I was an alien cat toy by Ann Somerville – review

Rating: 10/10 ★★★★★★★★★★ Title: I was an alien cat toy
Author: Ann Somerville
Genre: Fantasy/Speculative Fiction
URL: Smashwords
Price: US4.99
Other Information/warnings: Non-consensual sex, inter-species sex, adult themes.
Summary [from Author]: Temin crash lands on an unexplored planet and gets up front and personal with the natives – who are giant felines.

My Review: To be perfectly honest, if I were prowling the aisle of my local literary chain and came across this book on the shelves, I would have given a little laugh at the cleverness of the title; I might even have flipped it over to read the dust jacket. Ultimately, however, I would have passed it by without a second thought. Not my cup of tea, I would have thought. And I would have been so much the worse for having thought so. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading this novel. I wasn’t sure if it would be a romance, a male/male bodice ripper, or a Pythonian take on erotica, all of which could have gone horribly wrong given the core premise. In the end, what I got was immensely satisfying….a deeply moving story of love, of friendship, of recognizing the things that make us different while still managing to find those commonalities that bind us together. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not a perfect novel and I do have a few gripes, but none are egregious and none detract from a story that is expertly told.

The plot is, at its core, a science fiction and fantasy staple. A stranger in a strange land, captured by those who don’t understand who or what he is, who has to find a way not only to escape his captors, but also some method of getting back home again. We’ve seen riffs on it in everything from Pierre Boulee’s La planète des singes to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and countless other novels over the years. What separates the wheat from the chaff in this genre, however, is execution and that is where I was an alien cat toy excels. It doesn’t suffer from the oppressive dystopia of Boulee’s work or the sometime sickly sweetness of Baum’s; instead, it finds a comfortable balance between those two classics. Pyr Temin is our stranger, a pilot who, on a routine inter-galaxy supply mission, runs into trouble with his engines and crash lands on U67809, a planet which had once been home to a seed-colony of humans that had gone missing some 500 years before. Surviving the crash, Temin determines that his ship was sabotaged and that the damage makes returning home on his own impossible. Depressed at the nearly inevitable possibility of never seeing his family — or his lover, Jeng — again and having few other choices, he sets his transmitters to loop an SOS and sets out into the planet’s brutal winter to find food and shelter. It isn’t long before Temin comes across some of the planet’s indigenous life forms, primate-like beings that he attempts to hunt, with slightly comic results. Yet, the hunter becomes the hunted and the primates scatter as a low growl fills the air. Temin has only moments to think before the huge claws are headed his way: of all the ways he was going to die on this planet death by giant cat wasn’t on the shefting list.

The next time we see Temin is several day later, after he has been made a pet in the home a Kadit, the matriarch of a clan of Daiyne, the cat-people who inhabit this world. Temin is not, Kadit has decided, an ideal pet, far too boisterous and too much trouble for her. She convinces her son, Gredar, one of the clan’s older and most respected males, to take the odd looking “jopa.” Reluctant at first but always obedient to his mother, Gredar takes the naked and frightened Temin into his life. And this is where the story truly begins.The author cleverly uses short segments of each chapter to alternate between Gredar’s point of view and Temin’s as each tries to assess the other. Here the author avoids the Rashomon effect, sidestepping a storytelling method that has become somewhat of a cliché in literature and films. The author wisely chooses not to use the change of POV as a literary trick of rehashing what has come before, but rather as a device to keep the story moving at a smooth pace.

The result is that we see the characters through the other’s eyes, each scene building on the one that came before it. Gredar is fascinated by his new pet, by his intelligence, his hairless features which are strangely alluring. Temin, on the other hand, is terrified of these giant cats and his oversized “prison” and is intent on escape; yet, he also recognizes in Gredar a gentle, intelligent soul who is treating him better than his previous “owners.” The structure provides the reader with an almost bird’s eye view of the delicate dance that goes on between our two protagonists as they learn that they may not be so terribly different from one another. Soon, a tentative trust is born and slowly it begins to give way to a friendship that is mutual, far deeper than a master or his pet loving the other. However, while Gredar is away for a time, he entrusts the care of his “pet” to one of his grooming mates — the arrogant and impulsive younger male, Filwui — who mistreats Temin in one of the most vile ways possible.

The author captures Temin’s sense of betrayal and Gredar’s attendant guilt in heartbreaking, yet utterly realistic ways. There’s palpable sense of loss after this incident, a mourning of the near destruction of the trust that has slowly built between Gredar and Temin. But rather than let it lapse into a malaise that only fuels Temin’s desire to escape and turn the piece into a hollow action-romp, the author uses the event to bring the two characters even closer together when Gredar discovers that Temin has a language all his own. The journey of the two as they discover each other’s words is exquisite in every way, leading the characters to a fuller understanding of one another. After a time, the readers find themselves knowing Gredar’s language and slowly and quietly, the dual POVs meld together flawlessly as the barriers between them fall away.

Will Temin’s lover Jeng ever rescue him? Will he ever see his home and his family again? Or has he found a new home, a new family, a new lover?

Okay, so let’s start with the gripes, minor though they be. At the beginning of the story, Temin believes that his ship had been sabotaged, and wisely the author doesn’t dwell on this as it isn’t really essential to the story at hand. However, later in the novel it is revealed that the ship was indeed sabotaged. The resulting scene is rather expository in nature, an almost forced tying up of loose strings that was a bit of a disconnect for me. Personally, I felt that aspect of the story — and the expository scene — either needed to be excised from the story or integrated as a significant plot element.

As for Temin’s lost lover, Jeng, he is a presence always in Temin’s mind; yet, I didn’t really know enough about him — or his life with Temin — to really feel what the loss of him meant. He really was a bit of a ghost of a character for me and given that the author lovingly crafts such vivid characters in Temin, Gredar, Kadit and their feline family, the result is that when the possibility arises that Jeng might come looking for Temin, I instinctively didn’t like the character…without ever having met him. But, as I said these are minor, minor flaws.

In lesser hands, this story could have been reduced to an entertaining, yet vacuous story. But Somerville weaves in immensely likeable characters in Temin and Gredar, who are so richly drawn that you forget they are of different species. Both are dynamic characters, funny and frightening, unique and sympathetic. And each exudes a sensuality about them that never feels forced…it is simply at the core of their beings.

Somerville’s devotion to her characters doesn’t start and end with the leads. Each of the characters is equally full, from the authoritarian Kadit, to the loveably obsessed clan historian Martek; even Filwui escapes the cardboard-potential that villainy so often entails. Each character is multi-faceted and their motivations — while not always approvable — are completely understandable. The result is that we as readers are given a depth of character and emotion that I haven’t seen much of in the limited amount of fantasy/science fiction I have read of late.

The world building Somerville undertakes is equally impressive. Without resulting to purple prose or the tedious technicalities of layout, she crafts Ptane (the planet’s proper name) and the Daiyne village with such detail that you can see it all perfectly in your head.

Like all good sci-fi/fantasy there is some social commentary in the novel as well. Somerville’s depiction of a matriarchal society and its political structure are deftly drawn, and the story has much to say about the state of the human animal — both through her depiction of Temin and the Daiyne. However, while some writers in the genre insist on hammering home their “message,” Somerville is content to use a very light hand, allowing the reader to take what they will from the piece.

Now for those who like a little sex with their romance, you will indeed find it here and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. I’m rather a prude when it comes to sex, but I freely admit I found the sexual encounters to be intriguing and very, very hot. So hot, I was almost, honestly, a little disturbed by my reaction to it. I think the effectiveness of these scenes is largely credited to the emotional realism of the relationship and the characters that Somerville has created here. The sex is not in any way gratuitous or full of bumbling lusty fantasies. It is fluid and loving and languorous. Best of all, it serves a purpose and was exactly where I wanted the characters to be at that moment.

While all of the piece is well done, where the novel excels the most is in the stunning creation of the bond between Gredar and Temin and the resulting friendships between Temin and the rest of the clan. The result is an honest to God love story, set in a fantasy world, yet grounded in the very real, believable human emotion of the “human” family. There’s a timelessness to I was an alien cat toy, and while there may be no place like home, Somerville — with love and humor and pathos — reminds us that our family, our home, is most often what we make of it.