Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Review: Crispin: At the Edge of the World, by Avi

Crispin: At the Edge of the World is the second book in Avi's trilogy about his young character, Crispin, and follows directly after the events in Crispin: The Cross of Lead. The first two books in the trilogy (I have not yet read the third) are very engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking pieces of historical fiction. They are more realistic than many young adult books, and Avi takes care to ensure Crispin is a product of the time the story takes place, and not a person with unrealistically modern ideals. There are themes of religion, tolerance, politics, and coming-of-age, among others, all richly probed without bogging down the plot. If you have not had a chance to read The Cross of Lead, you should do so, and if you have, do not hesitate to read the sequel.

Spoilers below for those who have not read The Cross of Lead.

Even after successfully escaping the hold of John Aycliffe, Crispin and his friend-protector, Bear, are still not in the clear. The two run into trouble when John Ball's Brotherhood, of which Bear was a part, believes Bear betrayed them and they attack, wounding him with an arrow. Crispin and Bear escape and hide, worried the Brotherhood will continue to hunt them down. The arrow wound weakens Bear immensely, but he and Crispin are fortunate to find a medicine woman named Aude with a young girl named Troth.

Crispin, whose isolated Christian upbringing has left him ignorant of other worldviews, distrusts Aude and Troth. Aude, he believes, is a witch, since she worships a God different from Crispin's, and Troth has a cleft lip, which Crispin believes may be the mark of the Devil. However, with Bear delirious from his wound, he realizes they are their only chance of survival. In the time he spends with them, he also begins to grow closer with the young girl, and Troth, in turn, ceases to keep her cleft lip covered, a sign of trust.

Crispin, I mention, is ignorant, with a small worldview, but I don't want readers to think that this is a criticism of his Christian upbringing. Avi offers no criticism to religious views, and in fact Crispin's ignorance is not a criticism at all, but an observation. Access to world news and events is at our fingertips now, with smartphones and social media, but in Crispin's 14th century world, isolation is easy and news hard to come by. Living in an isolated community requires certain prejudices to be developed for a sense of security, and for Crispin to come across a pagan woman is a breach of these secure prejudices. Bear, however, serves as a teacher figure, one who teaches tolerance and empathy, and Crispin is an eager learner. He wants to be a good person, and sometimes being a good person means challenging your own views.

Just like in The Cross of Lead, there is plenty of adventure and some surprising violence (this book has some surprisingly gory violence towards the end). A lot of the conflict revolves around the fact that Bear is aging and his wound keeps him from full strength, meaning Crispin is constantly struggling with the realization he needs to step up in his duties. That said, I like the fact that, unlike other YA fiction, Crispin is not the one who solves all of the problems and he does not always have the best solution. He learns from Bear, and he also attempts to distinguish between when he should heed Bear's commands or disobey them. With its well-developed, engaging characters and plot, and an ending that will be sure to tug at heart-strings, I highly recommend At the Edge of the World. And if you haven't read The Cross of Lead, start there. You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: Boltzmon!, by William Sleator

Boltzmon! is a very strange story, fast-paced in the YA fashion without pausing to give much thought to its science, but with an ending that turns out to be surprisingly poignant. While the title sounds like the name of a Pokemon that shoots out lightning bolts, this is actually a much more mature story than the title gives it credit for. Along with its science-y themes, the book touches upon family, bullying, and self-reflection as well, and these play out in surprisingly sophisticated fashion. While the title may be silly, this is one book you shouldn't judge by its cover. It's quite good.

The story is told from the perspective of an eleven-year old boy named Chris, and at the heart of his life's problems is his older sister Lulu, who is bent on making him miserable. Not only does she bully him at home, but now that they both go to the same middle school, she spreads rumors about him and causes other kids at the school to bully him as well. Chris doesn't know what he did to deserve this treatment. He spends his free time at home mapping an imaginary world called Arteria. In this world the pirates like to target and kill blonde-haired girls. Chris relishes in imagining his own sister being tormented in Arteria.

It turns out that Arteria is a real place, as a chance meeting with a being called boltzmon reveals. Boltzmon, as it explains itself, is a piece of a black hole that has the knowledge of everything it has absorbed. It can also bend space and time, which means that it comes from the future, where it has already absorbed Earth and even the planet of Arteria. It knows that Chris will be dead very soon if he does not visit the Time Temples in Arteria. Oh, and boltzmon's very unstable. When Chris or somebody says something that perturbs it, the boltzmon transports itself and Chris through space and time - to 40 years in the future on the planet of Arteria.

Thus the story jumps back and forth, mostly, between Earth and Arteria. Though the boltzmon is unstable, it seems to have a purpose, one that's not so clear early on. Chris takes the form of an Arterian in Arteria, and the boltzmon takes the form of whatever or whomever it pleases. For example, in the first trip, the boltzmon is a cranky old woman who absolutely needs to sit down, but a middle-aged wealthy blonde woman refuses to move her bag in order to make room for the old woman. This perturbs the boltzmon to no end, and the boltzmon seems intent on annoying the blonde by any means possible. This blonde becomes an important part of the Arteria plot, and Chris begins to assume that she is actually his sister, Lulu, forty years in the future.

The story hinges upon the mood of the boltzmon, but though the boltzmon is very unstable, its motives are much clearer and more coherent than they originally seem. The book, therefore, is not just a random series of adventures, but a fluid whole. We travel through time a little bit, as Chris witnesses the means of his death and realizes the way to correct it. In the end, while it would be simple for the book to create an easy villain, it's much smarter than that. While bullying is at the heart of the villainy in the novel, Chris also needs to learn to stand up for himself. The human element is much more effective than the scientific, as Sleator explains the science behind his boltzmon with as few details as possible in order to still give a good idea of what it is. In forcing his characters to reflect about themselves, on how they grew to be who they are, he also provides a lesson in the power of self-reflection. While the adventure leading to the end is comical and fun, the ending is very poignant and certainly worth the craziness.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Review: Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke

What will happen when, if, humans make contact with an alien species has been the subject of lots of science fiction books, movies, TV shows, video games, and the like. There is a lot of room for creativity here. For one, how these aliens will look is up to the imagination. For another, what level of technology they have attained may vary. Finally, how both the aliens and humans will react to one another can range from hostile to friendly. In most such stories, alien contact ends in violence. Arthur C. Clarke takes the exact opposite route in Childhood's End. Contact with aliens ends in peace on Earth rather than violence. This has implications itself, as Clarke describes throughout the course of the novel, but the ending will leave you with more food for thought than most other alien invasion stories out there.

These aliens are named the Overlords, for they appear to be acting as lords over the human race. Once they arrive and hover in the skies, people find no reason for war or violence. Indeed, the Overlords intervene in nonviolent ways to help influence humans to stop fighting. In one instance, they take away sunlight from a region momentarily to show there are other means than violence to show one's power. Only one man has any contact whatsoever with the Overlords, and his name is Stormgren, Secetary-General of the United Nations. Every now and then he rides up in the Overlord ship and speaks to Karellen, known to humans as the Supervisor. Stormgren never sees Karellen or any of the Overlords, but he trusts Karellen's purpose. There are small groups of people who rebel against the Overlords in their small ways, and one of the major complaints is that the Overlords do not show themselves. Karellen satisfies them by saying humans will get to see the Overlords in fifty years. A small satisfaction, but he says humans aren't yet ready to see them. Once they do reveal themselves, Karellen's rationale makes perfect sense.

The book jumps ahead in time, when people have flying cars and some of the Overlords freely mingle with certain humans and share technology. Two important characters are George and his wife Jean. At a party of a wealthy eccentric named Rupert they meet an Overlord named Rashaverak, who is reading Rupert's library of books on the paranormal. Why he is studying the paranormal becomes apparent only at the end. Rupert pulls out a Ouija board with mixed reactions from his guests. Rupert's brother-in-law, Jan, is purely a scientist at heart, but on a whim he asks the location of the Overlord's planet's star, and the Ouija board spells it out. The significance of these details become known only much later into the novel.

Like Clarke's Songs from a Distant Earth, the science is fascinating, but the human drama: not so much. While Clarke doesn't make any of his characters overtly atheist, they seem to view human sexual relations as being open to multiple partners. This is apparent as George ogles Rupert's beautiful new wife and seems to have an inkling that a relation with her is possible, not that it ever comes down to that. The female characters play minor roles when compared to the males. Although at one point Rashaverak confides with Karellen that Jean might be the most important person on the planet, the events at the end contradict that statement and it doesn't come to fruition. When the story focuses on any human characters, it's on the male ones, and even the Overlords, though sexless, seem male.

It's the bigger ideas that make this novel such an interesting read. While the Overlords do bring peace, that peace comes at a cost. Humans have no need to create art anymore, and life has grown dull. The Overlords act as a Big Brother entity, sometimes intervening when humans are misbehaving, and sometimes, such as when one country launches a nuclear missile at an Overlord ship, they do nothing, which is just as effective. The psychological toll is immense. People always wonder if the Overlords will do anything in reaction to bad behavior. It's almost as though the Overlords are god-like beings, or at the very least a manifestation of Santa Clause, but their presence is both felt and seen with inconclusive evidence.

The goal of the book is to learn of the Overlords' purpose, and the book provides some red herrings so that you might think you know what will happen in the end, but it's pretty unlikely you will guess correctly. The conclusion is fascinating and terrifying all at once. Clarke puts readers in a position to wonder about the future and what it would mean for humanity to be placed in the role it finds itself at the end of this novel. True, the ending will also require some suspension of disbelief, as Clarke treads off the path of his more realistic sci-fi elements, but even Clarke admits in the introduction of the book that this is a work of fiction and what happens does not necessarily reflect his own views. If you can look past some of the silliness, you will find an intriguing novel with fascinating ideas and an ending that is hard to stop pondering long after you finish reading the novel.