Cat Rambo’s Hearts of Tabat (2018) is the second book in the Tabat Quartet. I love the beautiful, strange world Rambo has created here. I understood nearly everything that was going on in this book, so technically it qualifies as a standalone, but I see that reading the first book, Beasts of Tabat, first would probably have answered some questions and added richness to an already lush tapestry of a story.
Tabat is on a world that is filled with humans, magic and Beasts who are made of magic. Beasts are enslaved by the humans, considered less than animals (although they are used as beasts of burden) and consumed, literally, for the magical power in their flesh, bones and blood. Adelina Nettlepurse is the daughter of a powerful Merchant house. She secretly runs a successful publishing house, Spinner Press, although she pretends to her mother that she is merely an acquisition editor there. Spinner Press’s main revenue comes from the pulpish “penny-wide” stories Adelina writes about the city hero Bella Kanto, a Gladiator who every year engages in ritual combat with the Warrior of Spring. Bella and Adelina were lovers but are no longer, although they are still friends. As a Merchant Scholar, Adelina fights her mother’s attempts to push her into politics because the written word is her first love.
Sebastiano Silvercloth is a Merchant Mage, an instructor at the College of Mages. Sebastiano is less than popular with the faculty because of his choice of subject: he chooses to study the magical Beasts. Sebastiano’s father insists that he marry and form an alliance with another Merchant family. While Sebastiano’s mother, Lethe, a noted Beast trainer, supports her son, she will not intercede for him in this area.
Meanwhile, Adelina becomes infatuated with Eloquence, a river captain who has written an account of a steamboat journey. It is beautifully written, and Eloquence himself is handsome, charming, and far below her social station. Obedience, Eloquence’s youngest sister, endures bullying and worse at the hands of her sisters, but wishes for something more in her life, even though every door slams shut in her face.
I was captivated by the descriptions of this world. Adelina is truly a writer at heart, and her habit of describing scenes to herself as they happen will be very familiar to story-tellers everywhere. Sebastiano’s relationship with the Gryphon Fewks is touching, as is the revelation a stodgy writer with a book about the history of dogs makes in his final revision to his door-stopper tome.
On the surface, Hearts of Tabat might be a slightly satirical comedy-of-manners, but the Beasts are growing restless and rebellious, and something (or someone) is trying to siphon away the magic that protects the land. When, abruptly, Bella Kanto is accused of sorcery and exiled, it is clear something is very wrong.
Rambo’s world is beautifully described, complex and plausible. Good people are complicated, and aren’t always good. Sebastiano works daily with the Beasts, seeing their natures, yet spouts standard bigoted lines about how they can’t be accorded the same rights as humans. Adelina’s infatuation with Eloquence causes her to ignore her own better judgment. Eloquence himself is charming and seductive, but we see a different side of him at home with his sisters.
A large part of the Tabat society is religion. The Trade Gods and the Moon Temples, with their different belief systems, are depicted convincingly. The effects of poverty are not romanticized. Frankly, Obedience has it so bad at home that when she is abducted along with a magic student I can only think that’s going to be a step up for her.
I wanted to know more about Bella Kanto, who is virtually invisible in this book, and the Beasts. I think reading the first book would have met both those desires.
The pacing of Hearts of Tabat seemed episodic. Several chapters read as if they had once been discrete sections, like maybe a short story or a novella. Sebastiano’s slightly snarky drawing-room-comedy courtship storyline becomes a murder investigation rather quickly and I found that jarring. The riots that happen, even though it becomes clear there is an active agency inciting them, seemed to come up with little or no warning. Similarly, Adelina’s experiment with a magical potion that quells her fear of pubic speaking (and gives her charisma) trails off with no real consequences for her, and no real resolution.
By the end of the book, plot-points have been resolved, but they pave the way for more questions, which is a good place for a middle book to be. It ends of a cliffhanger, but several of the book’s story questions have been addressed. I thoroughly enjoyed Hearts of Tabat and I look forward, or backward, to reading Beasts of Tabat.