Cat Scratch Fever by Tara K. Harper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Cat Scratch Fever by Tara K. Harper
I was intrigued by this one, but someone else mentioned that it was one of Ms. Harper's darker novels. Close to the same time that she published this there were many more authors digging into what might be the darker side of things . Susan R Matthews was soon beginning her series of books with An Exchange of Hostages and Valerie J. Freireich had her Becoming Human and Testament. There are many more. I'm not averse to dark so I waited for the book to arrive since it has not yet been converted to Kindle friendly. I wasn't disappointed, in fact, though this takes a reader from their comfort zone this is by far the best showcase of her talent as a writer, though my reading of her works is slightly limited.
This starts out as the simple story of Tsia, a biologist of a sorts, who wishes to join the Guide Guild. To do this she must be subjected to the 'Virus' which will help her mentally bond with other life forms on the planet Risthmus. Everyone is connected to a gate that is like a wi-fi connection inside their head to a network for communication and information. [It is much more because the adept can use it to lay what they call ghost-lines that will help hide their activities.] Tsia's gate is inactive because of a quirk with the virus. Also the virus has caused Tsia some bit of problem because her's has linked her to a forbidden life form the Cats on Risthmus who used to be used by the guild but are now under an edict that forbids contact and her virus has matched her with them making her Guide Guild abilities useless. But Guides also dance the fires and Tsia can still do that and that is going to be a problem for her quickly.
A group working for the Artist Guild are out looking for someone just like her to pluck up and kidnap to press into slavery for the Artist Guild.[There is a rather complicated plot about using the firedance skill in an artists artwork.] This is where the book goes dark and the reader starts getting a really close look at a complicated social structure on this planet. The Artist Guild make art that embeds the experiences of other's sensory experience into the art which sells very well and they have come to deal ruthlessly with the models until few volunteer to help them; so they have stooped to slavery where they use and abuse the subjects until they die. And because of Tsia's isolation from the gate these people who kidnap her are able to turn her into a non-person [Everyone assumes she's dead] so even if she escapes she can't legally use the gate. The artist who buys her is relentlessly sadistic and there will be scenes that will push many readers to the limit of their comfort zone. Some of these include children. Thankfully Tara Harper did not find it necessary to go into graphic detail. The point was to demonstrate how easily people can fall into slavery while the master uses others around them as bargaining chips and in this instance since they didn't want to mar Tsia physically that's how they meant to control her; by first threatening the slave responsible for indoctrinating her and then the children of other slaves, assuming that her own freedom would be less important to her than her compassion for the lives of the children. What I found the most insidious was the explanation given by Vashanna, the other slave, as to why Tsia should do as the Artist wants. Vashanna is convincing in that it is clear that that is what she believes and she's fully bought into the whole picture.[It has to be understood that the slaves can be tortured by a device(r-con) that leaves no marks and in the case of Vashanna her use has reached a point they didn't care about her looks so they also physically torture her.] Vashanna and Tsia seem to represent disparate sides to the slave equation.
The dark part of the story does dominate a large portion of the front of the novel, but the payoff comes when things turn around and Tsia and several others must struggle to survive the harsh desert that stand between them and freedom. This story has some epic world building and there is a second story happening that Tsia is a reluctant part of that involves prophesy that she doesn't believe in. Since this is part of a series it's likely that there may be more about this. But primarily we see the evolution of Tsia from someone blissfully unaware of the limitations she places upon her own life to make her a virtual slave; to someone aware and perhaps overly paranoid about where she might be compromising herself and her freedom and developing the resolve to never do so again. Tsia is a complex character who undergoes change but constantly remains complex.
This is a fantastic read in the SFF arena and though it has strong Fantasy elements it also has some interesting Cyberpunk notions that are more rooted in the use of the computer connection to be used in the real world.
Yes it's dark and if you are squeamish about bad things happening to children then you might want to tread carefully.
One last note, this bit about the artist guild using slavery to squeeze the best work out of the subject matter made me have a thought about writing and the author and how some of the most interesting novels are those where the artist[author] forces the characters into the worst situations that they could possible imagine and then somehow manage to continue to roll that into ever more conflict until they milk the character for everything they are worth with seemingly no compassion for those poor characters.
It's just a thought; but read Cat Scratch Fever and try to keep that image out of your head through the first portion of the novel.
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