The Beasts of Tabat by Cat Rambo (2017) – This fantasy tale is a nice, comfortable story with some great world-building and a shared billing with two heroes. The world, northerly and cold, consists of Humans, Beasts, and Shifters. Humans rule the land and Beasts, mythical creatures such as minotaurs, griffins, and mermaids, are slaves to the humans. Shifters are shape-shifters and hunted by Humans and Beasts.
Teo, our first hero, is a Shifter in a small village to the far north where his people pretend to be Humans. It’s not too difficult for Teo because he’s a Shifter who can’t shift. The teenager is an outcast among outcasts. When a Moon Priest arrives in the rural town to cure his sister, his parents decide the life of a priest among Humans might be the best thing for their “handicapped” son so they pledge him to the temple and send him with the priest to the big city of Tabat.
Teo, however, doesn’t want to go and spend a decade in a monastery. He does wish to meet his hero, Bella Canto, the champion gladiator with an amazing win record of over two decades. Her consistent victory over the gladiator representing Spring ensures Winter is postponed for months every year she wins.
Bella in faraway Tabat lives her life as you’d expect a champion fighter would. She takes lovers, supports a school of female fighters, sleeps with the Duke, practices, and lives simply. Her social engagements prove tedious and distracting, but she has no intention of retiring anytime soon no matter how many people curse her in the street.
The priest, after Leo saves him, leaves him behind under the care of a riverboat captain who escorts him to Tabat. There, he escapes and becomes a street urchin. He begs and works at temporary jobs until he encounters Bella, and she takes pity on him. Her own upbringing was hard, and she gets Teo a job with her landlady as a scullery boy.
That doesn’t last long as one of Bella’s boyfriends gets him a job at the circus, run by his “cousin.” Here the plot thickens as the cousin turns out to be the boyfriend in another form. He’s not a Shifter but a sorcerer trying to help the Duke create unrest between Beasts and Humans. The Duke is supposed to turn over his power to the people in the coming year, but he and the sorcerer have a plan to keep him in power permanently.
There’s a subplot where Bella falls in love with one of her students against her better judgement and the rules of the school. As all turn against her, she discovers – in the arena – that her masked opponent is her student girlfriend and is forced to kill her to prevent being killed herself.
Crushed by what she’s done, Bella is easy pickings for the Duke and the sorcerer when they frame her in illegal black magic. Teo tried to warn her, but she threatened to turn him into the priests as a runaway. He, in the meantime, has been “activated” by the sorcerer and can now shift into a cougar, his family’s trademark.
That’s where the story ends. To be continued in The Heart of Tabat.