Nick McDonell’s The Council of Animals starts—like many SFF books do—after an apocalypse. Unlike many SFF books, however, the struggle of what to do after a civilization-killing event doesn’t center around humans; it’s the animals who are the main characters of this after the end of the world fable.
In McDonell’s 208-page tale, all animals except humans can speak a universal language called grak. The animals also hold Councils from time to time to vote on major decisions that impact the Animal Kingdom. The story—told by an unknown narrator (until the very end)—starts at one of those Councils. After a human-caused disaster called The Calamity, representatives from a handful of species congregate to decide whether or not they should kill off the few dozen humans who are still alive.
The Council starts with a grizzled bulldog, a cunning baboon, a clever cat, a sugar-addicted horse, an Egg-worshiping crow, and a morose bear full of despair. Other creatures make appearances at crucial times as well, including dangerous moles, a lizard who thinks he’s a bat, a horde of cockroaches, and several other creatures great and small that represent multiple branches of Earth’s evolutionary tree.
The central question that starts the book rests on one question: should the animals kill the remaining humans? Different members of the Council have different thoughts on the matter, and the fable starts out by weighing the pros and cons of humanity through the perspectives of the Council representatives.
While the topic is serious, the tone isn’t. In many ways, The Council of Animals is a whimsical story full of puns and fur-filled adventures. It is also, however, a book rife with references to philosophical ideas, moral quandaries, and very serious works. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is one obvious allusion, but there are also nods to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and explanations of different philosophical and political viewpoints, thinly veiled through the thoughts of the characters.
Take this speech by the bear, for example, when she futilely tries to teach the old bulldog some new tricks:
“It’s learning that sets us apart from rocks and trees. Why else would we be able to speak grak? Or hold animal councils? We learned. And in the learning and relearning, time and again, we make a better Animal Kingdom. It’s just…bad ideas that cause problems, that make us fetch. By nature, individually, each of us, we’re good!”
I wish the bear had been around when I took Philosophy 101—she would have made my professor’s explanations of different theories much more interesting! If exploring the root of human nature isn’t your jam, however, there’s also fun asides about historical frameworks. Take this sidebar from the narrator, for example:
Some argue that all history is, at bottom, the history of Great Creatures. The leaders, the creators, these Great Creatures who plunge into unknown mole holes. They set the model and pattern for what the wider masses do—or try to do. Human thinkers in this line argue that everything we see accomplished in this world sprang from the mind of some Great Creature, and so our history must concern itself with their lives in particular. The rat who traveled with Napoleon. The wallaby who taught Elvis how to sing. The lobsters who elevated Salvador Dali’s conceptual practice. The raccoon who, quite disastrously, advised Calvin Coolidge.
This passage also reflects that this book is not laden down by the concepts and theories it throws at you. (It also teaches you never to take advice from a raccoon.) At its heart, The Council of Animals is a fun story, a tale that—on its surface—is a pleasant read. You don’t have to delve into the book’s many allusions or reflect too much on the story’s commentary about society to still enjoy the tale.
To say too much more would be getting into spoiler territory, but the Council eventually dissolves and a faction of the representatives choose to go on a related mission that takes them on a quest arguably as epic as Frodo’s trip to Mordor. The animals also meet a couple of the remaining humans on the way, and the fate of humanity is ultimately decided.
The ending is an interesting one, and one that could spark a thousand different conversations. But you can also close The Council of Animals and enjoy it simply as an entertaining read. Readers of almost all ages will get something out of it —it’s a fun story, after all. But it’s also a fable, and as a fable, it also comes with a message about human nature and modern-day society. Whether you care about that message or not, however, it’s still a book worth picking up, especially if talking animals are your thing.
Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.