“Cat’s Claw” (Calliope Reaper-Jones, #2) by Amber Benson (2010)

Another disappointment.

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The front and back covers let you know what’s in store. For example, that cover blurb from the “Sacramento Book Review” assures us that “Amber Benson does an excellent job creating strong characters.” Interesting choice of words, no? It doesn’t mention plot, prose, atmosphere, setting, or even character interactions. It simply mentions that the characters themselves are strong. That’s it. That is the most favorable and important quote they could find to fit on the book’s front cover.

The quotes on the back were from such reputable sources as an amateur horror blog not updated since September of 2010 and a fan-blog dedicated to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (since Amber Benson was featured on that show for a while). Again, that tells you all you need to know about this book. I might fancy myself quite the critic, but I would never expect my reviews to be cited as authoritative sources.

But what is the “Sacramento Book Review” quoted on the cover? Well, friends, I have no idea. I attempted to find out, but when I searched on-line the only search result had the following words underneath its URL: “sacramentobookreview.com. Learn how you can get this domain »|See more domains like this » · This Web page is parked FREE, courtesy of GoDaddy.” When you click on the URL you are greeted with a blank white page; immediately underneath that search result is the actual, functioning page for the “San Francisco Book Review,” and all subsequent links which mention the “Sacramento Book Review” mention it in concert with the one from San Francisco and link back to that blank white page.

I did find this article from Publisher’s Weekly in 2012 which mentions that both reviews were started four years previously, indicating that they were founded in 2008 and implying that the Sacramento version was still up and running 2 years ago. I also found this link on an author’s home page, evidently containing a review from the “Sacramento Book Review” in 2013, but it’s entirely possible he had a friend cobble that together digitally as a sort of vanity project.

The Publisher’s Weekly article also mentions the following: “The book reviews, which are unique from each another and published online bi-monthly – Sacramento one month; San Francisco the next – began as print magazines sponsored by advertisers. In 2011, though, Komlofske stopped the print editions in favor of the online format. ‘Digital is so much more robust, and allows us to be more flexible,’ she says. In the process, 1776 Productions lost most of its advertising dollars. How, then, do the book reviews generate income? ‘We have a “sponsored review program” for self-published authors now,’ says Komlofske. ‘Fees range from $125 to $299. We don’t guarantee a good review. The author gets to approve or reject the review, and if it’s bad they can trade it for a free ad.’ In addition, for a $400 fee self-published authors can be professionally interviewed and recorded for podcasts that are available on both Web sites, and can also be used for the authors’ own marketing purposes. The reviews regularly get a few thousand downloads each month. The company will soon launch a free app for both periodicals that can be viewed as a PDF or on a tablet.”

Unsurprisingly, I could locate no such app, though I did find this: http://download.cnet.com/Sacramento-Book-Review/3000-20412_4-75865539.html
(Note that it received 0 Downloads.)

Now you may wonder why I spent so much time looking into this mysterious and possibly-mythical Book Review. And the truth is that doing so, and reading about me doing so, is more entertaining and engaging than the book I am supposed to be reviewing.

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This is another book I went into with no real expectations; I was just hoping for a fun bit of pulp, intrigued only by the possibility of an urban fantasy which involved an exploration of Egyptian mythology and history rather than elves, vampires or witches. And yet Ms. Benson still managed to disappoint me!

It’s part of today’s popular female-oriented fusion of the urban-fantasy[1] and paranormal-romance[2] genres, a fusion which my human and I both enjoy when it is done well. Patricia Briggs’ “Mercy Thompson”[3] and Diana Rowland’s “White Trash Zombie”[4] series are both spectacular examples of the successful fusion of urban-fantasy and paranormal romance, and I would recommend both of them far more than most of the books I have been reviewing this year (despite Briggs & Rowland’s books’ lamentable lack of felines).  Amber Benson’s Cat’s Cradle has felines, but I would heartily recommend those series over and above Bensons.

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Here’s the summation of the book according to Amazon.com & Goodreads:

 

“Calliope Reaper-Jones is Death’s Daughter. She owes a debt to Cerberus, the three headed dog that guards the gate’s of hell-a debt that involves a trip to Purgatory, Las Vegas, ancient Egypt, and a discount department store that’s more frightening than any supernatural creature she’ll ever encounter.”

No, I didn’t mis-type that. That’s exactly how it appears:

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Now, let us set aside the fact that the “discount department store” she visits is in NO WAY frightening, let alone “more frightening than any supernatural creature she’ll ever encounter,” not even to the fashion-obsessed protagonist. One of the key problems with this novel is that there’s a lot more in it than the simple premise promised on the back. Indeed, this is a long, jumbled, disjointed, incoherent, incongruous story the point of which I repeatedly forgot as I read. Even during the climactic finale, I forgot which of the hodgepodge of plots presented to the reader throughout the narrative was supposed to be coming to a conclusion. And, frankly, I didn’t much care.

When I first started reading, I will admit to being charmed. This is the second book in a series, apparently, but the protagonist succinctly summarizes the few events you need to know to understand the narrative of Cat’s Claw. As in Meow If It’s Murder there were constant references to fashion and clothing, but they made sense in context this time! The protagonist herself was obsessed with fashion and voluntarily lived a pauper’s life so that she could keep her closet full of the fanciest, most fashionable attire; and when, in the course of her various supernatural travels, she ruins or risks ruining a piece of fancy clothing, she remonstrates herself for not taking better care of such things. Her clothing-obsession is likely supposed to appeal to today’s fashion-obsessed modern woman, but it’s generally played for laughs in the novel – an exaggeration of the way many women feel or suspect themselves of feeling. Likewise, the book introduced the feline element early on with the use of catnip in a metaphor, a shapeshifting creature impersonating a cat, and the revelation that the protagonist is herself violently allergic to cats. All charming!

But there were warning signs early on, dark clouds gathering on the horizon of the narrative which eventually burst forth and revealed the author’s repugnant sympathies. That cat-allergy, for instance, combined with the fact that the plot is partially motivated by a desire to fulfill an obligation to Cerberus and thereby keep a supernatural pet dog, smacks of anti-feline sentiment! What is the author saying here? Why, clearly, she is saying that dogs are to be served and loved while cats are to be feared and hated. This message is further hammered home by the book’s DEEPLY insulting depiction of Bast (which I found personally offensive, as a committed Bastian)[5] even as the sometimes-a-cat shape-shifter is revealed to be an unpleasant and sinister entity. Also, Bast (the first actual cat in the narrative) does not appear until roughly halfway through the novel, and then barely appears thereafter. The title’s meaning is revealed at the end of the novel, but it seems like a fairly superficial and tendentious connection.

I was also irritated by the novel’s haphazard cosmology and theology. It was less objectionable than that contained in The Nine Lives of Clemenza, but it was also more preposterous. Rather than guarding the gates to Hades, Cerberus guards the gates to Hell – THE JUDEO-CHRISTIAN HELL.[6] The protagonist was in love with “the Devil’s protégé” (and reference was made to the Devil possessing that young man in the previous novel) and the Abrahamic God is referenced repeatedly, even as the protagonist associates with Anubis, Bast, Kali, Indra… I’ve noticed this about many modern novels: authors think so many things are “neat,” and understand them so poorly, that they just can’t resist throwing them all together, no matter how contradictory or incompatible they may be. And while the polytheism of Egypt and India and ancient Greece might not be entirely incompatible (given enough religious syncretism), no attempt is made to syncretize or harmonize these disparate religio-cosmological systems. Ms. Benson seems to just toss in this or that religious figure because it suits her tastes or solves a plot problem, never-mind the fact that they shouldn’t all exist together without an extensive effort to make them compatible![7]

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And what is more, the author seems to share the West’s adolescent fascination with a Westernized, simplified version of reincarnation (a la The Nine Lives of Clemenza) which she awkwardly bolts on to Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish/Christian religious systems without ever once considering the fact that all of those religions’ actual cosmologies EXPLICITLY REFUTE THE POSSIBILITY OF REINCARNATION. They present a strictly linear existence for humans and other living beings, and all attempts to shoehorn reincarnation into their cosmologies and theologies are the result of incaution and ignorance.[8] Really, I should have known that an author who would attempt to do this would somehow find a way to present Bast in a bad light, but I didn’t want to accept the possibility.

The author also seems not to realize that brimstone[link] is a real thing, as she depicts it strictly in the afterlife and describes it as an “indestructible” substance! Rest assured, Ms. Benson, sulfur is completely destructible.

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Add to all of that the fact that the author uses a shocking rape scene as a comedic interlude,[9] and you’ve got quite the piece of work here.

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So yes, I went in expecting a bit of pulp fluff, but what I got was a mess. A jumbled, incoherent, occasionally-offensive mess. And the truth is I’m not even surprised anymore. My human apologizes for his species’ literary track record, but… Well, I just don’t know.

What’s the point?

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____________________________________

[1] Think Emma Bull’s “War of the Oaks” or Will Shetterly’s “Elsewhere.”

[2] Think …ugh…“Twilight.”

[3] Full disclosure! Patricia Briggs is a friend of my human’s friends. Also, the first book in the “Mercy Thompson” series is good but not great – each subsequent book, however, is excellent! The cover art on the other hand… Well, for a muscular tomboy, Mercy Thompson appears skinnier and skinnier with every entry, and less and less like a reputable mechanic-turned-heroine and more and more like a prostitute. And that is not meant as some sort of scolding, prudish assessment: I have seen prostitutes on film and television who appeared less tarted up, in less revealing attire and in less sexually-provocative poses than the cover artist seems to think Mercedes Thompson needs to be. But again, I am a cat and I now lack testicles, so what do I know?

[4] Which I believe I’ve mentioned before: https://eruditefeline.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/reserved-for-the-cat-by-mercedes-lackey-2007/

[5] Almost everything I could say about this offensive and sacrilegious depiction of my beloved goddess would constitute a spoiler, but I can say that she is depicted as having fallen on hard times, as being subservient to the protagonist’s father, and as the recipient of undeserved snide remarks from the protagonist herself. At the end of the book I was so fed up with the protagonist and her anti-feline attitude that I was practically praying for Bast to tuck her tail immediately below Calliope Reaper-Jones’ nose and thereby suffocate her to death with cat allergens!

[6] And for those who claim that Jews/Judaism don’t believe in “Hell,” I will invite you to actually read the Talmud –in which the Roman Emperor Titus is depicted as burning alive in the afterlife and figures like Balaam and Jesus are depicted in the afterlife as boiling alive (in semen and excrement respectively) for all eternity.

[7] EG: “Job: A Comedy of Justice” by Robert A. Heinlein or “The Broken Sword” by Poul Anderson.

[8] I suspect that the modern human obsession with shoehorning reincarnation into as many incompatible religious systems as possible has something to do with the brevity and singularity of human lifetimes. You lot have but the one, while we felines enjoy a robust nine! …Though I have but seven remaining me, as a run in with a suburban possum when I was a feral kitten cost me one and I am presently living the other.

[9] The protagonist recalls how she attempted to rape her college boyfriend while drunk and then felt offended and hurt when he fled and rightfully called it “rape.” As written, one can imagine some wacky trombone music playing while the protagonist shrugs and mugs at the camera and the audience is expected to laugh. Yet this is a scene where, if the sexes were reversed, it would be regarded as a textbook case of date-rape, proof of rape-culture on campus, and used to motivate feminist bloggers and activists to rally and petition for the closure of the university and the expulsion of the attempted-rapist. And, to compound matters, the author even goes for the old “if-they-don’t-want-to-have-sex-they-must-be-gay” canard, a lie often used against members of BOTH sexes to try and bully them into having sexual encounters they don’t wish to have. For shame, Amber Benson. FOR SHAME.

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