MAY / JUNE 2013: BY TASHA BRANDSTATTER
18th-century London. Full of gangs, thieves, slavers, aristocrats, business men, writers, political cartoonists, and radicals—and the orphan Cat Royal get to meet them all.
She was abandoned as a baby on the steps of the Royal Theater in Drury Lane, and grew up with the theater manager for a father, the costume mistress for a mother, the stage managers, conductors, musicians, players, and prompters for aunts and uncles; playwrights serving as her tutors, and members of Syd’s Butcher Boys (a Covent Garden gang) as her friends. Her life sounds amazing, right? Over the course of the series, Cat’s life gets even more incredible due to the fact that she’s a right plucky ‘un, as one might say, and is constantly getting into trouble, which leads her to meet and befriend some very interesting people.
There is so much to recommend about Julia Golding’s Cat Royal series that it can be hard to know where to start. First of all, the historical atmosphere in most of the books is rich and spot-on. You feel like you just stepped into 18th-century London, and it’s a blast. Golding doesn’t just parade her characters around the typical locations you find in a historical novel, either. Aside from the Royal Theater, Cat lives in a boy’s school, with Quakers, in a fabric mill, in Paris, on a ship, and on a Jamaican plantation just to name a few of the more unique spots.
Another strength of these novels are the characters. Cat’s coterie of friends include Frank and Lizzie, the children of the Duke of Avon; Pedro, a musical genius and slave; the Indian Chief Tecumseh; Jean-Francois Thiland, the “king” of the Palais Royal Vagabonds; Syd, who besides being a gang leader is a boxer; and even her Highlander brother, Jamie.
By far the best secondary character in the series is Billy “Boil” Shepard, Cat’s arch-nemesis… or is he? Cat and Billy know one another from Covent Garden, where he led a rival gang to Syd’s and basically tortured Cat at every opportunity. But he decided he wanted to become a respec’able business man, moved into a fancy house filled with gaudy things, learned how to read, and enrolled in elocution lessons. Cat was not impressed, though he took pains to show her his newfound success. There’s no doubt that Billy isn’t a good guy—he’s involved in every shady, morally questionable operation one can think of, from slavery to piracy—and he does seem to be creepily obsessed with Cat. Yet there’s also something appealing about him, too, in that he genuinely wants to improve himself perhaps to be worthy of her. Plus, he’s simply a fun character because he knows how to push all of Cat’s buttons and vice-versa, so every scene they share is bound to be marked by really sharp dialog and tons of tension.
Of course, the star and narrator of all the books is Cat herself. Her education may have been unconventional and spotty but she’s still super-smart and not just intelligent but canny. She can hold her own with street rats like Billy as easily as she does with dukes and duchesses. Her brains and loyalty to her friends get her into scrapes nine times out of ten, but she always lands on her feet. And it’s a good thing, too, because her friends and her quick wit are the only things she really owns in the entire world.
The Cat Royal books are at their best when the theme of the stories revolve around Cat’s struggle to be recognized as a human being—a particularly appropriate topic considering the late 18th century is when the philosophical ideals of Enlightenment like human rights, equality, and individualism start impacting politics and peoples’ lives in a very tangible way. Not only is Cat female, she’s literally no one: she has no family, no home, and not even a name as she was simply named after the Royal Theater. As far as the law is concerned, she barely even exists let alone has rights. This is why her friendship with Pedro works so well: they’re basically in the same boat as far as how precarious their lives are. Anyone can do whatever they want with them, including slavers like Kensington Hawkins or members of the aristocracy, who order Cat to be hanged at one point. Cat’s continued struggle against not just these people but the conventions and assumptions that allow them to hurt her and her friends elevate her from a girl with a talent for trouble to a fighter of a noble cause.
Although children’s books, the Cat Royal series can really appeal to all ages. It’s fun, witty, and brings to life the pain and brilliancy of growing up without being maudlin. And through these books, you can travel to so many places and experience so many different stories that it’s difficult to imagine these books not appealing to anyone who enjoys a good story. Given time, these novels are sure to become classics. ♥