The Prince of Cats by Daniel E Olesen

The Prince of Cats is a captivating new fantasy novel by Daniel E Olesen. Set in a fictional Middle Eastern city, the book almost instantly reminded me of the first Assassin’s Creed game (but with a thief). The main character, Jawad, running across rooftops, slinking around alleys displays the city of Alcázar in a way that is so reminiscent of the game that it got me all nostalgic.

People have compared this book to The Lies of Locke Lamora; while I can see why, the similarities mostly end at the protagonist being a thief – Jawad is very much a lone wolf (in contrast to Locke’s thief buddies), there isn’t a secret thieving underworld and the tone of the book is very different. The Lies of Locke Lamora is very tongue in cheek, filled with witticisms, and while The Prince of Cats isn’t gritty/hyper-realistic by any means, it takes itself more seriously and isn’t afraid to get serious at points (discussed below).

As mentioned, Jawad is first and foremost a thief. Every time he meets someone, his first impression is the monetary value of their possessions. It’s great to see him always try to estimate potential profits and is a perfectly simple way to show his priorities.

‘A necklace of gold hung around his neck with a few gemstones as ornaments, giving it a value of around two hundred and twenty pieces of silver.’

‘While he spoke, he noticed the earring in Hashim’s undamaged ear, worth about five silver pieces, and the dagger in his belt, worth only trouble.’

Unfortunately in fantasy there’s often a trend of male authors writing male main characters who, when introducing a woman, will immediately first describe her looks and establish just how attractive or unattractive she is. Olesen bucks this trend with Jawad by continuing to focus on his jewellery obsession.

‘Contrary to what he would have expected, she did not pair her expensive clothes with any jewellery other than pearl earrings,’

This isn’t an isolated incident either as Olesen continues to subvert gender tropes throughout the book. Later on Jawad rushes off to save the ‘maiden’ from trouble only to find out that she’s fine and is instead organising a rescue operation to help the actual victims. It’s refreshing to see the female characters treated like normal people (wow what a depressing sentence) and with The Prince of Cat’s wide cast of women (honourable mentions go to the the creepy torturer and irritable fence), Olesen creates a gender balance that feels completely natural and appropriate.

Though the plot focuses solely on Jawad’s trials and tribulations, there are plenty of interesting side characters who get to shine despite their limited ‘screen time’. Ishak is one who I particularly enjoyed – he’s a nice comic relief character that provides light-hearted interludes to balance the occasional quite serious moments that the book goes through. Not only does he have some great one-liners but he also has a nice wee friendship with Jawad. Considering Jawad’s tendency to work alone and when with others, to deflect emotion with humour, his visits to Ishak adroitly showed the little chinks of vulnerability in his demeanour.

It can sometimes be a little iffy when western authors write a book set in the Middle East. Often it just actually is a Eurocentric culture and style with a desert painted over. Or it goes way in the other direction and becomes a weird fetishisation of Arab culture with little historical basis. Oleson, a known history nerd, avoids these common pitfalls entirely. He clearly did his homework since often Arabic terms are used and always accurately. One of the characters mentions her family used to live in the desert and appropriately their family name is al-Badawi  (translates to desert dweller). This example is somewhat pointed out to the reader but even the casual correct usage of words like ‘sidi’, ‘sayidaty’, ‘mamluk’ etc. are easy little ways to make the world more realistic. There are a few words that I think the author made up (‘haramlik’ and ‘salamlik’ in particular) but their etymology is clear enough to match up with the intended use (forbidden and permitted areas of the estate, respectively) such that they are still completely believable.

It’s worth mentioning that even though the book is set in a greater fantasy world, due to the cultural accuracy and lack of magic and fantastical elements, it could easily be considered a standalone historical fiction book.

One aspect of The Prince of Cats that I was particularly interested in was the character of Faisal al-Musharaf. More than once he is shown to have noticed a stealthing Jawad, and each time Jawad is taken aback. Jawad mentions how the upper class never see him when he chooses to move around covertly and this is proved multiple times so it’s curious to see how perceptive Faisal is. Not only that but the characters is also described as carrying a sword with a confidence that suggests he has a history with it. We never see this confidence in action which only boosts my curiosity. Outside of his mysterious backstory he is shown to be simply a nice person. He’s always courteous when talking to Jawad; compared to other members of the wealthy houses, he genuinely respects Jawad’s talents.

The only real criticism I have with the book is that the main character’s backstory is a handled a little clumsily. We are treated to a single memory of Jawad’s childhood with his brothers. This scene obviously haunts Jawad as we see it more than once but it becomes a bit too obvious that it’s vital exposition considering that it’s the only scene of Jawad’s past that is mentioned. In my opinion the story would have profited from having no explicit flashback. There was some clever exposition placed in the narrative each time Jawad visited his old teacher and this scene with his brothers could have been slipped into one of those meetings rather than being front and centre in the narrative.

The Prince of Cats is a fast paced book but there’s this one top-notch section that hits the brakes hard. What with Jawad’s lighthearted outlook disappearing combined with a drastic change in tone, this section makes for an excellently sudden brick wall for the reader and the Jawad to hit. The book could have been a little longer considering the pace and short-ish length but, all things considered, it’s a hugely enjoyable story with a compelling protagonist in a wonderfully real world.. While it comfortably works as a standalone, there are a few threads left open and I’m looking forward to see where they go.