Mort(e) by Robert Repino

Mort(e) is a book that will likely divide reviewers. For what we have is a very dark satire that reaches for big ideas but forgets to stay grounded at the same time. Repino aims to do with religion what Animal Farm did with government – create a biting analogy of how it can all go very wrong the more you humanize a situation. But the story has to have a heart and Mort(e) is far too disaffecting to make the book’s points profound.

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Story: Sebastian is adopted as a kitten by a young couple starting a family. Within a few short years, the family falls apart as the world falls apart. In true dystopian form, a sentient ant queen has been waiting patiently for a thousand years, plotting the complete destruction of the parasite humans. The ants intitially failed with the plagues of the medieval years but now the colony will unleash a new virus – one that turns all creatures sentient. As Sebastian grows, develops fingers, and learns to walk upright and speak English, he will change his ‘slave-name’ from Sebastian to Morte and fight the long-standing battle against the humans. But at heart, he wants only to find his only friend, a next door neighbor’s dog, Sheba, who was lost shortly before the apocalypse began.

Morte(e) is very, very dark. This is not a quirky Animal Farm with cute but kind of silly anthropomorphic animals. Rather, we have the terrifying world of Richard Adams’ Plague Dogs or Watership Down – where humans are cruel and animals become just as cruel to each other in the name of surviving the humans. e.g., a man will start at drowning puppies in an upstairs bathtub and move on to shooting his entire family in a drunken fit. It makes the book a tough slog through the endless morbidity and cruelty. And it’s not just the humans – it’s anything sentient in the book (the ant queen will crunch heads off her daughters with only a cursory thought).

The dreary pathos could have been lifted, however, had the book resonated with a heart. Had we characters that we liked and rooted for, regardless if they were hero or antihero. But Mort(e) the book and Morte(e) the character are oddly flat – the cat drifting through the story in a very disenfranchised and emotionless state that fails to engage. Everything around him is so horrific but unfolding in such an inert and passive manner as to be unreal. This isn’t a book a reader can get lost within or become entranced by the ideas, plot, characters, or story.

And therein lies the problem for me – I was never made to feel for Mort(e) or anyone/thing else in the book. Not terror, or hope, or ambition (to find Sheba), or survival. Whole groups of fellow cats will be summarily offed or tortured and Mort(e) will observe it with the same detachment as walking down the street. Indeed, it was hard to tell what Mort(e) missed more: Sheba the dog or the patch of sunlight on the living room floor that he’d sleep in before the apocalypse. He never had any emotion and always reacted rather than acted.

The whole point of the book was Mort(e)’s drive to find Sheba. And yet – we were never given much of a reason why he was so obsessed with his ‘friend’. Sheba never engaged with Sebastian/Mort(e) other than perhaps to sleep together – and the obsession is mystifying. If we never read of Morte engaging with anything in his environment, Sheba becomes as immediate as the living room couch. And somehow I don’t think Sebastian/Morte missed that.

So much of the book tries so hard to be clever – from the names of fellow cats (everything from Tiberius to Culdesac) to the observations on human nature and religion especially. But without a warm beating heart at the center, as with better stories such as Plague Dogs and Watership Down, Mort(e) feels more like a story written around a concept rather than an intriguing story with an interesting concept hidden within.

Those interested in books with a viewpoint will likely find Mort(e) to be a decent read. For there are many STATEMENTS being made about how inhumane the humans are at heart and the fragility of religion because it has to be interpreted through the living rather than the divine. Readers will likely not really care about any character, human or animal, though. The writing isn’t nuanced enough to be intriguing and viewpoints are made with the subtlety of a bull in a china shop. Mort(e) is a lot like today’s modern video games – all flash and desensitizing violence without any substance or clarity to back it up.

I found that the more I read, the less I liked Mort(e) the book (I never cared enough about Mort(e) the character to dislike him). I think perhaps the problem may be that Orwell had a Stalinist Government to skewer with Animal Farm and Richard Adams had modern science to debuke in Plague Dogs. Mort(e) doesn’t aim for any religion or specific faith and that ends up making generic characterizations and plot even less grounded (as well, the message isn’t that religion is good or bad – it just is).

Mort(e) had been one of my most anticipated reads of 2015. I was disappointed that the story never evolved from the promise and flatlined fairly quickly. Reviewed from an advanced reader copy provided by the publisher.

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