Monday, October 16, 2006

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls

By Jane Lindskold (author of the perhaps better known Firekeeper series.)

This is a pretty good book. Although the era depicted is dark and amorphous, the characters are bright and feel very real even when they aren't described very much--what you do hear about them is enough to suggest real people. There are a lot of ethical/moral choices made, making this book a good one to think about, but you don't have to think about it to understand the story. (Well... see below for a possible exception.)

The (strikingly beautiful, we are told) narrator is Sarah, a possibly thirty year old autistic who, despite her speech inhibition, is considered functional enough to be released from the Home onto the streets. She can only speak to others using significant quotations memorized from Shakespeare, the Bible, etc., but (probably initially because of her beauty, despite what we'd like to think of higher motives) manages to attract the attention and protection of the Wolf Pack, a gang modeled after the Jungle Book and lead by the ruthless and kind Head Wolf. The real trouble starts when the Home issues a readmit order for her and tries everything to get her back...

Sarah is an interesting character. Older for sure than Firekeeper, in some ways she seems quite mature and in others she is like a child. She seems to accept rape as an inevitable fact of life for her, starting from when she was 12 years old, but it is only that; she doesn't seem particularly obsessed or scarred by it. The fantasy hook is this: Sarah can hear inanimate objects speaking. She brings her rubber dragon everywhere and feeds them whenever she eats. (They are a two-headed dragon named Betwixt and Between.)

The setting is a dark, unnamed metropolis, too big to be effectively policed. (Do all the things that go on in this book go on in large cities?) The Wolf Pack consists largely of children (and some older) prostitutes, but what can anyone who cares do for them? Everyone on the streets is poor. Instead of putting up wanted or missing posters, the hunt for Sarah is turned into a candy contest of "Cream on the outside, mint on the inside--spot our girl!"

My problems with the book were the following:

One, we are told and shown over and over that Sarah can only speak through quotations. Trying to come up with her own words makes her choke. How, then, does she narrate the book? I had more trouble with suspension-of-disbelief over this issue during the first chapters than later on; there is a possible explanation fairly late in the book, but it might just be that we, the readers, are looking in on Sarah's mind.

Two, the mind-over-matter trope, also known as "All I have to do to kill you is convince your brain that you're dead!" (The Matrix, anyone?) In many cases (including this one) accompanied by other physical symptoms apparently produced by the brain, such as bleeding or bruises.

Three, the afore mentioned explanation late in the book of how Sarah could talk freely. It was trying to be scientific, I think (this book is sort of on the borderline between sci fi and fantasy), but it implied that she could imagine or dream of talking, but was unable to actually carry out the physical action.

And finally, the destruction of the Bad Guys data and computers via a computer virus. Why wouldn't they have backups? Plot convenience, I guess. (Or she intentionally left open room for a sequel, although it's not looking too likely for a book first published 12 years ago.)

All in all, a lovely read. Recommended (but it does contain some sexual references; young readers are cautioned.)

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