Charles de Lint, author, and Charles Vess, illustrator, A Circle of Cats (Viking, 2003)
A Circleof Cats is intended to be the prequel to the de Lint/Vess collaboration Seven Wild Sisters. Since I've been thwarted in every attempt to procure a copy of Sisters, and haven't had a chance to read the story sans Vess artwork in Tapping the Dream Tree, I have no idea how A Circle of Cats stands in relation to that rare release. In relation to de Lint's body of work as a whole, and indeed to the field of modern fantasy and fairy tale overall, this piece is simply outstanding.
Lillian lives with her aunt in a little house in the forest outside of Newford. She spends her free time wandering in the forest, searching for fairies, and befriending the many feral cats who live in the woods. When Lillian falls asleep under a tree and is bitten by a venomous snake, the cats gather their magic (of course cats have magic, as anyone who shares a home with them can tell you) and transform her into "something that isn't dying": a cat like themselves.
The book jacket claims that
"How [Lillian] becomes a girl again is a lyrical, original folktale that begs to be read aloud." Now ordinarily, I detest the trite and florid abstracts usually found on book jackets. Ordinarily, I find them if anything a little condescending. This one, though, is only stating a fact. As I read Cats I could hear the words in my head ... tone, inflection and all. I found myself hoping that my husband would let me read him a bedtime story, so that I could roll the language off of my tongue as it was meant to be done.
A Circle of Cats is not a novel, or a novella, or even, at 44 pages, a chapbook those are merely convenient labels assigned by publishers and booksellers to assist them in categorization. Call Cats instead an enchantment, a weaving of words and pictures into pure magic. Charles de Lint is adept at converging the mundane world and the Otherworld: at touching them together briefly to produce intense moments and life altering episodes, and then gently letting each world retreat from the touch and settle back into its own normality, usually with both sides all the better for the experience.
Lillian's time with the cats, the Apple Tree Man, and the Father of Cats is just such a touching of worlds, and one of the loveliest de Lint has given us. He didn't do it alone, though Charles Vess is the second sorcerer necessary to this crafting of magics. His illustrations are, in a word, glorious. A Circle of Cats would be a fine fairy tale without the illustrations, but it wouldn't be the same story.
Vess has the unique gift of being able to capture the essence of his subject in a few lines and colors Lillian as drawn is absolutely as I would have pictured her. The slightly stylized cats are cats in every captured stretch, step, and look. And I can't help but wonder if Vess has actually met the gnarly, gangly Apple Tree Man I can't imagine him looking any other way than he does in Vess' beautiful artwork.
Prequel or stand alone fairy story, A Circle of Cats is a bewitching little book, much bigger inside than out, and a wonderful collaboration between two enormous talents. There's a place of honor on my bookshelves for this one ... when I can finally stop going back to it every little bit and actually bring myself to put it away.