An interview with Helen Brain

helenCape Town-based author Helen Brain loves to make things: miniature books for keeping secrets in; a garden fence decorated with discarded objects; music and laughter. She also loves to tell stories, and her latest book is entitled Elevation, the first in a post-apocalyptic YA series set in an altered Cape Town, the last human settlement in a ruined world.

Sixteen-year-old Ebba de Eeden grew up in a colony with two thousand chosen children in a bunker beneath Table Mountain. When she is recognised as the missing Den Eeden heiress, she is elevated to the surface, which is not a radioactive wasteland, as everyone in the colony has been told, but home a functioning society split into elite and servant classes.

After a life of slavery, Ebba finds that she is now a rich young woman with servants, a luxurious home and a farm with more potential to grow food than anywhere else in the ravaged world. There is little opportunity for her to enjoy these comforts, however, as Ebba is immediately faced with extreme demands and difficult choices. Aunty Figgy says Ebba is the descendant of the goddess Theia and has to use her power to save the world before the next cataclysm. The High Priest and his handsome son are doing everything they can to get Ebba to leave her farm and join the rest of the elite in their religious community, which worships the god Prospiroh. And Ebba herself can’t ignore the responsibility she feels to use her new resources to rescue her friends in the bunker.

 

elevation

Helen’s novel is a fast, exciting read full of the ecological concerns that are so often captured in post-apocalyptic fiction today. In the middle of this is a young woman who, like most teenagers and many adults, finds herself in a world that’s so much bigger and more complicated than she realised. And she can’t just live in it; she has a responsibility to try to understand it and change it for the better. It’s a scenario that raises all sorts of tough questions. I posed some of mine to Helen, who kindly took the time to answer them.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Helen!

LS: You’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults. What is it that you love about writing for a younger readership? What stories and subjects are you most drawn to?

HB: I love children, I find them much easier to relate to than adults, and I remember my childhood with all its complex emotions vividly, so writing for children came naturally. As a child I read all the time. My mother was the librarian at a teacher’s training college, and she brought home all the Carnegie and Newberry medal winners for me to try out, so I was introduced to the best kids lit and loved the way they could take you into another world.

As a reader I like swashbuckling tales, edge-of-your-seat adventures, imaginative fancies and word play. I try to write what I want to read.

 

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA novels have become wildly popular over recent years. What do you think it is about this subgenre of fantasy and science fiction that is so appealing to YA fans (of all ages)? What is it about the genre that attracted you?

I think many teens are in a place that psychologically resembles a dystopian landscape. Their childhood has been destroyed, and they’re struggling to create a new way of being in an adult world. They’re like moths in a cocoon, fighing to break through the layers of silk and, once they’re free, to work out how to open their wings and use them. That’s a very dystopian place to be.

 

The trope of the Chosen One has a long history in fantasy, and it fits neatly into apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, in which authors frequently suggest that humanity has caused too much damage or become too corrupt to save itself or the world. What we need, in some of these narratives, is the intervention of a higher power, such as evolved or enhanced humans, superior alien intelligence or, in this case, divine beings. Descended from a god, Ebba is the saviour – or she will be, if she can step up to the challenge. How did you go about writing this character? What’s it like to rest the fate of the world on the shoulders of a naïve young woman who has, almost literally, spent her entire life living under a rock?

Ebba is of course an element of my own personality – my own struggle to find my inner power and to stop relying on someone else to look after me. She’s also every young woman who thinks she can’t manage life without a boyfriend or a best friend, and who gives away her power because she’s scared to use it. Over the course of the three books she has to learn to access her inner strength – represented by her four ancestors – and to literally wise up.

 

You grew up in a staunch Catholic home, married a priest and lived in parishes all over the Western Cape. Elevation, however, is deeply critical of institutionalised religion. Prospiroh is an angry male god who wipes out most of the world with an ecological catastrophe, leaving only a few select survivors, much like the Christian god does with the Flood. The worship of Prospiroh is characterised by fear, conformity and modesty, while the community of worshippers is bonded by the music and rituals of church services. The High Priest is authoritarian and, most notably, religion is used as a tool of oppression, enslaving the poor to serve an elite. How has your relationship with religion changed from childhood to the writing of this novel?

This series is essentially about wrestling with my issues around faith and religion. I was a committed Christian from 16 to 40. Then, after a year or two of struggling, I stopped believing.

Four years later my very devout husband, the most moral and ethical person I’ve ever known, was struck down with colon cancer, aged 46. In his last month he had periods of the worst physical pain imaginable where he begged god to tell him why he had turned him into his whipping boy.

I couldn’t reconcile how a caring god would do this to someone who loved him. Murderers, rapists, war criminals, torturers were flourishing, and here was someone who genuinely loved god and had served him faithfully begging to die, screaming from pain. It was excruciating. If he’d been a dog or cat we’d have ended his suffering. I didn’t want to know a god who stood by and let someone who loved him suffer like this.

I began this series as an atheist but as the books are progressing I’m revising my theological stance. In essence they’re a record of my private wrestling match with god. Whether god exists only as a function of my brain chemistry or is a being out there in the ether somewhere I haven’t decided yet.

 

Goddesses are often presented as the nurturing, eco-conscious, egalitarian alternatives to conservative, destructive male gods, and in Elevation, it’s only through the goddess Theia that the world could be saved. Do you think a goddess could save religions from their pitfalls?

I don’t think it’s about having a matriarchal god instead of a patriarchal one. I think it’s about the two living in balance. That’s what Ebba’s job will be – to get them to make peace.

 

You blog about financial advice for an investment and budgeting app, and your posts got me thinking about the powers and pitfalls of money in the novel. Although the world has been reduced to a few small societies at the tip of Africa, it still runs on money. When Ebba is elevated, she not only rises from the bunker to live on the surface, but rises in class thanks to an inheritance that makes her fabulously wealthy. She finds it both liberating and confusing, and although her money empowers her, it endangers her too. How would you describe the role of money in terms of plot, worldbuilding and character development? And why is it that these people are still clinging to the concept of coin?

I found this tricky. I decided that the citizens would still use coins and have a monetary system, but the rest of the world will be using bartering. Ebba’s rich not only because she’s inherited a lot of gold stashed away in a bank vault, but also because she owns the only arable land in the city, and because her goddess blood means plants grow very fast around her. Food is the major commodity in this post apocalyptic world, and she has a unique ability to provide it. That’s why everyone is trying to gain control over her.

The idea of the book came about through my concern about the way we’re destroying the planet in search of material happiness. I think of the series not so much as dystopian or mythology but as eco-theology. I used religion and the gods and goddesses as a metaphor to highlight what I see as our biggest problem today – our material dissatisfaction.

I imagine us like the Little Prince standing on the top of his planet in a pile of garbage. He’s holding more and more things, and to make them he has to dig away at the planet he stands on.

Helen-Brain-garden-fence

Helen’s garden fence, decorated with the things other people discarded.

If we don’t stop wanting more and more and more, new cars when our old ones work, the latest phones, more clothes and things for our increasingly big houses, and toys and gadgets, we will destroy our earth.

We’re treasuring the wrong things. It’s the green spaces, the forests and beaches and gardens and veld that bring us happiness, not more stuff. But we’re hellbent on destroying the very thing that brings us life.

 

Without giving away too much, can you tell us what to expect from the rest of The Thousand Steps series?

In book 2 Ebba has to rescue the two thousand from the bunker before the General genocides them by closing up the ventilation shafts. To do this she has to sacrifice herself, and she doesn’t want to.

In book 3 she is elevated to Celestia, and has to sort out the gods and find the cause of their dysfunctionality. It’s kind of Enid Blyton meets Dante with a healthy dose of Philip Pullman.

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The Light of Kerrindryr by H. Anthe Davis

The Light of KerrindryrTitle: The Light of Kerrindryr
Series: The War of Memory Cycle #1
Author: H. Anthe Davis
Published: 11 May 2013
Publisher: self-published
Source: review copy from author
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

Cob is a 17-year-old slave doing physical labour for the Crimson Army of the Phoenix Empire. He’s been a slave since the age of 8, as a consequence of his parents’ heretical belief in Dark faith. The idea is that punishing the children of such heretics is an effective conversion tool, and this strategy worked perfectly with Cob. He converted to the faith of the Imperial Light, and his devotion means that his tenure as a slave will end when he turns 18 in 5 months time.

Unfortunately, Cob is robbed of that freedom when his friend Darilan, a freesoldier, frames him for murder and chases him from the army camp. Cob finds himself doubly condemned, both for murder and running away.

Alone in the wide world for the first time, Cob turns out to be hopelessly ignorant. He’s illiterate. He grew up on a strict diet of Imperialist propaganda that he swallowed whole. He travelled with the Crimson Army, but he viewed every new place through an Imperialist perspective and doesn’t understand the nuances of people’s beliefs and cultures. Almost every time he speaks to someone he finds his beliefs challenged. People hate the Phoenix Empire and its Imperial Light religion and for good reason. The Light is not what he’s been told it is. The Dark is not the evil he believes it to be.

Cob doesn’t want to hear it, but the people who tell him these things are also the ones who help him because they oppose the Empire. He toys with the idea of returning to the Crimson Army and trying to set things straight, but then Darilan is sent to hunt him down with a contingent of soldiers. Darilan’s motives are a mystery – first he chased Cob away, then chases after him with terrifying zeal. Because of course, Cob is not just an ordinary slave. There’s something about him that the Empire wants under its control, and as a result, Darilan will chase him across the world.

First off, I’d like to mention that this is one of the best quality self-published novels I’ve read. Whenever I pick one up I brace myself for errors, weaknesses, and the kind of overall confused weirdness that typically characterises books that haven’t had enough critical readers, haven’t had a thorough scrubbing from a good editor, or should never have left the author’s brain.

The Light of Kerrindryr is not like that. It’s got some errors, but nothing major. It has the feel of a serious, structured endeavour rather than an early draft, and it doesn’t turn into an increasingly random mess as has been the case with some indie and self-published novels. There are two things in particular that I want to talk about – Cob, and the worldbuilding.

Cob’s character goes through a standard kind of hero’s journey – orphan turns out to be a chosen one with special powers – but mostly I was interested in the psychology of his character even though I didn’t like him because he’s a daft, self-righteous little git. He starts out being rigidly religious. Even though the Empire killed his father, imprisoned his mother and made him a slave, he believes wholeheartedly in the Imperial religion, blaming his father for his ‘Dark’ beliefs rather than the Empire for its intolerance. He’s proud to be an Imperialist, grateful that the Empire saved him. He accepts slavery the same way that other people accept having to go to high school. He says he wouldn’t hesitate to turn in his fellow slaves if they acted against the Imperial Light. He doesn’t mind that the Imperials mages routinely brainwash people to keep them controlled. When a woman offers him food an shelter he accepts it reluctantly, thinking guiltily that he should instead kill her cat and burn her books because she’s obviously witchfolk. The Empire offers Cob nothing but slavery and death, but he sees it as offering purification and salvation.

He knows very little about the world so people are always explaining things to him (a useful way of explaining things to the reader too) and he scoffs whenever their information contradicts what the Imperials told him. It’s not surprising that he reacts with hostility or even violence when his beliefs are challenged, although I feel particularly unsympathetic to him when he’s hostile toward the people who help him, often at great risk to themselves.

So yeah, Cob can be a stupid asshole, but that’s alright. I’m not the kind of reader who needs to like the main character; I just need to understand them. What I like about the way Davis wrote Cob is that you know why he does what he does even when you want to slap him, but he’s not so vile that he makes the book unpleasant.

And sometimes I really felt for him. He might have chosen the Empire over his parents, but he describes them as quasi-hermits who never spoke much so they probably didn’t have a strong bond. They seemed to fail him while the Empire seemed to save and support him. His whole world falls apart when Darilan betrays him, and while he might seem stupid for wanting to go back to being a slave in the camp, you can also understand that he wants to return to a familiar, structured world. I want him to be smarter and more open to different beliefs, but you can’t demand that a character fit your desires and most people find it difficult to change their beliefs, especially so suddenly and drastically. And Cob is forced to go through all this because he’s being used and manipulated. The poor boy has very little agency and no one really seems to care about him (not that he ever helps matters).

The one thing I admired about him was his friendship with Darilan. And it is a friendship, despite Darilan’s betrayal. For years, Darilan was a kind companion to Cob in an otherwise lonely life, and when Cob was severely injured by a wraith arrow, Darilan sat at his bedside until he recovered. Cob isn’t so stupid as to go running into Darilan’s arms when the man starts hunting him, but he never forgets that Darilan was good to him. Darilan himself turns out to be an interesting character, although it would spoil things for me to say why.

Let me get on to the worldbuilding. It’s pretty extensive, and keeps going throughout the book. There are loads of locations, descriptions of sociopolitical relations between those locations, Imperial politics, religion, myth, magic, culture, etc. What I need to admit though, is that a lot of this goes in one ear and out the other with me. I don’t read a lot of epic fantasy specifically because it’s extremely detailed in ways I don’t necessarily enjoy or even care about. Two major exceptions are The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch. I devoured the worldbuilding in those books because it’s particularly vivid and unusual but I get the impression that these series are unique in the genre. I like A Song of Ice and Fire, but I find the amount of detail in those books increasingly tedious and too easily forgotten. I don’t ever want to read Tolkien again.

But I know epic fantasy fans love long books with lots of detail. And this is a long, detailed book – it’s listed as being 446 pages on Goodreads, but my Kindle shows over 10 000 locations, which puts it something more like 800 pages. This is not something I appreciate, but I feel bad because I get the sense that the author put in a lot of effort and yet I’m never going to remember how the architecture of one town differs from another or the specifics of the creation myth.

That said, I liked was the novel’s ability to surprise and impress me with its worldbuilding and plot. The world just keeps growing, opening itself up to you. Several times when I thought it was becoming a bit too conventional or dull, something new and interesting would be revealed. The characters will be riding along on their horses, which turn out to be weird breeds – Tasgard horses are powerful lion-tailed omnivores with sharp canines; Ten-Sky horses have striped coats, short spiral horns and split-hooves. I thought all the people were human until suddenly ogres, goblins and other creatures popped up. Cob is not the only character who is more than he appears to be. And in among the fantasy are elements that feel more like sci fi, giving the book a more interesting feel.

However, there are things in which I wish the author had more surprises and nuances to reveal. Like in the Phoenix Empire, which is irredeemably evil. I don’t like this; I prefer the moral complications of grey areas, and the Empire… well. Under Imperial rule, cats are killed because they’re believed to be witchbeasts who spy for the Dark. It’s illegal for commoners to own books. Mages brainwash people as a matter of routine. The Empire is a fanatically religious, propagandising, cat-killing, slave-owning, book-burning, brainwashing monster. There’s no hope here.

I would also have preferred more female characters. There are a few, most notably a 21-year-old woman named Lark who teaches Cob about the Shadow world, a parallel realm in which she is a kind of business person/diplomat. But Lark is one of very few women and the only one with a major role. As seems the norm in epic fantasy, this is a sexist world and the female characters are scattered. On the plus side, there are plenty of POC characters because this is an openly multicultural world, and that’s worth a lot in this genre.

I haven’t said much about the plot, but it’s similar to the worldbuilding in that it’s long and detailed (sometimes overwhelmingly so), but it has twists and surprises that I liked. Lots of different elements are brought into play, preparing the stage for an even more expansive and thrilling sequel. I’m not sure if I’ll read the next book, but that’s because I think this book just isn’t for me. I have to admire it as a self-published novel though, one that I’d definitely recommend to epic fantasy fans.

Some basics of polytheism in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

You can find an absolutely amazing academic resource in Open Yale Courses, where you can download video or audio recordings of all the lectures for some of Yale University’s introductory courses, as well as the transcripts and reading lists of those lectures.

My favourite is RLST145: Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible), by Professor Christine Hayes. I’m not religious, but I am interested in the bible as a literary, cultural and social text, and that’s exactly how this course approaches it (as opposed to treating it as scripture). I haven’t listened to all the lectures, but I’ve listened to the first few a couple of times, and they offer a fascinating perspective on the bible, with a ton of surprises. A lot of what I’ve learned from priests, Sunday-school teachers, and the well of Christian common-knowledge turned out to be wildly inaccurate if not completely false, like the idea that Adam was created before Eve and is therefore superior.

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsAnyway, as some of you will remember, I recently did several fantastic read-alongs for The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin:
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (#1)
The Broken Kingdoms (#2)
and The Kingdom of Gods (#3)

In this trilogy, the gods, their histories, and ongoing lives play a major role. The other day I started listening to the Hebrew-Bible lectures again, and the second lecture kept reminding me of the novels. This lecture – The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Biblical Religion in Context – compares polytheism to monotheism, using the writings of Yehezkel Kaufmann. Kaufman’s theory was that the move from polytheism to monotheism was revolutionary rather than evolutionary because the two belief systems involve fundamentally different ideas about god(s) and the universe, rather than simply having a different number of gods.

This relates very strongly to fantasy, mythology, and the nature of god(s), which is why I kept linking it to Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. It no doubt has relevance for other epic fantasy or other fiction where gods or their mythologies play a role; it’s just that this trilogy was foremost in my mind. In Jemisin’s world, the gods are real. Not only do they exist, some of them live among humans. For the reader, they’re major characters. Kaufmann’s theory isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t fit Jemisin’s world exactly, but it still provides an interesting framework for understanding her worldbuilding and characters.

It’s worth watching/listening to/reading the lecture in full, but I’ve picked out the main points about how polytheism differs from monotheism, and explained how they relate to The Inheritance Trilogy. I’ve kept it SPOILER-FREE, but please forgive any inaccuracies or lack of information as I didn’t re-read the books for this article, since I’d only just read them a few months ago. If you spot anything that needs to be corrected, let me know in the comments.

1. The metadivine realm

In polytheistic religions, there is a metadivine realm, which exists before the gods, and is more powerful than them. This realm can be water, chaos, darkness, fate, etc. and the gods are born from it. The logical consequence of this is that the gods are limited in power and wisdom – the primordial realm will always be above and beyond them. It’s mysterious and unpredictable, the gods can’t control it, and it can thwart their will. Since each god has specific powers and limitations, they can also be thwarted by other gods or even mortals.

In monotheism on the other hand, there is no realm that existed before god, and nothing that is more powerful than him. He just always existed, he’s immortal, omnipotent, and all existence is created by him.

In the Inheritance Trilogy, the metadivine realm is the Maelstrom, and it gave birth to the gods Nahadoth, Itempas and Enefa who then created the universe and lesser godlings. None of them are omnipotent, and in fact Itempas killed Enefa and enslaved Nahadoth, which form the basis of the plot of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Itempas’s actions did not mean that he was omnipotent or became omnipotent; he simply achieved dominance over the world and the other gods.

In The Broken Kingdoms it is mentioned that the gods pray to the Maelstrom. In The Kingdom of Gods, Nahadoth takes his child Sieh to the edge of the Maelstrom, and it is clear that this could destroy them both. It also seems that the Maelstrom has a major role in the plot of this book, which is something to be feared because the gods cannot control this force.

The Broken Kingdoms2. Mythology

Mythologies are the stories of the lives of the gods, and this is a basic part of pagan religion: “the gods are born, and they live lives very similar to human lives but on a grand scale and then they die”, says Professor Hayes.

This is the essence of The Inheritance Trilogy: we learn about the major gods’ births, their histories and how they made the world, which is our common understanding of mythology. Unlike mythology though, these stories continue to develop, gaining depth and detail across the trilogy as we hear different perspectives on the seemingly static myths. Because the gods are also major characters their ongoing lives are part of the plot. They interact with each other and with mortal characters, and we see them deal with issues of love, jealousy, hatred, revenge, etc. They fight, they have sex, they fall in love. It’s shocking how human they can be, even if they’re contemptuous of humans. In book 1, the human narrator Yeine describes the plot as two family squabbles pitted against one another – the mortal Arameri family who rule the world, and the family of gods. At the same time, the gods’ human problems play out in different ways because they’re immortal, incredibly powerful, and experience the world as such. We also know that gods can die. Itempas killed Enefa, and hundreds if not thousands of godlings died in the God’s War that followed her death. In book 2, the plot kicks off when someone murders a godling.

In monotheism on the other hand, god has no life story. He isn’t born, he doesn’t fall in love or take on any sexual partners, and he can’t die. He does have a son, but that’s in the New Testament (which is not covered in this course), and parenthood doesn’t have any personal consequences for God. For example, God and Jesus don’t have sex (incest is common in mythology, and in The Inheritance Trilogy); nor do they hang out in any kind of social way.

3. Fluid boundaries between the divine, human and natural worlds

In a polytheistic system, all creation comes from the metadivine realm, so everything is made of the same primordial ‘stuff’ and therefore connected. So gods are often inherent in the natural world – things and concepts like the sun, sky, death, fertility etc. might be gods and worshipping them is like worshipping natural phenomena. Because humans also come from the metadivine realm, there is a fluid boundary between them and gods, and you often have unions between gods and mortals, or mortals becoming gods.

In The Inheritance Trilogy, the three main gods are born from the Maelstrom, and together they create the universe. The goddess Enefa creates life. I don’t know if she uses the substance of the Maelstrom to do this, but all of creation can still be traced back to the Maelstrom.

The gods are all linked to the world through their affinities. Itempas is the god of light, day, and order. Nahadoth is the god of darkness, night and chaos. Enefa was the goddess of life and death. I think this is a wee bit different, in that these gods are associated with these concepts and get their power from them but aren’t synonymous with them. Nahadoth is the god of night and darkness, but when he’s enslaved it doesn’t change the night and darkness of the world. However, his power is affected by night/day or darkness/light.

The fluid boundaries between gods and mortals are indicated in the many instances of gods having sex with mortals, and gods and mortals producing children, often as major parts of the plot. There is also an instance of a mortal becoming a god, and a god becoming mortal.

In monotheism, god is separate and completely other to us. He isn’t kin to humans (at least not in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible), doesn’t come down and have sex with humans and we have no hope of becoming like him.

4. Power is material

The monotheistic god has absolute will, and nothing is more powerful than him. His power is inherent in him, it doesn’t come from anything else.

In a polytheistic system, the gods’ power comes from material things, and not because their will is absolute (see no.1). The substance that constitutes the metadivine realms is particularly powerful – water, blood, etc. – because the metadivine realm is the ultimate power.

Jemisin’s trilogy differs a bit here though. The Maelstrom seems to be a completely different place existing beyond the edges of the universe. It created the first three gods, but no one feels any particular connection to it, or at least they don’t tap into it for power or magic. However, the gods can achieve greater power by “living true” to their affinities, whatever those might be. So for example, Sieh is the god of childhood, and he achieves power by acting and looking like a child, embodying the essence of childhood (impulsiveness, cruelty, playfulness, affection etc.). He also feels more powerful when he’s around children or someone who acts like a child, but feels a loss of power when, for example, he forces a child to make a tough decision and lose some of their innocence.

It seems the gods can choose how much effort they put into “living true”, based on the fact that in book 2, the godling Madding explains to his human lover Oree that Sieh is so powerful because he’s devoted to being childlike. In book 3, where Sieh is the main character, we learn that he can behave in more adult ways, but that it weakens or wounds him to do so.

The Kingdom of Gods5. Magic is possible

This is a consequence of material power in the polytheistic system. Power resides in things connected to the primordial realm or primordial stuff, so magic involves manipulating those substances. This means both humans and gods can perform magic by tapping into the power of the metadivine realm. Humans can even use this to influence or manipulate the gods, so magic can be a way of circumventing the will of the gods by tapping in to a higher power.

This is impossible in a monotheistic worldview: there is no realm above or beyond god, and god is supreme so humans have no power over him.

The magic system in The Inheritance Trilogy is not really about connection with the metadivine realm per se, although magic can be performed by both gods and humans. Magic is described as communication with reality, not the result of tapping into the Maelstrom, at least as I understand it. And the Maelstrom isn’t ‘reality’ in that sense. You can communicate with reality through words – the gods’ language. Human scriveners do this, but they aren’t as powerful as the gods because they are unable to speak or write the language as well as the gods can. However, there are other forms of communication/magic – in book 2, Oree uses paint, and her father used song. Blood is also significant as a kind of carrier of magic. Gods’ blood acts as a drug on humans. When the gods conceived children with humans, they produced demons (which are dangerous but not evil; it’s just the word used for demi-gods) and through those demons the human race acquired magical skills. The demons were outlawed once it was discovered that their blood could be used to kill gods. Demon-blood would of course give any mortal power over a god.

Magic is most often used by mortals against the gods in book 1. After defeating Nahadoth and his three godling allies two thousand years ago, Itempas chained the four of them to human bodies and gave them as immortal slaves to the Arameri family. The Arameri scriveners gave each family member a special sigil on their foreheads that not only prevented the enslaved gods from harming a family member, but forced the gods to obey their commands.

6. Cult

Cult is defined as a system of rites involving the manipulation of substances – like blood – that are believed to have inherent power. This might be done to influence the god in some way – win their favour, keep them at bay to protect people, provide sustenance to the god, etc. It might also be a re-enactment of an event in the life of a god, and this might be seen to play a role in the preservation of the world (eg. a rite of spring ensuring the reemergence of life).

Rituals in monotheism have nothing to do with sustaining god or the world and they don’t celebrate events in god’s life (there are none). Instead, rituals commemorate historical events.

We don’t learn much about rituals in Jemisin’s world, but there is one very important one in the Sky palace – the Ascension Ritual. The entire plot of the first book builds up to this ritual, in which power is passed from the head of the ruling Arameri family to the successor. This is more than symbolic – power is passed literally in the sense that a force is moved from one person to another. This is in line with polytheism, in the sense that the ritual is important and has tangible magical effects. In book 2, there are also examples of people making offerings to gods to summon them or ask for help.

However, the novel’s approach to cult is also similar to monotheism in that no rituals are required to keep the world from collapsing, and the gods themselves don’t need any. In book 3 there is an “atheist” who honours the gods (you can’t seriously doubt their existence) but does not worship any of them, arguing that gods don’t need humanity’s attention, which is true. In addition, the offerings made to gods can’t coerce them. The gods have free will, so they might help a human because they’re pleased or amused by the offering, or simply because they’re kind, but not because they’re bound by magic.

7. An amoral universe

In a polytheistic system, everything comes from the metadivine realm, and this includes both good and evil. So you get good gods and bad gods or demons, and humans are helplessly caught up in the struggles between them, although they can use magic as an aid. Evil is as much a metaphysical reality as good – both are built into the structure of the universe. Good gods are just as powerful as the bad ones, and every god might have their own standards of morality, so gods aren’t necessarily totally good or totally bad.

In monotheism, god and his creation are good, so there is technically no evil force in the universe (a problem that monotheism has never really resolved). Evil comes from the clash between god’s will and human will.

As with the mythologies discussed in no.2, Jemisin really makes the most of an amoral polytheistic universe. It’s not as simplistic as the universe consisting of good and evil gods. I think Nahadoth is the only god believed to be inherently evil but this is untrue, although he is more dangerous than most gods. There was an epic God’s War two thousand years ago that is related in fairly stark good-and-evil terms, but this is inaccurate. As the trilogy progresses, we learn that none of the characters who played a role in the war were entirely good or entirely evil. All the gods are grey areas. They have good and bad sides but these are inseparable. Enefa created life but she was also a ruthless killer because life and death go hand in hand. Itempas is the god of order, and created very useful things like language and gravity, but he’s also responsible for the cruel authoritarian power of the Arameri family. Sieh can be very likeable as a child, but he also has a child’s cruelty. Even the nicest gods have scary sides, and the creepiest ones can be helpful. Gods might do terrible things to those they love deeply. These kinds of moral complications are one of my favourite features of the trilogy.

I highly recommend the trilogy if you haven’t read it yet, and if you have, do you know that Jemisin’s writing “The Awakened Kingdom”, a novella set in the world of The Inheritance Trilogy? Yeah, I can’t wait to read it either 🙂

Review of The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher

The Six-Gun Tarot by RS BelcherTitle: The Six-Gun Tarot
Author: R.S. Belcher
Published: 
22 January 2013
Pubisher: Tor Books
Genre: 
fantasy, horror, western

Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

Please note: this review contains mild spoilers. I’ve avoided specific plot details, but I have discussed the nature of the ending.

Golgotha is a quaint little town of horrors. Surviving out on the edge of the Nevada desert in the 1800s, it’s seen a surprising amount of supernatural activity, but it’s still home and haven to its odd assortment of residents. The novel opens on Jim Negrey, a 15-year-old boy on the run from a murder charge. Jim and his faithful horse are about to die out in the desert when they’re saved by Mutt and Clay and taken to the safety of Golgotha. Clay is a medical man with a disturbing amount of interest in dead bodies. Mutt is the town’s deputy sheriff, a Native American Indian with a coyote trickster for a father. The town’s sheriff, Jon Highfather, is rumoured to be either undead or immortal. The mayor, Harry, is a Mormon Elder guarding the magical artefacts of his faith, but he’s struggling to reconcile his religion with his homosexuality. Maude Stapleton, the wife of a wealthy banker, is secretly a warrior assassin for a cult of Lilith.

It seems that these people have all been drawn to Golgotha for a reason. The town sprang up at the foot of the now-abandoned silver mine in Argent Mountain, but what the residents don’t know is that all their paranormal troubles are caused by the colossal monster slumbering in chains beneath the mountain. It’s the Greate Olde Wurm (yeah, I laughed) a monster older than God or death, and if it ever got loose it would destroy the universe.

That threat, of course, is at the heart of the plot – the mine is reopened and the Wurm’s chains are weakened. It begins to wake, infecting the residents of Golgotha with murderous darkness. It’s up to the residents to fight back with the talents and tools at their disposal, not just to save themselves and their town, but to save all of Creation.

But be patient, reader: the novel takes its sweet time building up to the apocalyptic battle of its main plot. There is much to learn first, including the mythological backstory of the Wurm’s imprisonment, and the personal lives of Golgotha’s residents. I’ll address the latter first. Maude is deeply ashamed to have married and turned into a demur, submissive wife; it completely contradicts the teachings of the feminist warrior faith. She forms an unlikely bond with Mutt, who is shunned by the town because of his race, and by his own people because of his coyote heritage. Jim is carrying around his dead father’s glass eye, which happens to be an ancient Chinese artefact with strange powers. He hopes to be able to learn more about it from the Chinese immigrants who live in a self-contained area that goes by the derogatory name of Johnny Town (and is rife with racial clichés), but is initially thwarted because otherwise the story would be a lot shorter. Harry, the Mayor, is having an affair with the man who plays piano at the Johnny Town brothel, while his wife Holly drinks herself into oblivion because her husband let her believe she made him gay. Auggie Schultz, a German storekeeper, is torn between his growing feelings for his good friend Gillian Proctor and his devotion to his (un)dead wife.

The narrative jumps frequently between these characters’ stories and more. It’s a hell of a lot to keep track of, but luckily it’s very easy to do so. Since this is a story of pending apocalypse, it also makes sense to have a lot of characters so that you have some idea of the lives at stake.

But unfortunately having so many POVs is one of the novel’s biggest problems. Many of the characters are interesting, but you can’t spend much time with them before the narrative focuses on someone else. The result is that some characters, like Maude, Jim and pretty much all the Chinese, feel badly neglected. Initially, each chapter or section is written from the perspective of one character, but after a while the POV tends to jump haphazardly between characters or to an omniscient narrator.

The romance between Auggie and Gillian takes up a sizeable portion of the novel but is totally unnecessary, as they have no role to play in fighting against the Wurm. I suspect that they’re there to provide a heartwarming aspect to the plot and to address a religious issue – finding a new partner after the death of a spouse. Other religious issues arise as well. Why, Harry wonders, has God allowed a sodomite to guard his treasures and guide his people? There are many different religions, but which one is true? And of course there’s the age-old conundrum: why does a supposedly loving and omnipotent God allows evil to exist in the world?  Religion, or rather, faith, is one of the main themes of the novel, although not in an entirely mainstream way.

Belcher has rewritten Christian mythology to explain the Wurm’s presence on Earth: when God created light, he found monsters living in the darkness. Heaven went to war with the monsters the end of this war, the Wurm was not killed but bound with holy chains and imprisoned on Earth, which was still under construction at the time.

The novel considers the issue of faith of both humans and angels in relation to this version of God who is questionable at best. We know that God is almost certainly a liar. He has not always been in existence as he led humanity and the angels to believe – the Wurm is older than him. He is not omniscient, because he only discovered the Wurm when he created light. It also seems that he is unable to kill it, which would mean that he isn’t omnipotent either. Of course, God doesn’t actually appear on the page; the information about his nature comes from the angels, particularly Lucifer and an angel named Biqa. Overall, God is portrayed as a cruel and arrogant dictator who is not as powerful as he purports to be. Biqa’s theory is that God banished the darkness because he feared it, then went genocidal on the Voidlings because they did not fit into his plan. He suggests that god created the angels and plans “to create an entire universe of doppelgangers to worship Him” because he is afraid of being alone.

So what do the characters, angel and human, think of God in light of the novel’s events? The answer lands, inexplicably, on the side of faith. The general conclusion seems to be that the whole thing was a test and some even wonder, with a ridiculously jovial attitude, what the good Lord will come up with next. However, no one has the slightest shred of evidence to support such a favourable interpretation. Why put all of Creation at stake to test a handful of people living in a small American town at the ass-end of nowhere?

There’s absolutely nothing to dispel Biqa’s earlier impression of God as cowardly and manipulative, and when Lucifer offers his equally unflattering opinions it makes perfect sense within the confines of the narrative. But then again, this isn’t about reason, it’s about reassurance. The residents of Golgotha have “learned long ago to quickly grab hold of any explanation in the daylight that makes it easier to live in the dark”, which in my opinion, explains both the optimism at the end of the novel and the entire phenomenon of religion itself. It’s terrifying to imagine that God cannot kill the Wurm; a more comforting explanation is that He was saving him as a kind of exam paper. Which means that there is a plan, and it seems to be running smoothly, so relax and enjoy the happy ending.

I was just happy to have reached the ending. The novel started out well, I cared for the characters, and I loved the unexplained hints at the weird things that have happened in Golgotha, but Belcher doesn’t really have a handle on this story. For the entire second half I felt like the novel was tossing me all over the place, leaping across POVs, going from a slow pace to dire action, and eventually bringing all its threads together in a way that was chaotic rather than conclusive.

We are told that all religions are true, because it’s belief that gives them their power, rather than deities. In fact, we’re told that gods need people and cannot exist without them. The novel ignores the immense contradictions here. Its own backstory shows that God existed before humanity so although he wants them, he certainly doesn’t need them. And of course there are fundamental contradictions between religions, but there’s less of a need to address this problem because the novel only makes a half-hearted attempt to include non-Christian beliefs. There is a Chinese creation myth told amidst endless Oriental clichés, but after hearing Biqa’s story earlier in the novel, this sounds like a distortion of the more Christian truth. Another creation myth is narrated by a coyote, but all in terms of “the white man’s god”. There is a cult of Lilith that Maude’s grandmother picked up from “the Bantu witch-women” of Africa (there’s that good old blanket term again), but even though this rages against the misogyny of the bible, it still subscribes to the basic mythology. I think the novel could have been a lot stronger if it made a decent attempt to incorporate different belief systems, but it remains unwaveringly Christian at its core.

But hey, it left with enough to discuss for a fairly long review. It was average at best, but most books like this leave me with little to say, so I appreciate those that give me something to think about. Less fussy readers probably won’t be too bothered with the consistency issues I’ve discussed here, and may find this fantasy-horror-western to be a lot of fun. I haven’t really said anything about all the action and horror in the plot, but it suffices to say that there’s plenty of it, although it can get a tad ridiculous. If you’re ok with that sort of thing, then go for it.

Review of Infidel by Kameron Hurley

Title: Infidel
Series: Bel Dam Apocrypha #2
Author: Kameron Hurley
Published: 
1 October 2011
Publisher: 
Night Shade Books
Genre: 
science fiction
Source: 
eARC from the author
Rating: 
7/10

Please note: this review contains minor spoilers for Book One in the series.

Nyx had been better dressed, better armed, and better supported, once: running with her bel dame sisters instead of a cocky boy shifter and a reformed venom addict. Now, instead of collecting blood debt, she was babysitting diplomats and cutting up petty debtors when the First Familes paid her in hard currency. It felt more honest. But a lot less honorable.

This is how we find Nyx at the opening of Infidel, the second book in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series. The Nyx we met at the beginning of God’s War is now just a memory of when she “used to be young, and fiery, and strong. She used to be able to cut off a head in forty-five seconds with a dull blade. She used to be able to drive a bakkie like a demon”. Now, at 38, she is old, tired, and ashamed of the way her life has lost dignity and meaning, although she’s still very much the emotionally dysfunctional hard-ass from book one. Nyx is offered a chance to reclaim the prestige of being a government assassin when a rogue bel dame tries to kill her. A member of the bel dame council asks her to hunt down such rogues and in return, Nyx can have her bel dame status reinstated. The catch is that the rogues are going after the Queen, starting a civil war to bring down the monarchy and give the bel dames power over the country. This will weaken Nasheen, making it vulnerable to Chenja in their ongoing centuries-old war, and Nyx is nothing if not a patriot. Still, it’s a lot for her to handle, especially when she finds that she’s been infected with a strange, debilitating virus that does far worse than simply threaten to kill her.

Meanwhile, Rhys, Khos, and Inaya are living in the prosperous, genteel city of Tirhan, after abandoning Nyx at the end of God’s War. They’ve settled into quiet domestic lives: Khos and Inaya are married, Rhys has a beautiful if scatterbrained wife, and each family has two young children. But both Rhys and Inaya are involved in government work related to the plot that Nyx is caught up in, and you know it’s only a matter of time before she arrives in Tirhan to disrupt if not ruin their lives. Not that Nyx needs much of an excuse; it’s been six years and she still misses Rhys badly, even thought she would never admit it.

Their strange relationship was one of my favourite things about God’s War, after the excellent writing and worldbuilding, all of which made up for a somewhat lacklustre story. In Infidel, Rhys and Nyx are far apart for much of the novel and the writing is good but less arresting. Hurley continues with her excellent worldbuilding, but although Umayma is still an unusual planet, it’s now familiar and less exciting. On the bright side the story is stronger, better paced and more focused. It’s a good book, but less notable that its predecessor.

Mostly, I missed the weird character dynamics between Nyx and Rhys. They certainly made a very odd pair – a drunken, violent atheist, and a devout Muslim with extremely traditional (you could say misogynistic) views about women. It seemed unlikely that they could work together or even respect each other, but they found some kid of solace in each other’s company. I’m not even sure what to call their relationship– it wasn’t exactly a friendship, but it wasn’t just a partnership and it certainly wasn’t a romance.

In Infidel, this great character dynamic is lost, and I found that I don’t really like either of them that much. Nyx is too coarse and too violent. I prefer Rhys’s calm, gentle nature, but I can’t ignore his beliefs about women. Together, they balanced out each other’s flaws – Nyx was enjoyably brash in contrast to the reserved Rhys, and when he worked with Nyx you could forget the fact that Rhys believes she should cover her hair and avoid eye contact with men. Apart, Nyx is a brute and Rhys is a sexist bore. Their reunion doesn’t help much; the past has left too many scars, and the intervening six years have changed Rhys’s life too much.

I found Nyx to be almost thoroughly unlikeable this time around. She’s desperate, reckless, and doesn’t deserve the loyalty of companions. My sympathies actually fell with anyone allied with Nyx because, frankly, that woman is BAD NEWS. She might be a hero, she might be the only person who can get the (dangerous) job done, but she inevitably leaves a trail of pain and chaos in her wake and I’m never quite sure how I feel about her actions. I’m partly hoping she’ll leave poor Rhys alone in Book Three, Rapture. There are moments when he seems to miss the bounty-hunter lifestyle he had with Nyx, but for the most part he would be better off if she stayed the hell away from him.

I don’t necessarily mean all of this as a criticism, although novels are a bit less enjoyable when you don’t like or admire the character you spend the most time with. But I’ve got nothing against unlikeable protagonists per se, and we’re clearly meant to be critical of Nyx. I’d actually like to see her team up with another polar opposite – Inaya, a deeply conservative woman who spent much of her role in God’s War either crying or complaining. Inaya was a shifter who hated shifters, and although she suffered some tragedies that made me feel sorry for her, I couldn’t bring myself to like her. In Infidel however, she became my favourite character – she’s more assured and has unbelievably powerful skills as a shifter, even though she hates using them.

It’s cool to see her in action and, as I mentioned, the story as a whole is clearer and better-paced than the first book. I’m generally not all that interested in political intrigue, but the politics of the plot are simple enough, and Nyx’s purpose boils down to a smaller-scale investigation that involves tracking down the rogue bel dames. It’s very violent; if you’ve read God’s War you’ll know what to expect, although Hurley puts her characters through even greater ordeals this time.

And like the first book, Infidel offers you the pleasure of seeing women driving the plot, and women being fighters without having to be skinny, pretty, fair-skinned women too. There are lots of kick-ass heroines in genre fiction these days, but if book covers are anything to go by, they’re almost always cute white girls who look more like runway models than experienced fighters. The bel dames are big women, heavy with the muscle they need to do their job, bearing the scars of their brutal experiences. Nyx’s body takes such a battering that I started getting seriously concerned about how much more she could take.

Luckily, she ends the novel fully prepared for another bloody adventure in Rapture, although I wouldn’t be too surprised if it ended in her death. Although Infidel wasn’t quite as great as I’d hoped it to be, it’s a good book nevertheless and I’ll be finishing off the series soon.

 

Buy Infidel at The Book Depository

Review of Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Title: Life of Pi
Author: 
Yann Martel
Published: 
September 2001; my edition published 4 October 2012
Publisher: 
Canongate
Genre: 
literary fiction
Source: 
review copy from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
4/10

Pi Patel is a strange boy. Firstly, his full name is Piscine Molitor Patel, and he was named after a French swimming pool. He gave himself the name Pi after picking up the nickname ‘Pissing’ at school. Pi grew up in a zoo owned by his parents in the town of Pondicherry, on the coast of Tamil Nadu, India. Perhaps the most notable thing about him is that he loves religion. Pi is a boy who just really wants to worship God, and in doing so he comes to believe in multiple religions, beginning with Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. His non-believer parents are dismayed, and his religious leaders argue that Pi cannot be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim simultaneously because each set of beliefs contradicts and condemns the others. But Pi is unfazed, declaring that “All religions are true” and that he just wants “to love God”. He makes no attempt to reconcile the contradictions of his religions, and indulges in the rituals of all three.

I was surprised by this part of the story. Like many people, I knew of Life of Pi only as a story about a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger. That part begins about a third of the way into the novel. Due to political unrest in India, Pi’s parents sell the zoo and all the animals, and leave for Canada. They travel aboard a cargo ship with some of the animals, and the ship sinks in the middle of the Pacific for reasons that Pi never learns.

As far as he knows, he is the only survivor, stuck on a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, and a zebra with a broken leg. A 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker is on the boat too, but it’s a few days before a terrified Pi realises he’s there. The other three animals come to violent, gruesome ends, and Pi is left to find some way of surviving with a massive, dangerous predator on board.

I had been under the impression that this was some kind of magical realism, and that the tiger somehow remains peaceful and does not attack Pi. In fact, the tiger is just as dangerous as you would expect the animal to be, and Pi uses the methods of a circus tamer to control him. The majority of the novel is a detailed account of Pi and Richard Parker’s long ordeal in the Pacific.

It is a remarkable, unforgettable story. It’s also really boring and excessively brutal. The first parts of the novel read like an introduction to zookeeping, giving way to a tedious memoir of Pi’s religious epiphanies. On the lifeboat, Pi provides far more detail than you need or want. For example, he lists every single item on the lifeboat, tells us how bored he gets, and describes what positions Richard Parker likes to sleep in.

Even worse (particularly for animal lovers), are all the graphic descriptions of animals in agony. In the section on zookeeping, Pi describes some of the horrible things visitors do to animals, like feeding them food with broken glass in it. The animal brutality in the boat begins with the zebra with the broken leg, whose pain gets infinitely worse when the hyena begins eating it alive – an ordeal that lasts for hours. To survive, Pi captures a variety of marine life (including turtles and sharks) and subjects the reader to descriptions of all their painful struggles. It’s simultaneously dull and repulsive.

There was only one part of his journey that I found truly interesting, because it had an awesome idea featuring millions of meerkats (and they’re just so adorable). But it’s a short-lived experience, and includes a scene where Pi’s feet are burning so he slaughters two meerkats and pours their blood over his feet in an attempt to soothe them. What an asshole. By the end of the book I was thoroughly bored and fed up. Pi, I thought, was a horrible little shit and the only reason I hoped he might live was to help the tiger survive. I mentally added Life of Pi to the list of books I can’t believe so many people like.

But now I must confess that, when I reached the very end, Yann Martel surprised me, and for that I had to give the book some grudging admiration. My philosophy is that you should finish the books you start, or at least not judge books you haven’t finished, because you never know how they might turn out. While most books fail to redeem themselves after bad beginnings, Life of Pi is one of the few that makes me glad to have that philosophy.

At the beginning, it’s introduced as a story that “will make you believe in God” (to which I obviously rolled my eyes). Contrary to my expectations however, Pi’s ordeal is not what’s intended to convert you, or reaffirm your beliefs. Nor is his belief in multiple religions necessarily intended to inspire. Instead, he gives you a reason at the very end, and it completely changed the book for me.

It wasn’t a profound reason for believing in God. It wasn’t even a good one, although it explained how Pi was able to believe in multiple religions. In fact, it was one of the very reasons I’ve rejected religion and don’t make God (or gods) a part of my life. More importantly, it didn’t change the fact that the story I’d just read was still extremely tedious. But I liked it because it made me pause to think about the book, and because it partly redeemed a novel that I thought was irredeemably crap. It doesn’t save the book, but it’s something.

Later, I started thinking of an alternative interpretation for the novel, largely because Pi’s reason for believing in God is so poor. It’s more like an argument against religion, which made me wonder if Martel wasn’t being ironic when he wrote that this story would “make you believe in God”.

As a flawed character and an unreliable narrator, Pi himself stands as a strong argument for this interpretation. I found him to be very arrogant and condescending, particularly when he sneers at non-believers for rejecting religion, but misunderstands their reasons. There’s also a point where he compares himself to the persecuted prophet Mohammed, just because kids are calling him names at school.

At the same time, he seemed like such a dope, falling for every lofty promise and sly ploy of religion, while glossing over or completely ignoring the more uncomfortable aspects, particularly the fact that religions condemn each other. He sees only the rosiest version of things in order to satisfy his obsession with loving God.

But despite Pi’s great love for religion, it plays a small role in his survival story. He makes prayer a part of his daily routine on the lifeboat, and every now and then he thanks one of the gods for his good fortune, but he doesn’t actually reflect on his religions as much as you’d expect. He suffers through a uniquely tragic and arduous experience that leaves him alone with his thoughts for hundreds of long hours, so it’s implausible that he doesn’t think about it in terms of the religions he loves so much. Why doesn’t he ask the obvious questions of why God or the gods allowed this to happen to him, whether it’s a test and what he should do about it? His ordeal has virtually no effect on his belief, either positive or negative, and this seems highly unlikely.

Instead he describes all the pain the animals go through, which makes even less sense when you recall that Pi starts out as a vegetarian. The suffering itself raises that old question of why there is so much unnecessary pain in a world supposedly created and controlled by a good, loving deity. The best place to ask this is when the zebra remains alive while the hyena chews through its organs. The horror of this adds absolutely nothing to the narrative, which could just be bad storytelling or Martel’s attempt to make a point about suffering.

Pi also claims that he’s “not given to projecting human traits and emotions onto animals”, which soon proves to be a lie when he states how he does exactly that for his own amusement. Later he lectures us on his hatred for the hyena, declaring it to be an ugly, vile creature by judging it according to human standards.

When a person like this gives us his reason for believing in God, I’m more inclined to reflect on the pitfalls of belief and the nature of believers than to take him at his word. Nevertheless, when Pi gives us that poor reason for believing in God (or possibly the novel’s reason for rejecting God or religion) I have to grant him – and the book – some grudging respect, having finally reached a satisfying understanding of his beliefs.

So, I find myself still at odds about Life of Pi. I’m very glad I read it but I didn’t enjoy reading it. It’s both unforgettable and terribly boring. Martel could have cut a hundred pages and still made his point, but he still gave me something to think about, and I really enjoyed thinking about it. Does that make it a good book? I don’t know. Maybe just not good enough.

Buy Life of Pi at The Book Depository

Review of Pure by Julianna Baggott

Title: Pure
Series: Pure #1
Author: 
Julianna Baggott
Published: 
2 February 2012
Publisher: 
Headline
Genre: 
YA, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, science fiction
Source: 
review copy from Tammy at Women24.com
Rating: 
7/10

Ten years after the Detonations that destroyed America, survivors breathe the ash of a damaged world and bear the terrible deformities and mutations that the nuclear bombs have left them with. Pressia lives with her grandfather in the remains of a barbershop, clinging to faint memories of the Before. She finds herself going on the run from the OSR, a militant group that forcibly recruits all teenagers from the age of 16. Like most other survivors, Pressia wishes she could live inside the Dome, the clean, safe haven where a few were lucky enough to be sheltered during the Detonations. The people of the Dome are ‘Pure’, untainted by burns and mutations.

Bradwell doesn’t share this dream about the Dome. He is a rebel who knows the truth – that the Dome’s creators are the ones responsible for the Detonations; that they used the bombs to ‘cleanse’ the earth so that they could one day emerge to rule a rejuvenated Earth.

Inside the Dome, Partridge enjoys the privileges of being a Pure, but at the cost of his freedom. His world is clean but tightly controlled and closely monitored, and he is subjected to mandatory genetic modification. His cold, calculating father is the leader of the Dome, while his loving mother supposedly died a martyr, trying to help ‘the wretches’ outside get to safety when the bombs hit. But Partridge knows that he is being lied to, that the stories he has been told about his world are propaganda. When he finds reasons to believe that his mother is still alive, he escapes from the Dome to find her.

His journey collides with Pressia’s and Bradwell’s, forming an uneasy trio of teenagers who are reluctant to trust each other but have to forge some kind of alliance if they expect to survive all the monsters that come after them. They puzzle through the clues that will lead them to the truth, heading out on a path that will either lead to revolution or the triumph of tyranny.

 

Pure surprised me. It’s grotesque and brutal, and I mean this in a good way. There was a point when YA dystopias sprang up like weeds, and, as with the YA fad of romances between humans and sexy mythical creatures who looked like humans, I imagined that the resulting dystopias would be implausibly glossy, with only the bare minimum of thin dystopian features written in to allow the authors to cash in on the trend. YA dystopias, I thought, were probably just the latest settings for otherwise conventional action-adventure-romances.

Pure has action and adventure, but it’s gritty and tragic. At first it seems like the usual love triangle is forming, but in fact there’s no real romance. And unlike most YA novels, many of the characters are not just physically imperfect but physically deformed. The Detonations had horrific effects to the people who were caught in the explosions. All of them were fused to nearby objects, plants, animals, or other people. Pressia was holding a doll, and her hand is now a doll’s-head fist, a relatively minor deformity. Bradwell has birds fused to his back, their beaks digging into his flesh, their wings fluttering. There are ‘Dusts’ – humans who fused with the earth and live underground, rising up to drag humans and other creatures down with them. There are ‘Beasts’, who fused with animals. ‘Groupies’ are two or more humans fused together.

And those are the least disturbing of the examples. There is a group of mothers fused to the children they clutched when the bombs went off. Stunted by their mothers’ bodies, the children will never grow up. Some women limp along with children joined at the hip; others have babies forever attached to their arms.

One character, known as El Capitan, has his younger brother (who was brain damaged in the Detonations) fused to his back. Unable to ever part, El Capitan knows that eventually one of them will be unable to take it anymore and will kill the other, causing the death of both.

There is no hope that future generations will be born Pure; all the changes will be passed on. The bombs that were set off were not standard nuclear weapons but “a cocktail of bombs” (44) with “nanotechnology to help speed up the recovery of the earth – nanotechnology that promotes the self-assembly of molecules” (45) and apparently allows creatures and objects to bond genetically. I have no idea whether this is actually possible, but it makes enough sense to me for the purposes of the story. Pure describes a world of human made monstrous. With creatures like Dusts and Beasts, it’s fair to ask whether they’re human at all. Characters like Pressia have to deal with the fact that the objects fused to them have become a part of their flesh. For example, Pressia once tried to cut the doll’s head off her hand, only to find that it bled as if she’d slit her wrist. And maybe, she admits, that’s exactly what she wanted to do.

Partridge isn’t happy either, but for very different reasons. The Dome is clean and safe to the point that life in there is sterile. Everything is controlled and everyone is closely monitored. All boys are given mandatory genetic enhancements to improve them physically, mentally, and make them more submissive. Partridge’s brother Sedge killed himself when he could no longer handle life in the Dome, an act that is considered noble because it helps keep weaknesses out of the gene pool.

Heavy stuff for YA, and there’s quite a lot of it – accounts of the trauma experienced during the Detonations, the suffering of the fused, the brutal things the characters are forced to do to survive and achieve their goals. But I’m not complaining. I liked this about the novel; it had a satisfying weight to it and the grotesquery did not feel gratuitous. However, I will say that the plot and characters seemed to lack something. It’s a good book, but not all that compelling. I admired many of the details in the world and the writing, but somehow the whole was less impressive than I expected. The plot needed a greater sense of urgency, and as the story progressed the characters became less interesting than they’d been at first.

Still, it’s an impressive creation. Or at least the parts that you see in the novel are impressive. The worldbuildng falters when you consider the backstory and that bloody American bias that I can’t believe we still find in stories with a supposedly global scope. Before the Detonations, American society had already become a dystopia defined by “the convolutions of church and state” and a return to traditional gender divides. Church attendance was monitored. The privileged lived in compounds protected by armed guards. Women were expected to belong to the ‘Feminine Feminists’ group, which enforced misogynistic gender roles under the guise of liberation. The whole regime was known as ‘The Return to Civility’. Those who didn’t comply were quietly carted off to asylums. The Dome is a continuation of this, especially with its ugly religious longing for purity and perfection.

This is all good and well; in fact I’d like to read a prequel that shows how this society came about. I’m wondering, for example, what happened with all the non-Christians. But more questions arise when considering the Detonations. They were not organised by the military or the government, but by a small group of elite scientists, so how did they get access to so much sophisticated nuclear weaponry? Surely that doesn’t go unnoticed by the authorities. And then, did they just bomb America, or the entire world? The former sounds highly unlikely and the latter seems impossible. So what happened to everyone else? Are there other Domes?

There are characters who should have this information, but don’t reveal any of it (although there are other reveals). Pressia and Partridge have been kept in the dark, but I’d expect them to at least ask some of these questions. I’m getting tired of books where anything that happens outside America isn’t considered worth more than a sentence or two. I can accept that we’re just being told the story of what happens in the USA; what I can’t accept is the way the majority of the world is ignored.

I hold out the hope that the sequel, Fuse (due in February 2013), will offer explanations. I have my reservations about Pure, but they’re outweighed by my enthusiasm for its stronger aspects. It delivers far more than I expected from this genre, particularly in it brutal post-apocalyptic world. The writing is strong, with a few moments where you have to pause to consider what you just read. The YA market could do with more of this.

 

Buy a copy of Pure at The Book Depository