SF Said,
Varjak Paw
(Dell/Yearling, 2003)

Even if you've have sworn off books featuring cute, talking animals for the rest of your life, British author SF Said's debut novel Varjak Paw might be worth making an exception for. For one thing, it's illustrated by the inimitable Dave McKean of Sandman fame. For another, and not entirely due to the artwork, there is a certain Neil Gaiman-like quirkiness to the writing. All of which is more than enough to ignore the blurb on the back, which makes the book sound as if it were about nunchuck wielding kitties. It isn't. It is, however, about cats and an ancient knowledge in their history called the Way: seven tenets of Eastern philosophy that, learned and applied properly, just might enable young Varjak Paw to save his family -- and himself.

Living with his large family of purebred Mesopotamian Blue cats in stale luxury, Varjak is an outcast. His littermates are too busy playing kittenish, pointless games; his older siblings sneer at his anomalous yellow eyes; and his parents wonder why he would possibly want to go out into the garden or yearn to know what lies beyond the great wall that marks the boundaries of their sheltered world. But all that changes when their owner dies and is replaced by a man with shiny black shoes and two menacing black cats. Worst of all, only Varjak and his grandfather sense their danger. Equipped with three of the seven skills of the Way -- slow time, moving circles and shadow-walking -- but with no real sense of how to use them, Varjak goes out into the city beyond the wall seeking the never-before-seen ancient enemy that might be able to rid them of the man and his strange cats: a dog.

Varjak quickly discovers that nothing is that simple. Once in the city, he is faced with his own ignorance of the outside world, enemy cat gangs, food shortages and the periodic, inexplicable disappearances of cats all over the city. Varjak's quest becomes imperative. Without knowing exactly how the man with shiny black shoes, the continued vanishings, the sinister new mechanical cats turning up in toyshop windows and his own family are related, he knows he must, with the help of a mysterious dream visitor, learn the Way to defeat his enemies.

Part action tale, part coming-of-age story, part comic book and part tribute to Eastern philosophy, Varjak Paw is an intriguing and mostly successful combination of elements. Said's writing is zippy, highly readable and idiosyncratic, perfectly complemented by McKean's atmospheric and deceptively simple, scratchy illustrations throughout. Actually, the pictures are so integral to the story that it's hard to imagine the text without the images. The many attractions of both make it easy to ignore that characters, continually forced to take a backseat to action, are fairly shallow, and the feline mythology and details of the Way are equally glossed over.

Still, it's rare to find children's fiction that makes an effort to integrate philosophy at all, much less into exciting fight sequences, and Varjak Paw does both in a remarkably accessible way. However, perhaps the most interesting -- and for some, the most frustrating -- aspect of the book is the extent to which Said's cats are convincing as cats. They are almost completely uninterested in human motives or actions except where they are directly affected, and none of the humans are even given names. For the reader, it means you'll either have to get used to figuring things out from scanty details and implications, wait in hopes that sequels will drop more hints, or adopt the cats' indifference to such details.

Falling somewhere outside the boundaries of anthropomorphic fantasy, Varjak Paw is an interesting, fast-paced read for a grade-school crowd that also possesses an unexpected amount of crossover appeal for adult readers and Dave McKean fans. Watch out, cute talking mice: here come SF Said's clever, agile, and very hungry cats.

by Jennifer Mo
22 July 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.