Innocence and experience, Saskia Voorendt

The Crossing
Mandy Hager
Random House, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869791506

Blackthorn’s Betrayal
Elizabeth Pulford
Walker Books, $17.00,
ISBN 9781921529030

Bute View
Janice Marriott
Mallinson Rendel, $18.00,
ISBN 9781877423253

Fire on High
David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $18.00,
ISBN 9781877423321

Mandy Hager’s The Crossing comes with strong endorsement from fellow author Margaret Mahy, who compares it to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “direct, passionate and powerful”, but for teenagers. Hager is an author who does not shy away from the difficult or the dark, a quality especially important, I think, in a writer for teenagers and young adults.

I first came across Hager through her 2007 novel Smashed, and was thoroughly impressed by its gritty realism and confrontational attitude towards real life issues. The Crossing, while vastly different in setting and character, is written with this same level of toughness, displaying an uncompromising tone which is bound to appeal to today’s teenagers. Set in a future dystopia, in the years following a catastrophic event that has wiped out civilisation as we know it, the people of Onewere, a small island in the Pacific, believe themselves to be special, those chosen for survival. The novel opens with Maryam, our young protagonist, living a seemingly idyllic life, cloistered within this island community made up mainly of women and young girls.

But Maryam is unhappy. At 15, she is the oldest of the girls on the island, not yet having received her “Bloods”, or period. This event functions in the novel as a sign of blessing, but it is also hailed as the signal that a girl is ready to make “the crossing” (of the novel’s title) from the island to the Holy City, a cruise ship anchored offshore. For Maryam, the crossing also promises the dissolution of all her fears concerning the future and her doubts about herself. But of course the reality of what Maryam finds within the Holy City is not at all what she has been expecting. Instead, it is a cruel awakening to a world built on delusion and manipulation, as Hager presents to us the grim and often shocking details of what is ultimately a cult environment.

Maryam’s induction into what is to be her future life is described in chillingly graphic detail, and the third person narration does nothing to distance the reader in any way from the protagonist’s experience:

It was terrible – humiliating – and Maryam longed to cry out, to rise from the bed and run. But the draught was hitting her hard now, and she felt the limb-numbing concoction deaden her, as though it was detaching her body from her will to move.

 

The relationships established between the characters, the surprising betrayals and equally unexpected alliances Maryam finds among her peers, go further in adding emotional complexity to the novel, while a disturbing and uncertain conclusion leaves the reader anxious to read on – which, luckily, will soon be possible as The Crossing is the first instalment in what is sure to be a stunning trilogy.

Elizabeth Pulford’s Blackthorn’s Betrayal is the sequel to her 2008 novel Blackthorn, released by Walker Books in 2008. It continues the story of Aylana, a young girl set on following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a fully-fledged Trahern warrior. Set in a semi-historical fantasy world, Aylana, otherwise known as Blackthorn, is given a quest by a strange warrior who arrives unexpectedly in her village. He promises to assist Blackthorn in achieving her dream of becoming a warrior, but only if she is successful in carrying out her mission. Because of her experiences in the first novel, Blackthorn is the only person who can hope to succeed in infiltrating an enemy camp, that of the Doane tribe.

This new adventure takes Blackthorn once again through a treacherous landscape, forcing her to make use of her valuable wilderness and tracking skills, but a meeting with yet another stranger, this time a young girl offering to accompany her, leads to the novel’s sinister twist.

Unfortunately, this twist and its resulting consequences fail to be ultimately convincing, as the reader is left with an unsatisfying conclusion that somehow misses any real resolution. While a limited insight into secondary characters is clearly thought necessary for the development of plot and the creation of its suspense, what is sacrificed by this decision is any sense of emotional investment on the part of the reader. This leads to a conclusion which, far from being a betrayal, is ultimately irrelevant to expectation.

Nevertheless, the world in which the novel is set remains strong in its realisation, and the character of Aylana keeps her level-headed forthrightness, which made her such an appealing protagonist in the first novel.

At first glance, Janice Marriott’s Bute View strikes quite a sharp contrast to the two other novels discussed here. While also a sequel (Chute Thru was published in 2006), and set, like The Crossing, in a future civilisation, Marriott’s latest novel is written in a much lighter tone, with a far more humorous style. This is of course made evident from the start with the title itself, which, like that of its predecessor, aims to appeal to a younger, modern audience. Marriott herself writes on her webpage:

I wrote Chute Thru and Bute View because I think we all, and especially children, need something fresh and funny in our lives at the moment. While we watch our pocket money shrinking, and wait for climate change to drown our harbour cities, cuddling up with a fantastic fantasy book seems like a good idea. We want something fresh, something that will make us giggle at the same time it makes us think.

 

The date is 2076, one year on from the events in Chute Thru, which saw Arlo host to the displaced astronaut and spacesuit-designer, Luke Laster. Now Arlo himself has been invited to SPACE, centre of the world’s leading research into technological advances in space travel. While Arlo thinks that this is his big opportunity to escape existence on his no-hoper raft in the northern hemisphere, and take the first steps in his plan to become a famous inventor of scientific equipment for astronauts, he instead finds himself merely a pawn in a much larger project engineered by the loud and obnoxious Big Boss, president of the SPACE corporation.

Arlo’s credulous innocence and penchant for trouble provide much of the entertainment in the novel, while the secondary characters bring added humour in their absurdity. Marriott’s ingenuity in this area is especially apparent in the characters of Wally the Weightlifter and Goldilocks, both of whom assist Arlo in his plan of escape, but also through the Robopet, Dozard, a cross between a dog and a lizard.

What the plot lacks in depth is more than made up for, then, in fast-paced hilarity. The snappy dialogue and intentional spelling misfunctions carried over from the first book, and the depiction of a family completely immersed in their own virtual lives to the exclusion (almost) of any real human interaction, somehow fuse to create a warm and deeply satisfying atmosphere.  Science fiction as a genre for younger readers is given a new injection of life in this novel.

The final novel to be discussed here, David Hill’s Fire on High, brings us crashing back to reality, with a thrilling account of a boy’s first-hand encounter with world terrorism. Hill has vast experience in writing for children, on a wide range of topics, and this novel reflects his skill and assurance in the genre. Jonno Austin is in South America, having won an essay competition run by the New Zealand National Observatory. The trip involves the witnessing of a total solar eclipse, and this part of the experience runs smoothly. Sure, for a boy from small-town New Zealand, there are an inordinate number of soldiers around, but the group comes across no direct threats or acts of violence. Their own personal guards, deployed for protection against guerrilla groups, are friendly, and all in all the trip is a success.

Things start to get interesting, however, at the airport as the group is checking in for the return flight home. And the real drama unfolds mid-flight, when Jonno, and the reader, are plunged head-on into a real life political struggle, where the distinctions between right and wrong are not at all clearly defined.

The terrifying nature of the situation and the straight depiction of character and dialogue lend a strength of realism to the narrative. Jonno’s personal reactions to the events similarly engage the reader, asking them to consider their own response and attitude to such events. The novel tackles admirably the illustration of a very real and prominent issue in today’s world, making it of interest and accessible to a younger reader.

 

Saskia Voorendt is a children’s literature PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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Posted in Children, Literature, Review and Young adults
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