In the animal kingdom, order is everything.
Absent order, chaos would surely consume the many and various creatures who live in and around Murder’s Field, for instance. Imagine the madness of the grain harvest without someone to make sure the quails wait their turn! Consider those small souls who would go hungry because of the gluttony of others!
Luckily, that’s where the crow king comes in. For generations—ever since the war of the wolves—he and his black-feathered forefathers have upheld a system of sharing and, to a certain extent, caring. Under his watchful eye, an order of sorts is imposed. Rabbits, badgers, rats and mice alike are all subject to his commands from on high, in an ornate nest in a great tree at the centre of this field.
But now, the crow king is dead.
And at the outset of Lupus Rex, there is a very real reckoning ahead…
The order states that the crowning of a new king—by way of the reckoning aforementioned—must not be observed by any other animal. The penalty for observing this invite-only rite is death, no less, so when the process begins, the other creatures who call Murder’s Field home venture through the woods to give the crows their privacy.
Later that same day, Monroth and Ysil—a pair of plucky young quail in constant competition for the heart of Harlequin—imperil everyone else by sneaking back to watch the sacred ceremony in secret. When their absence is discovered, a band of older animals is dispatched to bring them back before their mischief paves the way for their unmaking. Reunited and rightly chided, they find themselves with no choice but to wait out the rest of the Reckoning.
Or rather, that’s the plan. But the Reckoning goes wrong: rather than surrendering to the rook’s rule, one of the overlooked heirs to the crow king’s bone throne rebels. Finding himself overmatched, if only momentarily, Sintus makes for the forest with his most loyal followers, promising to return with an entire army.
And with that, the ancient order collapses. Chaos takes the reins, and soon, a bloody battle ensues, in the aftermath of which the petrified quail are caught. Exiled after a tragic sacrifice and a mighty bribe, they set out in search of a fabled bird of prey who could turn the tide of the coming conflict, because as Cotur Ada insists, “The wolf will come […] and its order will be one of blood and darkness. The crows will be its servants, and in the end, all animals—crows, quails, rabbits, every one—its prey. I beg you hear me. The wolf will come if the hawk does not return.”
So begins Lupus Rex, the endearing debut of a new genre fiction imprint—Rebellion’s Ravenstone—and indeed an author, namely John Carter Cash. The only son of Johnny and June Carter Cash, John Carter Cash is a singer and a songwriter in his own right, and the producer of other artists’ award-winning records in the interim. He’s had a number of picture books for children published in the past, but Lupus Rex is his first novel proper—and like Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box, it should be judged as such, as opposed to the next phase of some magnetic genetic legacy.
That said, it’s fantastic. Delightful and insightful. Almost as good as The Animals of Farthing Wood, if markedly darker. Cash is unafraid to kill off his most charming characters—indisputably brutally too. At points, heads roll and gizzards are liberally spilled, such that Lupus Rex sometimes feels like grimdark anthropomorphic fantasy; picture Joe Abercrombie with added animals. Yet though there is no dearth of death—and though this sense of peril is ever-present—Lupus Rex is largely a light ride.
And, admittedly, quite slight. It’s so short that I read it in a single night. So short, in fact, that the abundance of set-up Cash imparts early on seems in service of a greater quest than the abbreviated adventure the exiled animals eventually go on. Another chapter or three in the company of these quails and their lone rabbit companion would have been a great way to develop more substantial characters. As is, they’re sweet but somewhat simple creatures.
Another niggle: it can be hard to tell all the damned animals apart. Sulari counts “twenty-nine quail, fifty-five mice, twenty-two rabbits, fourteen squirrels, five badgers, and one slow, grumbling golden rat […] And I the only hare.” That’s not to mention the crow kingdom, or the legendary outliers who come to Murder’s Field for the climactic clash. If the truth be told, this was a touch too much for me; I can only imagine how challenging the younger readers Lupus Rex is actually aimed at are likely to find it.
Aside these issues, Lupus Rex is lovely. Atypically thrilling and lyrically written. In places, John Carter Cash’s prose is truly beautifully put, whilst his depiction of the animal kingdom is particularly magnificent. The concept of the order is a wonderful one, and the resolution of this thread proves massively satisfying.
Certainly it is small, and short of perfectly formed, but Lupus Rex is still a darling of a debut, at the end of the day. A fine way, I dare say, to kickstart the career of an exciting new novelist in addition to a promising imprint sworn to specialise in speculative fiction for children of all ages—up to and including us oldyins!
Lupus Rex by John Carter Cash is available now from Rebellion.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.