Richard Adams did animal fantasy so well that there has yet to be anything written to match it (Redwall aside), so it was with some trepidation that I began this book. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by this first novel. Our hero, the red deer Rannoch, is born in a time of great turmoil amongst the herd. The old ways have been overthrown and those who would protect them slain by treachery. A new order arises, comprising those who are loyal to the Lord of the Herd, Drail, instead of to the herd itself.
As prophecy foretells, Rannoch is marked with a white patch on his brow in the shape of an oak leaf, an unmistakable sign that eventually causes him and his foster mother to flee for their lives. Despite all evidence to the contrary, including the mark and his ability to talk to other animals, Rannoch denies his place in the prophecy. It is a long and arduous journey he must take until he realizes the truth and returns to fight. Although the story takes place amongst the Herla (red deer), the author skillfully interweaves it with some of the events taking place in the historical period leading up to the expulsion of the Norse King Haakon from Scotland (12th century). Also interwoven is the myth of Herne, a mystical half deer, half human who figures prominently in the prophecy. For it is to restore the lore of Herne to the Herla that Rannoch was born, and it is that destiny that he ultimately embraces. Although the characterization of the deer could have been more thorough (they often talk, act and think in very human ways), the story was tightly plotted and well written – definitely a page turner! I look forward to more from this author.