Whenever I was ill as a child, my mum would always make up stories to distract me from feeling poorly. Having wrapped me up lovingly on the sofa with a pillow and blankets, squeezed me some fresh orange juice (or if I was really lucky, heated me up some Ribena) and gently stroked the fringe away from my fevered brow, she would then announce it was time to hear the next big adventure of Fred the dog. Nothing made me happier. So given this intense childhood attachment to a talking hound, it is probably no surprise I was immediately drawn to the premise of Thunderpaws and the Tower of London, blessed as it is with a feisty feline hero and narrator. Little did I realise, however, quite how much this story would demand my undivided attention and it would be fair to say that this is the first time since I was 10 that I have fallen head over heels with a protagonist that isn’t human. This is an incredibly innovative and exciting tale that will appeal to a wide-ranging audience and I cannot recommend it enough.
Teufel (or Thunderpaws, as he is also known) wakes up one day to find he is no longer a simple church cat living by the sea but is now in residence at the Tower of London. Not only does this mean he has a whole new breed of bird to contend with (he soon finds that those pesky ravens give as good as they get), but his new home is also filled with unexpected surprises, not least the magical mouse sent to tell him his destiny is to save the world. Turns out the Tower is haunted by any number of ghosts, both famous (Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes, to name but two) and feline, and each has their own agenda to pursue. If our hero is to fulfil his destiny, he must quickly work out who to trust and needless to say this leads to some pretty exciting adventures along the way. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the story, but I think 2 cats commandeering a speed boat and careening down the Thames in the middle of the night may be one of my favourite ever scenes of modern literature.
There is so much to love about this tale, it’s hard to know where to start. It is chock full of historical detail about the Tower and those who were murdered there without ever feeling like a history lesson; the illustrations are stunning and truly add value, complementing the story beautifully. One of the things that makes Thunderpaws so innovative is the way the words appears on the page, with the actual text often reflecting the actions of our narrator – for example, if he leaps onto a table, the letters of that word leap with him. Rather than feeling like a cheap trick to just try and be clever, this is actually a powerful narrative device that draws you even further into his world. But the ultimate power of this book lies in the characterisation of the hero himself. Smart, funny and incredibly cat-like, Teufel is portrayed with such feline finesse that Housden achieves something really special: he is both anthropomorphised to the degree he is capable of taking on some quite terrifying enemies, yet he also never loses his true cat-like nature. Both the description of his actions and the way he behaves have been crafted so perfectly I almost want to stand up and applaud.
As an (almost) middle-aged adult I never once felt like I was reading something below my cognitive ability despite this sounding like a children’s tale, in fact the complexities of the plot sometimes meant I had to go back and reread a section. Whilst marketed as being appropriate for those from 9 to 90, I would suggest the scary parts mean it is more suited to those a little more mature (I was hiding under the duvet at one point) much like the later Harry Potter books. This is the first book of a series and I am definitely excited to see what Teufel has in store next: if it is as funny and unique as this, I will be first in line to purchase.