review by Tessa
Mr. & Mrs. Vu
Jack the Magic-less Cat
One day Emma’s older sister Helena is around and life is happy. Then Helena goes missing, and her family is quickly losing all its money in trying anything to find her – including associating with crags, or magical creatures, a culturally-shunned segment of the population. It isn’t long before Emma takes advantage of her parents’ distracted and stressed out state to accept the help of cats in order to pursue her own investigations.
So, unfortunately I haven’t had time lately to read much middle grade fantasy so I’m not even going to try to couch my comments in relation to the field as a whole. I’m just going to tell you why Claws grabbed me.
It’s set in a world where magic is known but not socially accepted, except by excitable teenagers who watch a show called Gnomebots, read Tiger Beat style magazines about the glamorous (literally) lifestyle of fairies, and read dubious information about the magical world on CragWiki. However, most people avoid crags and, therefore, Emma’s first encounters with them are a little scary and not what she expected. The book opens with Emma and her parents moving into a decrepit house next to the big forest that took over a human city some years ago. Crags live near there, but most humans have relocated. Emma’s parents have had no luck with normal policework in finding Helena, her father has lost his business, and he’s ready to try the magical underground for any information on his missing daughter.
Emma finds that her next door neighbors are a boring snake-man who has a lecture for everything and a hag who has had all of her teeth pulled so she won’t eat any more children – doomed to a life of unfulfilled hunger- but that doesn’t stop her from trying to lure Emma into her house.
Pretty much immediately, Emma finds that a cat has been living in her family’s new house, and he doesn’t intend to stop doing so. Cats are magical creatures and can talk in this world, and this cat, Jack, has done something to get him kicked out of his pride. But he also has a way to transfer the pride’s power to Emma. He wants her to do this, and in return, he’ll help her find Helena.
I loved reading a good fantasy grounded in reality that didn’t exalt magic but still made it exciting, dangerous, and fun. Each crag that Emma meets has his or her own personality, and the crag world, apart from the class tensions between it and humans, has clear tensions between creature groups and within peer groups. The Grintis pack all of this effortlessly into 250 pages. The reader doesn’t have to work to see it happening, but it’s not explained in expository dialogue, either (thank goodness). The facts that are presented straightforwardly come in quotes from CragWiki at the beginning of every chapter, and serve to deepen the world.
Does this book fulfill its intentions?
Claws hit a sweet spot for me, readingwise. Emma doesn’t hesitate very long before accepting Jack’s deal. I could easily see the book veering off in a much different alternate-future direction, where it spends the first book with Emma hemming and hawing about her decision, in order to stretch out and become a trilogy. Instead Emma goes for it. In a sense she has nothing much to lose – her friends at school have turned against her now that she lives in an undesirable area, and she’s lonely all the time – she misses her sister and her parents are fully preoccupied and brokenhearted for the same reason. But I feel like she also decides to accept Jack’s offer of the Pride Heart because it’s exciting. I’d be willing to bet that most 12 year olds have an innate sense of their own impending destiny – who among us wouldn’t have accepted the chance to assume the source of power for a pride of magical cats? (Cat-allergic peeps aside.)
Once her decision is made, Emma is set up for a crash course in Adventure and Split Second Decisions, and after a few false starts it seems she’s well-suited for it. I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, but I will say that the end set-piece, which takes place in a faery-run high rise in the human downtown, is a particularly well-done example of the ways in which the faerie can be simultaneously attractive and deeply, primally scary. It involves something called eye-puppets.
In addition, Claws was refreshing because it provided intrigue and a personal-growth story with real emotion and imagination, and, because of its target market, had none of the love triangle or sexy urban werewolvery that has become so tiresome to me, even secondhand from reading reviews. I could read it and wholeheartedly enjoy it in the moment as a grown lady, and also think about how much I would have loved it as a younger person.
– I met Rachel Grinti at a local conference where I was co-presenting something and she gave me a copy of Claws for free cuz she’s nice. I’m so glad that she did.
-Emma’s parents are Vietnamese-American and when she’s feeling tired of her new family life as The Girl With the Missing Sister and worn down by her new cat magic responsibilities she reminisces about the better times when her family would make homecooked meals. I think it’s safe to say that this is the only book I’ve read that could make me want to eat banana pudding.
Readalikes, as far as imaginative worldbuilding goes.
The War Between The Pitiful Teachers and the Splendid Kids by Stanley Kiesel
The world of this book isn’t strictly magical, it’s just weird and surreal and things matter of factly happen that you as a reader know are totally crazy but you don’t care because it has hooked you with its very weirdness. A girl eats a janitor and it blew my mind that that could even happen in a book.
How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier
The fairies in this book are very much fairies and not faeirie as in Claws, but Larbalestier brings the reader into her sort of complicated world–where everyone has an invisible fairy that bestows specific luck or powers onto their human, and it’s luck of the draw whether you get a good one or a useless one, or just a really annoying one–with ease.