Read for the Women of Genre Fiction Challenge.
I read this book in part because I’ve come to know Cat Rambo through my work with the SFWA YouTube channel (for those who don’t know, she’s the current President of SFWA.) I heard she had a new book coming out, hadn’t read her stuff yet, and wanted to check it out. This book was the first in the series, so I decided to check it out first.
Of course, that’s a bit of a misnomer, to say it’s the first book in the series. She has said herself that she’s written parallel stories about different people, so either this one or the “sequel,” Hearts of Tabat, would make a good entrypoint into her world.
It was excellent, but hard to read, so it took me a long time. I felt like I was hiding under the blankets and trying to cover my eyes at intervals. This is a dark world Rambo has created. And I mean dark. I told her the cover was not entirely fair to the reader. What she needs is a severed unicorn head lying on a cobblestone street in the rain.
Tabat is a magical fantasy kingdom at about a tech level that’s around the Enlightenment, perhaps? Just pre-Georgian, maybe. It is also a world where humans hate magical creatures – called “Beasts,” – and they not only enslave them, they inflict horrible atrocities upon them, such as burning Dryad trees (which kills the Dryad in a slow and agonizing way) to power vast rail systems and artificial lights. But it’s made clear that they are sentient creatures, with their own thoughts and hopes and dreams, who think like humans but aren’t human (just like Campbell asked for.) Rambo does not spare us any of the horror, either. She wants you to feel their pain, so that you will get angry and want to fight for them.
Neither Beasts nor Humans trust Shapeshifters. Shapeshifters are, of course, technically Beasts, but Beast in disguise, so not easily marked as such and so Humans have trouble finding them. Hence, they’ll just kill them when they are discovered. Beast resent shapeshifters because they can “pass” and are liable to beat them senseless when they find them. As a bisexual woman who came out in the early 90s, I am old enough to remember how that sort of resentment was once levied upon us by the gay and lesbian community, who thought we ought to bug off and stick with the opposite gender so we would stop drawing from their limited pool of potential partners. Of course, the resentment was not nearly as violent as it is towards Shapeshifters in Tabat. And to be fair, as long as they’re willing to subject themselves to the erasure, Shapeshifters are in a much better position than other Beasts in Tabat, because they won’t usually be killed or enslaved on sight. So just like bisexual people who happen to be in a relationship with someone of the opposite gender, they can (and sometimes do) benefit from their invisibility.
The political situation is tenuous because the hereditary Duke is required by ancient fiat to give up his power to a democratic government very soon. New parties are forming and advancing their agendas, and interplay between the parties is not only background, but a story element and plot point. In the meantime, there are of course forces who wish to take advantage of the instability to liberate the Beasts, and some are prepared to go to greater lengths than others.
Rambo is brilliant at painting shades of grey. There are no real “good guys” or “bad guys” here, and sometimes even the people whom you want to support because you know their cause is the right one, are so invested in the idea that the ends justify the means to them, and she shows us the evils of that path too. If you’re looking for a muscle-bound white knight making things right by the power of his sword, you have come to the wrong place.
Actually, much of the action is character-driven. There is almost no real “action,” as we understand it in modern fantasy. The action is mostly personal and political. Does this mean it’s a less compelling story? Not on your life.
The tale follows two protagonists, each of whom are given equal page-time; a young late-blooming shapeshifter named Teo, and a middle-aged, tough-as-nails gladiatrix named Bella Canto. This approach is good writing, but I found it also creates a strange flip-flop in tone between an Ursula K. Le Guin style of YA that reminded me very much of A Wizard of Earthsea when I was reading about Teo, and a more backbiting, adult, A Game of Thrones style when I was reading about Bella. It took a few chapters to get into the rhythm. At first it left me feeling weird and off-base. By the end of the book, however, I understood perfectly why she felt she had to tell the story that way, but in the beginning I found it pulled me out of the story in places. So, there’s one point of criticism, if I had to nitpick.
Another is that the protagonists are both hampered by deep-seated flaws that leave you conflicted about them. I found myself getting very frustrated with Teo, because he had very little agency and exercised almost none. The story basically swept him along with it and in many places, he felt more like a narrator than a participant. I don’t know if that was intentional; I’m waiting to read the other books to see. On the other hand, he’s just a genuinely nice, innocent person, and often nice, innocent people are swept along by the course of events, so I can’t say it’s unrealistic. I just kept wanting him to do more. Maybe he will in future stories. This is, after all, intended to be a series, and sometimes you can’t tell a whole overarcing story in one book (else, why write a series?)
Bella has much to like about her. She strong, confident, fearless, and cheerfully bisexual and promiscuous (you’re not given the gory details, it’s not that kind of book.) Her bisexuality is not intrinsic to the plot because nobody seems to care about such things in Tabat, so yay, thank you for representation! She is also emotionally distant (that’s why affairs and not romances) and almost painfully self-absorbed. I won’t say self-centered because she does care about other people, but she has difficulty showing it, and maybe I found her challenging because I’m a lot like that IRL. (I might be self-absorbed too. Not willing to weigh in on that one right now.) Her back story totally explains why, and the deep damage and emotional wounds that cause her to be that way, and I hope her overall character arc, if we revisit her in other books, will be to develop more empathy. I’ll say she’s been given an opportunity; I won’t tell you why because that would be a spoiler. She also unconsciously benefits from a privileged position, and her unconscious privilege is rendered with painstaking detail in Rambo’s writing.
So again, because we see their flaws before we see their merits, I found the book difficult to get into. This is the thing that gives it four stars in my rating and not five.
Because otherwise, it’s amazing. This is a book that does exactly what I think fantasy is uniquely equipped to do; it examines the way we live by giving it some distance in a fantastical setting. The book ends where it needs to, but I now find myself on the edge of my seat, wanting to know what happens next. So much is going on all at once, and I can’t wait to find out how it evolves.
Not an easy read. But it’s worth it. Looking forward to Hearts of Tabat!