THE BLOOD JAGUAR
Micheal H. Payne
Tor Books / 256 pages / 1st edition (October 15, 1998)
There is no way that The Blood Jaguar is going to escape being compared to Watership Down. Intelligent animals, living in structured communities, with a spiritual belief system, working together to overcome the threat of certain doom? The parallels are there, but is it a comparison that reflects favourably on The Blood Jaguar?
Does it matter? The association alone is going to attract readers in droves.
The menace comes this time not in the form of bulldozers and oblivious land developers, but as a plague which will wipe out most of the world’s population. Did I mention that the entirety of that population consists of animals? Humans, in this place and time, are so distant as to be completely forgotten, or, perhaps, unimagined. For reasons never addressed, people simply don’t exist. So, it falls to a bobcat, a skink, and a fisher (I had to look it up; it’s a big, dark-brown weaseloid animal) to save the world’s animal citizens from this cyclical pandemic.
And, these are animals. Payne resists the temptation to turn the characters as furry humans, retaining most of their characteristics, while moving them into a more civilised society. They are thinking, reasoning beings, with the ability to communicate and form civilisations, but they also run on four (or whatever) legs and enjoy a good tongue-bath when the trail dust gets to be too much.
One interesting point: domesticated animals do not figure into the plot. No dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc., roam the lands our heroes visit. So, readers are spared the conflict of meerkats riding horses. This also may have some effect on the fact that, for the most part, the animals live a vegetarian existence. How civilised.
Bobcat, the most reluctant member of the trio, is, of course, the focus of the novel. Can a flighty weed-addicted rambler be trusted with such a crucial mission? Do they have a choice? The legend says who will go, and they are it.
Whether it’s a positive or a negative, little change occurs in The Blood Jaguar. Bobcat, as the fulcrum of the quest, undergoes a certain amount of change, but not anything truly dramatic. The other characters are apparently fine as-is, because they remain largely unaffected.
So. Are you waiting for a judgement? Is The Blood Jaguar as strong a book as Watership Down? Not really. Payne seems to have no desire to enter the darker topics of death and suffering that Watership Down addresses, even with the threat of a plague in the offing. Is it a good book? Yes, it is. It presents an interesting theology and another way of looking at animals as sentient beings. Both intriguing aspects, but it is not the literary effort it’s predecessor was. And, maybe it’s not intended to be. Not everything has to be, after all.