along with life). However, the crisis point is reached when some tribe members kill other tribe members, instead of people outside of the tribe. This causes them to lose the favor of the Immortals. So the solution to the problem should eschew violence against tribe members, right? Well, it doesn't, and it ends up seeming like a rather legalistic work-around. Again, one would expect a myth to reinforce the cultural values of the culture as portrayed, not contradict them.
If read Zadayi Read as a modern fantasy, it still has flaws, mostly structural. There are occasional within-scene perspective shifts that are quite jarring. Those show up most often in the early sections of the book, where the focus is ostensibly on Sunoya. There are almost no perspective shifts away from Dhazi once he takes his place in his own story. This brings us to the hardest structural element to swallow: having spent a full third of the novel establishing Sunoya as an excellent and sympathetic heroine, she is more or less tossed aside once the male lead grows up enough to start his heroic journey. This is a little hard to take. Having invested so much in her story we find out that it's actually not her story at all, it's her son's.
However, I've perhaps been emphasizing Zadayi Red's flaws over its virtues. For one thing, there's the fact that Sunoya is obviously a character I found quite sympathetic, given my annoyance when she was kicked out of the spotlight. Also figuring as delightful characters are the buzzard Su-Li, who is a great observer of the action both when he is vocal and when he is silent, and another character who spends much of his time as a panther. Both of these characters serve as useful outsiders without being either detatched, or comic relief, or over-romanticized. Also, there's the portrayal of the society, rituals, and physical millieu of these pre-historic American Indians. I never found any anthropological detail out of place; whenever I found myself jolted out of the story it was always for questions of culture, never for any anachronisms. (This attention to detail was explained in Caleb Fox's afterword, when he mentions that fortuitously one of his neighbors is an ex-curator for the Smithsonian American Indian collections.) And occasional awkward perspective shifts aside, this book is smoothly written and easy to read. Fox's writing doesn't particularly stand out on its own; no flourishes of poetry or description here. It tends towards the more transparent style of an Asimov, fading into the background—along with some similarly stilted dialogue. Although the Campbellian monomyth is its own cliche, it does make for some compelling reading, even when the adolescent heroes who Just Don't Get It yet have to be smacked around by fate to get moving.