Review: We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, at Strange Horizons
My review of Quan Barry's novel We Ride Upon Sticks is up today at Strange Horizons. As I write in the opening paragraph, this is a novel whose premise will either instantly capture you or put you off completely. In 1989, the girls' field hockey team in a suburban high school sell their soul to the devil—here embodied as a composition notebook with Emilio Estevez's face on the front—for a chance at winning the championship. It's a familiar trope—and Barry revels in it, placing her story in the historical setting of the Salem witch trials—but with a fairly unusual twist. After all, very few witch stories imagine witches whose goal is dominance in sports.
One by one, the Falcons sign their name in the notebook, which they come to perceive as a sentient force, known as The Darkness or, more commonly, Emilio. They tie a strip of athletic sock on their bicep and swear to "[follow] any urges you might get all the way to the end no matter what" (p. 15). And just like that, the team's fortunes turn around: matches that should have been massacres become complete blow-outs; the Falcons even enjoy an unprecedented win against the college players who act as the camp's instructors. But camp is merely the preamble. The new school year, and with it the new field hockey season, are just around the corner.
As well as winning on the field, the Falcons change in all the ways that women of their type are alleged to. They wreak vengeance on their enemies, dance naked in the moonlight, develop the devil's mark (a hickey on goalie Mel Boucher's neck persists throughout the season and is named Le Splotch by the rest of the team), and adopt animal familiars (well, mostly inanimate ones, as in the case of left forward Jen Fiorenza—whose imposing hairstyle, dubbed The Claw, develops a personality and, eventually, powers of its own). In general, the team simply tries to be their best and truest selves. This includes committing acts of mischief and mayhem which, as left halfback and former goodie-two-shoes Julie Kaling insists, are the only way to recharge Emilio and continue the Falcons' winning streak.
We Ride Upon Sticks is funny and irreverent, but also genuinely interested in its young heroines, each of whom has her own complex reasons for wanting to misbehave. One of the things that struck me about the novel is that despite its high school setting, I wouldn't describe it as a YA novel. Rather, it is about looking back on your youth as an adult, forgiving yourself for being dumb and naïve, and feeling thankful for the right choices you made. It's this, as much as the novel's exuberant descriptions of hockey matches and youthful hijinks, that makes it such a delightful read.