Beasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(Full disclosure: I’ve taken writing classes from Cat. That said, I have liked her work since before I knew to even recognize her name–may I recommend the lovely Events at Fort Plentitude, which I first read in Weird Tales–and I think my review fairly reflects the fact that, dammit, she’s good.)
Short summary: this is a secondary-world fantasy primarily set in the great strange port city of Tabat, which is about to have the Duke step down and hold elections. It revolves around two characters: Teo, a young country boy indentured into servitude at the temple of the Moons, and Bella Kanto, the gladiator whose unbroken string of triumphs in the annual Winter-vs-Spring battle have led to twenty years of long winters and late springs.
(This isn’t a children’s book, by the way. In case anyone was wondering. It’s not gratuitous, but my niephlets aren’t going to be getting this one for a few more years.)
I was expecting a straight-up secondary world fantasy–an adventure, or what you’d traditionally call a romance. There is some of that here; I think you see it most strongly in Teo. But there’s more life than there is just adventure, if that makes sense.
Second, a lot of the fantasy adventures I mentioned are about solving a problem. Beasts of Tabat is so much more than this. There are problems, yes, and some of them get resolved, but this is not a book where the Tour goes around collecting Plot Coupons and applying them to a Clearly Defined Problem. This is coming into a world in flux–on a personal level, a professional level, a social level, a magical level–and watching it turn into something new and wonderful.
(This is perhaps an excellent time to remind people of the origins of words such as “wonderful”, “fantastic”, and “terrific”. Terry Pratchett said it best.)
I think this works because of the attention paid to the characters and the small details. There’s Bella Kanto and Teo, but the characters moving around them and affected by them (I’m particularly engaged by Eloquence Seaborn and Leonoa, but you can take your pick) feel so distinct that those two feel pleasantly more like windows to the world than heroes in it. (I grant Bella Kanto is of heroic stature, but it’s not because of how she’s framed in the text.)
The growing unrest, the prejudice against the Beasts, the changes coming–this is the kind of thing that could get handwaved into a simple didactic dichotomy, and instead the depiction of what living in a world like this is like makes it interesting and involving. I am having opinions about this world, dammit, and I love it.
(There are several other stories set in Tabat, which are listed at the bottom of the page here; I’ve read half a dozen of them, and am going to go read more now that I’ve finished the novel. Just figured I should mention (1) you don’t need to have read them and (2) they’re worth checking out.)
I want to see where this goes. I need to see how it comes out. And it will be wonderful.