Admirers of Charles de Lint’s mythology-infused fantasy books will delight in this expanded version of his 2003 picture book A Circle of Cats.
Reborn as an illustrated middle-grade novel, The Cats of Tanglewood Forest begins as its predecessor did, with 12-year-old orphan Lillian Kindred dashing through the woods near her aunt’s farm, interrupting her customary search for fairies to engage in a rambling game of tag with a deer. Exhausted from her pursuit, Lillian falls asleep under an ancient beech tree, the gathering place of the forests’ magical cats.
However, it is not the felines Lillian encounters during her slumber. A poisonous snake, disturbed by her foot twitching as she sleeps, bites the girl repeatedly. As the poison travels through her system, she is saved only by the cats’ magic, which transforms her into “something not dying.” The form of the “not dying” creature is a kitten, and while Lillian has long felt an affinity for the cats in the woods, she certainly doesn’t want to be one of them.
De Lint crafts a traditional fairy tale out of Lillian’s quest to return to her natural state, and then to reverse the consequences she brings about by doing so. A cast of magical beings, from the friendly Apple Tree Man to the intimidating Father of Cats to the frightening and cruel Bear People, fills Lillian’s life with adventure while testing her strength and character in more ways than one.
Celebrated artist Charles Vess, de Lint’s long-time collaborator and illustrator of the original picture book, once again lends his considerable talent to the story, creating intricately detailed images of the forest and its inhabitants, and showcasing Lillian in all her red-haired, gangly glory.
No simple rehash of an old tale, this newly expanded version of a de Lint classic has a wonderfully old-fashioned fable-like feel to it, imparting a message of “be careful what you wish for” through beautifully descriptive, finely tuned prose that leaves no doubt about the lesson being taught, yet makes the learning of it a joy.