This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore reviews three novels that show how broad the definition ‘magical realism’ can be.
This is one of the most accomplished novels I have read in a long while and it is well worth a read, whether you are YA or adult. Don’t let the synopsis put you off: it is a novel about death, about suicide in particular. But it is also a creative, imaginative, thought-provoking but thoroughly readable novel in an incredibly well-imagined world. It draws very cleverly on our own environment, reflecting familiar aspects that bring lightness to what otherwise might seem dark subject matter (the Wal-Mart section is particularly good in that respect), but it also does what the very best magical realism should do, which is to make you feel that this other world is just around the corner, if only you could learn how to see it.
Jayden Schroeder has taken her own life, but finds herself plunged into a state of suspended existence with an eclectic group of companions drawn from all times and cultures. Together they must fight for the souls of the living, dependent all the while on the generosity of the mysterious He. There are rules in this place, clear rules which must be lived by under threat of serious penalty. But it is exhausting this state of being, between the physical demands of learning to fight and the emotional demands of forging alliances and loyalties to strangers. Jayden’s relationship with Marsh and Neala are very well drawn, and the pacing of the book is extremely good. And through it all, Jayden must make decisions about her own future, and reflect on the reasons she decided to take her life. This novel could easily be taken as an essay on the rights and wrongs, not to mention the collateral consequences of suicide, especially by a young person. But it is also an exceptionally well-written novel and a thoroughly excellent read.
Teenager Kari Marriner has had a tough start in life. Her father was killed when she was a child, but her intelligent, resourceful mother has raised a bright, compassionate daughter, keen to take in the world around her. When they move to New York it is a fresh start for them both, but Kari is soon aware that things are not all they seem to be.
The challenge for a writer of YA fantasy fiction is to create both real and alternate worlds that are believable. In this first volume of his Embodied Trilogy, John Dutton has carefully assembled the building blocks of his alternate world, the Temple of Truth. I’m not going to give too much away here, but it’s been done cleverly and carefully, although I think I would have liked Kari to happen on a few more details sooner and more gradually, so it didn’t come in a rush of revelation all together. That’s sometimes the challenge with first-novels-of-trilogies – giving enough detail early enough to bring the reader in.
The author has though done a good job of anchoring the novel in contemporary teenage New York. The city is well painted through teenage eyes, and the angsts of moving to a high school are effectively identified, though Kari is possibly a bit too at ease with change for someone who has been dragged out of a tiny Wisconsin town into a 24-7 international metropolis. Characters are very well drawn: the relationship between Kari and her mother is well-established at the beginning, showing how sometimes the relationship can change in the absence of a second parent, towards two people who are more like friends than parent and child. The two teenage guys, Cruz and Noon, whose presence looms large in Kari’s life are also authentically drawn and likeable too, and the tension Kari experiences – emotional and intellectual – in her dealings with them are sympathetically portrayed and easy to identify with.
My reluctance to give this 5* stems from two things: the first is the tone of Kari’s own voice, which at times just feels to A to be YA. I think she is about 16 or 17 in the book, but even though she has grown up to be quite an independent young woman, I feel she could be more of a girl still at times. She has quite an adult turn of phrase at times, quite sophisticated, which sticks out a bit for me. My other slight dissatisfaction comes with the ending: I felt there should have been much more drama given how the book ends, yet Kari seems to have taken it all in her stride. We are given a strong hint at how her situation is going to develop in the second book in the Series, but I would have expected there still to be a hell of a hangover from the scenes of the penultimate section of the book.
Nonetheless, this is a readable, enjoyable and fast moving story for a YA audience.
This evocative and atmospheric novel explores the close relationship between two young women, set against a harsh social and physical environment. Anya is an orphan, abandoned to live with her brutal Aunt in a hierarchical household where punishment seems endless. With her is Eva, her Shadow, from a caste whose identity is never thoroughly explained but who carry the burden of social pariah and outcast, tainting those who associate too closely with them. In this relationship we find the core of what Zoe Brooks has created here: a world which is both recognisable and not, whose elements are all too familiar and yet powerfully imagined beyond the familiar. It is magical realist in some senses but also, as some other reviewers have noted, it has a kind of otherness about it that some science fiction fans may identify with.
The characterisation is strong and interestingly cast. Anya and Eva are well drawn and we observe as they evolve their identities and their names to protect themselves as they embark upon a journey of which this novel is just the beginning. But there are enormous numbers of other characters too, from key players like Anya’s dead mother and her vicious Aunt, the King of Pharsis and Julian, to smaller bit players like dressmakers and landladies, each painted with equal care. This is perhaps one aspect which may put off some readers: the cast is so great that we sometimes feel we have abandoned members of it as Anya and Eva journey on, and they seem lost to us forever.
Likewise, the somewhat episodic nature of the book is sometimes blurred by a lack of spatial punctuation, an absence of breaths between scenes as it were, and at times this threatens to overwhelm the reader. The tone of voice is also occasionally ambiguous: for much of the time Anya speaks both in dialogue and narration in the authentic voice of her early adolescence, but at other times she seems far too adult, too literal, even though we know that Anya’s life has caused her to grow up very quickly.
The novel ends with an opening, a new beginning as it were, as Anya begins to explore the notion of a vocation, a destiny, a path into the future that is hers and not carved by circumstance. If you enjoy this novel you are likely to read the next one, for Zoe Brooks has created a world within this book that will draw you in and not easily relinquish you.