The OF Blog

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Looking at my 2014 reading/reviewing goals, 2/3 into the year

Today marks the 242nd day of 2014.  There are 123 days remaining in the year, so roughly 2/3 have already passed.  Thought I would post an update on my 2014 reading/reviewing goals, note some changes, and lament one or two that have already failed.  Here is a link to my original January 2 post on the topic.

1.  Read (or re-read) at least 50 books each in Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and French.

As of right now (totals will change when I finish reading a few by midnight on the 31st):

Spanish:  37/50 - ahead of pace by 4
Portuguese: 21/50 - behind pace by 12 (might finish 1-2 by tomorrow night)
French:  28/50 - behind pace by 5
Italian:  27/50 - behind pace by 6 (should finish 2 by tomorrow night, however)

Since I'm planning on reading a lot more non-English literature in September and October, these totals will shift significantly.  Portuguese is the only one in real danger of not being reached, but even there I have almost 60 print volumes and over 30 e-book editions.

2.  Have 35% or more of my reading/re-readings this year be of works (co)-authored or (co)-edited by women. 

Currently at 80/224 2014 reads, or 35.7%.  Just above pace.  Have two more books by women that I want to finish by tomorrow, so percentage may rise slightly.

3.  To (re)-read and review each of the Premio Alfaguara winners, including those of the 1965-1972 incarnation.

I have only 8 out of 25 books left to review, so this is still very doable.  Planning on reviewing more in September and October.

4.  During the months leading up to the 2014 World Cup, reprise my 2010 "World Cup" series of posts by writing a combination of reviews of prominent writers from participating countries or summaries of national literature.

I wrote Group previews, but no real reviews of nationally-prominent writers of these 32 nations during that time.  Partial fail.

5.  Do an in-depth series of articles/reviews on a Southern writer.

Haven't started this yet, but likely to start reviewing Eudora Welty's novels in the coming month or two, along with a few more Faulkner reviews if I have the time.  Thomas Wolfe, however, will likely be shunted to next year.

Newer Goals:

1.  Write at least one post a day in 2014.  

So far, so good.

2.  Write 150 reviews in 2014.

I've written 103 so far, so slightly above pace.

3.  Read/review all the books listed in the 2014 Upcoming Releases post from January.

I've reviewed all but 20 of the books already released and am quickly closing the gap, writing at least 4-5 reviews/week for the past three months.  Already have over 80 2014 releases read/reviewed.

4.  Average at least a book a day read, as I've done since 2008.

Behind pace by 18 right now, but should catch up in the coming weeks.  Be off work due to injury certainly has given me more time to read, plus I like to read more when it's cooler.

If you came up with reading goals, tell me how you're doing.  Curiosity and all that.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Bryan Lee O'Malley, Katie

 Many stories, whatever their medium of expression or genre of storytelling, often begin with real-life encounters with people and a simple "what if?" pondering that leads to a series of other questions that in turn engender a story.  This was the case for Bryan Lee O'Malley (author of Scott Pilgrim) in his latest graphic novel, Seconds.  In this story of a young, independent-minded, and occasionally obstinate woman, Katie, O'Malley explores the concepts of seconds, whether they be key seconds in one's life, the desire for second (or multiple) chances to make amends, or the second "doubles" that represent the roads we should (not) have taken, the paths that we wished we (never) had explored.

Seconds begins with Katie, who had been working at a small sit-down restaurant of that name, planning after four years of work there as the chef in charge, to establish her restaurant.  She is someone is so involved in her projects that she is a bit intimidating to the staff who do not know her well and her aloofness, which covers up some of her insecurities, plays a major role in the events to come.  As she readies for the move, stressing over things like the budget and the name for this upcoming restaurant (initially she chooses Katie's), she comes to know better a timid yet intelligent young woman named Hazel, who informs Katie (who incidentally lives in an upstairs studio apartment on the top floor of the building where Seconds is) that there is a house spirit there who is capable, through the use of magic mushrooms on the premise and the writing down of the mistakes one wishes to correct, of giving that person who has ingested the mushrooms a second chance to atone for a mistake.  After Katie's ex-boyfriend (and former staff member) Max appears at the opening of her new restaurant, causing Katie to babble and to make a fool of herself, she stumbles back to her apartment and discovers the mushroom and on a whim, eats it and writes down her wish that she had never broken up with him.

What follows is a series of follies, as the alt-Katies (Katie keeps a memory of all of pre-mistake events, but does not recall the alt-changes until she wakes up on the day the change has reverted herself to) have made even further messes.  O'Malley does an excellent job in telling this familiar story, as each alt-Katie's decision making, self-centered as many of them are, further fleshes out her character and those of the kitchen staff at Seconds.  The result is an absorbing read where the reader may find herself turning the pages quickly to discover what happens next.

This fast-paced and familiar plot of using up "second chances" to discover just who you really are is augmented by several choices that O'Malley made for his secondary characters.  While it would have been easy for him to populate his characters with strictly Caucasian people, the characters in Seconds resemble the people that you would find in most any restaurant or business today:  people of various ethnic groups, a loving gay couple, overweight and malnourished people,  people who are not move-star attractive.  Furthermore, O'Malley does not place over-emphasis on this diverse cast of characters:  they are people first and foremost and their loves and lusts, faults and virtues, are shown to be as natural as those of Katie herself.  It is their interactions with her and how the alt-Katies respond to them, that make Seconds different from most other based-on-life graphic novels.

Although I am far from an expert on illustration, I did like the illustration style here.  There seems to be a combination of North American and Japanese manga comic styles here, with vivid colors and wide eyes adding greatly to the effect.  The lettering is a bit small, but the clever dialogue (often expressed in bracketed smaller print to underscore sotto voce commentary) fits the style employed here.  The only quibble I had is that there could have been perhaps even more expression on the faces of the characters, but for the most part O'Malley and his team did an excellent job in rendering the characters and their situations. 

Seconds is one of the best graphic novels I've read in the past few years.  Its combination of a personal yet universal narrative with a "butterfly effect" alt-timeline story works very well.  Its characters are dynamic and fleshed out superbly.  It is one of those rare graphic novels that will appeal to audiences of various ages, genders, and ethnicities.  It simply is a very good story that is illustrated well.  If you like intelligently-written graphic novels, this is one worth reading.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Some late August Foreign Book Porn

Made my monthly trip to McKay's today.  Found quite a few titles in translation in languages that I want to learn.  Above are four Serbian translations:  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin; Tolkien, The Silmarillion; Salvador Dali, I am a Genius; and Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude.  Being somewhat of a Tolkien enthusiast (at least for his non-LotR works) and certainly one who enjoyed Gabo's most famous work, I was almost ecstatic to see these four books available for a grand total of $6.50.  Will likely re-read these stories in tandem with these translations in the coming year or two, maybe sooner in the case of Tolkien, as I don't have published reviews of those two books.

More works in translations (and two in the original idiom, albeit one seems to have been modernized):  Tolstoy's Anna Karenina in Italian; Gide's Les Faux Monnayeurs in the original French; three Dostoevsky short stories in Spanish translation; and a prose, modernized French edition of Tristan et Iseult.  All of these for language practice (and the Dostoevsky because it was only 15¢).  All this for $1.55.

Got lucky here and found the "first edition" (a limited edition published by arrangement before the mass release) of the English translation of Elsa Morante's Historia (I've already read the Italian original, but this is a leatherbound, gilt edition from The Franklin Library and it was a steal at $18 for its very good condition).  Also found an Attic Greek-Brazilian Portuguese translation of the middle third of The Odyssey for $3 and Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek's most famous work, The Piano Teacher, in the original German for only 75¢.

Spending $29.80 in store credit (and having almost $7 remaining from the books I traded in) for these classics makes me very thankful that I can travel to a wonderful bookstore 1-2 times a month and always find surprises and excellent fiction for cheap rates.  Now to find the time to work again on my languages so I can read the German and Serbian editions almost as quickly as I do the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian books bought.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire

"Sorry," Roh said.  "I'm Rohinmey Tadisa Garika, a student of Ora Dasai's.  Forgot about Saiduan privacy.  I meant no offense.  We're very open here."

The sanisi sheathed his blade.

Roh had not gotten a good look at the sanisi back in the foyer.  Now that he was up close, he realized he had made a false assumption.  The sanisi was tall, far taller than any Dhai, and dark, with twisted rings of black hair knotted close to his head, though it looked like it had been shorn short not many months back.  The ends were ragged.  It was the sanisi's face, though, that made Roh pause.  The hair that graced the sanisi's upper lip and the sides of the cheeks was soft and downy.  Roh had seen pictures of Saiduan men, and they all had short but noticeable beards. (p. 38)

Epic fantasies, especially their opening volumes, are difficult books to review.  The reviewer has to not only take into account that there likely will be no complete character or plot arcs, that there will be a suspension of events in order to build for the subsequent volumes.  Then there is the necessary acclimation to created "worlds" and cultures, with alien-sounding character and place names and perhaps ways of life that differ considerably from those depicted in more realist stories.  Although certainly not a prerequisite, there is often more mass violence (battles, assassinations, duels) in epic fantasies than in most other literary genres.  If a reviewer has difficulties with some of these elements, it can make it much more difficult to enjoy the opener to an epic fantasy series even when the author has gone to some length to introduce elements, such as gender and race, that are often either neglected or presented in a fashion that would alienate those who are not males or are Caucasian.

For readers who want to find "something different" in epic fantasy, Kameron Hurley's first epic fantasy, The Mirror Empire, may appeal greatly to them.  Over the course of 449 pages (I presume the Nook e-edition I read equates to the print pages), there is a lot that transpires within its pages:  two seemingly parallel worlds starting to merge; a five-gender system in which "traditional" power/status structures are upended; three distinct cultures, each with its own dynamics, including a sordid pogrom taken up against one of those cultures; semi-sentient mobile plants who are a terror and people who use bears with forked tongues as a mount; and a magical system based on the waxing and waning of satellites.  This should be excellent fodder for those who long for imaginative, inventive fantasy elements, but yet... Yes, but yet..., as there were several major flaws that kept me from enjoying The Mirror Empire.

Structurally, the opening chapters are a mess.  Hurley has to expend a lot of pages to establish these series of subplots that it makes it not just a bit difficult to follow, but it also makes them rather prosaic.  Introduce quickly a setting, don't devote the space to making these settings "organic" to the plot, move on to the next subplot setting, rinse, repeat.  By the time the first quarter is over, everything is just so muddled.  There are two main reasons this confusion is exacerbated, the prose and characterizations.

To be honest, Hurley's writing feels much more like an extended outline than a polished narrative at the syntactical level.  The narrative is just too staccato.  The descriptions are sparse, feeling perfunctory.  This leaves the settings, which should be interesting with these inventive creatures like the acid-spitting plants and forked-tongued bear mounts, barren of anything of real interest.  The fact that there are two portal worlds that seem to be bleeding into each other only makes this lack of scenery development all the more disappointing.  There really was nothing that stood out here in terms of setting.  The spartan prose also affects the dialogue, as those to often felt as though a bunch of high school Drama I students forced to take the class were just mumbling their lines, with little conviction behind them.

This makes the characterizations feel hollow, flat.  Hurley tries to present a plethora of views and have certain scenes that underscore the different socio-gender power structures, but as can be seen in the scene quoted below, the potential falls short:

Zezili must have shown her disapproval in her face, because he interrupted before she could dissent, hurried on.  "Just the daily papers from Daorian.  I know your feeling about books, and Daolyn feels that way as well, but surely, what harm is there in papers?  Just some news from outside?  There was a silk merchant through here last week, she –"

"I regret that we have had no children," Zezili said.  A sore subject indeed, in any company.  "I have heard that a man assisting in the raising of children often finds some fulfillment from it, but I'm here to take life in Rhea's name, not give it."

"You should just dedicate your body to her as well, then," Anavha said.  A bit too cutting for Zezili's taste.

Zezili's anger stirred.  "You would like that, wouldn't you?" she said.  "Having a sexless woman for a wife?  Yes, you'd like taking solace in none but your own body.  Because that's all I would allow you.  My sisters have no use for you.  Who will touch you then?  Or will you content yourself to be a mad little thing, running after dajian effeminates?"

She saw Anavha clenching his fists, saw the anger in him, and saw it dissipate into tears.  Rhea only allowed him tears. (pp. 66-67)

The first thing I noticed in this passage is that Hurley depends too much on description between the quotes.  The pair's faces have to be described, as apparently the words alone cannot give an accurate depiction.  Even worse, there are extraneous sentences, such as "A sore subject indeed, in any company.", whose incomplete fragments do not further the emotional establishment, but instead feel like placeholders for more direct, intense descriptors.  This occurs so frequently in the narrative that this is not an isolated case, but instead is a prominent flaw in the narrative.  The characters' emotions and thoughts are reduced to sounding almost robotic that this plethora of weak narrative intrusions.

These choppy, weak sentences made for a difficult reading experience.  There was no elegance to these scenes.  I could see the narrative bolts so often that it was difficult to put that aside and to concentrate on the unfolding story.  This is a shame, for there were times that the story was interesting, that I was engaged, and that I wanted to see how these subplots  involving power and resistance while so many strange, magical things were occurring would unfold.  As I write this a day after finishing it, all that comes to mind is that there were a lot of things happening, but few things that meant much at all.  Perhaps the fault is in the stars, or in my inability to connect with this complex series of plot and character developments.  But perhaps it's as simple as a good story being held back by structural flaws that, if fixed, could have made The Mirror Empire a great epic fantasy opener.  As it stands, this novel is just a hot mess.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.  Characters who don't follow this code become unlikeable.  Critics who criticize a character's unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted.  They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.

Why is likability even a question?  Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable?  Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn't behave in a way the reader finds palatable.  Lionel Shriver notes, in an essay for the Financial Times, that "this 'liking' business has two components:  moral approval and affection."  We need characters to be lovable while they do right. ("Not Here to Make Friends," p. 70, iPad iBooks e-edition)

I have been following Roxane Gay on Twitter ever since I read and reviewed her debut novel, An Untamed State, back in June.  It is a different experience witnessing a writer and cultural critic holding forth on a variety of issues "in real time" before sitting down and reading her debut collection of thirty-eight essays, Bad Feminist.  Many of the issues raised in her essays I first experienced in truncated form on Twitter, but in both media, what immediately becomes apparent is Gay's wit and honesty.

The essays that appear in Bad Feminist are culled from columns that have appeared in the past few years at places such as The Rumpus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Salon, among others.  Grouped into five categories ("Me," "Gender & Sexuality," "Race & Entertainment," "Politics, Gender & Race," and "Back to Me"), Bad Feminist's essays explore a variety of topics, ranging from the personal to cultural flash points such as the depiction of blacks in American cinema ("Surviving Django" and "Beyond the Struggle Narrative").  In these essays, Gay is not a polished, aloof critic.  Instead, she allows her virtues and flaws to be on full display, showing an individual who is deeply engaged with her subject matter, sometimes to the point of self-conscious subjectivity.  This, however, is not a flaw but a feature in her essays, one that makes Bad Feminist an absorbing read.

One shining example can be found in "What We Hunger For."  Starting as an admission that she cannot critique The Hunger Games effectively due to her fannish attachment to it, Gay proceeds to write a passionate essay that touches upon a traumatic time in her life (a gang rape in middle school) before proceeding to tie this in to the question of "darkness" in contemporary YA fiction:

In June 2011, Meghan Cox wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Young Adult fiction has taken too dark a turn, has unnecessarily exposed young readers to complex, difficult situations before they are mature enough to make sense of those situations.  She wrote,

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.  There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader – or one who seeks out depravity – will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds. 

She is correct in noting that there is darkness in some Young Adult fiction, but she largely ignores the diversity of the genre and the countless titles that aren't grounded in damage, brutality, or loss.  More troubling, though, is the suggestion that somehow reality should be sanitized for teen readers. (p. 115)

The remainder of "What We Hunger For" discusses this desire for sanitizing YA literature, making it somehow "safer" for readers and how it is a misleading goal in light of those young readers, much more than what one might presume, who find solace and strength in these accounts of others battling difficulties and horrendous moments in order to come out on the other side.  Gay argues her point persuasively, using personal experience to flesh out her points without ever denigrating those who believe otherwise.  This ties in directly to the next essay, "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion," in which Gay explores her unease about the notions that lie behind the usage of the label "Trigger Warning."  She is compassionate toward those who have suffered traumatic flashbacks, but she nonetheless sees an issue of not feeling protected, not feeling safe, when such warnings are issued.  It is a view with which I have a deep sympathy for, as what she says on it jibes with my experiences:

This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings:  there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done.  A visceral reaction to a trigger is nothing compared to the actual experience that created the trigger.

I don't know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary.  When I see trigger warnings, I don't feel safe.  I don't feel protected.  Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (p. 122)

An interesting feature of Gay's essays is that while she sets up interesting discussion matters, she rarely, if ever, concludes them with strong, assertive stances.  Instead, these pieces feel like conversation starters, presenting a topic through a deeply personal lens (albeit one that is informed with critical theory as well as knowledge of pop kitsch), but leaving enough "space" for the reader to leave his or her comment as an appendix.  Several times, I felt like I wanted to write a response, to ask a question or inquire about the source material, and this sucked me further into Gay's essays than if they had been polished, academic affairs.  Their structure betrays their original purpose as columns, many of which would have been online and have featured a Comments section.  Some might not like this, but for myself, this works wonderfully because it allows the reader space to draw her own conclusions about the topics raised.

The breezy nature of these essays might not appeal to everyone, but for the most part, Gay displays a sharp, introspective mind that is constantly asking questions about the world and its peoples.  The topics are engaging and while there might be a perceived dearth of firm conclusions, this actually ties into her opening and concluding sections, in which Gay explains why she has labeled herself as a "bad feminist."  If Montaigne's Essais were the foundation for the essay genre, Bad Feminist is an excellent example of the early 21st permutation of that form.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Ceremony of Innocence: The OF Blog Turns 10

On August 25, 2004, I began this blog as an extension of the now-defunct wotmania's Other Fantasy section.  Originally I intended to make only occasional posts of interviews and other content originating on that site, but after three years and barely any posts (I think there were only 1-2 posts/month done by myself and my former co-mods at OF), I decided to try my hand at reviewing current fantasy fiction, despite having not grown up as a primarily SF/F-reading fan.  For a while, this was sufficient, as there were quite a few interesting works released in the wake of the past decade's New Weird moment and I hadn't had to deal with arguments about cover art related to hoods and chainmail yet.

But people change as they age.  When I founded The OF Blog as OF Blog of the Fallen (a reference to Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series),  I had just turned 30 the month before and I was planning on going back to college in order to work as a therapist instead of a public school teacher.  As I write this now, having turned 40 and suffering from several pains that the intervening years have inflicted upon me, it is hard to believe that a quarter of my life has been devoted to maintaining this site.  I have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of blogs start up and fail during this time.  I've seen forums like wotmania go under, with successor sites failing to capture any of the energy and creativity of those early years of the 21st century.  I was blogging before Facebook and Twitter rose to dominate the then-nascent "social media."  I remember using MSN Messenger to keep in touch with friends and loved ones.  So much is dust, now.

I had contemplated making a series of posts reflecting the changes that had occurred here, but I became more and more depressed in glancing through the archives.  I saw glimpses of the arguments of the day:  should a blog's focus be on current or overlooked works?  Should we worry about the influence that publishers might have on us by sending us review copies?  Are posts depicting "book porn" or cover art frivolous, detracting from a blog's "true" purpose?

How strange those arguments back then, 5-7 years ago, compared to those of today!  This weekend, I was re-reading some of William Butler Yeats' poetry when I encountered these lines from "The Second Coming":

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Reflecting back, I feel as though this "ceremony of innocence," this writing about books and poems and stories real and imagined, as though all of this were just dandelion puffs floating away under the force of a cold wind.  Today, I review as many books as ever (I just finished my 100th review for 2014), but there is little discussion about specific books here or anywhere else these days.  Oh, there are discussions that have books as a tangent, discussions about authors and their socio-political views, some of which are perhaps worthy debates, but there really aren't places to discuss these specific stories.  If I'm lucky, there might be a couple of comments left here in a given month or maybe a handful of retweets on Twitter or Likes on Facebook, but there really isn't any conversation about literature that appeals to me.

In their place are discussions of matters that make me uncomfortable to discuss.  Not because I often disagree with the main ideas introduced by people I follow, because I don't, but rather because the way these ideas are presented are sometimes too strident for my academic-trained perspective.  It is a good thing to see a wider variety of people writing stories that touch upon their personal experiences, but sometimes I just want more of a discussion of those stories and less a denunciation of those who likely aren't going to listen to their views in the first place.  I am far from the best in a whole host of areas, but I seem to be lacking in the conviction that so many others have in their views being not just correct, but "right" ones.

It's hard being a dinosaur who has outlived his era.  I don't want to see if my words spark any lightning; I am failing to rage against the dying of the light.  There are days where I just want to retire to this little corner and write secretly, none reading my words, about a wide range of works.  I don't want to think about whether or not Author X or Critic Y has said something non-progressive about Topic Z.  At times, the arguments about identities, whether they be that of groups or of literary genres such as SF/F, divide without expanding the discussion to encompass a diversity of opinions.   I care, but there's also a frustration that I'm not aware of enough discussion of excellent books that exist in a variety of genres due to this focus on authors at the expense of analyzing their works.  With so many people being labeled as fools or worse, I wonder if those epithets could be applied to me for just being unready to commit at the drop of a hat to a cause or a position. 

Then again, there are still worlds to visit and to describe.  Maybe what's best is not to focus so much on matters outside of the realm of literature but to continue to accentuate what is enjoyable and delightful about the act of reading, about the power of poetry, about the music embedded in magical prose.  This is something that I fear I often fail to capture in my posts, but perhaps I am mistaken.  I shall endeavor to presume so and try to trudge on.  The OF Blog may now be 10 and it may no longer be oriented toward SF/F, but it is still a place of expression and hopefully a newer perspective will emerge that will make this a place where others can find discussions that they haven't discovered elsewhere.  In the meantime, I'll probably retire to being a voice crying in the wilderness, as surely some revelation is at hand.  But it's alright, ma, it's life and life only...

Rachel Pollack, The Child Eater

After dinner he was looking out of the window while he dried the dishes, and he noticed a pair of squirrels in the backyard.  There was nothing strange about them.  The place was full of squirrels, and chipmunks, and occasionally deer, but these were a grey and a red, like in the game, and they didn't dart back and forth, they just stood on their hind legs, facing each other, as if they were having a conversation.  'I'll be right back,' Jack said, and put down the towel.

Outside he didn't know what to do, so he just stood there and watched them.  It startled him when they appeared to watch him back.  They turned to stand side by side, and then they looked up at him.  Though he knew it was crazy to think these actual squirrels could have anything to do with the game, and almost as crazy to talk to them, he said, 'I'm sorry I can't seem to win.  To get you out of the maze.'  The squirrels looked at him.  'I'll keep trying.'  Then, feeling really dumb, and ashamed, as if he'd let down his dad in some way, he went back inside and finished drying the dishes. (pp. 19-20)

Rachel Pollack's latest novel, The Child Eater, is her first novel-length fiction since 2002.  It is an interesting novel in that it contains elements in common with portal fantasies, most especially a force that threatens two worlds, without there ever being an actual crossing over from one world to another.  It is a story of two boys, separated by time and dimensional space, who depend nonetheless on each other in order to defeat the eponymous "child eater" who has been terrorizing both worlds.

Pollack, in alternating chapters, focuses on the lives of two young boys, the wizard-to-be Matyas and a prescient boy on Earth named Simon Wisdom.  Utilizing elements from tarot, including the Tarot of Eternity, to construct her tale, Pollack weaves together Matyas and Simon's lives to create a fascinating tale of ambition and redemption.  The reader is first introduced to Matyas and we see him struggle to be admitted into training by the wizards.  We see his burning ambition, his desire to become powerful and famous.  In contrast, Simon is the product of a father who wishes to be normal and a mother who seems to be otherworldly.  At the time of the story, she has been gone for a decade, presumed dead.  Simon turns out to be prescient, able to read minds and to foretell the immediate future.  This alarms his father and Simon is urged to suppress these talents, despite Simon being well-liked and admired by his peers.

Yet one day, similar to what happened to his father Jack, Simon begins to see an odd squirrel pair, a grey and a red (uncertain if this is the American Red or the more commonly-known Eurasian Red Squirrel), and he has visions associated with suffering and the desire for release.  Meanwhile, Matyas finds himself drawing perilously close to a powerful wizard who has managed to hide his name from discovery, allowing him to indiscriminately prey upon young children and consume their souls.  Pollack does a good job in developing these parallel stories, as there were only a few rare occasions where one story would lag or become too focused on scene development at the expense of character growth.

The plot progresses steadily between these two stories, as Matyas and Simon each discover on their own clues toward the resolution of the mysteries confronting them (ultimately the Child Eater).  Pollack's use of tarot terminology at first was confusing to me, but after a few occurrences, the mysticism associated with tarot decks made better sense.  By novel's end, there is a resonance between Matyas and Simon's stories that goes beyond the similarities of their struggles.  Yet for me, the most fascinating thing about Pollack's novel is her choice of using squirrels as a medium between the two worlds that Matyas and Simon inhabit.  This is not merely because of my long-standing references to my favorite rodents, but because there truly is a surprising depth to the mystery surrounding these appearances by the grey and red squirrel that is not resolved until the concluding chapters.

The Child Eater is a hard novel to evaluate, because Pollack does several things well, but nothing is ever really outstanding.  The prose is adequate to the task, but there is little that is memorable about the dialogue or what the two protagonists reflect upon.  The characterizations are fine, yet ultimately the two act in familiar fashion for those familiar with tales of young protagonists battling a threatening evil.  Ultimately, if it were not for the squirrels, The Child Eater would be your typical run-of-the-mill portal fantasy, albeit a well-told one.  But there are those intriguing, mysterious squirrels and they helped me engage enough with the story until their mystery was also explained, making this tale an enjoyable experience.

Add to Technorati Favorites