Tag Archives: beautifully illustrated books

Book Review Saturday – ‘The Outlaw Varjak Paw’

This will, more than likely, be my final book review of 2014. It’s wonderful, then, that we’re finishing things on such a high note.

For this week, it’s the turn of The Outlaw Varjak Paw, by S.F. Said.

Image: www.varjakpaw.wikia.com Artist: Dave Kean

Image: http://www.varjakpaw.wikia.com
Artist: Dave McKean

You might remember me reviewing the first book in the Varjak Paw sequence here, and how much I loved that story, too; I can safely say that Outlaw, the sequel, consolidated and deepened my love for this brave, plucky, loyal little cat and his band of followers. It’s almost enough to make me a fan of cats in real life, and that’s no mean feat.

The Outlaw Varjak Paw picks up Varjak’s story shortly after the events of the first novel. He has been fully adopted by the city cats Holly and Tam, and their steadfast dog companion, Cludge, has become a vital part of their gang. As the book opens, they are heading to the city dump to search for food, for the city is locked in a cold winter and there is nothing to eat. Sally Bones’ cats have begun to extend their ‘zones’, grasping at control and dominance that isn’t theirs to claim, and meting out fierce and dreadful punishments on any cat who dares to cross them. The traditional hunting grounds and ‘free zones’ have now become no-go areas – unless you want to face the legendary wrath of Sally Bones, of course.

So what’s a cat to do when Sally Bones, the most fearsome cat in the city, is on your tail because she knows you have the same power she does, or a version of it at least – access to the Way of Jalal, the secret fighting techniques that render a cat unstoppable in battle? Varjak has been taught the Way by his ancestor Jalal, but he knows that somehow Sally knows the Way, too, and is far stronger and more accomplished than he is. The terrorised cats of the city, living in fear of Sally Bones, begin to turn to Varjak as a saviour – but is he ready to carry that burden?

When Sally Bones’ cats take a prisoner from among Varjak’s new friends, a young kitten named Jess, he knows he has no choice. He must risk certain death by going right into the heart of Sally Bones’ territory to do the impossible, which is to reclaim a hostage; everyone knows that once Sally Bones has you, you’re never seen again, but Varjak has no choice. Jess and her family defied Sally Bones because they believed in him, and they have paid a terrible price. He’s not about to let them down.

His journey to Sally Bones’ lair leads him through terrifying tunnels where he encounters both strange cats and dogs he must learn to trust, and into the darkest ‘night of the soul’ possible, when he fears he has forgotten the Way completely. Can he fight not only his enemies, but also the darkness and terror which sap his strength and self-belief – and can he make the city safe for all his friends, feline and canine alike?

Well. This book is beautiful. Not only because of Dave McKean’s amazing line-drawings, similar to the ones he did for Varjak Paw, but because of the lyrical language and clear description and settings which are easily imagined (made extra delicious by the fact that there are no people in this very built, urban environment), and by the depth of psychology and complexity which Said brings to the character of Varjak Paw, and the animals with which he shares his story. The ‘lessons’ Varjak learns as he lives out his adventure are emotionally affecting, and the highs and lows of his quest are so gripping that they definitely carried this very human reader along. I loved all the characters, particularly Sally Bones who is, most definitely, one of the most effectively chilling and creepy villains I’ve ever had the (dis)pleasure of reading; her ice-blue eye will haunt my dreams, I fear. Of course I loved Varjak, and his brave Holly, and the sparky Jess, and the immensely courageous Mrs Moggs, and the unstintingly loyal Cludge (who has, let’s face it, simply the best name of any literary dog. Ever).

I’m not sure who I’d recommend this book to. It’s a wonderful story for readers of eight or nine onwards, but there is quite a lot of fighting, and in every battle scene at least one valiant combatant loses blood. There’s description of claws and slashing and injury, but I’m sure it’s not too much for even the most sensitive of readers, though parents may want to read it first just to make sure. This is a book which should appeal hugely to its target middle grade market, but which will keep readers of any age enthralled and invested in its defiant, justice-loving characters. Varjak Paw is definitely settled as one of my all-time literary favourites, and I’m sure I’ll revisit his tale many times.

Happy Christmas, everyone, and all best wishes for the start of a brand new year.

S.F. Said’s new book, Phoenix, has been gathering rave reviews. Check it out here.

Book Review Saturday – ‘Tinder’

I’ve had Tinder sitting on my bookshelf for a few months now, waiting for its chance to wriggle to the top of my TBR pile. If I’m being entirely honest, I let it skip a few places, just because I’m impatient when I’m waiting to read a book as beautiful as this one.

I mean, come on. Look.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

The story is a retelling of the fairytale The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s not one I’m familiar with, but – as fairytales are wont – it shares roots and ingredients from other tales I do know quite well, including Aladdin and his magic lamp. Essentially, the root of the story is this: a young man with a magical object can control the comings and goings of enchanted creatures bound to do his bidding, and all manner of chaos and adventure ensues.

But, of course, Tinder is more than just that.

Beautiful cover (and stunning illustrations – thank you, David Roberts) aside, this is a story about war, and devastation, and suffering. It’s a tale of the ghosts a person carries within them when they’ve witnessed dreadful things like murder and rape and mutilation, and how they attempt to carry on while burdened with memories and guilt. Our protagonist is a young man named Otto Hundebiss (which means ‘dog’s bite’), who encounters Death before the first page of the story has even been turned. He is on a battlefield, wounded, and Death comes to him. Filled with a desire to escape, he runs, only to wake up beside a fire in the company of a strange creature who describes Otto’s memories of his murdered family, despite never having met Otto before. Nursing Otto back to life and strength, this strange creature gifts him with a pair of new boots and a set of dice, the boots to walk in and the dice to tell him which way to go.

So, his quest begins.

Soon, he meets with a young ‘boy’ in the forest, who turns out to be a beautiful girl with cascading red hair. She is Safire, a mysterious girl from the land of the werewolf whose three brothers have gone to war. She is being hunted, and she won’t explain why. She and Otto spend a night in a cave, during which time he falls in love with her, but by the morning the huntsmen are hot on her trail, and Otto’s fever (caused by his battle wounds) is raging once more. He is too ill to move, and Safire needs to run to save her life. Separated from his beloved, Otto pleads with his enchanted dice to bring him back to her once more, and carries on his quest. He comes to a castle behind tall iron gates, wherein he finds shelter, but also apparitions, frightening visions and strange servants. The price for staying in this castle is high; the lady of the house is a strange, masked individual with one long, razor-sharp fingernail, from whom Otto shrinks in horror. She asks a favour of him – to go down to her cellar and bring up her tinderbox, which she has left there in error. Unsurprisingly, things are not what they seem.

The story is structured, paced and told as a fairytale. There is repetition (particularly around the number three), there is magic and superstition, things occur which should be impossible. Strangely, even though I normally have endless patience when it comes to this sort of unrealistic story structure, parts of Tinder saw even my attention waver. We know, for instance, that Otto needs to try, repeatedly, to get rid of the tinderbox once he’s found it; despite my awareness of this, it did drag just a little. I also can’t say I warmed to him much as a character. Fairytales aren’t known for their in-depth characterisation, to be fair, but still. I thought it was strange that a character who has been through so much, including war (the story is set during the Thirty Years’ War), the loss of his entire family, and being forced into becoming a soldier, could leave me with a sense of dislike. I don’t even mind the fact that he and Safire fall in love instantly; this is a fairytale. I don’t mind that he has to go through his quest in a methodical manner; again, this is a fairytale. It didn’t even bother me that things which should have been obvious didn’t occur to him – it’s a fairytale. Still, I found him selfish and interested only in his own promotion. Even his ‘quest’ to save Safire isn’t really about saving her (she seems more than capable of doing that herself); it’s about him, and his desire to marry her. He doesn’t want to save Safire and allow her to do what she wants with her life – he wants her for his own. I wish that had been different.

And then, that ending. I know, I know – it’s a fairytale. And there are going to be twists. And things don’t always go the way you want. And happy endings are there to be messed with.

But I didn’t like it.

However, I did enjoy Sally Gardner’s writing, because I always do. I enjoyed the subtle humour and the descriptions and the dark, unsettling passages when we are allowed to look inside Otto’s mind and memory, learning about what he has been through. I loved the illustrations more than I can express. The whole book is beautifully presented and an absolute treasure. But will I read it again?

I’m not so sure.

This book is worth owning, in its print form, for its sheer beauty. The story is worth reading, for sure. I can’t recommend it unreservedly, but I do think it’s worth checking out.

One of my favourite illustrations from the book, showing Otto and Safire in the cave on the night they first meet.  Image sourced: sallygardner.net. Artist: David Roberts

One of my favourite illustrations from the book, showing Otto and Safire in the cave on the night they first meet.
Image sourced: sallygardner.net.
Artist: David Roberts