The Cats of Seroster know what’s best for them

Book cover: The Cats of Seroster - Robert Westall (a tall dark man with a two-handed sword glowers out, surrounded by huge golden-haired cats)Young Cam is tasked to journey to a distant city with a letter and a dagger that he can’t get rid of – no matter how he tries. Hunted through the wilderness, he realises he has been tricked into more than just carrying a message. But the city and its cats need a Seroster. Can Cam avoid the fate being forced on him?

Unlike Alanna and The Silver Brumby, I have no idea when I first acquired The Cats of Seroster, I just know it’s been on my shelf a very long time. It’s one of the few fantasy childhood books I don’t have in common with most of my friends, which suggests it may have always been a bit of an oddity. It’s only rereading it as an adult that I realised quite how unusual it is.

Cam of Cambridge is a young Englishman in (13th/14th century) Provence, desperately in need of work, much too clever for his own good, and already a narrow survivor of accusations of witchcraft.

The Miw are great golden cats who fled Ancient Egypt, talisman of a nameless city on a hill. When the Duke is murdered, the Royal Miw Sekhet (a glorious bundle of pride and bad temper) rescues his young son and leads the cats – Miw and normal Brethren alike – into war against the usurpers.

The storylines take half the book to collide as Cam struggles against the fate carried in his cat-head dagger. Where most childhood fantasy is about farmboy heroes, brave knights or individuals stepping up to a glorious destiny, Cam spends three-quarters of the book looking for ways to sidestep his. He has no desire to be a warrior, nor a leader, and is terrified of giving himself over to the ferocity of the Seroster. The cats, naturally, have no qualms about herding him along.

Cam’s reluctance to be a hero – and the fact that the Seroster isn’t really a hero, he’s a ruthless, competent warrior – both make the novel stand out for me. The Seroster is terrifying; Cam’s reluctance to allow himself to be subsumed by him is understandable. The heroes here are the cats (poor out of his depth Smerdis; god-touched Amon; the foul-minded ruffian sons of Nibblefur; and old Castlemew, bound by love to a sozzled knight on the wrong side of the conflict) and the townsfolk who take up arms; Cam spends much of his time trying to run away and even works for the usurpers. He’s an antihero, selfish and almost cowardly, bullied into doing what is expected of him.

I loved the prose (NB mileage may vary: it is littered with ellipses and sentence fragments, although exclamation marks are thankfully limited to speech and inner monologue), which is as blunt and unadorned as the setting. This mediaeval world is filthy, dirt encrusted and stinking; only the cats regularly wash themselves. The whole experience is slightly bruising – viciousness, murder, theft, threats, catdeath and torture – rather than flag waving and glorious victories. Consequently, it leaves me slightly astounded that I loved this as a child. That said, I suppose I had been prepped by the grim victories of Alan Garner… and well, it was about cats.

It loses a half-star for its womenfolk, who are disappointingly limited to being wives or harlots. There is only one female human character of note, a merchant’s daughter with funny ideas about chivalric dues and a bubbling cheek that could have been fabulous if she’d got more page-time and – crucially – a name (she ultimately gets called the First Virgin, which pretty much rounds out the role of women here). This is conceived as boys’ fantasy, then, although thankfully there’s no sexism amongst the cats.

If you can step past that, though, this is striking and interesting, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.