During this cold Spring, with many of us in Lockdown, I think we still need spirit-lifting reads. Few authors are as good at creating cheering books as Kim M. Watt, so this month my recommended Fantasy Read is the first in her Gobbelino London series. Gobbelino London and a Scourge of Pleasantries was first published in 2020 and you can get it in paperback or as an ebook. So far there are three books in the series, all set in an interesting version of the Yorkshire city of Leeds.
G & C London is a Private Investigation firm staffed by a young man called Callum and a cat called Gobbelino. Callum is one of the rare people who can recognise and understand the Folk – magical creatures of all kinds – who live alongside humans. Gobbelino is a smart and independent cat who has lost one of his nine lives to the Watch, the felines who police the magical world. This pair live together in a small flat in a run-down area of Leeds. The agency isn’t doing too well so it’s lucky that they have a kind elderly neighbour, Mrs Smith, who often drops by with food.
Gobbelino and Callum reluctantly take on a case for a rather alarming client; a sorceress known as Ms Jones. She hires them to steal back a precious book which has been taken by her ex-husband, a dentist called Walker. Gobbelino and Callum manage to locate and steal the book but are worried to find that it stinks of ancient and powerful magic. Before they can hand the Book of Power back to their elusive client, it disappears from Callum’s flat. Soon the pair are facing both an angry sorceress and an irate dentist who claims that the book is rightfully his.
In the meantime, odd things have started to happen in the neighborhood. The weather gets warmer, there is less litter about, the buildings are cleaner and the corner shop is suddenly a gourmet deli. Then the local flora and fauna become more exotic – you don’t expect penguins and flamingos in central Leeds – and there are dramatic changes inside Callum and Gobbelino’s building, especially in the flat of Mrs Smith. Most of the changes are enjoyable but major magic always comes with a high price. Gobbelino recruits Susan, the leader of the local rats, to help him investigate the source of the changes. What they find suggests that not just Leeds but the whole fabric of the universe is now in danger. Can Gobbelino and Callum fix the problem before the ruthless Watch take drastic measures?
This is a novel which should appeal to all cat-lovers since the story is narrated by Gobbelino himself. I’m assuming that his name is a nod to Ursula Moray Williams’ charming children’s book Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat, which I recommended on Fantasy Reads in December 2015. Watt is very skilled at writing from a feline point of view. Gobbelino is convincingly focused on keeping warm and dry and eating as often as possible – even if he does prefer a Full English Breakfast to a bowl of cat food. Much of the humour in the story comes from Gobbelino’s contempt for human ways, his feline swear-words (Hairballs!), and his failure to quite grasp human idioms – `The man probably had more tea in his bloodstream than plaster. Parasols. Platypus? Blood stuff anyway.’ Gobbelino is often annoyed by Callum’s dismal dress-sense, inability to stop smoking and pesky human ethics but there is a strong and touching bond between them. In this first book, I found Callum a bit bland but he becomes more interesting as his dramatic back-story is slowly revealed in volumes two and three of the series.
Since Gobbelino is literally a cat burglar there is plenty scope for hair-raising adventures and this story isn’t short of action scenes which often manage to be both exciting and hilarious. In A Scourge of Pleasantries Watt plays with the conventions of PI mysteries and Urban Fantasy. Callum and Gobbelino are stuck with walking the mean streets of Leeds rather than somewhere more glamorous and most of their work is poorly paid and comes with a high chance of being beaten up. There is nothing romantic about Watt’s descriptions of the urban squalor of Callum and Gobbelino’s vandalized neighbourhood with its filthy pub, greasy-spoon cafe and dismal little shops. Then the magic takes hold and everything lurches up-market. Watt makes some sharp points about the gentrification of working-class neighbourhoods as the greengrocer suddenly stocks pomegranates and the corner-shop offers expensive legs of ham and marinated olives. Callum’s scruffy flat acquires underfloor-heating, a Jacuzzi and a giant fridge and he finds himself drinking tea with flowers in it and eating `biscuits so posh they come in a tin’
When C&G London take on the case of the stolen book their main adversary seems to be an out-of-condition dentist with anger-management issues. What they are really up against is much more scary – a nice woman determined to help her neighbours, whether they like it or not. One of the distinctive things about Watt’s novels is that they always feature forceful and intelligent mature females – a group still under-represented in Fantasy fiction. She has written a whole series about the formidable ladies of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute and their dragon friends (Beaufort Scales Mysteries). In this novel, 75 year-old Mrs Smith, who has done everything for everyone else throughout her life, finally gets a chance to live out her own, surprisingly exotic, inner fantasies.
Callum and Gobbelino are both outcasts from their own kind who have formed a great partnership but to save the day they still need the help of powerful females, such as the enigmatic Ms Jones, Rat-Queen Susan, and maverick Watch-cat, Claudia. One of the joys of Watt’s work is seeing a disparate range of allies and former enemies learning to work together for the common good. Watt herself says that `Most of all, I write about friendship, and loyalty, and the importance of looking out for one another.’ These are qualities we all need more of at the moment. Until next month…