“I am not an animal!” proclaims Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus in the famous 1960s film. In Robin Price’s take on the Spartacus story, however, Spartacus is a tad more catty in his proclamations. This is largely because, of course, he is, well, a cat. Spartapuss, as he is rather less heroically known is this tome, is learned fellow who spends his days noting down politically sensitive gossip and musings in Rome’s premier spa, Spatopia. However, when his verbatim note-taking of a seditious note written on the wall of the vomitorium is seized, and he suddenly and randomly accused of poisoning the emperor’s grandson, Spartapuss finds himself unceremoniously imprisoned and trained to fight as a gladiator. All of this, of course, occurs against a backdrop of the scandalous political machinations of Catligula, who has promptly taken control of the Empire, and is delighting in creating all manner of new laws to be applied abitrarily and without a hint of judiciousness. Fortunately, despite his feline proclivities, Spartacus responds astonishingly well to training…although he still won’t sit on command.
While in my book there’s no such thing as a bad pun, even I have to admit that there’s such thing as pun over-saturation, and I am Spartapuss epitomises this groan-worthy situation to a rather embarrassing degree. Given that the entire novel hinges upon the punning wit of the author, it’s no surprise that there’s word-play galore, but even to a linguaphile such as myself this does become tedious–and not to mention rather hard to parse. Witty variations such as Catligula, Clawdius, Mewlius, Augustpuss, and Fleagypt are welcome, but things feel a little stretched when Tiberius becomes Tibbles, Mercury “Purrcury”, Jupiter “Mewpiter”, and so on and so forth. Given that this book is pitched towards younger readers, I suspect that some lengthy historical and lexical explanations will be in order, and wonder whether older and more jaded readers will stay the course.
The narrative itself is somewhat hit and miss, with some staggeringly slow points and some that zip past so quickly that the reader never even gets to sit back and enjoy the action. This issue is largely due to the diary format of the novel: Spartapuss can only ponder what might happen, and reflect on what has happened, which is rather a let down when one is curious to watch the outcome of a gladitorial bout or examine the ins and outs of the Roman(esqe) judicial system. This format detracts not only from the pacing, but also from the overall tension, which is somewhat of a shame, given that the novel is otherwise confidently and breezily written. I personally found that the novel took some time to get moving, and seemed to stretch on rather longer than its 200 (double spaced) pages, in part because of the density of funny but fairly pointless puns, and the paucity (pawcity?) of characters with whom to identify. Other than Spartapuss, who admittedly does tend towards being a bit of a git (like Vegemite, a little bit goes rather a long way, and his endless analyses of those around him quickly turns asinine and abrasive) we’re given very little in the way of a sympathetic character, which can make for some less than engaging reading. The mysterious Isis, Spartapuss’s weird zen-style master, who trains him in the martial arts under the guise of kitty litter sweeping, is perhaps the only other character who piqued my interest, but this intrigue is shattered after a too-blatantly telegraphed reveal towards the end of the book.
I am Spartapuss is, of course, based on historical Rome, although with a few concessions to feline social mores and habitus, and young readers will enjoy finding the parallels between Rome as it was, and Rome as it is conceived in this book, as well as picking out areas where the narrative diverges somewhat. While this is all in good fun, the inevitably complex array of characters and their confoundingly difficult relationships does require some back-tracking on behalf of the reader, and the onomastically challenged such as myself will be thankful for the character list provided. Still, a book that turns what can be a dense historical period into a fun romp that’s highly accessible for young readers is certainly welcome, and I can see this series becoming popular as a way of introducing Ancient Rome to the youngsters.
Finally, I simply have to spare a few moments to comment on the production values of this book. This is the first book I’ve picked up by small British publisher Mogzilla, and I have to say that the production, both inside and out, is nothing short of exquisite (I’m going to guess that we’re looking at an offset rather than digital print job here). The card stock is rich and creamy, the design bold and clean, and the interior text neat, professional, and with margins that allow for sufficient white space without overwhelming.
While the puns do become tedious after a while, one has to bear in mind that this book is aimed at an age group that will happily re-watch a Disney film approximately thirty thousand times in a row, and will no doubt hit the market with its target audience on this level. The pacing issues are a little more of an issue, and may result in some skipping ahead or backtracking, but with luck the witty, kitty take on Ancient Rome will keep young readers engaged.
Rating: (not bad)
With thanks to Mogzilla Books for the review copy
Other books by Robin Price