Review by Joel Kreissman
Cold eyes, lost in dread
Bunny for the story’s sake
Now lies cold and dead.
This poem by Mog K. Moogle sets the tone for Ryan Campbell’s anthology The Rabbit Dies First. Now, I’ve read many furry anthologies, themed by genre, species, and even the sins of the characters, but this is a new one. As the title suggests, in most stories of this anthology a rabbit dies, sometimes at the beginning of the story, other times at the end, in a few cases the bunny actually lives through several tense moments, but I’ll try not to spoil those ones for you.
The first story in this anthology is Tym Greene’s “Under My Skin,” in which a 1920s gangster seduces a bunny banker in preparation for a robbery. It briefly touches upon the logistics required of gay relationships in that era: whisper networks, neighbors who don’t ask questions, keeping up appearances. But frankly, I found the ending rather predictable. Tragic, but predictable.
“The Trial of Wandering Star” by David Green takes us into a fantastic world based loosely on East Asian myth where species occupy a strict caste system with herbivores, or “leafbourne,” on the bottom, predators above them, and mythical beings like qilings or kitsune on the top. Some lower-caste animals are capable of magic, but they’re highly regulated by the state, and unlicensed mages are very harshly punished, as the red panda Wandering Star discovers after she’s caught using magic. Fortunately, an organization advocating second chances for unregistered mages sends a rabbit warrior named He-Who-Tramples-Stars (Lo-Yao for short) to supervise her on a mission to recover a noble’s stolen jewelry as penance, and to act as her mentor. It presents an intriguing world that’s easy enough to grasp for newcomers, at least the parts relevant to the story, and gives a lot of room for further exploration. I’ll be watching for further works in this setting.
Franklin Leo’s “End of (On)Line” initially leaves the reader as confused as the protagonist, a robot whose memories have been tampered with. This robot, Kyle, is told that he somehow killed his user, a rabbit named Milo who was planning to upload his brain and replace him, but he doesn’t remember that name, or even whether he used to be organic himself. The initial confusion can be difficult to work through; though if you can get through that initial opacity, the story falls into place.
“Out the Other Side” by Jellybean starts with the rabbit, Quinn, meeting the Grim Reaper. He’s dead, sort of, but something is preventing him from passing on, and Death sets him to find out what it is. Oh, and Quinn’s girlfriend, an armadillo named Sam, was also supposed to die but didn’t, so that’s his first lead. Now, it’s not particularly surprising that Quinn doesn't remember how he died—that’s a standard ghostly trope—but it’s odd that Sam doesn’t, you would expect her to know if she’s still alive. I didn’t particularly like this one. It’s hard to tell who I’m supposed to feel sympathy for, and I couldn’t discern what Quinn ended up choosing.
Mary E. Lowd’s “Black Out in Space” is self-explanatory: the power goes out on a space station. The main character is a claustrophobic buffalo-like alien who shares an apartment with a family of uplifted rabbits and finds herself in a pitch-black room with fifteen bouncing baby bunnies. The contrast between the adults worried that they’re all going to die and the carefree kids who don’t know how serious a blackout is on a space station really ratchets up the tension.
“The Detective, The Wife, The Husband, and His Lovers” by Maya Levine covers the investigation of a lapine literature professor’s death by apparent suicide. Only, one of the detectives investigating was a student of his and knows he had a habit of screwing bunny does in his classes, including one of her friends, and has suspicions. I appreciated the nod to furriness in how the professor lived in an underground warren and slept in a depression in the dirt floor, but I thought the story could go further into the dynamics of an multi-species society. Sexism comes up frequently as the detective is distrusted as an “emotional female” (it’s set in the 80s), but nobody seems to care that the rabbit professor was married to a fox save that they couldn’t have biological kids and that seemingly motivated his adulteries. That seemed a little out of place.
Ocean Tigrox’s “Swallowed by the Sea” starts with a crew of superstitious sailors accusing a rabbit doe of bringing a storm down on them by “whistling” of all things. Before they force her to walk the plank, she implies the captain has some other reason for throwing her overboard and curses them. Afterwards strange things happen to the captain; whether he’s haunted or hallucinating is left nicely ambiguous.
I found “The Unlucky” by Sera Kaine rather opaque: it took me two reads to make any sense of it. Largely because there were three different point-of-view characters with drastically different perspectives: a black rabbit “luck keeper” who can change to human form but has to leave his warren once another black rabbit is born, a cat warrior who ridicules the rabbit’s beliefs because he knows something about the Void that consumed their worlds, and a Hunter tracking them across the multiverse at his Mistress’ command. Had to get an overview of the pieces then read it again to put them all together, but once you understand the story, it’s actually quite clever.
Watts Martin’s “An Orange by Any Other Name” evokes a bit of the classic crime noir, except set in sunny Florida, and maybe a little Southern Gothic. The adopted daughter of a senile old rabbit who owns an orange field hires a “fixer” to find out who dumped several tons of sewage on top of her dad’s land before he could sell it to a developer. I’m not sure if the primary theme is rural gentrification, vindictiveness contrasted with greed, or just plain family insanity, probably a mix of all three.
“The Road to Macluske” by Nathan Ravenwood takes us into a zombie apocalypse. A lone otter on a motorcycle who only goes by “The Survivor” crosses the path of a rabbit who’s just been bitten, who implores him to take him back to his settlement so he can see his husband one last time before he turns. The zombies, or “Them,” never actually appear on screen, but we see the damage they’ve wrought on society and those left behind. It raises questions of love, revenge, and finding purpose in life. Not to spoil anything, but that last scene almost had me in tears.
Lloyd Yaeger goes cyberpunk in “The Snack Rabbit.” It’s another one where the rabbit is already dead, but he’s been reanimated with cybernetic implants. After he’s freed by two more cyber zombies, including one who was his husband in life, it turns out that whoever has been resurrecting the dead usually doesn’t let them keep their memories. Since the rabbit does remember his life, that makes him extremely valuable to certain parties, and brings out no small amount of romantic tension. Sci-fi often conflates identity with memories, and likes to explore the possibility of a completely different person who looks like someone else a character has lost, and this story presents a relatively novel take on the trope.
“Two Blocks Apart and the Universe in Between” by Taylor Harbin takes place in an alternate universe where at some point in the 20th century some animals were spontaneously “uplifted” and have been living with humanity, with some tensions. The main character is a human screenwriter hired to adapt the first uplift-written book to film, which is about a human teacher and a rabbit student who form a friendship before things go horribly wrong. This seems to be another one where bunnies are representing innocence, but their importance to the plot is more subdued here.
“The Carrot is Mightier Than the Sword” by Nidhi Singh evokes the folklore of many ancient cultures, with a smattering of modern-day knowledge such as the existence of dinosaurs and asteroids. But without the weight of tradition behind it, this story comes across more like a bad acid trip. Maybe it could pass as a children’s tale about the costs of pride and refusing help when offered, but fire-breathing dinosaurs refusing to eat carrots comes across as kind of silly.
Finally, Kyell Gold closes the anthology with the Victorian murder mystery “Death on the Tile.” A rabbit working at a hotel is poisoned, and any one of the hotel’s upper-class guests could be responsible, but what could be the motive? In my view, the mark of a good “whodunnit?” story is how difficult it is to discern the killer’s identity even with all the clues available, which this accomplishes. This is also one of the few pieces of fiction that distinguishes between rabbits and hares, and it’s employed as part of the class divide with the rabbit waitstaff and the hare businessman.
As I read this anthology, I noticed a few recurring themes in the rabbits’ depictions. The rabbit as prey was most common, likely due to their real life place near the bottom of the animal food chain as food for nearly everything that eats meat. It wasn’t always literal predation: sometimes you saw financial exploitation or armed robbery, even one where a rabbit was treated as simply expendable. The portrayal of rabbits as a sign of innocence frequently crossed over with that prior theme, for the innocent victim is so much more tragic than the one who “deserved it.” A few times we saw a rabbit sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, but I’m having trouble associating that with rabbits specifically. Surprisingly, there were relatively few portrayals of rabbits as sexual beings, and they tended to serve as a means for the rabbits to be preyed upon.
In conclusion, this anthology is not for the faint of heart. Not everything in it might be your cup of tea, but the advantage of an anthology is that you have multiple stories in one volume.