This month, I’ve reviewed some books where animals are the primary characters. A popular book that came out relatively recently, The Wildings was an easy choice once I found it. I definitely recommend the book to people looking for a good read, who need something similar in feel to Watership Down in their lives, or who want to drink down a lovely work with non-human characters. Word to the wise: like Watership Down, I may not suggest this for young children. There is a fair amount of blood and kitten death, and it mentions cat promiscuity in a couple scenes (though there is nothing sexually explicit).
Author: Nilanjana Roy
Written in 2012
International Version Published by Penguin Random House Canada
This month is Animal Month, so I chose to read The Wildings. It was available at my library, so I checked it out there. There is also a sequel, but I wouldn’t worry about needing the sequel if you just want to read the first book.
This book was excellently written, edited, and put together. Though the book was character driven for the majority of the time – the plot picked up in the last third of the book – the excellent construction and development made me not care so much. Roy described the non-human physical traits well, and their interesting, predatory values differentiated them psychologically from humans – or “Bigfeet.” The ending was satisfying, and I had a good time throughout the read.
The book was hard to place thematically, but I believe the tension between nature and nurture weaves itself into the story. There are a wide variety of cats who behave and pursue prey with differing values, and the excuses the Nizamuddin cats (the set of main characters) give each are intriguing. Even at the end, the two sides are left side by side, the value of both remaining in balance. Unlike many other animal books, which set nature and progress against each other, that seems mostly absent in The Wildings.
The ensemble cast in the book, in my opinion, was both a strength and a weakness. I enjoyed the chapters about Mara and Beraal, but those about Southpaw and Miao did not strike my fancy. The unlabeled switching between viewpoints didn’t work out terribly well, but neither did it kill the story entirely. At the same time, without the author’s use of multiple character viewpoints, I’m not sure she could have built the villain and setup quite so well.
Because it has to happen with an animal book: it was very good, extremely good, but I would still have to say it lacks the sheer perfection of Watership Down. The plot doesn’t thicken until very late in the book, and that allowed my attention to lag in places. Whereas the bloodiness in Watership Down accentuated the dire situations, some of the more graphic pieces of The Wildings didn’t really seem to add very much.
SPOILERS AHOY: Plot Review
The Nizamuddin cats seek to kill a new Sender – or a psychic cat – when it shows up in their territory. Beraal, a warrior queen, finds the Sender to be an indoor kitten who accidentally broadcasts her thoughts. Beraal trains Mara, the Sender, toward the end of developing her powers for use on her clan’s side. Mara psychically meets a family of tigers and a lemur, makes friends with the tiger cub, and then is rejected by the tiger cub when the zookeepers give him a female tiger to screw with. The cub’s father then becomes friends with the astral projection of Mara.
Southpaw, another kitten in the Nizamuddin clan, is a curious twerp who often gets into trouble. He seeks new information about the Shuttered House, or a place where a crazy cat guy lives. When the older cats take him, he is nearly killed before the crazy cat guy sets him free. Importantly, though, he learns that crazy cat guy is sick, dying, and the Nizamuddin cats begin to fear the time when the Shuttered House cats have no more food and have to come outside.
Mara and Southpaw meet and become friends while the older cats continue to hunt. Eventually, though, Katar notices that the crazy cat guy has died, and the Shuttered House is opened by emergency workers. The Nizamuddin cats then arrange themselves, other cat clans, and potential bird allies to fight the war against the Shuttered House cats. When those cats do leave the house, they begin by leaving a bloodbath of innocent prey behind them. In the opening salvo, the warriors of Nizamuddin fight well, but elderly Miao falls. Psychically, Mara brings a projection of her tiger friend to the battle, and the tides turn. A mongoose then kills the primary villain.
Until the last bit of the book, it’s unclear exactly what the plot is. It’s not clear that the Shuttered House cats are going to be the main villain until Katar sees the ambulances. As a result, the plot was pretty weak. The character building done in the first two-thirds of the book, however, fed very well into my knowledge about the situation and villains once it did get started. I didn’t feel like I was being robbed of my time for that first part of the book.
There really isn’t much to say about the plot otherwise. There just wasn’t very much of it, in my opinion.
SPOILERS AHOY: Characters
The strength of the book, Roy’s characters were very, very well done. Each cat had distinct mannerisms and, most of the time, I could imagine different characters for each of them. Most of the time I could anticipate the speaker based off the content of their dialogue.
My favorite character, Mara, was just a sweetheart. I liked how she was fond of her Bigfeet, something that none of the wild cats seemed to appreciate. I also enjoyed her desire to overcome nature, or being a predator, and how it was shown to her that she couldn’t. She was a far more interesting kitten than Southpaw – a well written character in his own right. A more rambunctious kitten than Mara, Southpaw’s primary characteristic was his curiosity. Several unfortunate accidents befell poor Southpaw, and his resilience made him all the more interesting.
I liked each of the adult cats of Nizamuddin. It took a while to differentiate Hulo and Katar, but Miao especially was interesting. Her wisdom made her mysterious, important, and distinct from the other cats.
Probably the weakest characters – probably an effect of the weak plot – were the Shuttered House cats. They were insane and slowly murdered everything in their paths. While the excuse given was that being inside cats broke them, I didn’t quite get into their motivations. In contrast to General Woundwort, the villain of Watership Down, the motivations of the villains in The Wildings was esoteric and somewhat halfhearted. Madness, to me, always seems a poor excuse for villain motivation. It was ok, since it fit thematically that poor nurturing can destroy a cat’s nature, but not entirely the best part of the book.
SPOILERS AHOY: Setting
The book is widely praised for the richness of the Indian setting, and I have to agree. It was difficult for me in the beginning of the book, but I did my homework and looked up the words I didn’t know. I’m now aware of far more Indian plants, animals, and buildings (the ‘dargah’ and ‘baoli’ were some of the things I definitely needed to know about). If you’re not familiar with India, I definitely suggest starting out with a computer handy so you can look up specific terms. There’s not too many in a small space, so it doesn’t break your ability to concentrate on the book.
What I find more unique about her setting, however, was the way the cats interacted with it. The invention of the psychic links between cat whiskers was really, really weird, but still creative and interesting. It made for a world that had a dimension humans can’t experience. There was almost a furry-level of obsession with whiskers, though, so just be wary of that. The psychic powers of the cats weren’t terribly incorporated, and I thought it made the book both clearly fantasy. At first I didn’t like it, but it grew on me, and by about halfway through, I definitely liked it.
Next week, I suppose I have a break week during which you’ll just get a neat surprise, but expect a post describing my June books coming out on June 5th!