Review by Joel Kreissman
Mary E. Lowd’s The Bee’s Waltz is part of a larger series of books based on the “dungeon solitaire” game Labyrinth of Souls, published by Shadowspinner Press. It is also a direct sequel to Lowd's previous book The Snake's Song and while the challenges our protagonists face are varied enough that I could believe they were drawn as random, she knits them together into a well composed story.
Following their disastrous sojourn into the labyrinth, Witch-Hazel the squirrel and Zwi the bee are on a new quest. Zwi has been looking for a new blessed tree for her hive to relocate to, while Witch-Hazel seeks to be reunited with her otter friend Fish-Breath, who perished in the labyrinth. After finding no luck on the ground, they decide to take to the skies by climbing a beanstalk and petition the All-Being themself. Along the way they meet fairy butterflies and moths, adopt a were-caterpillar, face a deceptively friendly unicorn, get caught in a war between ravens and eagles, and confront their own insecurities. Will they find what they were looking for? And will they still want it when they find it?
Labyrinth of Souls is played with a tarot deck, and if you’re familiar with the cards you can see some of the symbology and archetypes in the story. Death and rebirth, the elemental monarchs, even a quasi-messianic archetype, I could have sworn I saw the Wheel of Fortune once. While the Redwall-esque fantasy setting may seem somewhat frivolous at first glance, it’s taken deadly serious in universe, rightfully so. I’ll admit that the names that referenced the character’s species were kind of cute, though Zwi the bee stands out that way as the exception. Zwi can come across as aggravating and a bit of an asshole, but she remains understandable as one who is accustomed to thinking in terms of hives over individual workers. Witch-Hazel’s first appearance in the book has her waking from a post-traumatic nightmare, and throughout the story she continues to suffer feelings of inadequacy and survivor’s guilt from her experience in the labyrinth. I appreciated how those feelings never quite went away, even after they’re partially proven wrong. She does gain some more confidence in herself, but never stops thinking she is not enough. Now, the unicorn as trickster spirit was something of a new take, but now that I think about it it was still in character.
The Bee’s Waltz is certainly an intriguing story and I’ll be sure to check out other books in the series, I may even give a game of dungeon solitaire a shot.