Would your cat eat you? Probably, but so would your dog, given the opportunity. At least, that’s the thesis behind “Mort(e),” the utterly absorbing debut novel by Robert Repino that imagines a war between humans and other species.
In an unnamed future, ants have evolved — and they have a grudge. Sick of being exterminated in droves, their Queen has created a master race of Alphas, basically man-size killing machines, to fight back. As an experiment, she has also devised a chemical formula that causes other animals to grow and gain self-consciousness (as well as usable hands), which enables them to turn on their former masters and join her war.
But one pet has other ideas. Sebastian, a declawed and neutered house cat, has led an ordinary life of benign neglect until his human mistress starts fooling around. Her lover brings his dog, Sheba, over during their trysts, and while the humans are upstairs, Sebastian and Sheba bond in the basement.
“After the Change,” as the ant-engineered evolution is called, “many of the animals reminisced about the time when they first achieved self-awareness.” For Sebastian it comes during one of his last moments with Sheba, and his first self-aware thought is of their love, or as the otherwise matter-of-fact third-person narration puts it, “a true moment of bliss, a welling of joy and peace.”
Unfortunately, it is also the moment when Sebastian’s human master returns and uncovers his wife’s infidelity. The resulting chaos sends Sheba fleeing and upends Sebastian’s well-ordered life. Although all he wants is to find his friend, the former pet is adrift in a brave new world. Bereft and desperate, he is pulled into the war and, as his hope ebbs, he becomes reckless, winning renown as the “choker-house-cat-turned-warrior.” Changing his name to Mort(e), in part after the “Le Morte d’Arthur” (which he reads while holed up in a library), he is hailed as a hero of the revolution.
What happens next is convoluted and, perhaps, inevitable as the war winds down and the transition to a peaceful new order begins. Veterans struggle to find their place, and even Mort(e) ends up looking down on civilians, like one Russian blue who accidentally vomits up a hairball in his presence, evidence that she indulges in the “guilty pleasure” of licking herself, rather than washing “like civilized people.” She “couldn’t have fought in the war, he thought. She lacked the discipline.”
Despite his desire to resign from active duty and live alone with his memories, Mort(e) is drafted back into the fray when a new, more subtle terror begins. As he investigates this deadly counteroffensive and is caught up in a strange prophecy, he begins to receive messages that Sheba may, in fact, still be alive.
Alternatively an updating of “Animal Farm” and a meditation on friendship and free will, “Mort(e)” is complex, beguiling, and often bloody. Despite its science fiction-fantasy set up, this is very much a book for adults: Mort(e)’s neutered status is rudely alluded to (he is a “choker’’), and the brutality of war is presented prosaically. As in any good war novel, that savagery is also the source of grim humor, delivered in a deadpan worthy of Vonnegut. Speaking of their human enemy, for example, one “Changed” animal notes, “I don’t know why the Queen hates them so much. They’re delicious.”
After millennia of human domination, it’s a fair turnabout. And as Mort(e) goes on his final quest, the possibility of peace is, at best, vague. Still, some things endure. “I remember my time with my friend,” he says. “I realize that these things don’t last. But I will fight for them.” Mutilated but determined, he’s a compelling hero for any species.
Clea Simon is the author of 16 mysteries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.