Book Review: Beasts of Tabat
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Every week of 2016 I am going to read and review a book. This means that while you may not always get an in depth dissection whatever my gut reaction to a book was will be presented here without time softening my opinions.
Cat Rambo is one of the best short story writers alive today and her Tabat setting has been a constant source of delight. It is what I like to call a fantasy “kitchen sink” setting where everything from every mythology is thrown into a world together. In this case the obvious emphasis is upon the many different creatures that a lesser writer might describe as monsters, the so called Beasts of Tabat. The setting is subtly built up in offhand comments and descriptions, from the Old Continent destroyed by magical war to the thriving port city of Tabat, centre of the New World.
Needless to say, when I discovered that she had written a novel set in Tabat I was a little bit excited. Which is probably the source of my problems with this book.
There are two main characters in this story; Bella Kanto is a celebrity gladiator, her life magically bound to the fate of the city of Tabat as she duels a fresh contender each year to see whether spring will come early or winter will go on for another month. Bella is a wonderfully rich character, riddled with flaws and contradictions that explain themselves perfectly as her history is unveiled for us. Her story plays out like a Celtic myth cycle. She cannot betray her principles despite the pressure of the whole world upon her and it inevitably drives the tragic climax of the story. Bella's story is the only one that comes to any sort of conclusion and even it is not satisfying.
The second character, who is inexplicably framed as the main one, is Teo and he is where a great deal of the books problems come into play. He is a shapeshifter, from a village of shapeshifters, but he cannot shapeshift. Whether this is due to his mysterious shadow twin that died at birth or due to some other circumstances is never made clear. His story plays out more like a traditional hero's journey, he is forced out of his provincial life and dragged to the city of Tabat, a place he has spent his whole life reading about in awe. Once he is there he is saved from the gutter by Bella Kanto and discovers a conspiracy to overthrow the humans of Tabat and supplant their rule with that of the Beasts that the city uses as a slave workforce. Except that honestly, he doesn't.
While Bella's chapters are used to explore her character and her interactions with the people of her city, Teo just mills about encountering random people and events until he eventually bumps into the main story by accident. In the final throes of the book while the culmination of Bella's story should be our focus he suddenly develops the ability to shapeshift, which he uses exactly once for no purpose and he is also randomly employed by a circus run by the moustache twirling sorcerer that intends to overthrow the rule of man. Finally, when he grows the spine required to stand up to the sorcerer he is turned into a dog.
So much of Beasts of Tabat seems to be set-up work for a follow up book and it makes what could have been a poignant ending fall flat. When the unstoppable Bella Kanto is brought low by a stupidly simple conspiracy in the end, it could have been by any of the many enemies that she had given cause to hate her throughout the course of the story, it could have seen her torn down by her own hubris but instead guilt was assigned to the mysterious circus master to try to give him some air of complexity.
At no point reading the story do you fail to empathise with the titular Beasts. They are clearly a stand in for every oppressed people in history and treated as less than human for their differences, so was it some attempt at maintaining moral complexity that had the leader of their uprising cast as a sinister villain?
There is so much to love in Beasts of Tabat, the writing is as precise as all of Rambo's other work and the characters are fascinating but the pacing is all over the place. There are clearly a great many different threads being woven together in this story in preparation for the future of the setting and I have no doubt that the follow-up stories will be spectacular but a novel has to work as a complete story in itself and in this Beasts of Tabat fails.
Then again if my only serious complaint about a book is that there needs to be more of it then you probably already know that it was pretty damned good.