Unnaturals: The Battle Begins – book review by Fred Patten.
by Patch O'Furr
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Unnaturals : The Battle Begins, by Devon Hughes. Illustrated by Owen Richardson.
NYC, HarperCollins Publishers/Katherine Tegen Books, October 2015, hardcover $16.99 ( + 335 [+ 4] pages), Kindle $9.99.
Unnaturals (the animals in the story are called “the Unnaturals”) is a fantasy-adventure series for 8- to 12-year-old readers; grades 3 to 7. The standard formula is to produce 4 or 5 annual serialized novels, each up to the last ending on a minor conclusion and cliffhanger leading to the next.
The futuristic city of Lion’s Head is populated by both humans and feral domestic animals; in this case, dogs. The story starts with two dogs of one alley pack, Castor and his brother Runt. The pack is led by the brutal Alpha. Castor and Runt have a German shepherd mother and a Mexican wolf father. Since this is a fantasy, the animals can converse intelligently in “animal talk”.
“The brothers ran together, matching step for step, breath for breath. The farther they went into the city, the taller and more packed together the black glass towers grew. The domed walkways that ran between them crisscrossed until they blocked out every last bit of sun. It was never dark, though – every side of every building flashed dozens of lifelike images each minute: political nonsense and Lion’s Head news. Pictures selling things that glittered and things that glowed and things that promised to change your life. Humans like you never saw them in real life – with faces three stories tall instead of tiny dots, sitting outside, grinning up at the sun with exposed pink and brown flesh, looking like they weren’t afraid of all the things crawling up their upturned noses through the air.
Over the years, Castor had taught himself to read by staring at those changing pictures. It was a useless hobby and one he never would’ve admitted to in front of Alpha, but Runt got a kick out of hearing about the strange human world, and he was constantly bugging Castor for updates.
‘If we run into Chauncy Chow, I’ve got your back like always,’ Castor promised, scanning the narrow alleyways between the factories for their territory rivals.
‘I don’t care about Chauncy or his wee weenies,’ Runt scoffed. ‘They’re just fancy rodents.’
Castor barked a laugh. It was true. Humans had bred miniature breeds when space was tight, but now that virtual pets were in fashion, the pampered minis were being dumped on the streets, too. The so-called ‘rival pack’ was a whiny group of dachshunds led by an entitled puffball.” (pgs. 6-8)
The older dogs, called Gray Whiskers, are wary of humans. The younger dogs scoff at them. The humans spend all their time “behind thick glass. They can’t handle dust or heat or raw food.”
The humans’ favorite sport is watching the currently top-popular Mega Monster Mash-up featuring “this season’s murderous mutants!!!” on their floor-to-ceiling warp screen walls. The humans hold gladiatorial battles between the mutated Unnaturals, who are stars to human and animal alike, in the huge Dome, the city’s arena. The feral animals of Lion’s Head also have their legends of the Greenplains where wild game like deer and rabbits lived. “The only prey these littered streets had in abundance were rats – small, sneaky things that would scrunch up their faces to taunt you, their beady eyes glowing red in the shadows.” (p. 11) Castor dismisses the Greenplains as only old nursery tales the Gray Whiskers tell, while Runt believes they are (or were) real.
The biggest danger in the alleys isn’t rival dog packs, or the rats or wily raccoons. It’s the Crusher Slushers; huge semi-robotic Waste Management machines that grab any animal they can catch and turn it into paste.
The first human protagonist of Unnaturals is eleven-year-old Marcus, who lives in an apartment 247 stories up and is a rabid fan of the Mega Monster Mash-up battles on the simulink network. Marcus, and the rest of the public, believe that the “murderous mutants” shown – the star gladiators like the Invincible, a giant tiger with a scorpion’s tail; Pookie the Poisonous, a Chihuahua-spider; the Crunch, a cockroach-crocodile; the Hellion, a Komodo dragon-hippopotamus mix; the Fearless, a saber-toothed grizzly bear; the Enforcer, an octo-elephant; and others – are only virtual reality characters, the technological descendants of computer-generated animation, or maybe androids; in any case, not real.
Slightly older Leesa, in an underground slum apartment, knows the truth since one of the Unnaturals used to be Pookie, her pet Chihuahua, before he disappeared four years earlier and reemerged in the Dome as a Chihuahua’s head grafted onto a giant spider’s body.
When Castor is trapped by a Crusher Slusher while fighting a rival dog pack, its human drivers decide that he is too good a fighter to be reduced to slime. They sell him to NuFormz, the laboratory that mutates animals into the Unnaturals. There he meets Jazlyn the rabbit, Enza the tigress, Rainner the monitor lizard, Deja the snake, and other animals scheduled to become “monsters” designed for entertainment. NuFormz turns out to be secretly owned by Mayor Eva Eris, who realizes that the best way to remain at the top of Lion’s Head’s politicians is to give the voters plenty of bread & games: Mega Monster Mash-up’s “fantasy” animals’ gladiatorial contests. She quietly encourages the city’s Waste Management workers to bring likely-looking feral animals to NuFormz’s scientists and animal handlers who design ferocious-looking monsters. She also diverts exotic predators from the city’s zoo to the NuFormz labs.
The Unnaturals are mostly alpha predators bioengineered to fight more savagely, with an occasional prey Unnatural like Jazlyn, who becomes the Swift, a super-speedy panther-rabbit. Castor is turned into the Underdog, a handsome eagle-winged dog that is supposed to win the viewers’ sympathy.
The cover by Owen Richardson is representative of Unnaturals: The Battle Begins. Although several of the book’s 49 chapters feature Marcus, Leesa, and their associates, it is Castor and his animal friends and enemies in Lion’s Head’s secret labs and huge Dome who are the main cast, appearing most often. The two children, who know or learn The Truth, become determined to free the mutated monsters who are still alive. Castor becomes the leader of the Unnaturals in the NuFormz labs and in the Dome, or at least those Unnaturals who have not become kill-crazy. Several supporting characters emerge among the Unnaturals. Castor’s brother and original pack quickly fade out of The Battle Begins, though they will doubtlessly reappear in later volumes.
Owen Richardson’s illustrations consist of chapter-heading drawings, most repeated several times. The text descriptions and illustrations of Castor are curiously inconsistent, ranging from a German shepherd with large wings, to the glorified flying dog shown on the cover, to a traditional griffin. Possibly Castor evolves over the course of the series; in The Battle Begins, just the descriptions of a regular German shepherd with an eagle’s wings seems the most accurate. If you like talking exotic animals, you should enjoy this series.
Comics and animation fans should be familiar with the theme of characters turned into cyborgs or “monsters” against their will, who use their new powers to combat evil. There has especially been a lot of it in Japanese manga, going back to Shōtarō Ishinomori’s 1964 Cyborg 009 and Taiko Saito’s 1967 The Shadowman. This is the first time that I have seen it applied to talking animals.