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The Wild Road
The Golden Cat

Gabriel King
Arrow Books, 463 and 350 pages

The Wild Road
The Golden Cat
Gabriel King
Gabriel King is actually two authors -- Jane Johnson and M. John Harrison.

Jane Johnson is Publishing Director of Voyager and Tolkien for HarperCollins UK. In her 14-year tenure, she has bought and helped to develop the careers of authors such as Raymond Feist, Katherine Kerr and Julian May.

M. John Harrison is a lifelong writer and author of many novels, among them: The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, The Centauri Device, and The Course of the Heart.

Married for 10 years, Johnson and Harrison began working on The Wild Road in 1995 and credit the book for "...[keeping] us on very good terms, despite the inevitable aesthetic wrangles!"

ISFDB Bibliography: Gabriel King
ISFDB Bibliography: M. John Harrison
SF Site Review: The Wild Road

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Gabriel King's The Wild Road and The Golden Cat are novels of cats and magic. One side of me says, "Wow! great stuff," but as much as the feline characterization was superlative, the mysticism (i.e., the mythology and rules of the cats' supernatural world), particularly in the second novel, became convoluted and, at times, virtually incomprehensible. Were I reviewing strictly the non-mystical, animal adventure portion, I would rate the books well above Tad Williams' Tailchaser's Song (1986) and approaching Paul Gallico's classic The Abandoned a.k.a. Jennie (1950), and his well known The Three Lives of Thomasina (1957). However, the books, particularly the second, remind me of the dichotomy of William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land (1912), where the material that makes up the author's stunning nightmare world-at-the-end-of-time outshines anything written since, but the execution is severely marred by pseudo-Elizabethan prose and saccharine sentimentality. Similarly, with The Golden Cat, either you get over (or ignore) the tortuous mysticism and appreciate the wonderful characters -- or you don't.

One also gets a strong impression that the authors are members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) or some similar anti-vivisection/testing-on-animals group. In the first novel a human character simply named "the Alchemist" is portrayed very much like a research scientist gone mad with lust for torturing animals. One of the main characters, Cy, is a young female that escapes a research facility with an electrode still stuck in her head, causing her to have epileptic seizures and other brain disorders. In The Golden Cat we are privy to a research lab where cats are held constantly immobilized until they develop severe "bedsores" and one cat has an eye surgically removed. While I won't get into the ethics of animal research, this aspect may be a bit strident for some like myself, but others may find it quite appropriate in the context of feline-human interactions.

In the first book, a young tomcat named Tag, is commissioned by a mysterious old cat named Majicou, to find and lead a pair of royal cats, one Egyptian and one Norwegian, to Tintagel (the mythical birthplace of King Arthur), where they are to mate and produce the Golden Cat, the potential healer of a troubled world. Tintagel is also the nexus of a network of extra-dimensional cat pathways permitting rapid travel between an entrance and exit point, regardless of the true physical distance separating them. The so-called Wild Roads, are guarded over by Majicou. The Alchemist, former priest of Bubastis, ex-master of Majicou, and cat-torturer extraordinaire, has sought to prolong his life, gain the ability to shape shift into a cat, to control the Wild Roads, and obtain the Golden Cat which he believes will serve as his key to ultimate power. Tag, along with some other cats, a fox and a magpie have many adventures and ultimately appear to have defeated the Alchemist.

In The Golden Cat, however, a growing pall hangs over the Wild Roads, dead animals are accumulating at its entrances and exits, and a strange vortex threatens the cats' world. The three golden kittens born of the royal match disappear one after the other, and only one returns to aid Tag in unravelling the mystery.

In The Wild Road, the rich and complex story of the adventures of Tag and his friends, traipsing across urban and rural England, in the shadow of the battle between good and evil, strikes an excellent balance between an animalistic and anthropomorphic treatment. Unlike many novels using animal protagonists, the characters in The Wild Road maintain their quest far more from basic animal survival instincts than by any human-like psychological drive to overcome adversity or evil. There are occasional lapses into human taboos, as when Sealink begins to avoid more intimate contact with Red, the male she has discovered is her own son.

The initial development of the story might be a bit slow for action film-bred North Americans, but once the quest starts the risks and dangers and consequent injuries and death are very real. I particularly enjoyed the authors' avoidance of the standard "group of individuals on quest all work together to defeat the enemy" plot. Quite early in the first book, the initial group becomes fragmented. Ragnar, the Norwegian royal, just recently a showcat, is initially whiny and indecisive, but through his solo adventures becomes the resourceful and heroic kingly figure he is destined to be. Mau, the somewhat stuffy and slightly cracked Egyptian royal, along with Sealink, a hard-as-nails, self-sufficient globe-trotting female, travel by sea and land to reach Tintagel, learning much from each other. The well developed non-feline characters, the tireless fox "Loves a Dustbin" and the cranky magpie "One For Sorrow," servants of Majicou, serve to link the separate parties. These animals as well as their feline counterparts are rich and complex, each having their own histories, personalities, and hurdles to overcome.

In The Golden Cat, perhaps because the threat to the characters is not as tangible and the mystical elements supersede the adventure, there isn't the sense of survival against incredible odds, or the immediacy and dark threat of The Wild Road. However, the episodes relating Sealink's quest to find her own lost kittens in her hometown New Orleans, certainly make up the best, and least mysticism-laden portion of the novel.

When it comes to the mystical elements, these tend to remain largely in the background at the beginning of The Wild Road, enhancing the sense of mystery of the cats and their powers. However, as the book progresses the mystical elements multiply. Similarly, The Golden Cat begins in a fairly straightforward manner and progressively becomes more and more embroiled in the mysticism of the wild road, the role of the Golden Cat and the rest. Cats travelling on the back of a ray-fish via the wild roads of aquatic denizens begin to tax one's suspension of disbelief. Finally, the resolution of the conflict makes for a muddled and contrived ending.

Certainly if you're a cat lover or enjoy animal-based fantasy, by all means read both books -- you'll find well developed and complex animal characters that aren't tainted with human motives and reasoning. However, understand that for this pleasure you will have to put up with a certain amount of mystical dross, that while at times may enhance the mystery of cat-ness, at other times obscures it.

Copyright © 1999 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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