In newcomer Payne's world, animals are people--people who work and live side by side in relative amity, eating only vegetable matter and nonsentient creatures. According to popular wisdom, 12 benevolent, godlike Curials watch over affairs and sometimes, maybe, intervene. A mysterious 13th Curial, the Blood Jaguar, or Death, periodically visits a plague upon the world, killing half the population. At such times, an ill-assorted trio led by a bobcat is fated to try to stop the Blood Jaguar--but always fails. Now it's time for the Blood Jaguar to pay another visit. She opens the proceedings by terrifying the dim-witted, catnip-addicted Bobcat. Licking his wounds, Bobcat runs into a pompous Skink, who's lost his luck and insists that they go see Fisher, a know-it-all shaman. A quest is needed; Bobcat, reluctantly going along, must leave behind his beloved, Garson Rix, a rabbit. So, after various adventures (Fisher outduels the Bison King in a contest of mathematical magic; Skink sees off a pair of hypnotically hissing cobras; various Curials proffer advice), they reach the savannah, where Bobcat confronts the Blood Jaguar. He refuses to fight her (all the previous bobcats did and were killed) and instead offers a bargain: Death can have his soul, when he eventually dies, in exchange for all the souls that otherwise would have been lost in the plague. To Bobcat's surprise, the Blood Jaguar agrees. Bobcat has learned that the Curials aren't gods, and that nobody's in charge. He goes home, finds he's rich, and proposes to Garson Rix. A hardworking but rather saccharine debut: pleasant, but not the stuff of which animal legends are made.