I recently finished Clan Ground which is the second book in the series The Named by Clare Bell. When I first came across this series, I was still in high school and looking for something other than Goosebumps or Fear Street to read (but I still love ya, R.L. Stine). I found a couple of Clare Bell's books and took them out and I'm glad I did. Ratha's Creature is the first book of The Named series, and I would highly suggest reading this book before you read any other books in the series? Why? Because you will not understand or appreciate the rest of the series or the progression of the story without the root story, which is constantly referred to in Clan Ground, and likely the rest of the books in the series.
Granted, I haven't read Ratha's Creature since high school, though I eagerly snatched it up when I found it for sale. I knew the book had stayed with me for all these years, but when I read Clan Ground, I was shocked just how much it had stayed with me. When characters were mentioned, I remembered them, such as Bonechewer and Meoran. When Ratha spoke, I even remembered fragments of scenes read so long ago, despite the fact that the scenes themselves where not specifically retold. It's obvious the story on a whole, as it is woven, pulls you in and always has a place in the mind where it is embedded, waiting for more to be woven into it.
That said, let's talk about Clan Ground itself. I was actually a bit surprised and a little disappointed that Thakur was more of the main character than Ratha. At first. I was misled into the thought that Thakur just was not interesting enough to be the backbone of the story. As the story progressed, I came to understand the necessity for this choice and fully appreciate the choice as well as the respect earned for Thakur's character. Granted, Ratha is indeed another character of importance though I see her as more of a supporting character with great significance. You do follow her decisions and her pain and such, but Thakur is where the heart of the story is placed. As the story unfolded, I couldn't help but just feel an appreciation more and more for Thakur and his overall clear and calm view of…well…everything. The amount of development the character of Thakur experiences and the depth of the knowledge we only had a taste of in Ratha's Creature really made me excited about how newer events and characters would be developed in future books, but I digress.
I was surprised how the story began, as well. There was this big ceremony celebrating the coming of the Red Tongue and how it was used. Time had passed since the happenings of the last book, though I'm not entirely sure how long, as the lifespan of these cats are a bit of a mystery to me. Nevertheless, the evolution of the Named has already progressed beyond what it was in Ratha's Creature. Already the idea of Firekeepers seemed a little absurd. Perhaps not in purpose, but the fact of how highly they held themselves. It appears Ratha tolerates the strange ascension over the time the ceremony has gone on due to her lack of connection with just how fragile her place as leader truly is. She brought in the Red Tongue. Who can compete with that? What would she have to worry about? The Red Tongue secured her leadership. Or, did it? Enter: Orange-Eyes.
I really wasn't sure how to feel about Orange-Eyes. His defiance is evident from the beginning. He sort of reminded me of a much more butchy version of Scar from The Lion King in a sense with his own fascination with fire and how to use it. It was an environment groomed to portray him in the most menacing way once he became Shonshar. Now, let's get analytical about him. Orange-Eyes/Shongshar has to be the clearest embodiment of any religious leader this world has to offer. Does that make religious leaders evil? No, not necessarily. Ratha learns later that the Named are hungry for spiritual growth. They have not been given something to help them become more than what they are, a spiritual need. So, the idea of religion and using it to empower people is certainly not what has been used as the villain in Clan Ground but the methods in which it can be abused to take people who are or were once the most trusting, trustworthy, and loving into brainwashed, heartless beasts. In a sense, the spiritual frenzy Shongshar encouraged beneath Ratha's nose fed the need, but also turned the Named into brutal animals. It actually reminded me of The Secret of NIMH when Justin and Jenner are in the climactic battle and Jenner says " I've learned this: Take what you can when you can" and Justin replies " Then you have learned nothing." Despite the evolution of the rats in that story into self-aware and sentient beings, Jenner reduced himself to the animal nature inside him. In Bell's story, Shongshar took what were highly evolved and intelligent creatures and used the need to manipulate them into animals that could speak. On the other end of the spectrum, Thakur is training a treeling to use fire. I'm under the assumption, due to the cover and the description, that Aree, the treeling, is something similar to an ancient form of lemur, but obviously a primate. This "animal" is a wonderful contract to Shonshar as he is a sort of avatar of the god he turns the Red Tongue into. He doesn't care about anything the Named really need once he has sucked them into believing that all they need is him and fire. The humanity is gone from the Named and Aree (and her family) develop this humanity and create this fluid and beautiful compassionate intimacy between herself/themselves and the Named with which they have bonded.
Since we are on the topic of spirituality in this sense, with Shongshar as the Red Tongue's avatar, would it be fair to compare him to a sort of devil figure? It's obvious in its most basic appearance, I suppose. Fire, brimstone, and the master of it, but let's look beyond that. Shongshar is described as very different from the Named and Un-Named alike. Sure, he had some features that allowed him to be self-aware, but he is something else as well that no one, including the author, was truly able to explain. Was he part saber-toothed tiger? Or was he some sort of fictional cat all together, similar to the species of the Named? In any case, he was menacing. There was enough to him to intimidate any and every member of the clan as well as earn their respect and awe. Let's face it, he won Fessren over early on, and I myself was surprised that he had not taken her initially as his mate with how much she adored him. He also had this amazing ability to convince the others of what he said and have it make perfect sense. He was so logical. Would that make a great example of a devil figure? In that aspect, the only "angelic" figure I can see is Aree in contrast. Granted, she had almost nothing to say except "Aree" but she and her offspring spoke volumes with their silence and the dexterity of their hands as well as the unspoken and understood need for them to bestow compassion and patience. Whereas Shonshar was surrounded by this hot atmosphere, something about the treeling characters brought forth this sense of coolness…almost as if, compared to the fire in Shongshar's control, the treelings' element was water. At least, it could be argued of that. The warmth they offered was more of a nurturing warmth rather than the scolding frenzy offered by the Red Tongue.
I also found the family unit to be refreshing and perhaps placating. The emotional tension in Thakur is evident early on. He obviously loves Ratha and would have loved to be with her. He owed a lot to her, but she also owed a lot to him for his own wisdom and patience, and perhaps a little bit of Bonechewer in him? Regardless, he defies his inner desires to ultimately spare Ratha and himself the pain it would cause. The risk is too high for him to take. Ratha, even in the first novel, never seemed too motherly, at least in my opinion. She was interested in the well-being, but she seemed to lack a certain something, which is later gained with the make-shift family unit created via the treelings. Thakur and Ratha seemed to create their family vicariously through Aree. This is surprisingly brilliant. Bell, in this decision, has made it clear that the reader should not look forward to these two just uncharacteristically throwing everything aside for a mating season of unbridled passion. Both are too tense and strict in their own rite to truly do this. Aree as the substitute seems the most befitting of the characters. They are there with her through the pregnancy. They are there through the birth in which Thakur is the doting and panicked father-figure and Ratha, though having little to do, relives her own experience through her. Perhaps this makes it so much easier to adore the treeling cubs. In a sense, Aree is a big fuzzy band-aid for these two souls, and apparently even Bira, who overcomes her own loss and takes an interest in the treelings. What started out as a sort of useful, flea and tick-eating pet, becomes something integral in the hearts of Ratha and Thakur and just radiates a sense of love that these two empty hearts were missing. Ratha even admits that her entire personality has changed for the better due to her interaction with them.
I won't give away everything, and I definitely won't spoil the ending, which is surprisingly both simple in its early stages of climax and downright eye-opening at its close. There's an analytical field day to be had in the areas of spirituality and worship, and how to both utilize that power for good and to abuse it for evil's sake. It's impossible to truly read it and not see our own world today about us. It just seems like Ratha had the simpler decision in the end and made everyone happy. However, we s human beings are not that easily placated.
I have to say that this was an amazing read. I had only intended to peek at the first page and put the book aside. That first page just progressed to happily reading something I thoroughly enjoyed. I would certainly recommend it, though I repeat, please read Ratha's Creaturefirst if you want to truly appreciate all the little details of Clan Ground. I have a feeling the entire series is something only to be enjoyed in a specific order.
The next book of The Named series is Ratha & Thistle-Chaser which certainly has me excited. I remember Thistle-Chaser from the first book and was thrilled to find she would be returning in some capacity to the story. I've seen some tweets from Clare Bell during her twitter-stories, but I'm afraid I lacked enough real insight to truly appreciate them, let alone understand them. In my copy of Clan Ground, there is a preview for Ratha & Thistle-Chaser. It…frankly was rather dull and held nothing to really bring me back, nor demand I buy the third novel. That is not to say that the story itself will be terrible. I simply have nothing on which to connect the events to a story. On the contrary, it likely means all the juicy stuff is just beyond those first six pages. I can't exactly give a review on a story I've not read. Ratha's Creature pulled me in from the beginning and obviously, so did Clan Ground, despite my surprise at Thakur being more of a prominent character. I'm not familiar with the characters in Ratha & Thistle-Chaser's first six pages, but the explanation may lay further into the chapter and evolve into something magnificent.
This is a common tactic in the other Bell books I've read. They start off small and obscure, though with characters you can't help but become curious with, and somehow manages to take you through this journey of ups and downs that may or may not be connected, and then a huge kaboom happens in the last third of the story and it just rains with excitement. This is not to say the whole story is not exciting. I personally think the journey from the first to the final third is a lot of fun, full of character development and sometimes comical scenes. With The Named, you meet your base characters I the first novel and the same characters appear from then on, so it's just a matter of further developing characters you already know in different ways and evolving, and sometimes, such as in the case with Fessrin, devolving them, only to trick you again by making them more and more complex and even more human, despite their feline design. Whatever is hidden beyond those first six pages of the third installment of the series, I'm sure it's every bit as exciting as the first two and I'm certainly eager to see where the adventure will go from here.