Because I got an ARC of Hearts of Tabat, the second book in Cat Rambo’s TABAT QUARTET, in 2018, I read it before the first book. I thought that would have a negative impact on my reaction to Book One, Beasts of Tabat, but as I was reading, my brain reset itself, and when I got to the end I was almost as shocked as if I hadn’t had some inkling what was coming. That’s some good storytelling!
In Beasts of Tabat, we meet Teo, a village boy. His family are shapeshifters, hunted down and killed by the ruling class of Tabat. When his family plans to send him to the Temples of the Moon, Teo flees from the docks of the capital city, Tabat, where political unrest seethes. He struggles to find a safe place, with a dream that someday he’ll meet the city’s number one celebrity, Bella Kanto, the Winter Gladiator.
Tabat is ruled by a Duke, in fact the last Duke, due to an agreement his ancestors made with the townspeople three hundred years ago. The Duke will step down and an elected ruler will take over. The possibility of change affects everyone, both the humans and the various magical beings, most of whom have been legally classified as Beasts and who have no legal rights at all. At first, some of the Beast designations seem at least understandable to the reader, but soon it’s obvious just how arbitrary the designations are, how self-aware Beasts are and how much they are people. The thought of the radical change in government has led some Beasts and other magic being to consider a revolution. Others in the nobility face censure and even imprisonment for suggesting that Beasts should have rights and freedoms.
At the center of much of the controversy is Bella Kanto, the Winter Gladiator, herself. Traditionally, every year the Gladiator of Spring battles the Gladiator of Winter. The ritual is meant to usher in spring and the growing season. In fact, since Bella has been Gladiator, she has never lost a bout, and each year winter has been extended six weeks longer than the calendar shows. Bella has been the Winter Gladiator for nearly twenty years, a feat even she thinks isn’t possible without magic. Somehow she has become connected to the city. Regularly, people ask her privately to take a dive and let spring come sooner, but it is a point of honor with Bella that she will not throw a match. That is nearly the only thing Bella is honorable about. She is an ornament in the court of Duke Alberic, adored and hated simultaneously throughout the city. Fans swarm her wherever she goes, but she must wear protection charms against those who plan to do her harm. Bella is not good at keeping her word, with her business partner, her lovers or even to herself, and she underestimates Duke Alberic’s reluctance to relinquish his throne. Her arrogance is her vulnerability and the book ends on a cliff-hanger betrayal.
My favorite part of Beasts of Tabat is the intricate world-building, showcased by vivid descriptions that evoke the terraced city, the smell and flavor of warm pastries, and the profound sense of cold in the Tabat winter. Almost no character can be trusted; each character has their own agenda, and each is believable. Bella was infuriating to watch but I understood why she did the things she did.
As I said, the ending was shocking, laying the groundwork Hearts of Tabat, and drawing aside the richly embroidered veil of Tabat social life to reveal the really nasty workings underneath. The third book, Exiles of Tabat, is due out in May 2021 and I’m eager to get my hands on it.