My favorite Tad Williams story is still the Otherland quartet. Of the three (in paperback: four) volumes in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, I’ve read the first two and left it at that. When he wrote the latter, Tad Williams was clearly still in his Tolkien phase. While this is a “cat book” you can still (or already) see the heavy influences of that most famous of fellowships’ journey.
Published: Orbit, 1999 (1985)
My rating: 6/10
First sentence: The hour of Unfolding Dark had begun, and the rooftop where Tailchaser lay was smothered in shadow.
Fifteen years ago, a young author surprised and enchanted readers with his first novel-the story of Fritti Tailchaser, a courageous tom cat in a world of whiskery heroes and villains, of feline gods and strange, furless creatures called M’an. The book was Tailchaser’s Song, the author was Tad Williams. The legend was born. Meet Fritti Tailchaser, a ginger tom of rare courage and curiosity, a born survivor in a world of heroes and villains… And join him on a fantastic quest – all the way to cat hell and beyond.
Fritti Tailchaser, an orange cat with a white star-shaped patch on his forehead, is easy to love. As cats do, he likes to sleep, prowl and hunt, and play with his childhood friend Hushpad. When Hushpad disappears mysteriously and rumors are spread about a strange danger taking cats from their homes, Tailchaser sets out to find his friend. Accompanied by the kitten Pouncequick – who is adorable as all kittens are – and some unlikely friends he picks up on the way, Tailchaser shall take on his quest and find the truth about what’s haunting the cats’ realm.
We are introduced to the characters slowly and carefully. In finest Tolkien fashion, Tad Williams shows us a world that we can imagine as real from the point of view of the cats that inhabit it. The first half of this novel is very much traveling and world-building, a lot of setting up plot strings and introducing new characters. It felt like reading the Hobbit with cats (and without Gandalf). However, once you hit the middle portion of the book, Williams’ original ideas shine through and in a certain, very scary passage, he won me over again.
Unfortunately, the ending was too deus ex machina for my taste and came rather abruptly. While I enjoyed the darker middle passage (literally dark, they are underground a lot of the time), once the big evil is thwarted (come on, that’s not a spoiler) things go straight back to being your avarage Tolkien rip-off. What’s more, there is quite a large chunk of story still to get through after the big “mystery” is resolved – and to any experienced fantasy reader this mystery is really clear from the beginning.
This is a well-written book, just nothing I haven’t read a hundred times before. I suppose I should be more lenient because it was published in the eighties and fantasy hadn’t developed then as much as it has now, what with gritty and dark being the norm and authors trying to steer away from the pseudo-medieval European setting. But I am not reading this book in the eighties, I am reading it now and it is very dated in its style and plot. I did care about the characters, especially Pounce, but I would have preferred more character development and interaction instead of Tolkienesque descriptions of the forests and rivers. Looking back at the plot, I can’t honestly say that this was a story worth telling. I believe Tad Williams simply had to get over this phase and happened to write a good, publishable book in the process. Just not a great one.
If Memory, Sorrow & Thorn are Tad Williams’ hommage to The Lord of the Rings, then Tailchaser’s Song is his Hobbit. Our cat heroes spend a lot of the book traveling, meeting other cat characters who sing songs or tell stories and old legends. There is mythology shimmering under the surface of every page and the reader can tell that Tad Williams put a lot of effort into making the cat universe believable and consistent with the world as we see it. But I would not recommend this to everyone. Young people who have just discovered books or fantasy or Tolkien will probably love this animal twist on a well-known tale. Those of us who have read too much within the genre to be satisified with a knock-off, don’t waste your time on a merely okay book.
THE GOOD: Well-written, lovely characters and some interesting cat lore.
THE BAD: Deus ex machina ending, basically the Hobbit with cats (and no dragon, sorry).
THE VERDICT: Read it if you can’t get enough of Tolkien’s style. If you’re into more recent fantasy novels, give this one a pass. It’s not a bad novel at all, just not really worth your time compared to the great things the genre has to offer nowadays.
RATING: 6/10 Quite okay.
All of the above said, I am very excited about the upcoming animated movie. The concept art is gorgeous and I think Tad Williams deserves finally having one of his stories adapted for the screen. Another version of a story is also always an opportunity to do it better. In this case, I hope for more bonding between our cat characters and maybe some completely new ideas just for the movie.