I'll make this easy on myself and start off by saying that all the characters in this book are cats. Some of them can talk to each other and are intelligent. I read somewhere that the setting is prehistoric Earth, but I wouldn't bat an eyelash if someone told me the book was actually set on another planet that just happened to have similar wildlife.
Ratha is one of the Named, a group of intelligent cats that survives by keeping herds of hooved animals. She's young and still in training, but her teacher, Thakur, believes she will one day be one of the best herders in the clan. When she's older, her job will be to help the herd grow and protect it from the Un-Named. Ratha has always been taught that the Un-Named are stupid and unable to speak, but Thakur seems to think this might not be true.
The clan has enough to worry about, protecting the herd from Un-Named raiders, but then lightning causes a fire. After the devastation is over, Thakur has developed a fear of fire, while Ratha, on the other hand, has developed a fascination for it. Through trial and error, Ratha figures out what causes the remaining small flames, the fire's "cubs," to grow or die. She wants to use her new knowledge to help the clan, but the clan leader, Meoran, is resistant to change and chases her away.
Unable to keep her little flame alive, Ratha is now without a clan and without her fire. Her herding skills can't help her now that she's on her own. Somehow, she has to remember how to hunt before she dies of starvation. Life outside the clan reveals things she could have never guessed about the Un-Named, herself, and the clan ways she always thought were best, but what will she do when she learns that her former clan is under threat?
I first read this book when I was younger, and the only thing I could remember about it was that all its characters were cats and that one of the prominent characters died horribly and tragically of a crushed ribcage. I made the mistake of trying to hunt the book down via Google searches, and, after turning up nothing but veterinary information and things too horrific for me to want to remember clearly, I finally turned to the catalog of the library I used when I was younger. By searching for "cats fiction" and limiting my search to the library's young adult location, I found the book in a couple minutes.
My younger self had a greater tolerance for tragedy than I do now. Although I wouldn't say that this book ended very badly for Ratha, the main character, there was still more death and pain in this book than I remembered. By the end of the book, Ratha has experienced being an outcast on at least two occasions, her clan has nearly been wiped out, several cats have died horrible deaths, and Ratha's children turned out to be a huge disappointment to her. My younger self lapped this kind of stuff up. I, as I am now, had to push myself to make it to the book's ending. I had originally planned on reading the second book in the series, but now I'm not so sure. It's not that Ratha's Creature was a bad book, it's just that I don't think books like this are a good fit for me anymore.
Even though all the tragedy, pain, and death weren't my cup of tea, the book did have long stretches of things I really enjoyed. After Ratha became an outcast from her clan, she had to learn to live on her own. At first, she wasn't very successful. Ratha is smart, and her ideas about hunting seemed logical enough to her, but they weren't quite good enough. She's more than capable of learning from her mistakes, but her mistakes meant starvation. Her miserable situation forced her to accept the help of one of the Un-Named, a cat she decided to call Bonechewer. I loved reading about Bonechewer teaching Ratha to hunt and take care of herself.
I had forgotten almost all of the events in this book, so I was able to almost read this as though I were reading it for the first time. I kept reading because I was interested in finding out more about the Un-Named and, after Ratha got pregnant, I wanted to see her cubs and how things would turn out for them. Before Ratha was kicked out her clan, I wanted to see her triumph over Meoran's hidebound "females can't be herders" ideas. I also enjoyed reading about Ratha experimenting with her little flame - from her perspective, the flame was a living creature, and that was how she treated it.
However, just about every event in the book had some sort of painful/tragic aspect, which got to be almost too much for me.
I am amazed that the only thing about this book that stuck with me over the years was the cat who died of a crushed ribcage. That is by far not the only thing I would have thought would make a big impression on my young mind, which just goes to show you how many thing you probably don't have to worry will scar your kids forever. I'm now convinced that it is absolutely impossible to predict what will stick in the minds of young readers and what won't. I remembered the cat with a crushed ribcage, probably because it was part of the tragic ending of a semi-romantic storyline. I did not remember that Ratha went into heat, that Ratha had sex (Bell doesn't give detailed descriptions, but there's enough there to make it clear that Ratha did have sex and that it hurt), that one character died horribly of a flaming stick jammed into his lower jaw, that Ratha almost killed one of her own cubs, and that Ratha's teacher, Thakur, had his eye on her as a potential mate.
This book was darker than I expected. I knew that it would have some dark moments, because I remembered the crushed ribcage bit, but I hadn't expected it to be quite this dark. Even the adventure and action scenes are tempered by the knowledge that characters are getting hurt or dying - this is not the kind of book where action scenes are intended to be cool.
I'm glad I reread the book, because I'd forgotten enough for it to still be an interesting read, and it gave me a new appreciation for the kinds of things that did not have a lasting effect on my younger self (I'll try to keep that in mind if I ever have kids of my own). However, I don't think I'm going to hunt down the next book. There's only so much death, destruction, and tragedy I can stand.
- Elfquest Book 1: Fire and Flight (graphic novel) by Wendy and Richard Pini - Ok, I know that this is hideously expensive (unless you get the cheaper black-and-white edition). Try finding it at a library and hope that, someday, some publisher releases new full-color editions. This series showed me that there was more to the world of comics than superheroes. After a fire destroys their forest, the Wolfriders, a band of elves who bond with wolves, must find a new home. This series has adventure, drama, and romance. Ratha made me think of the Wolfriders - like them, she starts off naive and gradually learns more about her world than she maybe ever wanted to know.
- Dragonsong (book) by Anne McCaffrey - More than anything, Menolly wants to be a Harper, a musician. Her father objects to her dream and even sees to it that one of her hands is crippled. That's the last straw for Menolly, who runs away and must then learn how to survive on her own. Like Ratha, Menolly must face others' prejudices and figure out how to survive after becoming an outcast. Those who love the survival/adventure scenes in Ratha's Creature may enjoy this book.
- Arrows of the Queen (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Talia lives in a restrictive society and dreams of one day getting to meet Heralds and their Companions (intelligent white horse-like beings). Just when her circumstances at home seem unbearable, Talia comes across a Companion who seems to have gotten lost. She decides to leave her home behind and take the Companion back to his Herald. Those who'd like another story about an outcast girl who has to adjust to a new way of living might want to try this.
- Breed to Come (book) by Andre Norton - This book might appeal to those who'd like more stories featuring intelligent cats and more. It's been ages since I read this, so I don't remember much about it, but it's a sci-fi book in which cats, dogs, and more have mutated and become more intelligent. Norton wrote quite a few books featuring intelligent cats, so she's just a good author in general for those who'd like more books of this sort.