As this collection features the work of three of our recent Guests of Honour; Justina Robson (editor), Adrian Tchaikovsky (author) and Juliet McKenna (author) I thought it might be of interest to Novacon attendees.
The Doctors Catt and Fisher are collectors, consultants and traders of magical artefacts with occasional forays into treasure hunting, although they prefer to let others take risks wherever possible. They are an enchanting pair of rogues (from a reader’s point of view at least) and I was delighted to see them get centre stage in this collection of short stories. They appeared initially as secondary characters in the After the War shared-world series. (REDEMPTION’S BLADE by Adrian Tchaikovsky and SALVATION’S FIRE by Justina Robson). This series is set in a fantasy world after the archetypal Dark Lord (the “Kinslayer”) has been defeated and explores the efforts of both people (including the Dark Lord’s slaves and minions) and countries trying to rebuild and survive in a devastated and upturned world. This new addition to the series is a collection of stand-alone stories all featuring Drs Catt and Fisher, and written by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Freda Warrington, Juliet McKenna and K T Davies and edited by Justina Robson.
Having four different author’s interpretation of the same characters is risky, but thankfully the quality of all four stories in this collection is excellent. Part of that I am sure is in the depth of the original characterisations. Dr Catt is supremely confident (sometimes overly so which can precipitate many of their misadventures), amusingly grandiloquent, persuasive and a little vain. Dr Fisher is the more taciturn partner, although he has a fine line in pointed, apposite observations. He is more than he originally seems and often rescues Dr Catt from some of his more impetuous schemes. There is a genuine affection between the pair who are united by their scholarly and acquisitive natures.
The first story, “Belts and Bracers” (by Adrian Tchaikovsky) finds them in the country of Arvennir, where they have been selling magical artefacts to both sides in a nascent revolution, which unsurprisingly leads to complications! This culminates in a dodgy (and hilarious) prison rescue (complete with ill-fitting uniforms and fake moustaches!), encounters with shape-shifting “monsters” and elite guards, and accidentally helping to overthrow the despotic government. The plot is fast-paced, slightly ridiculous fun, and the prose and dialogue are a delight and almost Pratchettian at times.
In the second story, “Secrets and Lights” by Freda Warrington, the story is told from the point of view of a young man, Crombie. The plot is again slightly preposterous, involving a large country bullying a small island community into building a lighthouse, as “compensation” for a shipwreck. As they will use any failure of the lighthouse as an excuse to bankrupt and occupy the island, there then ensues a quest to obtain magical scales from a giant moth’s wing which will protect the lighthouse. This has unintended (although probably predictable) consequences relating to attracting the wrong things to a magical light! The author has a different prose style to the previous story, but still catches the essence of the characters. “Fisher quietly saved their skins and let Catt take the credit because he preferred to direct attention away from himself”.
The third story, “Taking Note” is by Juliet McKenna and concerns a magical pen that erases enchanted glyphs. There is an auction to acquire the item, in which Catt and Fisher craftily outmanoeuvre a rival, the use of the pen to lift a magical curse, and an epilogue back in Fisher and Catt’s shop. Whilst still enjoyable, this was probably my least favourite story, perhaps because Catt and Fisher are less prominent for much of the story. There are still some funny bits but the story felt to me more like three loosely connected stories and the ending didn’t quite fit my understanding of the doctors’ relationship.
The final story by K T Davies, “The Unguis of Maug” opens with Doctor Fisher who, via an encounter with a street gang, takes on a young apprentice, Ash, much to Dr Catt’s disbelief and doubts. When they send Ash on his first “mission” accompanied by an alcoholic, disillusioned ex-Templar knight, what should just be simple scouting for information and rumours soon becomes something much more deadly. This story is particularly adept at adding depth to its characters. The cosy domestic arrangements and verbal repartee really showcase Catt and Fisher’s relationship, particularly Fisher’s simultaneous fondness and exasperation with his partner “Fisher folded his arms. It was either that or strangle his partner”. The introduction of the street urchin apprentice adds another amusing, disruptive factor. Dannoch, the soldier/babysitter they hire also has to confront past issues as well as deal with the fraught situation which again makes for a more satisfying read.
While I had read the previous two books, I don’t think it is necessary, and this book could be easily read and enjoyed by someone new to them. This collection is one which made me frequently smile and often laugh out loud at the antics. Catt and Fisher are flawed, complex, morally flexible but very entertaining characters who have outrageous adventures and I highly recommend them and this book. Rebellion Press / 400 pages / ISBN: 978-1-781-08803-6 / Ebook, Paperback, Audiobook