“I Am Spartapuss” by Robin Price (2004)

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If I might be permitted a bit of out-of-character punning:
ME-WOW!

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The story behind my discovery of this book is itself an epic. A few years before my birth, a cartoon television program called American Dad featured an episode in which a peripheral character attempted to save a cat that had been hit by a car – during this scene he affectionately referred to the cat as “Little Shoes.” My human is a fan of that program and that line apparently sank deep into his subconscious, because he has periodically referred to me by a certain variation on that name.

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The episode, it should be noted, ends poorly for everyone.

However, in January my human happened to read a book by Edgar Rice Burroughs[1] called I Am A Barbarian. That book was about the young son of Briton chieftan who, captured and enslaved by the Romans, becomes the personal slave of one Caius Germanicus, the boy who would become that most infamous of Roman Emperors: Caligula. “Caligula,” you see, was not his real name. It was instead a nickname given to him as a boy when he went with his father on military campaigns – he would run around the Imperial military camps in silly little boots ill-suited to the rigors of military life, and as a result the Roman soldiers fondly referred to him as “Caligula,” Latin for “Little Boots.” My human had known that once upon a time, but had not made the connection between the two until he read that book. He was appalled to realize that he had been affectionately referring to me by the nickname of one of the most insane, depraved and murderous Emperors Rome had ever known. A man so utterly twisted and mad that the 1979 Tinto Brass/Bob Guccione/Gore Vidal/Malcom McDowell/John Gielgud/Peter O’Toole/ Helen Mirren film may have exaggerated his life story only slightly.

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I can’t say that I was thrilled to discover this fact, but there was something oddly flattering about it. I share my nickname with a Roman Emperor! Chew on that, Lassie!

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So in discussing that revelation with another human we know, one who is a Latinist,[2] he lamented the fact that he had in effect dubbed me “Mew-ligula” or “Cat-ligula.” The idea then struck him that there might in fact be a product with one of those names, so he promptly sought it out in the internet,[3] and lo and behold! We discovered this book.

This mad, silly, delightful book.

Robin Price’s I Am Spartapuss takes place in a world in which Rome was founded by cats and the mighty Feline Empire bestrides the world like an unshakable, fuzzy colossus. It is a world inhabited by talking animals, including wolves, crows and bears, but felines reign supreme in places such as Purrmania and Fleagypt. Just as it should be! The Emperor Tiberius (aka: “Tibbles”) is on his way out and his mad nephew Gattus Tiberius (aka: “Catligula”) is poised to take the throne.

Our hero and narrator is Spartapuss, slave to Tiberius’ ill-tempered, deformed brother Clawdius and employed in his master’s massively-popular spa. Spartapuss is a Kitton (from the Kittish Isles) and does his level best to make his master proud, keeping a journal to help him organize his thoughts and track the busy goings on of an Imperial Spa-slave – and the book itself is comprised entirely of entries from Spartapuss’ journal. Initially our Kitton protagonist is concerned with the day-to-day affairs of running the spa, ensuring that offensive curse-tablets are not left on site and cleaning any potentially-treasonous graffiti from the tiles of the various bathing rooms. But things are not well in the Feline Empire; Catligula’s madness grows with every day, yet none dare challenge his right to rule, and when Tibbles heads to his vacation home Catligula finally rules unchecked. What follows are the trials and travails of poor Spartapuss as even his Imperial master is unable to protect him from Catligula’s wrath. Spartapuss finds himself imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit and then forced to train as a gladiator for the bloodiest games Rome has ever seen – for Catligula’s birthday is approaching and he wants to see something spectacular and gruesome in the coliseum to celebrate…

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“Happy Birthday to me…”

Now it’s worth noting that this book does not deal with the gladiator revolt led by the historical Spartacus. Said gladiator lived over a century before the historical Caligula, and nearly a century before the Roman Republic gave way to the Empire. Spartapuss’ name and eventual training as a gladiator are fictional and coincidental.
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It is also worth noting that this book is primarily a comedy, full of puns and gags and delightful historical jokes. It’s the literary equivalent of a chocolate-drizzled croissant, light and flaky but with a significantly darker turn every so often. It is a story of slavery and gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome, after all, but an ancient Rome full of animals rather than humans.

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And finally, it is worth noting that despite the superficial and structural similarities, this book actually has little in common with ERB’s I Am A Barbarian. Yes, both feature Tiberius, Claudis and Caligula as characters; yes, both purport to be the journals of slaves to the Imperial family; and yes, both make interesting claims about the Imperial family. However, that is where the similarities end.

I will be honest, friends, I really can’t say much more about this book without spoiling it, and this is a book that does not want spoiling. With the loss of Terry Pratchett, I needed something light and fun and this is just what the doctor ordered. I cannot wait to read the sequels, of which there are more than seven! With another coming this year!

So, rather than going into any great detail, I will simply leave you with a list of the best puns found in I Am Spartapuss:

Clawdius.
Mewlia.
Cleocatra.
Mewpiter.
Purrcury.
Hissero.
Hissiod.
Promethypuss.
THE ANCIENT SQUEAKS!

MORE PLEASE!

MORE PLEASE!

 

 

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[1] Of “Tarzan,” “John Carter of Mars” and “The Land That Time Forgot” fame.

[2] The same human who loaned him I Am A Barbarian!

[3] Because of course that’s where one would find such a thing.

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