06 April 2008
The success of Erin Hunter's Warriors series no doubt paved the way for the publication of Vasco: Leader of the Tribe, which is more of a poor man's Watership Down than a compelling animal drama. Vasco, a wharf rat, is one of the few survivors of a calculated campaign by Man to exterminate all rats from human habitats. Vasco finds himself the unexpected, but not really unwilling, leader of a rapidly expanding tribe of rats, also on the run from extermination. As he leads them from their homes, through a perilous sea journey to an unknown land, and eventually to settlement in a foreign jungle, Vasco's skills as a diplomat and rat of change are constantly called into use.
As an advocate for rats, I had great hopes for this book. But it was dire. There is none of the mythic purpose that grounds the Warrior books, where well organized clans of feral cats coexist. There's not even the genuine force of evil that propels the struggle in the Ga'hoole series. The rats of "Vasco" are all at odds with each other seemingly because they are fueled by constant panic and a diet of garbage. Vasco is a visionary in his wish to establish a stable life, rather than simply survive, but his is the lone voice of reason or optimism. And at 300+ pages, shifting from one rat fight to another is exhausting and tiresome.
As with any book that has been translated (in this case from French to English) there is always in my mind the thought that perhaps something has been lost in the process. But it's hard not to believe that the nihilistic tone of the book is thoroughly Continental. There are plenty of vicious battles in the Warriors books, but we also see the cats at play, exhilarated by their sense of purpose, and encouraged by their belief in the spirits. The rats in "Vasco" only exist to breed and eat. When I think of Ratatouille, where an ambitious rat also wanted to do more than just survive, I wish that "Vasco" provided more bright spots and less cruelty.