Killer Kids(' Books) II: Four Novels

Late March and early April were very bad reading periods for me.  A combination of busyness, stress, and a rather dull book that I nevertheless insisted on finishing meant that I spent several weeks struggling with unenjoyable reads, picking books up and putting them back down after fifty pages, usually through no fault of their own, eying my enormous TBR stack with distaste, and in general feeling that reading had become a struggle.  The solution, I decided, was a YA binge.  Not so much because YA books are easier reads than novels aimed at adults, though a lot of the time they are, as because they work harder to hook the reader.  Books for young readers tend to be more purposeful, more obvious about their destination and their determination to reach it, than adult fiction, and when it comes to carrying the reader along with the story, they do more of the heavy lifting.  That seemed like exactly what the doctor ordered, so I've spent the second half of April running down the list of YA titles I've been meaning to get to.

Of course, if you're looking for a book that carries you along with the plot, a good place to start would be Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy.  A copy of the trilogy's concluding, Clarke-nominated volume Monsters of Men had been sitting on my desk for several months, and I'd held off on reading it less because I was concerned that Ness would fumble the conclusion of his high stakes narrative than because I was hesitant to expose myself, for the third time, to the sheer concussive force of these novels.  Even the series's most ardent supporters will gladly acknowledge that the Chaos Walking books are manipulative, and that they achieve that manipulation by launching what amounts to an assault on the senses.  Events pile one on top of the other at breakneck speed, life and death usually hanging in the balance.  Emotions are always pitched at the edge of hysteria, veering wildly between love, hate, rage, terror, and bone-deep frustration.  Dialogue is shouted and screamed, usually over the din of a battle, an explosion, or heavy machinery.  The Chaos Walking books are loud and fast and relentless, and though as soon as I turned Monsters of Men's first page I was committed to reading through to the end, it was a bit of a wrench to actually take that first step.

Monsters of Men picks up where the previous volume, The Ask and The Answer, left off, which is to say in deep shit.  No sooner have protagonists Todd and Viola managed to overcome their two antagonists--Mayor Prentiss, the genocidal dictator who has named himself leader of New World's human population, and Mistress Coyle, a politician deposed by Prentiss who has turned to terrorism in order to unseat him--than their situation is complicated by the arrival, on the one hand, of an army of the planet's native species, known as Spackle, bent on ridding their world of humanity, and on the other hand, of a scout ship from the convoy of colony ships carrying Viola's people, now only a few weeks away.  As Prentiss and Coyle squabble for supremacy and try to curry favor with the delegates on the scout ship, the humans on New World have to defend themselves against the Spackle's terrifyingly effective attacks.  Todd ends up back by the Mayor's side as Prentiss marshals the human forces against the Spackle, while Viola tries to help the delegates strike the proper balance between involving themselves in a war not of their making and standing back as the human population is slaughtered, while also introducing them to the concept of Noise, the projective telepathy that afflicts every living being on New World except human women.  As he did in The Ask and The Answer, Ness opens up the novel's perspective by adding, to Todd and Viola's narrative strands, one narrated by a Spackle called The Return who had been enslaved by humans and is the only survivor of the slaves' murder, ordered by Prentiss, and who bears a particular resentment towards Todd.

Monsters of Men is a war novel, with all the ugliness and messy compromises that entails.  The murderous, psychopathic Mayor is the only one who has the strategic acumen and command presence to fight the Spackle.  Viola, in order to save Todd, forces the hand of the convoy delegates when she uses their weapons to attack the Spackle.  Prentiss and Coyle, forced on the same side, scheme against and undermine one another, trying to gain hearts and minds as well as strategic advantages for the time when the Spackle are defeated and the colony ships arrive.  Viola, Todd, and The Return have to choose between their loved ones and the greater good, between vengeance and forgiveness.  The war story, however, is merely the latest and most effective lens through which Ness can examine the themes that have informed Chaos Walking from its outset, chiefly the tension between individualism and conformity, and the meaning of leadership.  Through The Return's eyes, we see Noise as it was meant to be used, as a facilitator of communication that makes of the Spackle simultaneously a hive mind and a closely-knit and harmonious group of individuals.  For humans, Noise brings about chaos, destroying privacy without creating unity.  Only the Mayor, who understands Noise better than almost any other human, learns to control his Noise as the Spackle do, but he uses that ability to shut down his noise, to weaponize it, and finally to control others--techniques that he teaches to Todd in Monsters of Men, to Todd's mingled horror and delight.  When Ben, Todd's adoptive, presumed-dead father, reappears after having been held prisoner by the Spackle, he has learned their way of using Noise, and tries to convince the other settlers that the key to living with Noise is not to tamp it down but to open themselves up to one another.  Though the novel ends with tentative peace between humans and Spackle and with a more sane leadership having emerged within the human population, Ben's approach to Noise is only beginning to make inroads among the colonists.  This is an appropriately open-ended, yet profoundly hopeful, ending to a series that has delivered such a merciless pummeling to its main characters.  Monsters of Men proceeds towards its ending with all the subtlety of a freight train, and the tragic events of the book's final chapters, as well as the way Ness finds to get around that tragedy, are easy to predict.  They also, however, make for a fittingly thorny conclusion to the series--enough of a happy ending to satisfy readers who want Todd and Viola to finally rest from battle, but not so happy as to seem out of place in the trilogy's grim universe.

When I wrote about The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first Chaos Walking book, I lamented that Ness's choice to give Noise only to men, as well as his choice to tell that part of story solely from Todd's perspective, had the unfortunate consequence of playing into well-worn stereotypes of women as alien and other.  The Ask and The Answer and Monsters of Men downplay the importance of the gender divide between those who have Noise and those who don't, to the extent that it seems likely that Ness had exhausted his arguments on the matter of gender in the trilogy's first volume.  By the time Monsters of Men draws to a close, the important division is not between men and women but between the Noisy and Noiseless, and between those who choose to tamp down their Noise and those who "open it up."  That the former division still falls along gender lines, however, means that there remain unfortunate implications to the trilogy's worldbuilding that Ness doesn't engage with, as in this exchange between Ben and Todd:
"I think it could be the way forward for all of us," he says with his mouth, croaky and crackling.  He coughs and lets his Noise take over again.  If we can all learn to speak this way, then there won't be any more division twixt us and the Spackle, the won't be any division twixt humans.  That's the secret of this planet, Todd.  Communication, real and open, so we can finally understand one another for once.

I clear my throat.  "Women don't got Noise," I say.  "What'll happen to them?"

He stops.  I'd forgotten, he says.  It's been so long since I've really been around them.  He brightens again.  Spackle women have noise.  And if there's a way for men to stop having Noise--he looks at me--There must be a way for women to start.
Ben has, quite literally, forgotten about half the human race, and when it's pointed out to him that his plan for peace and harmony leaves out that half, he essentially waves his hand and says that he's sure a solution can be found.  But that's where the novel leaves it.  What was needed--particularly in light of the fact that Viola, in a neat reversal of The Knife of Never Letting Go, reacts to Todd's tamping down of his Noise by saying that she doesn't recognize him anymore, and is rightly chided for wanting to have all the power in their relationship--was an example of a woman, ideally Viola, who develops Noise, but this doesn't happen.  Instead the novel ends with Ben's idyll--which might include women, but even if it doesn't will not be any less idyllic--held up as a desirable goal, which implicitly reinforces the "humans = men" message of the first book.  In the end I have to conclude that Chaos Walking would have been a much stronger story if Ness had dropped the gender divide between Noisy and Noiseless--if Todd had grown up believing that Noise was ubiquitous because the Mayor had killed all the Noiseless, men and women, in Prentisstown, then learned that some humans get it and others don't, regardless of gender.  As it stands, the gender division leaves an unpleasant aftertaste to what is, in all other respects, an enormously satisfying and important work of science fiction, one that deserves more attention and discussion within our community, not just the YA field.

If the people who have been obsessively following Chaos Walking and feel a little bereft at its conclusion are looking for a new trilogy, they could do worse than Holly Black's The Curse Workers.  Though Black's books proceed with less sturm und drang than Ness's, they touch on some of the same themes, and even have slightly similar male protagonists--both determined, fiercely devoted to their loved ones, wracked with moral quandaries while trying to do the right thing, and dumb as a bag of hair.  In the first Curse Workers book, White Cat, we're introduced to seventeen-year-old Cassel Sharpe, the only non-magical member of a family of "workers," people with magical powers who can, according to their innate skill, manipulate luck or emotion, take away memories, and even kill.  Just as Ness used an SFnal setting to tell a story that veered from classic Western to war narrative, Black uses her fantasy setting to tell a crime story.  In her world, prohibition of alcohol was accompanied by prohibition of working, a ban that has remained in force into the 21st century, and that like its counterpart helped to create an organized crime empire.  Cassel's mother, an emotion worker, is a con artist, his oldest brother Philip is a "laborer" for the Zacharov crime family, using his power to affect physical matter to break legs for his bosses, while his death worker grandfather is a retired assassin.  The association between working and organized crime has only deepened the public's distrust of workers--because working is done with the hands, going out ungloved is a major taboo, and people wear charms meant to ward off the different types of magic.  It's not only because of anti-worker prejudice that Cassel works so hard to seem normal and fit in at his prestigious boarding school, however.  Three years ago, Cassel came to holding a bloody knife over the body of his childhood sweetheart, Lila Zacharov, the crime boss's daughter.  His family hid the body and hushed up the crime, but Cassel remains wracked with both guilt and incomprehension, and determined to hide his true nature.

It will probably come as no surprise--though it takes him an absurdly long time to figure it out himself--that Cassel turns out to be a worker after all, that Lila isn't really dead, and that Cassel's family turns out to have been lying to him about many things.  At the most trivial level, White Cat is about Cassel learning to understand his nature on these levels--to recognize himself as a worker, learn to use his powers, and break his family's hold on him.  What both White Cat and its sequel, Red Glove, are really concerned with, however, is Cassel's struggle to understand what kind of person he is.  Raised to believe in a con artist code that sanctifies the bonds of family while viewing all outsiders as fair game, Cassel is stunned by the realization that his family has failed to stick by that code when they manipulated and took advantage of him, but remains sufficiently bound by that code that he can't find it in himself to take appropriate revenge on them.  Meanwhile, at his school, Cassel has to deal with a more normal, law and order brand of morality .  To compensate for his lack of magical abilities, Cassel has become a talented grifter and con artist.  While the kids around him tolerate and even make use of his criminal proclivities--for example when Cassel becomes the school's bookie--the narrative constantly makes us aware that Cassel and his family are on the other side of the divide that these fundamentally law-abiding kids draw between acceptable and unacceptable criminality.  By the same token, Cassel has trouble thinking about relationships in terms that are not exploitative or at least mercenary--in his world, kindness and affection always have an ulterior motive, and the people who claim to care about you always want something from you. 

An important sub-plot in both books is that anti-worker prejudice has boiled over into even more restrictive legislation mandating worker registries and mandatory testing for children, and Cassel's school is wracked by opposition between students who support the laws and those who insist that possessing magical powers doesn't equal misusing them.  There's a rich seam of irony in Cassel's support for the latter, and his anger at the politicians who despise him and his kind, even as he becomes more aware of, and involved in, the Zacharov criminal empire.  Throughout both books Cassel struggles with irreconcilable moral codes, and with situations that force him into shady and occasionally immoral behavior.  He also has to confront his own failures of conscience--when he discovers, in White Cat, that though he hasn't killed Lila he is responsible for others' deaths, or when he realizes, in Red Glove, that his resistance to the temptation of Lila, who has been made to love him through magic, has reached the breaking point.  In both books Cassel, who is starved for trust and genuine affection, finds himself reaching out to outsiders--non-workers and law-abiding citizens--and tentatively forming friendships based on something other than mutual self-interest.  Though Black takes advantage of Cassel's dimness and lack of self-awareness to make it clear that he is a better person, and that he is more loved and more worthy of being loved, than he gives himself credit for, the mistakes he does make, and the choices he is forced into, are heady enough to make for a rich reading experience.

If there is a major flaw in The Curse Workers it is Lila, who, though she makes for an intriguing romantic foil for Cassel--the two have definite chemistry, but they bring out enough of each others' worst qualities that it's hard to root for their happy ending--spends too much of the series being acted upon (for example the love curse that skews her relationship with Cassel in Red Glove, and which he high-handedly tries to fix at the novel's end by getting another emotion worker to remove all of Lila's feelings for him, real and magically-induced).  There are hints at the end of Red Glove that Black may be on her way to giving Lila a more active role, while folding her into the trilogy's overarching theme of moral choice, as Lila officially joins her father's criminal empire, though it remains to be seen how this will play out.  In fact, a lot depends on the series's final volume, and on how it resolves the issues of Cassel's moral conflicts and his uncertainty about the kind of person he is.  One question lingered over my reading White Cat and Red Glove and marred my enjoyment of them--how was Cassel compelled to kill, and what level of responsibility does he bear for those deaths?  Red Glove in particular sees Cassel, perhaps understandably, holding off from confronting that question.  Though the series's concluding volume will obviously center on Cassel finally staking out his own moral code, and coming to an understanding of the kind of person he is, I don't think that can fully be accomplished without this missing answer, and I hope that Black isn't planning to continue writing around it.  Judging by the strength of White Cat and Red Glove, however, I'm optimistic that Black can bring her story to a satisfying close.

Another similarity between Cassel in White Cat and Todd in The Knife of Never Letting Go is that they both start their stories as outsiders who are ignorant of the most important truths about their lives.  Because of their outsider status, Cassel and Todd develop worldviews and moral codes that the books' readers can, for the most part, sympathize with.  As part of their process of learning to understand their world, both Cassel and Todd realize that the people around them don't share their--which is to say, our--values, and that their entire community operates according to a code that they can't accept.  This is, of course, such a common trope of YA that it's nearly become a cliché, which is one of the reasons that I was so pleased to realize that Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island (The Lost Conspiracy in the US) rejects it so completely.  Gullstruck Island is a novel about, among other things, the unspoken codes that govern communities, and it depicts those codes, conventions, and worldviews as something that is imbibed at a very young age and on a very deep level.  Its characters are governed by the rules that don't need to be spoken but which are nevertheless perfectly clear, and it is only with some difficulty that they manage even a partial escape from their influence.

Gullstruck Island is a lush, jungle-covered, volcano-strewn paradise.  Two hundred years ago, the island was home to several tribes, the most powerful of which were the Lace.  When the colonizing Cavalcaste arrived on Gullstruck, the Lace counseled and guided them, among other things advising them not to build settlements in the area known as the Wailing Way, for fear of angering the volcanoes.  When this advice was ignored, the Lace priests began kidnapping and sacrificing people from the Wailing Way to the volcanoes, hoping to appease them.  Instead they were discovered, the priests were killed and the temples were destroyed, and for the last two hundred years the Lace have been relegated to an underclass, feared and despised by both the Cavalcaste the other tribes--who have since intermarried--and reduced to eking out a living by selling shells and fish.  Gullstruck is also home to the Lost, people who have the ability to send one of their senses, such as sight or smell, away from their bodies.  The Lost's abilities enable communication and commerce between the far-flung communities on Gullstruck, so the birth of one is a great boon to their community.  Gullstruck Island begins with a Lost inspector arriving at the Lace village of Hollow Beast to investigate whether Arilou, a young girl, is indeed a Lost, the first Lost born to the Lace in many years.  What we soon realize is that the entire village is pulling a scam.  Though Arilou was once genuinely believed to have been Lost because of the unresponsive behavior that might indicate wandering senses, it now seems more likely that she is simply retarded.  Unwilling to give up the advantages associated with possessing a Lost, the villagers have spent years perpetuating the lie that Arilou is one, to which end her younger sister Hathin has been pressed into service as Arilou's caretaker and "interpreter," and the person chiefly in charge of maintaining the charade.

Deception and concealment are thus quickly established as important themes in the novel, as is the theme of deeply ingrained customs that outsiders might find counter-intuitive.  The Lace, for example, have the custom of smiling at all times, which very nearly gets Hathin in trouble when, in times of stress or danger, she finds it impossible to keep a grin off her face.  This is also, however, a custom that we are likely to find as strange as the other inhabitants of Gullstruck, and it alienates Hathin from the readers.  It is therefore a perfect encapsulation of how Hardinge constructs the Lace and the other Gullstruck cultures--as something deliberately foreign and sometimes offputting (it is no coincidence, I think, that of the four novels discussed in this post Gullstruck Island is the only one not told in the first person) that nevertheless, upon closer examination, reflects the humanity of the people participating in it.  The novel's early chapters reveal that not only are all the Hollow Beast villagers in on the Arilou scam, but that, fearing that a stray Lost might send their sight or hearing their way, they never speak the truth that all of them have guessed about Arilou.  As Hathin runs around trying to cheat the inspector's tests, she talks to the other villagers in code, pretending that her sister is Lost with such fervent dedication that it becomes hard to tell fact from fiction.  When the Lost inspector dies suddenly, the Hollow Beasts are terrified that they'll be blamed for his death (and suspect that one among them is responsible for it).  They decide to concoct a story in which they are left blameless, but this backfires when it's revealed that all of the Lost on Gullstruck died at the same time--all except Arilou.  The Hollow Beasts find themselves blamed for murdering the Lost, and when an angry mob attacks the village Hathin is forced to flee, with Arilou in tow, even as anti-Lace sentiment begins sweeping the island.

One of the consequences of writing a novel driven by cultural differences, and a point of view character who is not ignorant of her own culture--who is, in fact, so steeped in that culture that she participates in it unthinkingly and has to make a conscious effort to suppress its customs and conventions--is that Hardinge spends a lot of time explaining that culture to us, the readers.  Though chock-full of events--the scam on the inspector and subsequent escape from Hollow Beast are only the story's first act, and are followed by Hathin and Arilou fleeing from a bounty hunter, joining up with fellow Lace and taking a vow of vengeance against the people responsible for the massacre at Hollow Beast, scamming a Cavalcaste governor into creating a safe zone for refugee Lace, and learning the true fate of the Lost, all before the denouement even starts setting itself up--Gullstruck Island spends a lot of time in what can only be called infodumps, explaining customs, traditions, and beliefs, and of course describing Gullstruck itself as Hathin makes her way across it.  Gullstruck is a such a fascinating and vividly drawn setting, however, and Hardinge's construction of its geography, cultures, flora and fauna, and mythology is so imaginative, yet at the same time consistent, that the novel might almost be worth reading just for those infodumps, but happily Hardinge is also quite skilled at packing a lot of punch into a single paragraph.  When Hathin escapes from Hollow Beast ahead of the bounty hunter, she recalls a folk tale about the island's volcanoes, into which have been encoded instructions for navigating the caves that are the village's emergency escape route.  The single scene thus provides the thrill of escape, a bit of background about Lace culture and Gullstruck's traditions regarding the volcanoes, which are revered as deities with short and explosive tempers, and reinforcement of the theme of concealment, as vital information is encoded in a seemingly meaningless bit of folklore.  These multiple levels of storytelling persist throughout the novel, resulting in a thrilling adventure, a magnificent feat of worldbuilding, and a chewy morality tale, all packed into a scant few hundred pages.

Another interesting aspect to the novel's worldbuilding is the fact that, despite telling a fantasy story in which magic obviously exists, Hardinge never comes down on the side of one or another of her invented cultures.  One of the major points of dispute between the Cavalcaste and the tribes is that the former practice ancestor worship, and set aside large and ever-growing tracts of land as cities of the dead where their ashes may lie undisturbed, while the latter scatter the dead's ashes, and the Lace even believe that a person's name should never be spoken after their death.  In the early parts of the novel we witness Lace and Cavalcaste characters contemplating each others' death rites with disgust--the Lace believe that the Cavalcaste's dead are imprisoned, while the Cavalcaste can't fathom life without the protection of their ancestors--while many of the Cavalcaste's actions, including their arrival on Gullstruck and persecution of the Lace, turn out to have been driven by the need to acquire more land for their dead.  At the end of the novel, these lands are returned to the living, but this is painted as a purely practical decision, not confirmation of the tribes' beliefs.  In fact, there is never any indication that there is an afterlife at all in the Gullstruck universe, and the novel leaves it as entirely plausible that both groups' beliefs are equally illusory.  Similarly, the Wailing Way, source of all the strife between Cavalcaste and Lace, turns out to be in the lava path of a nearby volcano, but though Lace characters speak to the volcanoes as people and make offerings to appease them, and though the volcano's eventual eruption is interpreted by many of the characters as its angry response to being encroached upon, Hardinge leaves room for us to disagree--to view these beliefs as folklore that the tribes have developed around the observed facts of their environment.  This, incidentally, means that though the Lace priests were right to warn the Cavalcaste about building in the Wailing Way two hundred years ago, their choice to enforce that edict with murder can't be so easily validated.

This ambivalent space that Hardinge builds around her invented cultures, and her depiction of them as something unspoken but omnipresent, creates a level of sophistication in Gullstruck Island that I'm not used to encountering in YA fiction, and that puts it head and shoulders above the other books discussed in this post.  Hathin, who has spent her life in a role that forces her to be as invisible as the rules that bind her, the enabler of a lie that no one will acknowledge, has imbibed that role so deeply that at the novel's outset she feels a profound sense of personal failure at events that she has no power to control, such as the inspector setting tests for Arilou that she can't cheat.  Over the course of the novel she comes into her own, but still within the confines, and using the tools, of Lace culture.  At the novel's end, however, she has to find a way to reconcile that culture--and the sacred vow of vengeance she's taken agains the person responsible for Hollow Beast's destruction--with her own values, which she has, at that point, learned to recognize and pay attention to.  If there's a flaw in Gullstruck Island it is that with everything that happens in it, with the enormous amount of information thrown at the reader, and with the distance that Hardinge's third person narrative imposes on us, Hathin's own growth can sometimes seem a little perfunctory.  In particular, her struggles with her desire for revenge and with her inability to kill are glossed over a little too quickly--especially when compared with Todd, Viola, and Cassel's struggles with similar issues.  That said, I can't help but feel that this is a less important--if only because it is so very common--lesson than the one that is unique to Gullstruck Island--that irrational traditions can still be valuable, that tradition shouldn't be allowed to rule our lives, that just because a belief is false doesn't make it less powerful, and that it's important to question your beliefs, especially when it comes to other cultures and your own.

All told then, I think my YA binge can be summed up as a success: I've finished a fascinating and engrossing trilogy, started another one, and discovered a wonderful new writer and a strong contender for one 2011's best reads.  Most importantly, I feel energized about reading again, and eager to branch out into other genres and modes.  There's never any shortage of talk about what it means that so many adults enjoy reading YA fiction, and what dire things this bodes for literary culture and culture in general.  But though I wouldn't like my reading diet to consist entirely, or even for the most part, of YA, I think that the experience of the last couple of weeks demonstrates why I sometimes find it necessary to return to these books--because they remind me of why and how I became a voracious reader in the first place, and give me the chance to once again lose myself in a book the way I did as a child.


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