I absolutely adored this book! Partly, I admit, this may be because I love cats, so a story about a group of stray cats in a Delhi neighbourhood is bound to spark my interest. Also partly because it reminded me so much of Ursula Le Guin’s Catwings, which I loved as a kid. But mostly, it’s because The Wildlings presents us with such a beautifully imaginative urban landscape, where animals have created their own community and systems of power, and humans are mere “Bigfeet” who are relegated to the background.
Roy creates a memorable cast of feline characters: Miao, the wise Siamese; Katar, the gruff second in command; and Southpaw, the irrepressible kitten whose desire for adult responsibilities reminds me of the naivete and exuberance of Simba in The Lion King singing “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King.” The delicate balance of their lives is upset when a kitten named Mara, moves into their neighbourhood, and turns out to be a powerful Sender, a cat with the ability to communicate telepathically over great distances and with other animals. Being new, a house cat, and utterly unable to control her powers, Mara is viewed with suspicion by the neighbourhood cats, and the story begins with them sending one of their best fighters to neutralize the threat.
I love so many things about how the cats are depicted in this book, and Roy does such a great job giving her characters human-like thoughts and feelings while still maintaining their feline instincts and attitudes. It was fascinating to see Mara explore and then learn to control her powers. I love how her loneliness due to the wariness from the neighbourhood cats leads her to reach out telepathically to the zoo and befriend a tiger instead. I also laughed at her confusion over her Bigfeet’s behaviour — why don’t they seem to like the toys she knocked off from the shelves? — and her confidence that she will eventually succeed in training them.
The villains are a group of feral cats who live in a seemingly abandoned house. They are vicious and unbound by the rules that govern all the other animals. When a kitten literally falls into their lair, they refuse to give it sanctuary, nor to accept its surrender, even though these are courtesies that feline rules dictate should be extended to every cat. That encounter was one of the most terrifying scenes I’ve read in a while, and even I couldn’t believe I was so emotionally involved in the scene. The novel takes a darker turn when these feral cats decide to take over the streets, and the neighbourhood cats must find other allies to help them defend their territory.
I was completely riveted by this book. I loved the story, I felt an emotional connection with the characters, and after reading it, I hugged my cat and vowed to play with him a lot more often. If you love animals, if you love stories about friendship and power and tight-knit communities, and especially if you love cats, definitely give this book a try. And if you’ve read it and loved it as much as I did, a sequel The Hundred Names of Darkness will be published in Canada in July 2016.
One minor note is that I see a lot of reviews on Goodreads that praised the illustrations throughout the book. The copy I have only has an illustration on the inside cover, and I feel like I missed out on part of the experience, so I’m now on the hunt for this edition.
Thank you to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.