THE TALES OF CATT & FISHER: THE ART OF THE STEAL edited by Justina Robson (BOOK REVIEW)
As soon as I saw this ARC available I jumped at the chance to revisit Solaris’s “After the War” setting, and in particular the two central characters featured here. (I haven’t reviewed Tchaikovsky’s Redemption’s Blade for the Hive, but the short version is: fast-paced and fun fantasy adventure with some neat twists and interesting worldbuilding that tackles a few deeper issues along the way.)
Doctors Catt and Fisher are wonderful characters, a charming blend of witty banter, extravagant magic, questionable morals, and a knack for getting into (and out of) trouble. When they first appear in Redemption’s Blade you feel immediately comfortable with them and want to see more of them (as the author himself apparently discovered). While they echo famous fantasy duos from Fafhrd and Mouser to Tarma and Kethry to Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, they soon carve out their own space – and the challenge for the three new authors here is to give them the tales they deserve, as well as getting their character right.
On the whole, I’d say it was a resounding success. The shared world setting is a big help, allowing almost anything within high fantasy, though, as with many of the more generic fantasy settings like D&D this does lead to a certain sense of historical uncertainty. Some of the stories seem almost 19th Century in society – which suits Catt and Fisher – while some have cannons and others plate armour (yes, I know these overlapped, but not quite like this). But that’s all in the sense of fun, because, while it does tackle serious subjects and themes, this series doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The first story is penned by the original author, so Catt and Fisher are note-perfect, of course. The story itself is the type of playful adventure that the playground of the setting is made for, and there’s a sense of unfinished business as Tchaikovsky addresses one of the most memorable – and tragic – creatures from the world’s extensive collection. The fact that I’d figured it all out quite early on was just icing on the cake to be honest. In tone and style this is perhaps the lightest of the four, but while it’s the prototype it shouldn’t be assumed the others are trying to match it exactly.
Freda Warrington’s style doesn’t quite have the deftness of the first, especially in terms of the two main characters, but was still a cracking adventure with monsters galore (insects, which I’m sure Tchaikovsky appreciated!). It focuses on new characters, with C&F more in the background than others, and also strays furthest (both geographically and style-wise) from the established world. But it’s also perhaps the most epic and has some touching – and dark – moments.
Juliet McKenna’s story nails the style, with subtler intrigue involving the wider post-war recovery geopolitics, and excellent use of established nations and races. It’s not quite as spectacular (in magical or monstrous terms) as the previous one, but I feel that suited C&F very well.
I hadn’t read (or even heard of) KT Davies before but their story was perhaps the most impressive, really nailing the central characters as well as introducing a new and entirely fitting dimension, and some good side characters. Probably the smallest in scale, the characterisation was really sharp and the prose delightful. As with McKenna’s, there’s scope to continue the story and I would have happily kept reading!
All in all, four different takes on two great characters, each author bringing something different and interesting to make a lovely little collection. You don’t have to have read the other books to enjoy them, though you probably get a bit more out of them if you do. Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for the opportunity to review it!