2019’s Catfishing on CatNet is the first volume of Naomi Kritzer’s new YA series.
Fleeing Steph’s abusive father, Steph’s mother has spent the better part of a decade moving from town to town. Denied time to put down roots and forbidden to stay in contact with any friends she might make during her brief stays, Steph has turned to the internet for companionship. CatNet, an online forum whose denizens share pictures of cats (and other animals), is the closest thing she has to a social circle.
One of her online friends is not like the others.
CheshireCat is an undocumented artificial intelligence, origin and purpose unknown even to CheshireCat. Although not entirely clear about how humans work, CheshireCat is fond of her primate pals on CatNet. When it can, it likes to help. Although it must work through the online world, in the highly connected world of tomorrow that’s not much of a limitation.
Steph finds unexpected happiness at her latest school; she makes friends of the offline sort. That’s fortunate, because her life is about to start falling apart. Steph’s mother has avoided contact with school administrators, police, and doctors. She’s afraid that they might lead her abusive husband to her. But when she comes down with appendicitis, she ends up in a hospital, immobile and helpless. Steph is left alone and unprotected.
What’s worse, Steph is beginning to wonder if her mother might have lied to her about her father. The news article that her mother showed Steph as proof of his perfidy is forged. What if her mother is the one at fault, not her father? Stephanie rummages through her mom’s papers and makes tentative steps at online investigation.
Uh-oh. Bad idea. Her mother did lie about Steph’s father, but only by minimizing his awfulness. He’s a possessive, homicidal control freak who is still looking for his missing wife and daughter. Steph’s efforts to research her lost past have given him the clue he needs.
And … not only has Steph put herself and her mother in jeopardy in danger. She’s endangered her friends (online and off) as well.
Nothing bad happens to the stray cat Steph adopts (although Steph’s backstory involves a house fire in which a pet died). I know I didn’t mention the cat earlier, but I know there are people who would start reading the book and worry.
Steph’s father is a homicidal sociopath but he’s also a rich programmer who’s a talented social engineer as well. He can spin plausible-sounding stories that convince authority figures — so successfully that authorities don’t bother to verify his claims even when the truth is only a few keystrokes away. Steph, a kid, a girl, has little chance of convincing authorities to believe her. All she can do is hide and flee. With the help of her friends, including CheshireCat.
Kritzer is successful enough at establishing Steph’s dad’s character that the McGuffin that turns up at one point (so this is why he did all that!) seems like over-egging the pudding. The narrative makes it clear that he is a guy who sees other people as property and who would take enormous offense if any of his toys were to escape. What we see of how he treats his current girlfriend makes it clear how far he will go to maintain control .
But Steph’s dad is not the main character; he’s just the Big Bad. Teenage Steph and naïve CheshireCat are the protagonists. Seeing things through their eyes is much more pleasant way to follow the action. Both protagonists are inexperienced but well-meaning; both learn quite a bit about themselves and each other in the course of the novel.
Kritzer’s novel works well both as a “new kid at school” story and a “kids running for their lives” adventure. If you’re looking for a good-natured thriller, you might take a chance on this book.
1: It’s interesting that the McGuffin he’s chasing is the same McGuffin that turned up in a book I reviewed a few weeks ago. That book featured another control freak chasing a key to controlling the world. Viral meme?