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The Wild Road    by Gabriel King order for
Wild Road
by Gabriel King
Order:  USA  Can
Arrow, 1999 (1997)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Wild Road has all the traditional elements of a great fantasy adventure ... a young hero coming of age all unaware of his talents, a wise magical mentor, royalty to be saved and an evil and powerful villain. It just so happens that our hero is the Burmilla kitten Tag, his mentor the one-eyed black cat Magicou and the villain is the long-lived human Alchemist. But Wild Road does not have the feel of an animal story. The reader identifies with the feline protagonists as people and feels, like them, that the humans in their world are Dulls.

King has developed a wonderful felidae mythology underpinning his tale, my favourite being his creation myth, in which various creatures appear in the eyes of the Great Cat of the World, and tumble down into her fur in a torrent of life. When all seems over and she is almost asleep human beings appear unbidden and out of darkness to huddle in caves. The Wild Roads themselves are magical and perilous animal pathways that channel the earth's power. Nuggets of feline myths are to be found throughout the book.

We first meet Tag in a pet store. He successfully ingratiates himself with a young couple seeking a kitten, while Magicou watches over him. Tag is creamy white with lambent green eyes, intelligent and full of energy. He is happy in his new home until the magpie draws him outside, voices talk to him about a mysterious task and a fox gives good advice ... Eat when you're hungry, sleep where it's dry. No one is ever what they seem.

There are other wonderful animal characters in this story, especially Magicou's two loyal agents. Loves A Dustbin is a cosmopolitan fox, generous to his friends and not at all comfortable in the countryside. The magpie One For Sorrow taunts the cats and helps them at the same time. There is the ever practical and widely traveled Southern belle Sealink. And then there is the very special Cy, a small tabby with a sparkplug in her head. She annoys Tag while she endears herself to him and continually spouts nonsense ... or is it really?

The Wild Road has been compared with Richard Adam's works. It certainly shares many of the same elements as Watership Down, in particular the innocence and essential goodness of its main character, but I find The Wild Road stronger as a work of fantasy. As in Adam's The Plague Dogs, it takes on the issue of human experimentation with animals, though indirectly and not as the main storyline. Like human highways and traffic, experimental labs are simply some of the horrors that exist in the feline world.

This is a marvelous tale, whether or not you like cats ... but if you do, that makes it even more delightful. It is a story that can by enjoyed by younger readers, though not too young as the plot is quite sophisticated. Gabriel King takes young and old down his Wild Road into a well realized, mythic and fascinating feline world, with engaging characters. I hope to see a lot more of them.

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