Today's book review is Reserved for the Cat by Mercedes Lackey.
This is the latest in Lackey's Elemental Masters series -- a standalone novel, but in the same world as The Wizard of London and others. Since the other books in this series have been retellings of fairy tales, I suppose this one is too, but I'm not terribly well-versed in fairy tales and I don't recognize it. The story centers around a working ballet dancer, and I know less about ballet than just about any form of human endeavor I can think of, so I just assume that Lackey actually researched those odd French words and concepts rather than making them up, but it certainly seems as solid as the Victorian background of the world (which I'm not exactly well-qualified to vet, but at least I've read other authors' novels with similar background). The story itself is reasonably engaging, and the characters live. Sometimes they're just a little too perfect for their roles, bordering on trite, but the plot itself is thicker than some of Lackey's recent work. It's a creditable book in the series and a solid Lackey novel, so anyone familiar with these should know what they're getting. Yet, for some reason I can't really put my finger on, I didn't love this book, I merely liked it. 8 out of 10.
**** PLOT SUMMARY -- MASSIVE SPOILERS ****
Ninette Dupond is a starving ballet dancer in Paris. Not a star, just a competent soloist, and as such she doesn't earn enough to really survive. She's just caught what should be her big break -- the star breaks an ankle and her understudy is also indisposed, so she gets to take a real starring role. Even though it's only a matinee, she is given a good review by Le Figaro. Unfortunately, the real star sees her as a rival for the attentions of the rich man whose pet she currently is, and so she gets Ninette fired. With no options left, Ninette is about to go out to a bar to try her luck as a prostitute when her cat starts to talk in her mind. She's sure she's going mad, but allows the cat to give her a purse and guide her through actions that see her take a series of trains and boats to Blackpool, England, arrange lodgings, and then when a freak storm comes up, to lie on a beach awaiting rescue and then claim to be a shipwreck victim, Nina Tschereslavsky, a Russian prima ballerina. Her rescuers are Nigel, the manager of a local music hall and an Air Master, Arthur, the music director and an Air Magician, and Wolf, an African Grey parrot. "Wolf" is short for Wolfgang Amadeus. Yes, that Wolfgang Amadeus; the parrot claims to be Mozart, reincarnated with his memory intact, and he does have enough musical talent to write shows for the music hall. Thomas, the schemer, has set things up so that Nigel can use Ninette as the new star in his music hall, and Ninette gets a far more comfortable existence than she's ever had or even hoped for. Jonathon, a Fire Master who is also a stage magician, joins the theater company and offends Ninette by not warning her about how frightening the trick she's to star in will be, and after she gives him a piece of his mind, he's properly chastened. (This being a novel, they're obviously going to end up in love.) Everything is going just perfectly.
That's when the real Nina Tschereslavsky hears about how she's being impersonated. Well, not really the real Nina -- the Troll who ate her and took her form and place in society. Said Troll had first been summoned by an Earth mage with more ambition than skill who lost control and was the Troll's first victim, and as the Troll went through life eating more and more people, it got smarter and more powerful. Now it's very dangerous, and it takes having someone impersonate it and trade on the reputation it stole very personally. "Nina" zips off to England and starts trying to make trouble, but she's too cautious to try a simple frontal assault. The first thing she does is to attack one of the lesser acts in the revue, making a hole open up in the street and breaking the legs of the dog trainer. Ninette gets to prove what a trouper she is by taking extra turns. Then "Nina" pays a vagrant to catch rats from the theater and tie fire to their tails, but Jonathan stops this with his fire powers. The Troll gets into some more complex machinations, first causing a local loser to become pathologically obsessed with Ninette, then setting some magical decoys, and finally going to a cheap lawyer with evidence that the Nina on stage is an impostor. Meanwhile, the good guys recruit a Water Master to help them search (it would be easy if they could get an Earth Master, but Earth Masters of the non-evil persuasion conveniently hate what humans do to the earth in cities), Ninette acquires a gun, magical bullets, and training in their use, Ninette and Thomas reveal their deception, which Nigel and company are upset about but forgive because Ninette has clearly demonstrated that she is an excellent performer and a hard worker, and Thomas reveals his true identity to the Masters after extracting a promise not to tell Ninette. It seems that Thomas is Ninette's father, who disappeared when Ninette was an infant because he lost a wizard's duel with an evil Earth Magician after he'd spurned her affections to run off and marry Ninette's mother. He was polymorphed into a cat, and by Lackey's rules of magic, only the caster of such a spell can ever reverse it. Since he killed her by the expedient of tripping her down some stairs, he's been stuck as a cat ever since, but he's done what he could behind the scenes to make Ninette's lousy life a little better. There's also a cool episode where Thomas and Wolf break into the reporter's apartment, steal the incriminating papers, and trash the place; in response, the Troll eats the reporter.
For the climax, the loser tries to attack Ninette in broad daylight. Ninette is not hurt physically, but the mental powers that give her such a connection with her audience mean that the strength of the loser's hatred is a psychic shock that requires that she be hypnotized to recover. While the Masters are arguing and Ninette is sleeping, Thomas trails the loser to his house (why does everyone think that cats have the sense of smell of dogs anyway?) and realizes that he's receiving a sending from, and probably being controlled by, an Earth magician, doubtless their enemy. For reasons that aren't quite convincing, Thomas doesn't want to tell the Masters about it; he tells Ninette and then goes haring off to observe the loser again. Said loser goes to the Troll's house, not happily, and Thomas follows, only to discover when he gets there that it's a trap; Thomas can enter but can't leave again. He is forced to watch as the Troll eats the loser, and then starts bullshitting for his life, telling the Troll that he's switching sides (after all, he's a cat, and a cat is always looking out for himself). Ninette has realized Thomas is in trouble, grabs her gun, and follows her mental link to the Troll. Thomas taunts the Troll into shapeshifting into a mouse and jumps on the mouse. The Troll expected it and shifts back, but just then Ninette unloads her revolver, which slows the Troll down enough that Thomas can escape. She reloads and finishes off the Troll, which explodes; they then hold off the Troll's freed minions just long enough for Jonathan to arrive and save them. Ninette lies and tells Jonathan and the others that the Troll died when Thomas pounced on the "mouse", because she doesn't want to put off her knight in shining armor by revealing that the damsel in distress rescued herself.
In the Epilogue (the Living Happily Ever After part), we are treated to a self-important local snob having to share a box in the sold out theater, while the box next door is occupied only by Thomas and some interesting daughter of an Afrit who's been polymorphed into a white Persian -- Reserved for the Cat.