Summary: When countryboy Teo arrives in the coastal city of Tabat, he finds it a hostile place, particularly to a boy hiding an enormous secret. It’s also a city in turmoil, thanks to an ancient accord to change governments and the rising demands of Beasts, the Unicorns, Dryads, Minotaurs and other magical creature on whose labor and bodies Tabat depends. And worst of all, it’s a city dedicated to killing Shifters, the race whose blood Teo bears.
When his fate becomes woven with that of Tabat’s most famous gladiator, Bella Kanto, his existence becomes even more imperiled. Kanto’s magical battle determines the weather each year, and the wealthy merchants are tired of the long winters she’s brought. Can Teo and Bella save each other from the plots that are closing in on them from all sides?
Thoughts: This was my first time reading Cat Rambo’s work, and from this introduction, I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be reading more in the future. Most of my exposure to Rambo was in name only, hers being a name I at least recognized as one that I should read, should probably have already read.
So when offered a copy of Beasts of Tabat, I saw my chance and reached for it. I wasn’t disappointed.
Teo is a Shifter, someone who appears Human but who can change his appearance to that of an animal. In theory, anyway. Teo, for all his attempts, hasn’t managed that transformation, much to his shame. And when his parents trade him to the Temples in exchange for a cure for his sister’s illness, Teo takes it upon himself to rebel and run away, figuring he’ll make his own way in the world rather than be a bargaining chip. Running alongside Teo’s story is that of Tabat’s premier Gladiator, Bella Kanto, who is best known for being the one to delay spring’s arrival every year in a ritual tournament. Citizens of Tabat are understandably annoyed at a delayed spring for 2 decades running, and plots are under way to bring her down.
Honestly, I found Teo’s portion of the story much less interesting than Bella’s, though Teo’s parts were more engaging. From Teo’s perspective we see much of Tabat and its customs revealed, since he’s from a smaller village and has come to a big city and is forced to adapt. He’s a good medium for transferring a lot of that knowledge to readers, and for giving them a bit of a foothold on a world that is very well established and well built but that may not be too familiar to those who, like myself, haven’t read any of Rambo’s short stories set in the same world. But it felt as though more care was given to Bella’s parts of the story. Perhaps it was because her parts were written in first person while Teo’s were in third, perhaps it was because she was a mature woman and he was a teen, perhaps a mix of these and other things. But I found myself much more eager to read Bella’s story than Teo’s as the book went on.
Bella herself was a fascinating character, someone who was scarred by her past and who had made it her goal to put it behind her and rise above what it was assumed she would always be. She had high standards for herself and never failed to live up to them, even when it was pointed out that many people would benefit greatly if she stopped being so rigorous and exacting. More than once it felt as though she was using her public persona as a mask, a shield to keep her more private self locked inside, and it was almost as though she was striving to live up to herself, the image that others had of her. She was arrogant, but it was an arrogance that she’d earned. I disagree with many of the things she did, for she was a very selfish person at heart, but her flaws only made her more interesting to read about, and I think the entire novel could have been about her, from her viewpoint, and I would have loved it.
Beasts of Tabat was a comfortable length, neither particularly short nor dragging on too long, though it did take quite a while to get going. A good half of Teo’s chapters were largely setup to get him to meet Bella Kanto in the first place, to get entangled in a large rebellion, and much of the action of Bella’s chapters didn’t really kick up until the end. Hers seemed more like a character study. So while you may pick up this book expecting numerous high-action scenes, especially when you know there’s a gladiator in the mix, be warned that it’s a bit of a slow burn, taking its time in setting up small and subtle pins all over the place before rolling the ball that will knock them all down. But it is worth it, as the story that Rambo sets up is beautiful and intricate and with far more to it than you first expect.
This was a fantastic introduction to Rambo’s writing, and I can say without a shred of doubt that her worldbuilding is outstanding, wrought with care and full of fine detail that makes it all pop on the pages and come alive for the reader. From an omnipresent fish tea to a powerful woman’s strong sexuality to the way certain Beasts are treated by Humans, there’s a rich tapestry of a world here, one that feels full and complete and with so much potential for an infinite number of stories, which is something I always feel is the hallmark of a well-built secondary world. If the whole world feels like it revolves around the main characters, then the world isn’t very whole. If, as it does in Beasts of Tabat, the world expands beyond the characters, that the characters are shaped by the world rather than the reverse, then it’s a sign of a good and strong world, and that’s the kind that yields the best stories.
Whether you’re a fan of what Rambo has written in the past, or if, like me, you’re new-come to her work, there’s plenty here to entertain. It’s a world that will enthrall, with characters in the middle of real lives that go askew, believable and flawed and full of tremendous possibility, and the ending is such a cliffhanger that I really want to read the second book. Right now. (Is there a time machine I can use to go into the future and get it?) Rambo’s voice is strong and she addresses much that tends to get sensationalized in fantasy, only in a way that makes it all approachable and comprehensible and brings it down to a very human level of realism. Highly recommended, especially for the Bella Kanto parts!
(Received for review from the publisher.)