One naturally has expectations when buying a novel, but I'll confess I had little idea of what to expect when I started reading, and no notion of what was to come. This book works at a surprising number of levels. Superficially, the illustrations and apparent subject matter give it the feel of a traditional children's book. In fact, it might not be entirely appropriate for young kids, not for its language but its violence - although this is delicately handled. The narrative is neither Disney nor Tarantino; closer to good English prose from before the rock'n'roll age. Between the wars, is the expression I'd use, but these days too many people need to ask, "Which wars?" But I digress. Except perhaps in that wars are the only uniquely human phenomenon... unless you're in the cat equivalent of the French Foreign Legion:
"All monkeys encountered are to be regared as enemy combatants and are eminently disposable. Any legionnaire who shrinks from engagement will be court-martialled and shot. That is all."
In Tammar's world, cats are the dominant species on earth, and we humans fulfil various roles as pet, servant, labourer, companion and dumb animal. Realisation of how deep this reality goes, and how far, and why, creeps up on the reader over many chapters, where many writers might have thrust it upon us in crude fashion starting from page one. The origin of species turns out to be both funny (and fun) and strangely plausible, once you've accepted the idea of feline racing drivers. And that gives us another level: The Marmalade Shore is a grand allegorical tale for human society. The author parallels human and feline foibles so closely that it's tempting to ignore the distinction entirely. His world remains our world, both literally and figuratively. Under every human endeavour there is a corresponding feline one, down to the literal existence of French restaurants for cats, hiding beneath the human ones:
"What I still do not understand," said Orange, tucking into a delicious creme brulee, "is why they hate the monkeys so. I am not convinced that prejudice is a sufficient explanation... My monkey is very good to me."
In the final analysis, one can read The Marmalade Shore as an old-fashioned adventure book for boys (and girls). We are driven and dragged from British suburbia, through the marvels of travel for the modern age, to Parisian romance (or debauchery), on to the pyramids of Egypt - and beyond. Odd to think of this book as fantasy at all, although little more than a stern word is required to make it sit obediently under the umbrella of SF&F (science fiction and fantasy), when broadly-defined. But it's also funny!
I found myself enjoying The Marmalade Shore more than I'd anticipated, and the more I read of it. In this adventure, Tammar has been brave enough to leave situations and characters firmly behind him along the way, but enough remains to give the reader scope to wish for a timely sequel.
Afterthought: not long ago, I read Eoin Colfer's hugely-successful Artemis Fowl, which is fun but frankly too short and a tad too light for the broader readership. The Marmalade Shore compares surprisingly well!