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.
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.