Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Varjak Paw

Okay, I'm a little behind this week. Put away those eggs. This is a good book; you're not going to want to miss it.

Book: Varjak Paw
Author: S.F. Said
Published: 2003

Barely out of kittenhood, Varjak Paw's in big trouble. His owner, the elderly Contessa, has died and now he and his whole family are in the power of the eerie Gentleman and his strange black-eyed cats. What's worse, he's the only one who understands the danger. His parents and siblings are content to be fed funny-smelling caviar and stay locked up in the house, petted and pampered like true Mesopotamian Blues. Only Elder Paw, Varjak's grandfather, will help him escape the house so he can find the one thing that might scare the Gentleman into flight: a dog.

Once Varjak hits the streets, however, nothing is easy. He can't hunt, he doesn't actually know what a dog looks like, and he keeps running afoul of the feline street gangs that have divided the whole city into war zones. The only thing in the plus column is his dreams, where he travels to Mesopotamia to learn ancient catly fighting secrets from his ancestor, Jalal Paw. Still, learning is nothing if you can't master them. Can he stay alive long enough to rescue his family?

Cat-on-the-street has been done by everyone from Disney on up, but Said's book stands apart from the rest with his addition of Far East mysticism to Varjak's tale of survival. Also unlike many other cat-on-the-street books, humans have little to no effect on the story, other than the Gentleman. This is all cats, all the time, and the complex feline warfare leaves no room for those pesky humans. Varjak's courage in the face of danger and his own uncertainty will strike a chord with young readers.

What really bumps this book up to a creepy, absorbing saga with a near-mythic sweep is Dave McKean's amazing illustrations. His cats aren't fluffy and whiskery--they're sleek, angular streaks of fur, claws, and teeth. One gets the feeling that this is the way cats see themselves. Actually, seeing McKean's name on the cover is what made me pick this book up in the first place; I love his work with Neil Gaiman, including Coraline.

Said's text is a worthy match for McKean's illustrations. And definitely don't miss the sequel, The Outlaw Varjak Paw.

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