Set in a fictionalised version of 16th Century France, the book follows the events in an unnamed city after the ruling Duke is assassinated by conspirators within his own nobility. Opening with the assassination itself, which occurs during the Duke's dinner with his young son, the book moves quickly to add its fantastic elements, as the heir to the duchy is rescued by the royal cat and taken into hiding in the abandoned city mausoleum. The cats of the city, divided into two socio-racial groups, hold a great meeting to decide how they should react to the human events; deciding that one of their number must be sent to tell their ancient friend, Horse, the news. The two groups of felines are the Miw, much larger and stronger felines than the Brethren, the ordinary domestic cats. Miw are also blessed with Psychic Powers, including intra-feline telepathy and the ability to project emotions into the minds of humans. Brethren can send and receive thought between each other and Miw, but lack the powers to communicate more directly with humans.
The story then moves between two protagonists; one human, one animal. Cam of Cambridge, a lapsed student from the University of Paris and itinerant peddler, tinker and solver of problems is wandering the south of France seeking the next village where he can ply his various trades of writing letters, fixing pots and dowsing for wells. Amon, the reluctant young Miw selected to travel from the city and find Horse; along with his Brethren accomplices Ripfur and Tornear. Cam becomes embroiled in events by accident, accepting a letter to "The Seroster" from a local blacksmith, along with an aged knife, which he must deliver to the unnamed city. Along his way to his destination, he finds and befriends Amon and accidentally rescues a damsel and her father from one of the conspirators. He rapidly finds himself up to his neck in more magic and politics than he ever wanted or planned to be involved in as the Miw orchestrate a human rebellion against the new ruler of the city, Little Paul, and conduct their own guerilla war from the sewers and rooftops.
But who is the Seroster?
Contains Examples Of:
- Animal Eyes: Whenever he takes hold of either his knife or his sword, the Seroster's eyes go from normal, human blue to golden, slitted cat eyes.
- Arc Words: "Rex Aegyptus Sum!" which is the Seroster's battle-cry. Frequently misheard as "Wrecks! I gypped us some!" in-universe. Eventually it's explained and translated as "I am the King Of Egypt!", in reference to the Miw and the Seroster's connection to Ancient Egypt and the cat goddess, Bast. "Seroster" is a deirvation of Sesostris, a legendary Egyptian King of the 19th Dynasty.
- Cats Are Magic: As well as having Psychic Powers which include telepathy and empathic projection, the Miw can also summon thunderclouds if they collectively wave their tails in the exact way.
- City with No Name: Although several of the small villages around the are named (Morville, Beauly, Harcout and Hadel), the city itself remains entirely unidentified. (Though the foreword in some editions says that it's inspired by Les Baux.)
- Corrupt Church: Little Paul, the lead conspirator in the Duke's assassination, is a former clergyman with strong ties to the Bishop of Mainz; whose aid he calls upon when the rebellion against him gets under way. The Bishop himself is not portrayed in the best of lights, either, shown as a ranting fanatic whose favourite pastime is burning people (and cats) at the stake.
- Clingy MacGuffin: The magical knife Cam acquires from the blacksmith cannot be thrown away or lost; Cam tries to get rid of it in this manner and he keeps finding himself drawn back to it.
- Dark Is Not Evil: The Matagot, the oldest and wisest of the Miw, and the ones with greatest knowledge of old Cat Magic, are purely black in colour.
- Death Glare: Sehtek, the Miw 'queen' for want of a better word, is known to deliver these, frequently accompanied a powerful telepathic blast when she's really angry.
- Foreshadowing: Not long after Cam arrives in The City, he observes a group of children playing a game in a graveyard in which one, dressed up in an armour jerkin that looks a lot like his own, plays the role of The Seroster, slaying the others who're dressed as bandits and "bad men." At the completion of the play-fight, the child playing the Seroster stands on top of a tomb and shouts "Wrecks! I gypped us some!" Later during a battle, The Seroster leads a group of cavalry into a trap in a graveyard and stands atop a tomb to deliver his battle-cry.
- The Last Dance: After his rampage through the conspirators, looking for the man who killed his pet cat, Sir Henri - full of arrows and with blood leaking from every joint of his armour; charges the Seroster for one, final swing of his sword.
- No Immortal Inertia: When the blacksmith Cam acquires the magical knife from dies, he crumbles away into dust, leaving only a skull which then also crumbles and blows away.
- Psychic Radar: The Miw have it. Amon uses his telepathic abilities to sense the waiting Ripfur and Tornear and later, to detect the presence of Cam on an island in the Mire far away and the faint sense of a group of cats further away still.
- Religious and Mythological Theme Naming: Most of the Miw have Egyptian mythological names or Egyptian-sounding names: Sehtek, Amon, Khufu.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Sir Henri goes off on one of these after he discovers that someone (it was Little Paul) has killed his cat, Castlemew.
- Storming the Castle: During the climactic battle which sees the rebels against Little Paul assaulting the city, the citadel was going to have be assaulted in order to oust the usurpers. Like many historical fortifications, it has tight defences to prevent this from being an easy task, and the Seroster does not relish the prospect of trying to force his way in, nor the casualties the rebels would take. So they sneak in, instead, disguising themselves as usurper loyalists who've captured the Seroster.
- Taking You with Me: Lord Khufu, the ruling male Miw in The City is cornered on a rooftop during the great purge of cats. Wounded and knowing he's dying and that he'll just be killed if he's caught, he summons his last strength for a leap with which he intends to take Ironhand (one of the usurper lords) with him.
- Where's the Kaboom?: Part of the cunning plan the Seroster has for breaching the city walls without a major assault involves having a planted priest blowing a hole in the wall. Inevitably, the explosion seems to be taking longer than it should, leading to the thought that the fuse may have gone out and the person who lit it going back to check. At which point it explodes, of course.
- Worthy Opponent: Sir Henri, the only chivalrous knight on the side of duke's assassins. He also regards the Seroster as his worthy opponent and sends him letter after letter requesting a one-on-one duel between the two.
- You Shall Not Pass!: During the slaughter of cats in the city, Sir Henri sets up a chair outside of his room with his door's key on a thong around his neck and stays there all night to keep anyone from getting into his chambers and killing his cat, Castlemew. Several armed mooks show up and then run away and come back with Ironhand. Sir Henri just stares at them. Ironhand punches one of his own mooks and walks off.