Travis is a witch in a quandary. Unwilling to submit himself to the rules and regulations of a Guild, he’s on his own with no one to back him up (or bail him out) when things go bad. As such, the Grand Council is always on his tail, calling him and placing him on trial every time he so much as sneezes. If a spell goes awry, Travis has to pay for the damage; if a customer is unhappy, Travis has to refund them, and, of course, the fines. So many fines, eating into his small supply of coins, coins which he needs to feed himself, yes, but mostly Niko who would just die without his biscuits.
Niko is a familiar, often cat shaped, but on occasion, when he wants something and needs fingers to get it, Niko can turn into something more or less human. For seven years, Travis and Niko have been together, bound by friendship deeper and more loving than any witch and familiar bond, but Travis has come to realize that he loves Niko. The fun, the fights, the falling into bed … all of it. He just doesn’t know what to do about it.
While avoiding thoughts of the future, Travis and Nico go shopping–books for both, food for both, and biscuits for Niko–when the familiar gets a bad feeling. With no more warning than Niko’s distress, the pair of them find themselves called to action. Lurking in the upper floors of the small, local inn is a darkness unlike anything Travis has faced. A darkness that may cost him everything he holds dear.
Travis isn’t that good of a magic user. His power is modest and inconsistent, which wouldn’t be so much of an issue if he didn’t have the instinctive drive to help other people. Having grown up being bullied by others, Travis feels, deep within himself, the need to help those who cannot help themselves. He’s compassionate, brave, and all too aware of his own flaws (real and imagined) while being completely unaware of his own virtues. Again and again his friends have offered to help him join a Guild, but the idea of someone — or some organization — telling him who he can and cannot help, making him charge when or if someone can’t pay, it doesn’t sit right with him, any more than the way familiars are treated.
Niko isn’t quite a cat, but he isn’t not a cat. Sunbeams, a lap, someone to love him, someone for him to annoy, someone to feed him … these are things that make him happy. He also likes playing with children and being adored by humans in general, but Niko has chosen to stay with Travis even though he’s not bound to him. The two of them never made the bond of witch and familiar, something that doesn’t bother Niko in the least. In fact, offering that bond, or trying to place it on him, would probably have Niko leaving and never coming back.
As a familiar, Niko is, in the magical world, an object. A possession. He’s a tool meant to be used, a creature of pure magic that can bolster any magic user. Magic creatures who can’t be enslaved as familiars are hunted for their fur, their teeth, their horns … but, with everyone presuming Niko is bound to Travis, no one thinks to bother him, which suits Niko just fine. As it is, Niko not only has his freedom, he has Travis. Where Travis is large and deferential and responsible, Niko is elegant, witty, and clever. Together they are more than they would be apart, but if that relationship were to change, if Niko were to be bound as a familiar, both of them would lose.
I haven’t read anything by this author before, and I have to say that I’m enjoying what I’ve seen of the world they have created. It feels generally fantasy, with taverns and inns, but modern enough with bottles of milk and cans of this and that. There’s a sort of English village feel to it, with no real indication of the physical world, but the organization of guilds, quests, trolls in the garden, and Grand High Councils is interesting. I am looking forward to more from this author.