The Familiars, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson – Book Review By Fred Patten.

by Patch O'Furr

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

51L8-29eGELThe Familiars, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson. Illustrations, map by Peter Chan & Kei Acedera.
NYC, Harper CollinsPublishers/Harper, September 2010, hardcover $16.99 (360 pages), Kindle $4.99.

The Familiars: Secrets of the Crown, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson. Illustrations, map by P. Chan & K. Acedera.
NYC, Harper CollinsPublishers/Harper, September 2011, hardcover $16.99 (374 [+ 1] pages), Kindle $4.99.

The Familiars: Circle of Heroes, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson. Illustrations by Greg Call; map by P. Chan & K. Acedera.
NYC, Harper CollinsPublishers/Harper, September 2012, hardcover $16.99 (327 pages), Kindle $4.99.

The Familiars: Palace of Dreams, by Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson. Illustrations, map by Dave Phillips.
NYC, Harper CollinsPublishers/Harper, December 2013, hardcover $16.99 (323 pages), Kindle $6.99.

The Warriors series of talking feral cats by “Erin Hunter” is known to furry fandom, but most of the other anthropomorphic animal series for the 8- to 12-year-old market seems to be ignored, except when one of them is adapted into a CGI animated feature. The 15 The Guardians of Ga’hoole novels of anthropomorphized owls by Kathryn Lasky, which became the 2010 animated movie Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’hoole by the Animal Logic studio and Warner Bros. distributor, is one example.

Here is another, maybe. The first novel in the four-book The Familiars series, published in 2011, announces “The Familiars will be produced for film by Sam Raimi and Sony Animation.” As of 2015, Sony says the film is still in development, although Sam Raimi no longer seems to be associated with it.

The series is aimed at 8- to 12-year-olds; the upper primary school grades. It is set in a magical world. The three familiars are Aldwyn, a young cat; Skylar, a girl blue jay; and Gilbert, a tree frog.

As The Familiars begins, Aldwyn is a young orphan alley cat barely out of kittenhood, scrounging a living in the streets of Bridgetower in the Queendom of Vastia. Aldwyn does not know his parentage. He is successful enough at stealing food from the human merchants of Bridgetower that they call for Grimslade, the most ruthless and successful bounty hunter in Vastia, to catch him. Aldwyn hides in a cage in a shop filled with exotic animals, all of which have a magic power, intended to be chosen as the new familiars of apprentice wizards. Before Aldwyn can leave, the old wizard Kalstaff comes into the shop with his newest apprentice. It’s 11-year-old Jack’s birthday, and Kalstaff is getting him a familiar for a present. Needless to say, Jack chooses Aldwyn over all the more obviously magical animals such as a two-tailed lemur, an elephant snail, or a pocket dragon.

“‘This cat’s got green eyes, just like me,’ said Jack.

The shopkeeper walked over and looked at Aldwyn.

‘I don’t remember where I got that one. Must have been one of the telekinetic bicolors I picked up from Maidenmere.’

‘Ooh, I want to see!’ exclaimed the boy.” (p. 31)

51YFWX2LAhLAldwyn feigns that he doesn’t feel like using his telekinesis as Jack and Kalstaff take him past Grimslade and out of Bridgetower to their cottage in the forest. Aldwyn meets Kalstaff’s slightly older apprentices, the 14-year-old twins Marianne and Dalton, and their familiars, Marianne’s blue jay Skylar and Dalton’s tree frog Gilbert. Kalstaff’s magic makes all of the animal familiars able to talk.

Aldwyn becomes friends with Skylar and Gilbert. The wizards of Vastia are supposed to help Queen Loranella keep the country free from bad weather, monsters, ordinary criminals, and evil spells. He is still pretending to be telekinetic but not feeling like being a showoff when Queen Loranella and three knights arrive. But when Kalstaff goes to greet her, she unexpectedly kills him, takes the three apprentices prisoner, and leaves with them for her distant palace in Bronzhaven.

The Familiars is about Aldwyn’s, Skylar’s, and Gilbert’s adventures as they cross Vastia to find their “loyals”, the three apprentices. Grimslade pops up from time to time as a relentless menace. Aldwyn is unmasked as really just a magicless, ordinary cat, but still a valuable member of the animal trio for his street smarts; then at the climax, he turns out to have really come from Maidenmere and have telekinetic powers. The evil queen Loranella is unmasked as an imposter: her own familiar, Paksahara the gray hare, who has imprisoned the real Queen and intends to make all the humans in Vastia powerless so its animals will rule. (That’s a major spoiler, sorry; but this is a review of the entire series.) Paksahara is defeated; the real Queen Loranella replaces Kalstaff as the loyals’ mentor, and the three familiars are revealed as the true prophesized defenders of Vastia.

The Familiars: Secrets of the Crown begins four weeks later. Queen Loranella has handed off the loyals and their familiars to middle-aged Sorceress Edna and her mink familiar, Stolix, for instruction at Edna’s nearby Black Ivy Manor. Dalton and Marianne have traded familiars; Skylar is now Dalton’s and Gilbert is Marianne’s. Paksahara has escaped, and everyone expects her to strike back:

51Luub0tAdL“As they skimmed lower, they approached the living topiaries that guarded the outside of Black Ivy Manor. These enchanted shrubs had been sculpted less than a month ago to protect the teaching grounds, a precaution of great import now that Sorceress Edna had taken over the training of Kalstaff’s three pupils and their familiars. The topiaries had been shaped like archers holding thorny bows at the ready. They swung their weapons from left to right, preparing to fire upon any unwelcome intruders.” (pgs. 4-5)

Paksahara strikes first from her hidden Shifting Fortress, ridding all of Vastia of any human magic. When Loranella summons the now-powerless human wizards to discuss the situation, Paksahara appears in stained glass to taunt them:

“‘Why do you choose to show yourself like this?’ she inquired of her former trusted companion. ‘What is it you want?’

Paksahara turned her glass face back to the queen. ‘For all on two feet to bow down before me. For you to relinquish your throne and pledge your allegiance to the original rulers of Vastia. For you to let me enslave you, the way you did me: you called me familiar, but in reality I was nothing more than your servant.’

‘I was your loyal and you my companion. We were a team,’ said the queen. ‘I will never bow down to you.’

‘I was hoping you’d say that. I’m quite looking forward to hearing you beg for mercy.’ […] ‘Upon the arrival of the next full moon, a new Dead Army will rise, one comprised of animals, and it will not stop marching and conquering until every human has surrendering to it.’” (p. 32)

While the humans are now powerless, the animal familiars still have their magic. Skylar proposes that they go to where the fabled wizard Agorus built the Shifting Fortress in the dim past and use necromancy to call his spirit back to tell them how to find it. They discover that Agorus had been a beaver, not a human; Paksahara’s claim that animals had ruled Vastia before humans is true. Agorus says that: “‘There was meant to be only one way to bring forth the mighty tower. Seek the Crown of the Snow Leopard! That is how the First Phylum intended it.’” (p. 44)

51oou3hOxcLSecrets of the Crown is mostly the adventure of Aldwyn, Skylar, and Gilbert who still have their magic to find the ancient Crown of the Snow Leopard. They have to find and bypass many magical traps. Also, they learn that they are not the first to find this Crown. Three years earlier, another brave cat followed the same path – Aldwyn’s missing father, Baxley. The trail leads them through Aldwyn’s ancestral home of Maidenmere, where only Aldwyn is able to follow Baxley’s glowing purple paw prints on the Rituals of the Felidae. Their quest north, out of Vastia into the Beyond, now becomes not only to find the Crown of the Snow Leopard, but to find Aldwyn’s father – or what happened to him.

And with that, I am going to end this review since to continue would reveal too many spoilers. The Familiars four-book series may be for children, but it is fast-moving with many surprises. It really draws you into it. It features three likeable talking-animal characters that the reader will identify with, and many other animal supporting characters including a truly evil hare villain. Books two through four end on desperate cliffhangers …

Yes, the last book in the series also ends on a cliffhanger. That is why The Familiars series is not recommended. After four annual novels from 2010 to 2013 that make the reader anxious to find out what happens to Aldwyn, Skylar, and Gilbert next, Epstein & Jacobson switched to the Starbounders juvenile space-opera series with Starbounders in 2013, Starbounders [#2:] Rebellion in 2014 – then what? It looks like Epstein & Jacobson are excellent at starting adventurous series that are discontinued in the midst of the action. If they ever return to The Familiars and finish the cat’s, the blue jay’s, and the tree frog’s adventures, it may be worth recommending. As it stands, the reader will just be frustrated. Too bad.

I’ve had a past editor who didn’t want any unfavorable reviews; he felt that readers should only be told what was worth reading, not warned about books not worth reading.  I disagree.  At the least, this review will be a surprise for readers who think that I only give favorable reviews.”

Fred Patten