Cats are very much on my mind at the moment since I have a litter of young kittens in the house. So this week I’m going to recommend a book by an author who was particularly good at writing about cats – Robert Westall (1929-1993). His Fantasy novel “The Cats of Seroster” was published in 1984, with a fabulous cover designed to appeal to cat-lovers. It is currently out of print but there are plenty of cheap second-hand paperbacks around. The story is set in 16th century Europe and features a tribe of cats who collectively remember the days when they were revered in Ancient Egypt.
Somewhere in the south of France is a very old walled city, built on a rock riddled with caves. The city is famous for a breed of cats known as the Miw. They are twice the size of ordinary cats and golden-furred. The Miw are highly intelligent creatures who can send thoughts to each other and to the ordinary cats they refer to as the Weaker Brethren. For centuries the city was ruled by powerful Dukes who were catfriends but as the story begins a weak Duke has been murdered by a band of usurpers led by the cat-hating Little Paul. The Duke’s young heir is saved and hidden by Sehtek, the she-cat who leads the Miw and speaks with the voice of “the Goddess-in-her”. She fears that under the new regime the witch-mania and persecution of cats which is spreading across Europe will reach her city. The greed and cruelty of Little Paul and his followers soon cause many people to flee the city but there is one hope. According to legend, whenever the city is under threat a new incarnation of the great warrior Seroster will rise with a golden cat by his side.
Sehtek sends a Miw male named Amon to tell her ally Horse (the collective mind of the wild white horses of the marshes) what has happened in the city. While in the marshes, Amon encounters a young Englishman called Cam. He is a wandering scholar whom people sometimes mistake for a wizard. Cam has been given a dagger by a mysterious blacksmith in return for taking a letter to the Seroster. As Cam makes his way towards the city he discovers that the dagger has alarming powers to change his personality and make him into an almost invincible warrior. Amon’s own journey back to the city is delayed by his decision to help a group of Brethren who are fleeing persecution. When he does get home, Amon finds that things have gone from bad to worse.
Cam discovers the secrets which lie beneath the city and, after a series of shocking events, finds himself leading the men, women and cats who want to restore the young Duke to power. Cam is the most unwilling of heroes and there are many other problems. The city is ably defended by experienced soldier, Sir Henri, Little Paul has spies everywhere, and the witch-burning Bishop of Toulouse and a crusader army is on its way. Can Cam fulfill his destiny without losing himself and can the Miw come up with a plan that will save their city?
Robert Westall was born and grew up in northern England. He served in the British Army for two years and was a teacher and an antique dealer before he became a full time author. He wrote a large number of novels and stories, mainly in the genres of Historical Fiction and Horror, and twice won the Carnegie Medal for children’s literature – for “The Machine Gunners” (1975) and “The Scarecrows” (1981). Many of his books were originally published for children or teenagers but Westall is often regarded as one of the finest of British war novelists. I’m guessing that someone read a synopsis of “The Cats of Seroster” and thought that a Fantasy containing telepathic cats must be for children. However, it is not a book that I would give to a child. All the viewpoint characters in “The Cats of Seroster” are adults and the story deals with the brutal realities of war and religious persecution. This is an Historical Fantasy packed with dark humour and heartbreaking tragedies.
Reading “The Cats of Seroster” is rather like having a cat on your lap which mainly purrs but sometimes turns round and swipes you with all claws out. Westall wrote punchy prose and contemporary-style dialogue and he liked to slip in sudden shocks. Many authors would have centred the whole story on Cam but Westall chops the narrative up among numerous human and feline points of view. He is very good at representing what Amon calls “the clatter and bumble of men”. Giving us a cat’s eye view of human conflicts points up the absurdity of many of the things which people kill each other for. I’m confident that Westall knew everything there was to know about siege-warfare and military strategy and that all the gory details are accurate. Some of the most violent events are described with a detached humour which could seem callous but the underlying feel of the book is compassionate. When Westall wrote about wars he always seemed to empathize with decent men and woman on both sides of the conflict. In “The Cats of Seroster” two of the most sympathetic characters are on the “wrong side” in the plot. Sir Henri is a professional soldier trying to do his duty while mourning the end of the age of chivalry. His brave little she-cat, Castlemew, becomes an outcast from cat society rather than abandon the man she loves.
The depiction of cat society, both among the aristocratic Miw and the ordinary Brethren, is one of the great joys of this novel. Cats feature in much of Westall’s work. Outstanding examples include his children’s novel, “Blitzcat”, which recounts episodes from World War II from a cat’s point of view, and the chilling Horror story, “Yaxley’s Cat”. He was a loving but unsentimental observer of the way that cats behave. The ordinary cats in this novel have splendid names such as Nibblefur and Gristletongue. The minds of Ripfur and Tornear, the two black toms who accompany Amon on his journey, are dominated by the joys of hunting, fighting and mating, while a she-cat in the marshes only thinks contentedly of “Full-belly, lie-sun, lick-fur.” The Miw , who are descended from the sacred cats of Ancient Egypt, are shown as more intellectual creatures who worship Father Re and Mother Bastet. Their eternal warrior Seroster is based on the legendary figure of Sesostris, who combined the qualities of several actual rulers of Middle Kingdom Egypt. The Miw (the Ancient Egyptian word for cat) do have some magical powers but they mainly dominate the city through their superior intelligence. Sehtek’s plan for dealing with the fanatical Bishop of Toulouse is particularly clever.
Cat-lovers should be warned that there are a number of distressing feline deaths in this book, though the impact is softened by visions of the cats being welcomed into the afterlife by the cat-goddess, Bastet. Westall never wrote about wars without showing the terrible collateral damage to civilians and the physical and mental costs endured by the fighters. Many Fantasy novels have reluctant heroes but Cam is more consistently reluctant than most. To him the magical dagger is a curse rather than a blessing. He doesn’t want to lose his own identity within a violent archetype – even in a very good cause. For much of the story, Cam is a failed hero and Amon is a failed leader but then, as an old soldier tells them, “None of us know what we are doing”. “The Cats of Seroster” is a brilliant book about cats which also celebrates how brave and resourceful people can be. Until next time…
P.S. If you are curious about my kittens and their mother, you can see pictures of them at http://www.chalcedon.co.uk/cats