Review by Jacob Licklider
The Slender-Fingered Cats of Bubastis is the second Bernice Summerfield audiobook to be released this year, as well as the final audiobook to be announced this year for the range. It is the debut novel of Xanna Eve Chown who would go on to be the editor and producer of the Big Finish books and many of the audiobooks, including all of the Bernice Summerfield audiobooks. Her first effort is a near perfect example of Big Finish recruiting new talent, despite some short stories, this novel is an utter delight. Chown doesn’t quite cross the line into farce, but integrates farcical elements incredibly well with a setting going back to Benny’s archeological roots while integrating a plot by her companion Jack who promises a publisher a book of poetry which has already been featured in a library which includes books from the future projected back into the past. The planet Bubastis has several categories of religious thought on the stone cats, each with eleven fingers on their hands while new age archeologist Prof. Neon Tsara has a fanatical devotion to the number 23, and the “fact” that one of the cats has twenty three fingers (23 rules this woman’s life).
Chown characterised Benny excellently, as she is essentially the ‘straight man’ to much of the insanity in the events of the novel. The sarcasm of the character is something that will generally elevate a Benny novel, and Chown clearly understands that. Half of the novel has her avoiding any attempts to write poetry as she isn’t a poet, building up a running gag which ends with an excellent payoff in the final chapter when she is essentially forced to do but she does in the most fittingly Benny way. Jack McSpringheel, a character featured in the box sets with Ruth, is a prominent force here, and he is a delight. Despite my unfamiliarity with the character Chown from his first appearance in the novel writes him in such a way that the reader/listener immediately understands how the character works and what motivates him. He is essentially an archetypal trickster character, where you never quite know where you stand and while he never comes across as outwardly dangerous there is an undercurrent and subtext. There is an early moment where it feels like Ruth and Benny are trying to reign him in but cannot simply because he’s more a force than a normal person. Prof. Neon Tsara is the closest thing this novel has to an antagonist, our new age archeologist who has no sense of scientific method and a woman to which Benny just is immediately fed up with her insanity. Chown makes the humour work by making her obsession with the number 23 a real thing that happens to be true, especially when it turns out one of the cats does have 23 fingers, and there is an ancient reason for that. The characterisation of all the characters are quite brilliant and elevate Chown’s prose to a fast moving adventure.
Lisa Bowerman’s narration matches the pace of Chown’s prose, the audiobook despite being of a longer book than the previous The Weather on Versimmon, it is actually a shorter running production. There is a snappy pace to Bowerman’s narration and the colourful characters, and smaller cast than other novels, means that Bowerman’s range as an actor shines through as there is less of a chance to blend similar character voices together. The Slender-Fingered Cats of Bubastis is a book deserving of its ridiculous title, giving us a great little farce that can be listened to without context of what was going on in the Benny range. 9/10.
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