Books against totalitarianism, Diane Hebley

The Conjuror
Jack Lasenby,
Oxford University Press, $24.95

Winter of Fire
Sherryl Jordan,
Ashton Scholastic, $17.95

The abuse of power in society – how it is maintained by violence, superstition, and lies – is a major indictment of these two thought-provoking, post-cataclysmic, novels. Lasenby’s setting is a fictionalized but recognisable part of New Zealand. Jordan’s setting is that of the fictional, Himalayan-type country, where, hundreds of years after volcanic and seismic catastrophes in the future, world populations remain apparently reduced to a few isolated, non‑technological communities. Social divisions are based on sex and class or race. in Lasenby’s female dominated society, people are divided according to the colour of their eyes; in Jordan’s male-dominated society, people are divided according to racial origins. Lasenby’s hero seeks to escape elsewhere; Jordan’s heroine seeks to change society from within. Both novels emphasize that ideas survive suppression, that people need free access to books to counteract totalitarianism. Though both novels reflect power systems from recorded history, they differ in kind. Lasenby’s novel is in the epic tradition, embodying a quest-journey to another place. Jordan’s novel is in the Cinderella tradition, a futuristic fairy-tale.

Lasenby’s female-dominated society is complex in structure, as horrific as any totalitarian system in history. Rituals echoing the Old Testament say the Mother Goddess caused the catastrophe because of people’s sins, sparing only three settlements. In a primitive agricultural economy, the Owners of land are female Browns. Tattooed male Browns serve them as Guards or studs, and most Browns are frequently inebriated. Greys are their enslaved farm-workers. Blues are cast out or killed. The élite of the Browns are the wide-shoulder-padded Sisters led by the Black Sister. Over everyone rules the evil Conjuror. She carries out sacrifices to the Mother Goddess to ensure crop fertility, but, more importantly, to subdue people by terror. Victims are usually erring Greys or Blues. The processes of selection and mutilation during Tests and Purges at Moory are described in horrifying detail, to a gratuitous degree. Even the hero Johnny, a Grey with fair hair (brown on the cover) and Hannah, a Brown and next Conjurer-apparent, unbelievably purge their minds in another horrifying sequence after they escape into the Barrens.

Johnny and Hannah escape on a quest for a just society, said to exist on a ‘barrier’ island to the north. As in his previous two novels, Lasenby excels in his descriptions of people journeying through and surviving in the wilderness. He vividly evokes the Barrens, the Broken Hills, the Split-Canoe gash, thermal valleys, the journey down the river and up the coast. Tension is well maintained throughout, though the chase is surprisingly prolonged over many months, culminating in Hannah’s death. The love old Hemmy shows the child Johnny, the tender days of Johnny’s and Hannah’s love idyll, and Johnny’s tenderness towards the baby are a welcome contrast to accounts of violence.

However, some anomalies remain. For example, Hannah’s father Thomas, a finely tattooed Brown, is allowed books to help him prepare Hannah before she goes to the Conjuror. Thomas’s part in Hannah’s education is hard to believe, given this female power structure. But to survive their escape, Hannah and Johnny must have information. Only Thomas, and his two Greys, can supply it. Thomas is the one sane, uncorrupted Brown in an insanely violent world, proof of the civilising power of books, an idealised male mouthpiece for Lasenby’s humane belief that society should be based on reason, freedom and individual responsibility. Through planning Hannah’s escape, Thomas outconjures the Conjuror system, but himself falls in a Purge, and Hannah is finally killed by a guard too. The system remains apparently unalterable.

In addition, some climactic moments are not well conveyed. For example, only a storm, described mainly in one long, turgid sentence, covers the time of Hannah’s three-day labour. The birth then carries inappropriate overtones of the Nativity in the goat’s ‘cry of wonder’ when the watching animals join Johnny in ‘the greatness before mother and child’. As well, when Hannah in her dying gasp says Thomas is their common father, Johnny makes no immediate response either to her death, apart from repeatedly stabbing the guard’s body, nor to this revelation. Later, he briefly makes calm comments about Thomas, but nothing more.

Apart from Johnny’s success in finding the island and its just society, the fourth and final ‘book’ of the novel is unnecessary, even damaging. The story of Signy is a weak parallel to Hannah’s. Signy’s death is voluntary: Hannah’s involuntary. The vision of the Conjuror is unconvincing, and the postscript adds information undeveloped and difficult to believe as presented. In short, without losing its valuable epic qualities, Lasenby’s novel would have been more powerful with some judicious pruning.

Jordan’s male-dominated society is also horrific. The Chosen brand all Quelled at the age of five and subject them to lifelong toil, mining for enough coal for warmth and cooking. In a world of eternal winter, the Quelled live miserably in goatskin tents with little food to sustain hard labour, while the Chosen enjoy lives of luxury in grand houses. Any Quelled who cannot work is thrown out to the wolves. Jordan supplies instances of violent whippings and attacks, but without lengthy details. When Elsha, for example, is beaten as a four-year-old, Jordan puts her emphasis on Elsha’s slow recuperation to make her point. In describing the medieval-type battle to decide the rightful Firelord, Jordan comments in general on the screams when steel struck flesh, but later details the injuries of one defeated opponent. In this respect, her novel is less disturbing to read than Lasenby’s, but her indictment of violence and injustice is equally evident.

Because the suppressed Quelled have no books, must not look the Chosen in the eye, and must remain silent in their presence, the Chosen believe they are dumb, soul-less, lower than animals. Quelled women are insultingly called harsha. But the Quelled in their tents still sing of essential truths in their myths, that once a huge orb burned in the sky, and that they were lords then. Significantly, Elsha’s family sign for generations has always been a lion. Her efforts to restore herself and her people to their rightful place in society make this a novel in the Cinderella tradition, offering not simply wishful thinking but trial, recognition, and restitution.

But in the sense of mental power, wishful thinking also plays a vital role. Jordan writes with passion to create a heroine who feels joy in living, who dreams of freedom, who is admirable in declaring her individual identity. In mystical moments – and this is where Jordan’s writing is particularly successful – Elsha hears, for example, the throb and hum of the deep earth itself, the power of the firestones all around. Moreover, she has visions of a deity’s presence from whom she learns she has the gift of divining for coal and the knowledge of mind power that will nullify cold and virtually remove the need for mining. Elsha manages to teach this mind power to most people and establish new laws, with her army’s support.

Another aspect of wishful thinking starts Elsha on her crusade. Though she hates the Chosen for their cruelty, she imagines she loves the Firelord, their leader and diviner of the firestone. Elsha’s wish to be with him is unexpectedly fulfilled; she adores him, and he her, before I ever saw your face. This reads like Romance, and Jordan’s style is fittingly heroic. She uses inversions: Tall and valorous he was, with his long golden hair. Her male heroes, Chosen and Quelled, are repeatedly stately, strong, noble, and, especially, kingly. Variations of I shot him a grin become clichéd, but Jordan effectively makes dramatic use of fire images to oppose the eternal bleakness of snow and ice.

Of the inconsistencies, the most fundamental concerns food supplies. In a world shifted on its axis where winter has lasted for five centuries and the sun never shines, neither vegetables nor wheat could grow, nor could grass for animals. No trade with people elsewhere is established, except for one reference to fruit and to armies going north where it can only be colder. In addition, confusion spoils the words of the prophet Hamash in his Genesis-like true history. He writes that the subjugation of the Quelled took place throughout the succeeding generations following the beginning of the cold age, but says he is writing in the tenth year after the end of the old world.


Diane Hebley is the author of Off the shelf: twenty-one years of New Zealand children’s books (Methuen, 1980), and was Listener children’s book reviewer from 1985-1989.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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