“Apprentice Cat” by Virginia Ripple (2012)

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I feel I should mention something right off the bat, something which I wish I had known when I first picked up[1] this particular volume: before beginning her career as an author, Ms. Ripple went to a seminary to train as some form of Protestant minister. Had this been included in an introduction or preface to the text itself, rather than an afterword, it might have spared me some confusion and shock when this fantasy novel set in another world full of talking cats and wizards began to depict a very transparent Christianity-analogue in a positive manner[2] complete with cat-filled parable-analogues and at least one actual quote from the New Testament.

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So there’s that.

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But passing over that, will you enjoy this book? That depends in large part on whether or not you find the following premise intriguing: “Harry Potter” with cats as protagonists and villains.

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Yes, this is a book about young wizard-cats at wizard-cat-school stopping an evil wizard-cat from pursuing his murderous dream of wizard-cat supremacy.

A young bright-orange tom named Toby (whose father mysteriously disappeared years ago) must leave behind his wizard-cat mother and her wizard-human colleague so that he can attend wizard-cat-school. Wizard-humans evidently also go to school, but both groups of wizards pass through a training period where their own individual magical talents are evaluated; after this training period, each “chosen” cat is paired up with a similarly-“chosen” human to train together. And in a refreshing departure from so much of fantasy and horror literature, these cats are not mere familiars! Rather, wizard-cats must team up with wizard-humans lest either one be overwhelmed by their magical experimentation and wind up dead…or worse. In fact, the text seems to imply (vaguely, I’ll admit) that while humans require cats to help control their magic, talented cats can work on their own – these solitary feline-wizards are called (fittingly enough) “Loners.” Cats who are not “chosen” are allowed to return for the following year and be re-evaluated; whether they can do so as often as they please or eventually exhaust their re-application opportunities is never explained, but since “Loner” wizard-cats are explicitly stated to be wizard-cats whose wizard-humans have died (with a single exception featured in the novel) one assumes that they can just keep re-applying and being re-evaluated until they either give up or get it right.

So Toby must undergo the evaluation period, endure mockery and abuse from cats of noble lineage  who believe non-nobles shouldn’t be admitted to wizard-cat-school (he himself is only half-noble), and hope against hope that he is paired with a friendly, competent human-wizard. Because once a wizard and a cat are paired up, then their magical training begins in earnest!

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But all is not well in wizard-cat-world… A mysterious cabal of feline-supremacists is working to undermine the current state of feline/human relations even as a terrifying plague sweeps through the civilized world, felling cat and human alike. And his lone friend at wizard-cat-school is taken under the wing of a suspicious and snide wizard-cat leader named “Chivato”[3] whose relationship with his wizard-human may conceal far darker secrets than any within wizard-cat-school wish to confront.

Will Toby make it through the evaluation stage? Will Toby be “chosen”? If chosen, will his new human-wizard partner prove a boon companion or a bane? And, most important of all, how do the feline-supremacist movement and sudden plague connect to the disappearance of Toby’s father?

Now, I will admit that I’m assuming a lot of things here in my explanation of the plot. This is because the book leaves a lot unexplained – for instance, we never really learn about what the humans are up to before they are paired with their feline masters. Thus I assume they went to school to prepare to work with wizard-cats, since the cats’ initial schooling is focused on evaluating whether or not they are ready to work with a human. And since no human “Loner” wizards are ever mentioned, I have to assume that those who fail to meet the cat/human wizard-team criteria are simply sent home in shame or permitted to re-apply indefinitely.

But while young Toby is busy attending his magic lessons, being bullied by the purebloods…er, I mean, “nobles,” and  stopping Voldemort…er, I mean, “Chivato” and thwarting his nefarious use of the Dark Arts…er, I mean “Shadow Arts,” there’s a lot more going on here than you might expect. And a number of intriguing questions are raised.

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For example, everyone in this world appears capable of learning magic, which leads one to wonder why anyone would choose NOT to study magic. The world clearly has plenty of non-wizards, as the protagonists encounter carriage-drivers, barkeeps, bar-wenches, gardeners, etc. none of whom use magic. But why? Did they opt out of wizard school? Did they decide magic required too much study? At least in the “Harry Potter” novels it’s established that magic-use is an inherent ability; this book makes no such claim, yet also fails to explain why anyone would choose to study anything else.

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Furthermore, all cats and all humans can speak to one another. Now, think about that. In the book they are depicted as speaking in English, but are they really? Is it not more likely that, in this world of magic and wizards, humans have learned to speak in meows, posture, scent, etc. like we felines? Certainly it would be a more civilized mode of communication.

Also, the books make a big deal out of “noble” vs. “lowborn” cats (rather like the “Pureblood”/”Mudblood” dynamic in the “Harry Potter” novels), yet the criteria for these designations are never explained! There seems to be no analogous binary at play among humans, so how do cats wind up “noble” or not?

Really, this book has a lot of potential, especially if you are a fan of the work of J.K. Rowling, but it never quite gels. There are far, far too many questions raised about the setting and the characters which are left unanswered for no clear reason; yes, there are at least two other books in the series and this is only the first, but Toby is not a complete novice when this volume begins. Unlike Harry Potter – who grew up in an abusive, neglectful non-magical household and thus needed to slowly learn everything about his new magical environment while simultaneously jugging his studies, his social life, and his struggles against Voldemort & co. – Toby is raised in a wizarding household by attentive wizard-cat parents and a wizard-human. Theoretically this means he will not need as much explained to him, but it also means that the author’s burden is greater: she must explain to us what Toby should ostensibly already know without making it seem like she is ham-fistedly inserting exposition into the narrative. Yet, throughout the book, Toby often appears as utterly clueless and ignorant about his OWN WORLD as young Mister Potter. I suspect the author didn’t really think that hard about how she wanted things to be explained to the readers, and as a result much of the richness and detail of the setting she has created…simply isn’t. It’s absent. It feels like we’re watching Toby’s adventures through a cracked and fogged glass, sometimes hearing only every other word! Even the interpersonal relationships lack depth: by the end I really didn’t know how Toby felt about anyone other than his one wizard-cat friend (arguably the best-written character in the novel), didn’t know how they felt about him, and didn’t especially care either way.  And Toby’s mother actually comes across as abusive, judgmental and hateful, though we are clearly supposed to assume she deeply loves her son and is just using tough love on Toby. Thus, at a later point in the novel when her life is imperiled, the reader is left nodding approvingly and thinking “Oh, good. She is too awful to survive!” only to marvel at Toby’s inexplicable concern for and tenderness toward her. While a complex psychological reason could be given, no such reason appears within the pages of this novel. She’s just his mother, so he’s just concerned for her. That’s all. Because that’s what sons feel towards mothers, right? No matter how horrid they are to them, right?

No, Ms. Ripple.

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That’s not right.

We need to BELIEVE the relationships and dynamics established in the novel, but so many of the elemental components are missing that it never quite hangs together as a coherent narrative. It’s very fashionable to sneer at Ms. Rowling’s work today, especially when one knows nothing about the Late Antique Mediterranean magical tradition,[4] but she at least knows how to world-build effectively and create engaging characters and relationships.  Most of that is missing from Apprentice Cat, and I hope these flaws are eliminated and the writing refined in the following volumes. Because at it stands this is yet another example of a lost opportunity in cat-lit. The cats demonstrate emotions in very feline ways, with posture and whisker movements and repetitive kneading, and they largely control their magical powers with tail-movements – that’s all very well-thought-out and pleasing to imagine! Ms. Ripple has the marble, but she hasn’t finished releasing the statue from it! We might have had our own “Harry Potter” franchise had Ms. Ripple just born down a bit harder on this story. But once more we are left with only the lingering promise of what might have been…

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[1] Well, dragged using my fangs and claws from the pile sitting beside the bed.

[2] One rarely expects non-sectarian fiction to positively depict ANYTHING having to do with religion, let alone Christianity, these days.

[3] Those fluent in a Romance language will likely recognize what this name portends…

[4] EG: “Accio” was one of the most common and basic components of any Latin summoning spell; “Alastor” was the name of a Greek vengeance spirit; etc.

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