Saturday 10 December 2011
THE CAT KIN by Nick Green. Reviewed by Ellen Renner
Ben and Tiffany never expected their after-school gym class to be like this. For Mrs Powell teaches pashki, a lost art from an age when cats were worshipped as gods. But who is their eccentric old teacher? What does she really want with them? And why are they suddenly able to see in the dark?
They are going to need all of their nine lives ...
One of the delights of reviewing purely for pleasure, as we do on ABBA, is being able to return to books that have a special place in your affections. I first read The Cat Kin about two years ago, when a couple of friends recommended it to me. And they were right. The Cat Kin is a cracking read.
Ben Gallagher and Tiffany Maine are young teens living in London. They have loving but far from perfect families. They are ordinary, good kids: nice – but not angelic. Their problems are problems many readers will easily identify with: Tiffany has a young brother with muscular dystrophy and her distracted parents often seem to forget she exists. Ben's mum and dad are separated, but (because Nick Green is too intelligent to fall back on easy clichés) there are no villains here, just two adults trying, with mixed success, to muddle through somehow.
The Cat Kin is an adventure story offering classical ingredients: main characters who find they have special talents, an elderly and wise mentor, spectacularly evil villains. But the familiar outlines are filled in with real originality, such as Green's invention of the lore of Pashki. It's a strong plot handled deftly, with plenty of twists and turns, but it is the author's flare for characterisation that I most admire. Green's ability to get inside his characters' heads, reveal their motivations and emotional journeys, and make the reader care about what happens to these kids is what has pulled me into and and through this book now for the third time.
The pacing is consistently spot on. We're immediately drawn into Ben's world, then Tiffany's. Both these young people are isolated: their parents can't, just now, give them the support they need. And so, while hanging out at the local sports centre, they find themselves drawn into the strange classes given by the mysterious Felicity Powell, who teaches them the secrets of Pashki: a martial art that gives the talented and dedicated extraordinary cat-like powers.
Green gives us just enough of their apprenticeship. He has thoroughly thought out his invented martial art and its history, and offers us a taste of it with wit, intelligence and humour. And because he's got the balance right, it's great fun to join Tiffany, Ben and the other children as they learn how to walk and jump with a cat's skill, to see in the dark, to hear sounds no human could distinguish. The Cat Kin can climb near vertical surface and leap huge distances. If they fall they land on their feet, then turn and strike with invisible but deadly claws. Mrs Powell, their enigmatic and supremely talented teacher, is a charismatic character: like a older version of Catwoman, only fighting on the right side this time.
But Green is careful not to spend too long with the initiation into Pashki, fascinating as it is, before we, Ben and Tiffany are flung headlong into adventure and danger. A sinister businessman, a mad scientist, a brother in danger, a missing teacher. The two teens are faced with moral dilemmas as they face seemingly impossible odds. They make mistakes and bad choices, but keep trying to find the right path and the courage to follow it to the exciting, deadly and satisfying end.
Because I'm familiar with the story, having read it twice before, I thought I'd just glance through the book to prepare for this review. I should have known better. I started reading yesterday afternoon and finished over breakfast this morning. Now I'm looking forward to re-visiting the sequel, Cat's Paw, which I remember as an even more compulsive read. Both published by Strident with fabulous covers. Highly recommended for readers from age nine to adult.
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