This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 17.5.
Whoa. What a ride! Nicholas Maes’s Transmigration is brilliant: a well-conceived fantasy with a unique premise and a gripping storyline. The novel begins with a talking bunny, but there is nothing cute or cuddly about the sinister alternative world history that Maes creates so carefully. It should perhaps have been a clue that a West Coast bunny talks with a Brooklyn accent, but I admit I found it only a bit out of place—until the plot progressed. In Maes’s history, a species of souls—bolkhs—coexists with humans as we have developed through the evolutionary process: a species that wants now to take back what was once theirs, destroying all human life. Young Simon Carpenter, of Vancouver, BC, is a tool they need for their war against humanity. When he learns this, his comfortable world is shaken to its foundations, and he must flee for his own safety and that of his family. The complicated relationships between players—different types of souls and their various connections with physical bodies—are adeptly explained to the reader through Simon’s own learning experience. I almost needed to create a rubric, but Maes brings in the terms just often enough to help the reader learn his nomenclature and the associated characteristics of his world.
The talking bunny seems an unlikely scenario for the introduction of a YA mystery-fantasy, but the bunny’s very cuteness is the first tool used against Simon by the bolkhs in their battle for supremacy. The bolkhs inhabit animals, as well as some humans, and their plan would have all bolkhs incarnate and powerful, at the expense of humankind. What ensues is a series of flights and confrontations that takes the protagonists from Vancouver to Europe—both of which the author obviously knows well—where Simon confronts the leader of the bolkhs, Tarhlo, who almost convinces him of the righteousness of the bolkh cause. Tarhlo’s logical argument is based on empirical scientific knowledge: the bolkhs argue that their ascendancy now is a natural part of the evolutionary process, as right and understandable as the Cro-Magnons prevailing over the Neanderthals. So well-crafted is Maes’s story that we are honestly not sure what Simon’s choice will be.
Ultimately, Simon travels to New York and a final confrontation, after which we are left with the protagonists safe for the moment, but still threatened: the final sentence assures us that “[w]hile the first confrontation with the bolkhs was over, the war was only getting started” (244). This is the one flaw in this otherwise spectacular piece of YA fiction: the end does not present any closure; it demands—rather than merely anticipating—a sequel. Please, authors: write novels that stand alone as narrative entities; refrain from publishing what amounts to the first installment of an indeterminately long narrative cycle. It is not fair to readers to create a book-length cliffhanger: leave such commercial tactics to the pulp serials. The degree of disappointment in the inconclusive ending is proportional to the level of engagement Transmigrations elicits: if it were a less engrossing story, we wouldn’t care so much that the ending disappoints.