Beasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo

072115 Chris Banner

John Barth described Cat Rambo’s writings as “works of urban mythopoeia” — her stories take place in a universe where chickens aid the lovelorn, Death is just another face on the train, and Bigfoot gives interviews to the media on a daily basis.  Beasts of Tabat, the first book in her steampunk/magical fantasy series, is a novel–and a story world–that a reader will want to visit repeatedly. Fortunately, the sequel, Hearts of Tabat, will be published later this year.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 4.24.31 PMTabat is set in a world where steampunk technology and magic exist side-by-side. Humans control the world and intelligent beasts, such as unicorns and dragons, have no legal rights. Created by sorcerers during the Shadow Wars, the intelligent beasts have remained enslaved by the human population. Over time, humans have come to depend economically on the exploitation of their labor and sometimes even their physical bodies.  A new race that can shift between human and beast forms called ‘shifters’ exist on the fringes of society.

Beasts of Tabat focuses on the intertwining tales of Teo, a young boy who has been sold to the Temple by his parents in order to save his younger sister’s life, and Bella Kanto, a gladiator who represents the force of winter in Tabat’s arenas.

Teo’s objections to his slavery are understandable. He is a shifter who is locked into human form. He wants to explore the world and not be bound to the Temple, but the priests use magic to control him. He has read about Bella Kanto’s exploits all of his life, and hopes that she can somehow save him.

Bella Kanto serves as the champion of Tabat and fights for the forces of winter. Until she is overthrown, winter will be the strongest force in the land. This does not set well with the merchants in Tabat, the citizens, or with the Duke who rules the land.

Tabat is seeped in magic and sorcery. The humans hold tight control over the other types of beings. The beasts, many of them recognizable fantasy-type creatures, are treated cruelly. The popular belief is that the beasts are non-sentient, and can be disposed of as animals. They are tortured, broken for service, dissected for magical “parts,” and eaten. Dragon flesh, for instance, is considered a delicacy because of its relative scarcity, although Bella finds it to be tough and stringy. Shifters, when discovered by humans, are killed outright because they are considered beasts who can look human. But shifters will prey on the beasts just as easily as beasts of the wild will prey on them.

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Major Spoilers Ahead—Be Warned!
This is not an easy story. It is not a simple plot that unfolds in a predictable pattern. Cat Rambo creates a highly complex world and brings a reader into it slowly at the start. We begin by empathizing with Teo–a young boy longing for adventure. He yearns for freedom and idolizes the glamorous and brave gladiator Bella Kanto. When we are introduced to her, the backstory of how she was raised, how she became a gladiator, and the reasons why she fights for winter are stirred into the story.

Bella’s attitude and comments about the beasts reveal the main focus of the plot. When faced with helping the Duke choose creatures for his menagerie, she comments: “I have no way to save them, but increasingly I am loath to stand by and watch.” As a reader you might think that you know where this is going, but you would be wrong.

After a few chapters the book begins gaining speed as more and more layers are added to the narrative. This is not a simple tale of good versus evil. This is a tale of shades of grey—of multiple perspectives—of overlapping areas of right and wrong. Rambo has created a society where you cannot characterize anyone simply based on whether they are human, shifter, beast, or something else entirely. You have to judge the characters by their actions and motivations. It is easy to sympathize with some of the morally ambiguous characters in one chapter, only to be repulsed by their actions in the next.

Beasts of Tabat is a engrossing novel. As a reader I was immersed in the story world created by Cat Rambo. I shivered at the cruelty and sometimes bleak outlook of the characters. I reveled in the joy and passion occasionally displayed by Bella, and felt anguish when she was tormented or betrayed. I felt so much sympathy for Teo when he was forced to leave his home and had to smile when he ran away to join the circus. Most importantly, I liked the fact that the races of human, beast, and shifter are not treated in a stereotypical fashion.


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