REVIEW: Cat’s Tale: A Fairy Tale Retold by Bettie Sharpe
Dear Ms. Sharpe,
I was a big fan of your previous reworking of the story of Cinderella, Ember, so when I heard you had another novella out based on a fairy tale, I was intrigued. I was slightly dismayed to discover that Cat’s Tale was based on Puss in Boots, which is a fairy tale I’m actually not familiar with (I only know of the character played by Antonio Banderas in the Shrek movies, who is, admittedly, adorable). One of the pleasures of Ember was recognizing the echoes of the original story in the adaptation, and so I was a little disappointed not to have that opportunity with Cat’s Tale. But I pluckily soldiered on anyway.
Catriona is born to a minor count and his wife, who are somewhat in disgrace in their unnamed kingdom after some unpleasant business involving an unsuccessful coup. Catriona grows up to be clever, beautiful and somewhat immoral; she manages to kick the dust of her hamlet off her heels (a good thing, since she has something of a shoe fetish) and get the king to marry her.
The king is old and unappealing, but Catriona does her duty, and cheats up a storm on the side. She loves court: the worshipful courtiers, the gorgeous dresses, the fabulous jewels, and of course, the shoes (at one point she denies the ridiculous assertion that she has 100 pairs, failing to mention that it’s actually 200). Eventually, the king dies, leaving Catriona a merry widow, albeit one determined to hold onto her wealth and status. When she comes down on the wrong side of a power struggle between the king’s wizard and the king’s daughter (the wizard wants to marry the daughter and rule in her place; the daughter would prefer to rule herself, thank you very much, with her female lover at her side), Catriona finds herself transformed into a cat. A cat that the evil wizard then attempts to drown in a pond. Luckily, she’s able to escape from the sack he’s placed her in, and as she ponders what to do and how to get herself back into her gorgeous human form (she thinks killing the wizard would be a good start), she encounters a poor miller’s son, Julian, a handsome young man whom she’d locked eyes with years before (and never forgotten) as she was being driven in a carriage to the city to wed the king.
I probably shouldn’t give away too much more of the plot, since it’s only novella-length. Suffice to say, I have now looked up Puss in Boots on Wikipedia, and the plot of Cat’s Tale follows the former in some respects and diverges in others. Julian and Catriona (rechristened just Cat) become friends, after he gets over his surprise at a cat that can speak, and she determines to help Julian and herself each get what they want. At first Cat’s motives are not noble (and her methods are definitely questionable to the Dudley-Do-Rightish Julian), but as they come to know and care about each other, Cat experiences the first stirrings of conscience of her life.
There’s a lot to like about Cat’s Tale – the writing is smart and snappy, and I rather liked the narcisstic and selfish Catriona. Sure, I wanted to see her grow and reform, but I also appreciated that she didn’t angst over her previous callousness, nor become a total goody-two-shoes. Julian is not a hero with a lot of depth – he’s mostly good and good-looking – but it’s actually kind of touching how attached he becomes to Catriona in her cat form. In fact, the whole relationship between man and cat is a clever way of developing a bond between the hero and heroine that is both platonic and yet true and heartfelt.
I have few quibbles with Cat’s Tale – it’s not a particularly deep or emotional story, but even for a reader who likes angst as much as I do, that’s okay. I was a bit confused about the issue of Cat talking – most of the characters respond with shock at hearing a cat talk, but in one or two instances there’s no reaction noted (for instance, when Cat goes to court in her quest to fool the princess and courtiers into believing Julian is a wealthy aristocrat), which seemed strange. But even those who do react get over it quickly, so I figured in a kingdom where magic is known to exist (e.g. the evil wizard) this isn’t huge issue.
All in all, Cat’s Tale: A Fairly Tale Retold is a charming novella that made me hope for more stories in the same vein. Beauty and the Beast, anyone? My grade for this one is a high B+.
And another word from our reviewers.
Dear Ms. Sharpe,
I first came across your free short story, Ember, several years back and I was impressed. The short story is a minefield of a genre, especially for the romance which somehow seems to be constitutionally unable to be contained by so brief a word count. The fact that you were able to contain that romance, and in the process create vivid and complex characters, was enough to put you on my writers-to-watch list. When I saw your novella, Cat’s Tale: A Fairy Tale Retold, was available on NetGalley, I grabbed it hoping it would deliver the same visceral and dense storytelling I so enjoyed in Ember.
Cat’s Tale, as its name would suggest, is a retelling of Ye Olde Puss n’ Boots story. It is told in the first person by one Catriona, detailing her rise from the clever, but illiterate daughter of a two disgraced nobles to courtier, and then to cat and back. Ambition characterizes both Catriona and her parents, and the trait that was the downfall of their hopes points towards a similar fate for their daughter. Lady Catriona, though, is not ambitious for political power but for wealth and praise. Her entire goal is to be esteemed by those around her, to be acknowledged for her considerable beauty and to own as many pairs of shoes as possible (the latter of which I can sympathize with). Through a series of very clever contrivances, Lady Catriona manages to get herself married to the king. She doesn’t become Queen, though. She is merely his consort. But this does not bother Lady Catriona, who is satisfied by this state of affairs since it gives her as much glory, lovers and shoes as she desires.
When the king dies, Lady Catriona’s power and prestige suddenly becomes nebulous; nebulous to the point that it might dissolve altogether. Lest she be retired to some remote country estate where there will be neither lovers nor shoes, nor lovers of shoes to provide Catriona with amusement, Catriona, out of boredom and a deep-seated sense of self-preservation, decides to throw her cap into the political ring. Relying on the clever, ruthless brain that got her to the palace in the first place, Cat decides to align herself with the Crown Princess, Etheldred. Here’s the problem: the council—being men and led by the nefarious wizard, Galfridus—want to marry the princess off before they allow her to ascend to the throne. The princess, being disinclined to marry much in the manner of Queen Elizabeth I, isn’t going for that idea. Especially since Galfridus is proposing himself as the groom. The two women end up allying themselves with each other for mutual benefit. Unfortunately, after Cat seduces Galfridus and reveals his plans to Etheldred, he decides to turn her into a cat and drown her for interfering in his power ploy. She’s a threat, and we know what happens to those.
But Cat, being Cat, survives—nine lives and all that jazz. And here begins the part that I’m sure you all are familiar with. You’ve probably guessed by now that our hero is the miller’s son. And he is. In this story his name is Julian and he was first introduced to us as some particularly tasty eye-candy when Catriona first journeyed to the palace. But he’s not just a pretty face. He’s also good and kind and true. Not to mention smart. He’s just got this terrible habit of believing the best in people, which is what gets him into trouble when Cat first meets him as a cat. Cat, being Cat, recognizes a sucker for a sad story when she sees one and convinces Julian that what he really wants out of life is to be the consort to a Queen. Oh, and she also promises him Lady Catriona. It turns out Julian was just as smitten with her beauty as she was with his, all those years ago.
What ensues is the story of how Cat and Julian fall in love as Cat pursues her vendetta against Galfridus. They get into all the adventures you expect that they would—the scene with the ogre turning into a mouse, the Marquis de Carabas, etc. But this isn’t really just a retelling of the old tale. More than that, it is a story about how a woman transforms, both literally and figuratively. Now, I’ve been putting off writing this review for a while. Mostly because I’ve been trying to articulate what didn’t work for me, and that’s proved difficult. But before I go into all that I want to address what did work.
It occurs to me that many readers probably aren’t going to like Catriona much. She’s selfish, shallow, spoilt, ruthless, and, occasionally, downright mean. But I liked her. In fact, I think Catriona is the cornerstone and foundation of this book. She’s the one driving it, both as a character and as a narrator. I was rather charmed and delighted by her bad behavior. I appreciated it. I’m tired of these heroines who can’t wait to crawl up on the cross and crucify themselves for the most asinine of reasons. It is rather relieving to read about a heroine is does the exact opposite. Catriona makes this book. Like Scarlett O’Hara and her own namesake, she always lands on her feet. She’s the one who drives the story.
But, like I said, this is a story about transformations, it isn’t just about Cat. It is about how she learns to love, to be selfless –not totally selfless, but selfless when it counts. It is about how she transforms from a woman who doesn’t believe in anything but shoes, to a woman who believes in love. And I’m afraid that I had two main problems with the way this transformation occurred.
First, Julian’s a bit of a cypher. He’s not sticking in my brain real well. I mean, Catriona’s voice is so strong and Julian’s is just . . . meh. Or to paraphrase one of those Jersey Shore kids, he was just there . . . like furniture. It wasn’t that Julian was terrible or totally uninteresting¸ but that he paled next to the blaze of Catriona’s characterization. Which demands the question: what about him was it that changed Catriona? What was it about him that made Catriona want to change?
The second problem is related because I think that the reason that it wasn’t apparent why Julian would be the one to change Catriona, was that it was not always apparent how Catriona had changed. The story is told in first person perspective, and this creates two Catrionas at any given moment in the story. There’s Catriona, the character, and then there is Catriona, the narrator. Catriona, the character is the one who is changing, transforming and adventuring. Catriona, the narrator is static. She’s already been changed, already been transformed and is done having adventures. Where one begins and the other ends isn’t always made distinct in the prose. And that’s my problem. If I, as the reader, can’t distinguish between the Cats, then how can I see the change Catriona has under gone? How can I believe in the love between her and Julian as a power of transformation, if I do not witness that transformation?
It is clear from the text that this is a story being told from a future position as the following quote illustrates:
“Goodbye, my darling Lyell,” I said, my voice a sultry purr.
Hand on the sill, he turned to me with somber eyes. “Goodbye, Catriona. I hope you never regret your choice.”
Regret? What was there to regret? Two days hence I would be as close to queen as any woman in the land could hope to be. I would be consort to the king, with dresses and jewels and ladies-in-waiting. I would have courtiers to flirt with, and a cobbler on call to craft me lovely shoes in every color.
“Regret?” I closed the casement after Lyell. “I do not know it and never will.”
I would not know it, not for years yet to come. But when at last I felt its bitter burn, I would remember the look in Lyell’s eyes as he turned away. I would remember and weep to think that I had treated love so lightly. That I had scorned a heart so true.
Okay. But later, when Julian and Cat are plotting:
“Good. I want you to write a letter informing the wizard that there has been a fire on his estate. The grain stores burnt, or some other dire emergency.”
“Why? What exactly is your plan?” Julian asked.
His question brought me up short. I was not used to answering for my plans. Lyell had been putty in my hands since we were mere children. The king had doted on me, and the courtiers with whom I’d cuckolded him had always been smitten to the point of stupidity.
But I was not a beautiful woman anymore. I was a cat. A sleek, dashing cat, to be sure—but nevertheless, still a cat. I had my wits alone to rely on. No. I had one thing more than my wits—I had my friend, Julian.
Okay. But which Cat is speaking? The Cat in the dialogue is the character, but the narrator is there in the exposition. Did Cat think of Julian as her friend in this moment? Or is she seeing him as her friend in hindsight, sure in the knowledge that he is her friend and that she does love him? You see my problem. By not being able to tell where narrator ends and character begins, I cannot totally be certain of the moments where Catriona’s perspective about love and life starts to shift. I cannot tell whether her attitude is that of the narrator or the character at that particular moment in time. And because I cannot tell the difference, because I cannot make the distinction, I can’t totally believe that it is love and friendship that alters Cat.
As a fantasy, this novella was quite enjoyable. But the way in which Cat, the narrator and Cat, the character kept bleeding into one another took the teeth out of the romance. If this is a book that is exploring love as a kind of magical transformation, then I need to see that transformation clearly enacted in the same way I clearly see Catriona become a cat.
But despite these two, not inconsequential problems, the novella worked because of the power of Cat’s narration, and the power of Cat’s character. Her force of personality comes out more than anything else in the story, casting everyone else into shadow. As an adventure story about a strong, clever, slightly amoral woman it works. As a story about the transforming power of love? Not so much. But overall, this is solid book, an enjoyable and engaging read. B-