The Prince of Cats by Daniel E Olesen
When a few weeks back Daniel E. Olesen contacted me about his upcoming book, and we started to talk about it, I was instantly intrigued. A lowly thief as a protagonist and an Arabian setting? Bring it on! I didn't have the intention to read it so soon, because obligations, but damn that stuff, I needed a quick read to break up that tome I've been reading and since my reading plans were thrown to the wind anyway, I decided to go all rebel. A decision I didn't regret.
The Prince of Cats is a surprisingly fast read. It's 302 pages long (according to Amazon) but seemed much shorter. I guess this means I was so into it that I didn't even realise how fast I devoured the whole book - well, compared to circumstances, because I was travelling at the time. It also tells a lot, that it was able to get my mind off of things in a time where I was under a lot of stress and anxiety. Alcázar's exotic world and Jawad's charismatic personality swept me away from my troubles and kept me totally engulfed in the story.
At the beginning of the book, Jawad, a lowly thief finds himself in a cell in the feared prison called the Finger, fretting about how he may lose his hand as a punishment for stealing. Luckily for him, he happens to keep some information about the whereabouts of the legendary thief, the Prince of Cats. Thus one of the city wealthy merchants offers him a chance: his freedom in exchange for Jawad's help to bring down the Prince. And while he is at it, he also decides to take advantage of the situation and wreak some havoc. To realise his plans he plays wealthy merchants and gangs against each other and also manages to earn some new enemies who stop at nothing to see him first broken then eventually deceased at the point he stops being useful to them. He will need all of his wits to get out of this situation alive with his prize in his hands.
The plot itself is quite intricate and Olesen feeds us Jawad's plans bit by bit, just enough to leave you to wonder what is going to happen next, how Jawad is planning to get out of the current mess. It's interesting to watch how he sets the different parties against each other, wondering what is his real goal. The ending felt a bit rushed, and I was kind of waiting for a bigger twist. Some of the revelations weren't all that surprising to me. Otherwise, this is a cleverly written story, focusing rather on characters and on conflicts between groups and characters rather than action - not meaning that there aren't any. I think it would have been beneficial to this story, if it was longer so we could have learned more about the conflicts between Dar al-Allawn and the Dar al-Gund merchant houses, or why Jawad decided to step on the Black Teeth gang's toes (although to be fair, you can guess by the end). On the other hand, it deserves some extra points for creative swearing.
Jawad is a charismatic, smart-ass character, driven by his desires and well-built plans which do not always turn out as he would like them to. But, as a thief, he has to improvise sometimes and like a cat, he somehow always ends up landing on his feet. Using his boyish charisma, he easily befriends people and manipulates them to do his bidding. On the other hand, he has a kind side too which shows in helping his old teacher whenever he can. Jawad grows up on the streets, and some tragedy from his past still haunts him. However, his most charming characteristic is his humor. I especially loved the way his relationship was built up with Salah, a loyal warrior in the wealthy merchant, al-Badawi's employment. Their personalities couldn't be any different - Salah is stiff, follows the rules and orders and a bit narrow-minded while Jawad loves freedom, likes to bend the rules, and is never afraid to give a witty come back.
"Where I need to go, Salah will be as inconspicuous as a belly dancer in an orphanage."
My most favorite relationship in this book though is between Jawad and Ishak, an old alchemist, who has a dirty mouth and hazy memory. Their banter adds humor to the story and balances the heavier, darker moments by giving you a chuckle or two.
"Next time someone offers you poison, you politely decline."
Jawad snorted. "Sage advice."
"Of course it is,you cat's paw," Ishak said as he turned to put his ingredients back to order. "I am a sage, thus everything I say is sage advice. If you want wise counsel, find a wise man."
The Prince of Cats has a wide selection of characters: merchants, thugs, and everything in between. Most of them don't have enough space to shine so we could get to know them better. About their lives, motivations, flaws or good traits. Naturally, we learn the most about Jawad as we follow the story from his POV, but I still had that lingering feeling at the end that I couldn't really get to close to him. Despite learning what led him to these events, seeing what he sacrificed to succeed, his fears and happy moments. He remained somehow distant. It's maybe because of the narrative, this book having not been written in the first person.
Salah comes the longest way in this book. He is the only one who actually steps out of his character and lets his views be challenged. As for female characters. There are only a few, but they have significant roles in Jawad's life. First Amal, his fence - the one who gives him a mark and makes sure the goods get to the right hands - with whom he has been in contact for a long time, and maybe the one in whom he trusts the most. As much as he can trust anyone in this business anyway. Jawad meets Lady Zaida in al-Badawi's home, the daughter of the merchant and only heir. They form an unlikely friendship and despite the difference in their social status, they also have quite a lot of similarities.
"We are all slaves in this world," Jawad remarked casually. "We may have different chains, but all of us are shackled nonetheless."
I liked Zaida because she refused to be the brainless, worthless puppet his father thinks she is. She might not be able to fight against her fate and become a political tool for his father to gain more wealth and ensure his place in society through marriage, but that doesn't mean she doesn't try to make herself useful. She has a sharp intelligence she is not afraid to use, but she is also kind and passionate. On the other side of the spectrum, there is Basmah, the torturer of the Black Teeth gang whose only goal in life is to please her Master. And cause as much pain as she can.
Alcázar and The Prince of Cats has a very distinct Arabian feel to them with all the traditional buildings, the market, the architecture. It's a very well-built world and definitely would like to come back to visit it sometime in the future. Daniel E. Olesen made sure his world is really detailed - not only the city itself, but the society, the religious system (we only get a glimpse of this though).
There is something charming about The Prince of Cats despite its flaws and the fact that it's not a heartwarming story. It's about revenge, freedom, relationships, keeping your enemies closer than friends. It has a sort of Arabian Nights vibe about it, especially the shepherd's story. I recommend to check this book out if you need a different setting, like to read about a thief, who is far from being perfect, or Invulnerable.
This The Prince of Cats book review was written by Timy Takacs
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