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Unread 09-29-2006   #1 (permalink)
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Default The Mark of the Cat

Customer Review: The Despised Non-Warrior
Mark of the Cat (1992) is the first novel in the Outer Regions novels. The Five Queendoms of the Outer Regions are each associated with a particular gemstone: Vapala with the Diamond, Kahulawe with the Sapphire, Thnossis with the Ruby, Azhengir with the Topaz, and Twahilic with the Emerald. Each queendom varies in its terrain, customs and products, but all are ruled by a Queen and owe allegiance to the Emperor. Vapala is the richest queendom in water -- thus having much more vegetation -- and considers itself to be the only civilized queendom in the Outer Regions. The Emperor has grown frail and his death seems imminent. Haban-ji has ruled long and peacefully, but his passing will lead to dissension among the Queendoms. His son, Shank-ji, has openly expressed his intention to undertake the trials to be the next Emperor, thus keeping the office within the queendom of Vapala. This break with customs has irritated many traditionalists, especially in the other four queendoms. The people of the Outer Regions have a religion similar to Druidism, but they do not have gods and goddesses per se. Rather they have aware and intelligent Essences that guide each queendom and have aspects peculiar to that specific queendom. A greater Essence guides the Five Queendoms as a whole. Each child is taught how to communicate with the Essences, but some persons have greater abilities to contact and receive information from them. In this novel, Klaverel-va-Hynkkel is a native of the Queendom of Kahulawe. He is the second son of the last full commander of the queendom's forces. Hynkkel is not a warrior, showing little talent with traditional weapons. He is skillful with sling and staff, but these are considered to be merely tools of the common folk. He excels in the maintenance of the algae ponds, is talented with animals, and surpasses all others in trading with merchants, so he has been allowed to work as a servant to the House of Klaverel. Yet his father Meguiel treats him with disdain and his brother Kalikku openly calls him a weakling and tries to bully him. Hynkkel goes to market one day and is summoned to a sick animal belonging to Ravinga, the doll maker. He calms the animal and searches the mane for the salsuckers that frequently torment yaksen. Instead, he finds an evil amulet -- a desert rat tooth with strange markings -- that Ravinga knocks from his hands and ritually destroys. She then gives him a round pendant fashioned with the head of a Sand Cat by a master craftsman. When Hynkkel comes home from the market, he is met by his brother and sister. Kalikku immediately notices the pendant and tries to take it, but Melora-Kura, his sister, blocks this effort and asks to make a drawing of it for her files. Hynkkel learns that they have come to fetch him for the choosing feast of Siggura, his other sister, who has just come into heat. Since she is envious of Kura, Siggura is sure to make a big production of the ceremony; Melora-Kura has never come into heat and doesn't want to, but Siggura really doesn't believe anyone would not desire to be the center of attention at such a feast. Hynkkel immediately dumps his burdens in his hut and goes to prepare for the ceremony. Mieu, the kotti who has adopted him, refuses to follow, but rather stays behind to guard the pendant. Hynkkel spends many hours preparing for the feast; finally returning to his hut, he finds Kalikku standing over an injured Mieu. The kotti has stoutly defended the pendant, for blood is dripping from Kalikku's right hand. When he checks his kotti, Hynkkel finds her near death. Kalikku immediately accuses Hynkkel of killing the kotti and taunts him with the truth that their father would believe him over the despised Hynkkel. The pendant is under Mieu's body, protected from the thieving brother. Hynkkel sadly wraps her body in a colorful scarf and buries it under a rock cairn. He is still grieving for his friend when a herdsman comes to tell him that his father wants to talk to him at once. Within his father's house, Hynkkel learns that his father has decided that he will solo, performing the journey alone through the desert that is required to claim adulthood. Of course, his father foregoes the usual feasting and other aspects of ceremony, but rather takes him out blindfolded into the desert and then completes the abbreviated ritual by knocking him out and leaving him with his few weapons and other goods. In this story, Hynkkel meets a Sand Cat in the nearby slickrock isle. The full grown cat has been injured by desert rats and Hynkkel gains the trust of the cat with his innate talent with animals. Then he uses his knowledge of animal doctoring to treat the wounds. When the local rats attack them, Hynkkel and the cat successfully repel them. The Sand Cat's mate appears during a rat attack and helps repulse the attackers. Although at first she is leery of Hynkkel, he also gains her conditional trust. A rogue Sand Cat later appears and tries to fight the injured cat for his mate, but Hynkkel and the female chase off the rogue. Later the desert rats attack the rogue and Hynkkel goes to his defense. After the rats kill the rogue, Hynkkel buries him in a vertical pit in the rocks and piles rocks on the top to keep out the rats. Hynkkel discovers that he can converse with the Sand Cats using their language and mindtalk. After several days, the male cat is recovered and both cats leave the cave where they have been staying. Later, the cats return with a rather large cub whom they offer to Hynkkel as a guide. When he protests that he knows nothing about raising cubs, they quietly laugh at him and explain that the cub is to take care of him. The Sand Cats are impressed by the pendant given to Hynkkel by Ravinga. They call a gathering of the pride and allow Hynkkel to participate, as best he can, in the singing and dancing. Of course, Hynkkel is unable to glide through the air like the Sand Cats, but he does try a few moves of his own. After the gathering, Hynkkel and Murri leave the slickrock isle and set off toward the trade road. In this story, Hynkkel grows quite close to Murri, the large cub. They trek through the desert and the edge of the Plain of Desolation, following the guidance given by Murri's parents. Eventually they come to an oasis, where they meet an old bard who becomes a close friend to Hynkkel and teaches him music and Vapalan court etiquette. Later Hynkkel is chosen by the Royal Blue Leopard to participate in the trials to replace the Emperor. Murri accompanies him during the testing and acts as his guide, advisor and friend. Since his brother has told everybody who will listen about his weakling ways, Hynkkel's guards and the people he meets tend to look upon him with disrespect. Hynkkel definitely needs a close friend. Highly recommended for Norton fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of exotic cultures, political intrigue and magic. -Arthur W. Jordin
Customer Review: The Mark of the Cat
This book is short, and what is there deserves five stars. However, the story feels unfinished. Hynkkel, rejected to the role of servitude by his family and despairing over the murder of his pet cat, is forced into a manhood ritual by his father. He emerges from this test of survival with a new grace and self confidence and new friends, including a feline, but still finds himself on the outskirts of society. He is dismayed when he is seemingly forced into a new and surprising path. Just when the Essence smiles upon him and he appears to be a winner, the book ends with more questions than answers in the reader's mind. Once again Andre Norton's writing is superb. Hopefully, there will be a sequel, otherwise the book is as unsatisfying as decaf.

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