High Steaks, by Daniel Potter – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
High Steaks, by Daniel Potter.
El Cerrito, CA, Fallen Kitten Productions, January 2018, trade paperback, $13.99 (373 pages), Kindle $1.99.
This is Book 3 of Potter’s Freelance Familiars series, following Off Leash and Marking Territory. It follows the events in Books #1 and #2 without a What Has Gone Before, so you really need to have read the first two. Or just dive into the action.
Thomas Khatt, an unemployed librarian in Grantsville, PA, leaves a coffee shop (along with another customer) after sending out job résumés. A hit-&-run driver kills the man standing next to him, and Thomas suddenly finds himself transformed into an unanthropomorphized cougar.
In Off Leash, Thomas learns that he has been transported to “the Real World beyond the veil” that is ruled by magic. He is given the power of speech, but that’s all. He is told that he is expected to become the familiar of a wizard or witch; an involuntary magical assistant – in practice, a slave to a magus, for life.
“Yet one thing had become crystal clear; I wanted no part of this world. Losing my thumbs, my house and my girlfriend in exchange for the chance to be sold off to some pimple-faced apprentice did not sound like a fair deal to me.” (Off Leash, p. 35)
To quote from my review of Off Leash:
“Thomas decides to take charge of his own life, even if he is not familiar with the Real World yet. He faces the dangers of our “world beyond the Veil” […], and of the Real World, refusing to join the TAU [Talking Animal Union] or to become bound to a magus – or to an apprentice – as a familiar.”
“To stay off the leash, he’ll have to take advantage of the chaos caused by the local Archmagus’ death and help the Inquisition solve his murder. A pyromaniac squirrel, religious werewolves, and cat-hating cops all add to the pandemonium as Thomas attempts to become the first Freelance Familiar.” (Off Leash; blurb)
Thomas solves the murder and gains an ally; Rudy, the wise-cracking pyromaniac squirrel. In Marking Territory, Thomas becomes involved in magical politics, his werewolf girlfriend is turned into a werecow, and Grantsville is destroyed in the magus’ crossfire. Now it’s eight months later. Thomas and Rudy have led the survivors to Las Vegas – or under it:
“Into this [the Las Vegas underground flood tunnels] had walked about nine thousand people whose town – my town, Grantsville – had been put into a blender, along with six other realities. With help, I’d managed to get most of them out before everyone got liquefied into a refreshing transdimensional smoothie. In the eight months since, those with mutations that could be covered up or which had simply faded with time had found jobs in the above city or had migrated away. The less fortunate had founded small communities in the tunnels, each sustained by donations from those who had left.
The Ranch was the largest of those communities. The residents had all been blended with animals generally found in the barnyard. Trevor and I approached the gate to the Stables, the portion of the Ranch that housed those Grantsvillians whose mutations had gotten worse instead of fading. So complete were their transformations that the lucky ones – the dogs and cats – had been taken on as familiars by the magi above. The rest – the prey animals, those with hoofed feet and limited binocular vision who made poor familiars – were down here without much hope of ever leaving.” (pgs. 14-15)
There are plenty of human-animal blends:
“I threaded around a pair of horses that were playing chess on a high table and nearly tripped over a chicken. […] Horses, cows, goats, and a few sheep loitered in the central aisle, socializing and talking trivialities. […]
A black goat with a pencil in his mouth looked up from the laptop he had been prodding. ‘H-e-e-e-y freelancers!’ he bayed.
‘Hi, Jet.’ The goat was one of the few residents of the Stables who showed no fear in my presence. I came to a stop and blinked. His horns had been painted glow-in-the-dark green.
‘Nice horns. Really goes with the black,’ Rudy snickered.
The goat grinned. ‘Somebody from above sent us a case of the stuff, and now some of the young ‘uns are trying to scrounge up black lights. I’ll let you know when the dance party begins. Gonna be eighties all the way.’ His ears flicked with amusement, and his tail waggled.” (pgs. 17-18)
But the Grantsvillian animal-people are going stir-crazy living hidden in the drainage tunnels underneath Las Vegas. In the Real World, Las Vegas is openly ruled by the Council of Merlins, the five magical Houses (the Council knows the Grantsvillians are there; it apparently doesn’t care), and its allied Talking Animal Union run by Oric, an owl. Officially the TAU is a labor union for familiars that makes sure the familiars are not mistreated by their magi. In practice, Oric and the TAU make sure that the familiars do what the magi tell them to do.
By immemorial tradition, an animal familiar is bound to a human wizard or witch for life. Thomas wants to change that. If he has to be a cougar, he wants to be able to pick his magus, and to switch from magus to magus at his will – to become a Freelance Familiar. By refusing to join the TAU and coming to Las Vegas, Thomas and his only two allies – Rudy the squirrel, and O’Meara, a disbarred witch – are openly challenging the whole Council of Merlins and Oric.
Officially, Thomas and Rudy sign a contract as the Freelance Familiars with House Picatrix (which is headquartered at the Luxor) to do one temporary job. Unofficially, it will prove that familiars don’t need the TAU. Behind the scenes, some of the magi (but which?) plus Oric are trying to kill the cougar and squirrel (and their lone witch ally). The three Freelance Familiars, and the semihuman Grantsvillians beneath Las Vegas, are in for the supernatural fight of their lives against all the organized wizards and witches who rule Las Vegas, plus the TAU’s corrupt owl, not to mention the werewolves and vampire ghosts.
The animals are mostly unanthropomorphized except for being intelligent and able to talk:
“There, pulled up to the curb, was a pristine white limo that would have been quite classy if not for the line of bullet holes that raked its side. Before either of us could recover, the passenger door of the cab popped open, and a capybara in a smart-looking chauffeur’s cap leapt out. He had a plastic water bottle clasped in his jaws. The dog-sized rodent hurried down the length of the limo and splashed water against the silver door handle. There was a hissing sound, and steam rose from the metal. The bottle bounced on the ground while the capybara popped open the handle with his teeth. With a quick backwards hind-legged hop, the door yawned open. Rudy lay sprawled belly up on the seat next to a martini glass full of shelled hazelnuts.
He waved.” (p. 77) [The two Capy Bros. run the limo service. One steers while the other works the gas and brake pedals. The water bottle doesn’t have any magical significance; it’s hot outdoors in daytime in Las Vegas!]
“‘It is far too early for an employee to be drinking.’ A smooth voice pulled my eyes away from the woman and back to the doorway of the bar. A cheetah stalked toward me. His body appeared to be thin and breakable, but his motions spoke of supreme confidence. The patrons of the bar shifted uneasily; mugs of golden liquid were quickly pulled out of his line of sight. The tension in the bar ratcheted up several notches, and the air around us threatened to snap in half.” (p. 84)
“Where Bobby had sat, a coyote the size of a horse flashed an omnidirectional grin. She tossed her head back and howled like a hurricane. A downpour of power surged through the room, pinning me to the stool. Glasses shattered, the beer running over the tables as the employees desperately covered their ears. The howl faded, and Bobby trotted out into the casino, past the fallen linemen.” (p. 190)
High Steaks (cover by Ebooklaunch.com, which presumably means that Potter paid Amazon/CreateSpace the maximum to have it printed, well proofread, cover-customized, and published under his own imprint) features necromantic attacks (“‘You can’t be too paranoid in Vegas.’”), bar brawls, assassinations, pathos (“A crying cow was not a pretty sight.”), a sorcerous heist caper, a deadly romance between Thomas and another cougar familiar (a feline femme fatale), the Freelance Familiars vs. the TAU (Thomas vs. Oric), Rudy firing bombs and rockets (“‘Booooooom, baby!’”), and all the talking animals that a furry fan could want. Don’t miss the Fallen Kitten Productions’ website for a free Freelance Familiars short story.
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