“I mean, if I was going down, I’d rather go with a bang than a whimper, you know? Sometimes, when I’m falling asleep, I think of breaking the latches on every lion and tiger cage in the world. Those cats streaming like fire and lightning into the night. Maybe, if we were forced to feel like prey again, like animals, we’d have a little more respect for the rest of the creatures we share this rock with.”
this is my third book by taylor brown, and while Gods of Howl Mountain is still my favorite, this is one helluva book; stunning and brutal and filled with such powerful descriptions, if you are a reader easily made squeamish, this one will squeam you.
in fact, here’s an open letter to anyone who has ever DM’d me or left a comment on one of my reviews of any book that has a dog in it, hand-wringingly inquiring if that dog is okay at the end of the book. if you can’t handle it when a fictional dog dies nobly, which is generally how dogs die in fiction—self-sacrificing for the love of their person—you can’t handle this book full of animals abused, hunted for sport, killed for their parts and discarded; one utterly wasteful death after another. i’m not someone who responds physically to the written word, and even i squirmed a little. that’s how good taylor brown is at writing about the horrible realities of poaching, the exotic animal trade, and the myriad ways humans exploit the beasts of this world.
and when i say “you can’t handle it,” what i’m really saying is, “learn how to handle it,” because if you don’t, you’ll become complacent and defenseless in your padded comfort zone, as unchallenged as mosi the lion, fed on already-dead meat in the enclosure where he’s kept as a listless pet—a tourist attraction at a gas station off the interstate:
He was never meant to wear a coat so faultless, he knows. The old savannah kings are in his blood. Rulers of the black mane, who wore their scars with pride. Their shredded ears and eyeless sockets. Their coats were storied with old battles, never meant to shine in cages or trophy rooms.
don’t miss out on a strong, important book because you think it’s gonna make you sad. just…be sad. let it rip your guts out. lean into it, let it affect you, and wear those scars with pride, you mighty cat.
having said that, yes, there are dogs in. this book, and the story of huey the dog is particularly designed to break a heart He looked up at Anse, as if to ask if he was doing right.
and for all the parts that hurt, there are redemptive moments to counterbalance those hurts, as our intrepid human characters remove animals from these cruel situations and try to give them back their dignity and freedom, by any means necessary.
he’s so skilled at descriptive writing that there are going to be scenes that’ll hurt your feeling-bits, but not all of his word-paintings are painful, some are just vividly evocative and emotionally neutral, like a character imagining all of the tigers in captivity released into our neighborhoods:
He thought of three thousand tigers bobbing through the darkness, knifing between rows of tract houses and pausing to stare through kitchen windows, watching families like roasts in the oven. They would flash across the highways of West Texas, passing through the lights of minivans and semi-trucks, then disappear again into the desert night, pursued by the manic sabers of helicopter searchlights. A red wreckage left in their wake, the remains of coyotes and stray dogs and children on trampolines. Nature’s serial killers, single-minded and remorseless, released into the night.
aside from that, my only note is about the somewhat amorphous shape of the book. there’s a cohesive story and many memorable scenes, but there’s something unusual to its flow, something that feels…dreamy? slippery? i don’t know how to articulate it, and it’s not necessarily off-putting, but it’s an oddly rendered narrative structure that kept me off-balance. someone smarter than me can pin it down, and i will just be the mouth-breather grunting out, “good book. read it.”
i’m already horrified a handful of pages in. very promising!
here is the part that horrified me five pages in. i am spoiler-tagging it because it is a very long passage, and i’m risking my life quoting so much from an arc, but it’s too gorgeous and upsetting a scene not to share.View Spoiler »It was a bull rhino, gray and hulking like a battleship, fallen on its knees. This double-horned colossus of the veld, square-lipped and gentle as a wolfhound—someone had cut off part of its face. Two bloody stumps rose from the ruin of its head, like trees if trees could bleed, and the animal was still alive, beached in its own gore. Its great ribs swelled against the armor of its hide. Blood bubbled from its nostrils. Long rivulets streaked from its eyes, black as mascara where they cut the dust. This great beast of the field, it wept.
Jaager knelt alongside the animal, placing one hand on its shoulder as he inspected the wounds. The horns were made of keratin, the same as fingernails, but the poachers had cut deep into the quick, excavating the heavy base of the horn. He rose, his khaki shirt blotched dark against his back.
“Kettingsae.” He shook his head. “Fecking chainsaws.”
The horns would be sold to Vietnam or China, ground into a powder believed to cure fevers and strokes and impotence, or to Yemen, carved into the ornamental hilts of jambiyas, the curved daggers worn on the belts of men of status. A single horn could fetch half a million dollars on the black market—more per kilo than gold or cocaine—though the men on the ground would earn only a fraction of the profit.
Malaya squatted in the dust, staring at the butchery. Metallic flies jeweled the open wounds, swirling in glistening clouds. They alighted on her hands, her face, and Malaya didn’t brush them away. She looked into the single dark eye before her, long-lashed in a wrinkled crater of flesh. She’d hunted deer and turkey and squirrel in the Georgia pines of her youth. She’d wrung the necks of chickens for her mother, felt the pop of spine in her fist. She’d shot at men silhouetted on rooftops and balconies and hunted ivory poachers through the bushveld. She was not green. Still, she felt the sting of tears in her eyes. « Hide Spoiler ********************************
still horrified! review to come!