Review: 'The Blood Jaguar', by Michael H. Payne
I already reviewed this in Yarf! #56, January 1999. But The Blood Jaguar is a good enough novel that I am glad for an excuse to read it again, especially when this edition has eight new full-page illustrations by Louvelex (Lauren Henderson).
Michael H. Payne has been writing his “Around About Ottersgate” tales since at least May 1989, when the short story version of “Rat’s Reputation” appeared in FurVersion #16 (reprinted in my Best in Show: Fifteen Years of Outstanding Furry Fiction anthology in 2003).
After several more “Ottersgate” short stories appeared in s-f magazines and anthologies during the ‘90s, Tor Books published The Blood Jaguar as Payne’s first novel, in hardcover in December 1998. Tor reprinted it in paperback in September 1999 (with a better cover by Julie Bell), but apparently it did not sell well enough for Tor to buy Payne’s sequel.
Now Sofawolf Press has reprinted The Blood Jaguar as an attractive trade paperback with a third cover and interior artwork, and will soon publish the original sequel, a fixup novel of Payne’s “Ottersgate” short stories, also titled Rat’s Reputation.
I am feeling lazy, so I will just reprint my 1999 review from Yarf!, with the page references corrected:
Michael Payne should be familiar to readers of Yarf! for his short stories published here around 1994-’95. He has also had some ’morphic stories published in s-f magazines and anthologies, such as River Man in Asimov’s SF Magazine, August 1993. The Blood Jaguar, his first novel, enables him to expand his storytelling into an adventure of much greater scope, and he takes full advantage of it.
Bobcat is a good-natured but shiftless ne’er-do-well with a catnip addiction living in Ottersgate, a forest animal community vaguely similar to Mark Twain’s boyhood Hannibal, Missouri. He considers himself a practical realist, the opposite of his superstitious neighbor, Skink. So he is especially shaken when he has a terrifying supernatural experience, just after Skink (whose good-luck charm has disappeared) quotes an old family warning from his long-dead grandmother:
“I will tell you how it begins,” she said, “in hopes that you might somehow change the ending. If you should lose your luck—and I pray it may never happen, for it is too terrible to contemplate, too terrible for everyone—but should you ever lose your luck, watch for Bobcat. An awful thing will happen to him, and after that will come the worst thing in the world. You will have to go to Fisher to try to stop it from happening, and I pray you do better than we did. …” (pgs. 10-11)
So Bobcat and Skink go to Fisher, the community’s no-nonsense shamaness and interpreter of the mystic signs of the twelve Curials, this world’s animal Gods (in which Bobcat does not believe). There is also an unmentioned thirteenth Curial, their enemy, the Blood Jaguar; deity of Death. Fisher discovers that, long ago, Skink’s grandmother was part of an adventuring trio who embarked on a quest to stop the Blood Jaguar from unleashing a plague. They did not succeed, and 50% of the world’s population of Skink’s grandmother’s generation died; a disaster from which the world is still recovering. Now it looks as though the Blood Jaguar is coming back to finish the job—unless this generation’s Skink, Fisher and Bobcat can succeed where their ancestors failed. Bobcat’s opinion is that, if their heroic predecessors could not defeat the Jaguar, what chance do the grumpy old Fisher, the dithering and timid Skink, and a bum like himself have?
Bobcat’s adventure is set in an anthropomorphic North America whose gods are patterned upon the Native American animal spirits, but whose politics and nations range from a Yankee frontier-style society of otters, beavers, and similar-sized American wildlife, to a Mongol-style kingdom of buffalo occupying the Great Plains, to an Arabian Nights-city of meerkats on the Colorado River. (Meerkats in North America?) A map shows several large animal cities in parts of this North America that the novel never reaches at all. Is this the first adventure in a world which will explore different geographic areas in future stories, or is Payne just throwing in extra details and attention-catching background mysteries for the fun of it?
And then there are the characters and their dialogue:
Fisher rubbed her whiskers. “Y’know, tea sounds like a good idea. You want some?”
“I’ve got some mint tea in the kitchen. You wanna cup?”
Bobcat’s ears had clamped themselves tight against his head, his whole body shaking, his heart crashing at his ribs. “Tea? What are you talking about? Don’t you understand? The Blood Jaguar is trying to kill me! And I haven’t done anything! Why are you doing this to me? Nothing makes sense anymore! Don’t you understand? Nothing—”
Fisher rolled off her lounge chair and grabbed Bobcat by his scruff. “The world doesn’t make sense!” she hissed into his face, her eyes cold and black, her claws digging into his neck. “It never has made sense! It’s a strange and twisted place that works on rules you have to work to read, let alone understand, and if you ever came down outta that catnip cloud, you’d maybe have a better handle on it! Folks like you are worthless in the real world, Bobcat, absolutely worthless, and I’ll be damned to the Strangler’s claw if I’ll put up with your whining in my house!” Her dark eyes burned into him, and Bobcat felt every hair on his body bristle up. (pgs. 29-30)
Bobcat, who has always considered himself a tough survivor, is disgusted by his own unexpected weaknesses when faced with surviving getting caught up in a battle of the Gods; compounded by fighting catnip-addiction withdrawal shakes at the same time. The setting parades a steady flow of exotic animal individuals and communities past the reader, not the least of which are several of the Curials who make unexpected personal appearances. Each one of the nations visited by the Odd Trio questers is so intriguing that Payne could easily set a whole novel in it.
The Blood Jaguar is not a story of ‘realistic’ animals like Watership Down or of bioengineered animals living in a human civilization like Forests of the Night, because it is not set in our world at all. Call it a funny-animal Middle Earth based on Amerind rather than Nordic cultural elements. Or, don’t analyze it—just enjoy it!”
The only difference is that this 2012 edition does not include the map that “shows several large animal cities … that the novel never reaches at all.” Apparently Payne was planning more “Around About Ottersgate” novels back in 1998, but was stymied when Tor would not buy them. Read The Blood Jaguar, and you will be very grateful to Sofawolf Press for giving Payne a second chance.
Louvelex’s illustrations are technically fine, but Payne’s version of anthropomorphic fantasy has done her a disservice. In the Ottersgate world, the animals can talk and act intelligently; otherwise, they are regular four-legged, unclothed animals. (How they operate a civilization is glossed over.) Therefore the illustrations, which are accurate to the action, are visually unanthropomorphic; no different from realistic wild-animal artwork. Intellectually I realize that this is just what is called for, but emotionally I can’t help feeling that something is missing; that the illustrations should somehow show the characters’ human intelligence. If you feel the same way, blame yourself; not the artist.
It would be nice if the map, or a similar map, is included in one of the sequels. It was really helpful in the 1998 edition.