Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Off Leash, by Daniel Potter. Illustrated by Sabertooth Ermine.
El Cerrito, CA, Fallen Kitten Productions, October 2015, trade paperback $12.99 (vi + i +288 pages), Kindle $3.99.
“It had started as a good day. Objectively that was a lie, but after six months of unemployment self-delusion becomes a survival trait. I was two days from getting booted off unemployment, with my girlfriend AWOL for the last week. By ‘good day’ I mean I had wrestled a small drop of hope out of my heart that one of the half dozen jobs I had applied to while guzzling down iced coffees might result in an interview.” (p. 1)
Thomas Khatt, unemployed librarian, has been practically living in his local coffee shop for the last six months as he applies for job after job. Over the weeks he has noticed his reclusive neighbor as another regular customer; an old man, presumably retired, reading books with a pet cat. One day Thomas and the old man happen to leave the shop at the same time. The old man is immediately struck by a hit-&-run car. As he dies, Thomas blacks out and awakens in his own home as a cougar.
While he is trying to figure out what has happened to him, his door unlocks itself and an elderly hippie witch, Mistress Sabrina, comes in to welcome him to “the Real World”. She demonstrates enough magical power to convince him that objecting would be a bad idea, so he follows her and Rudy, a talking squirrel, to her home where he meets her familiar, a sable named Cornealius. They magically restore his power of speech. While this is going on, Thomas is barraged with a confusing flood of information about how the Real World works:
“‘TAU?’ I paced below him [Rudy], eyes crossing, trying to look at my muzzle, the spell wire looked to thread in and out of it.
Rudy responded with the tone of voice of a phone employee reading the company boilerplate. ‘Talking Animal Union. We represent all animals with the gift of speech or capable of speech within the domain of the council of Merlins. An animal being defined as a being possessing corporeal form but lacking hands and viewed as nonhuman by those on the other side of the Veil. The TAU endeavors to insure familiars are well treated and allows no bonding to take place without its blessing.’” (p. 32)
Thomas is overwhelmed by what he learns, but generally doesn’t like the sound of it:
“I watched the squirrel warily; every question I asked generated at least a half dozen more. Yet one thing had become crystal clear; I wanted no part of this world. Losing my thumbs, my house and my girlfriend in exchange for the chance to be sold off to some pimple-faced apprentice did not sound like a fair deal to me.” (p. 35)
He especially doesn’t like it when he starts to wonder how and why it applies to him in particular:
“My thoughts drifted out, back into the world. How had this happened to me? My mind probed into the last day, looking for things I had overlooked. It all went back to the old man, who had to be another magus. O’Meara had said that a magus named Archibald had been murdered. What had the baristas called the old man? Archie? Archie the Archmagus, poor guy. And that horrible car accident – surely nothing about it had been accidental.” (p. 43)
Thomas decides to take charge of his own life, even if he is not familiar with the Real World yet. He faces the dangers of our “world beyond the Veil”, of being a cougar loose in a San Francisco residential neighborhood, and of the Real World, refusing to join the TAU or to become bound to a magus – or to an apprentice – as a familiar.
“To stay off the leash, he’ll have to take advantage of the chaos caused by the local Archmagus’ death and help the Inquisition solve his murder. A pyromaniac squirrel, religious werewolves, and cat-hating cops all add to the pandemonium as Thomas attempts to become the first Freelance Familiar.” (blurb)
Yes, this is Book 1 of a series, and judging by Off Leash, it’s a winner. All of the characters are intelligent, with many in the Real World hiding secrets. Potter’s writing is wry and full of detail: “The cat, who looked like the sort of thing a Chihuahua could beat up for lunch money” … “For a moment I feared I had fallen into a Disney film and the kitchen appliances were about to burst into song. I gave the toaster a withering look just in case.” … “No need to sweat, or in my case, pant, however.” … “‘It’s bigger on the inside,’ voices from Doctor Who exclaimed in my head. They were right.” … “The white cat rolled her eyes. ‘I’m so glad I was never human. The thumb fetish you all have is so undignified.’” Thomas, in looking out for himself as a cougar in two worlds, becomes enmeshed in the deadly magical politics of the Real World.
Stories of one individual taking on The System are always enjoyable, and are doubly so when it’s a partially furry system. Off Leash does not feature just animal-headed humans. The animal natures of the talking but otherwise unmodified cougar, the squirrel, the owl, the housecat, the redneck werewolves, and others are important plot elements.
Some additional information: The Kindle edition was published in July, three months ahead of the paper edition. The cover is attributed to Ebooklaunch.com, which offers covers from $99 to $379; presumably this is one of the customized, more expensive ones. The illustration by Sabertooth Ermine [sic.; she usually goes by Sabretoothed Ermine] consists of just a single full-page drawing just before the end of the book. The author’s Fallen Kitten Productions website contains an offer of a free ebook story, “Rudy and the Warren Warriors”, featuring the pyromaniac squirrel.