The Enchanted Flute
Heart of Danger
Random House, $20.00,
In The Enchanted Flute, James Norcliffe (author of the celebrated Loblolly Boy series) makes classical myth the source and context of a fantastic journey. The plot centres on Becky Pym, a modern teenager, who comes under the compulsive power of a pawned flute and blunders into a conflict between the nature-god Pan and a sisterhood of coolly ruthless nymphs in a mythic Arcadia. There she, and her somewhat hapless travelling companion Johnny Cadman, are helped and menaced by (among others) Pan (in his guise as “Dr Faunus”), the dangerously greedy goatherd Silenus, and a mysterious figure clad from head to toe in black leather, riding a farm bike.
“Blunder” is the operative word here: Becky and Johnny spend their mythic adventure blundering, misjudging and mistaking, despite both of them being smart and resourceful. They are caught in a narrative they are helpless to change, almost entirely at the mercy of powers outside their control, whose motives they have no way of understanding. Indeed, the book is largely about what happens when modern self-determination runs up against a much older narrative of fate. This is not so much Becky’s story as the story of Becky being caught up in someone else’s story: from the moment she plays the enchanted flute, she is “no more in control of herself than a marionette”, merely the object in an ancient game whose outcome she can’t affect. Poor Johnny, brought along by accident, does not even merit a spot on the game-board, with “no right or business to be here at all”.
The ending of the book is frustrating: the narrative stalemate is broken with 20 pages to go, when the goddess Artemis appears, a literal dea ex machina, to judge all alike. Becky and Johnny escape partway through, not interested in sticking around to find out anyone’s fate. They return home essentially unchanged, which only bolsters the strange fatalistic sense of futility that comes to suffuse all their actions in Arcadia. It may be an object lesson for the reader, subject, like Becky, to forces of randomness; it’s definitely narratively unsatisfying. Nonetheless, Norcliffe depicts with characteristic sympathy and charm both the humour and the touching humiliation of failing to be the point of your own story.
On the other hand, Juno in Fleur Beale’s Heart of Danger is a protagonist in the classic sense: she is both the focus of, and instrumental in, much of the book’s densely-packed action. The narrative is largely taken up with a kidnapping plot against Juno’s little sister Hera, who is rescued by Juno and the perpetrators put on trial and convicted. It’s a bit surprising at that point to have over 100 pages left to read. This is explained by this novel’s place as the last in a trilogy: the last third wraps up various storylines (the resolution of Vima’s love-triangle and finding Juno’s and Hera’s genetic families) that owe their emotional impact to the first two novels. Heart of Danger really doesn’t stand alone, despite the helpful summaries at the beginning.
Nevertheless, it is satisfying. Heart of Danger is Juno’s reward, her happy ending. Indeed, Juno is arguably the protagonist of wish-fulfilment fantasy in the grand tradition: the story takes common YA tropes – being disaffected, misunderstood and growing up super-powered – and spins them out in ways that affirm her special status. She is drawn into the deadly plots and prevails with the help of her psychic abilities; she ends up being publicly vindicated and socially acclaimed.
I don’t mean to make the book sound facile: Juno is a rounded character (if perhaps less in this book than those that preceded it), and the struggles she faces are convincing and pertinent for all their drama. Set in an imaginary near-future where drastic weather events have wreaked havoc on civilisation, Juno and her family and friends have left the completely enclosed, severely controlled island community of Taris, and are attempting to build new, free lives in Aotearoa. In this context, Juno goes to battle for her family, deals with the culture shock involved in being essentially alien (especially in her romance with Ivor), and is instrumental in the Taris people coming to terms with their history, both personal and social. It is easy to root for her, and the book nicely depicts her progression from outsider (the Juno of Taris being rather hilariously picked up for school by “Tabitha of Otaki”) to a person who belongs in her adopted home: “This was my world now.”
Angelina Sbroma is an Honours student in English at Victoria University of Wellington.