Convictions (2016), by Judith Silverthorne

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 22.1.

Another obvious contender for the 2017 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction For Young People, in my estimation. I really wish I were a juror again this year, as I have been in the past, as there are some really good historical novels for young readers out there this year.

Convictions (2016)

silverthorne-convictionsIt is 1842. Jennie’s family is starving, so she takes some mouldy oats from a milliner’s garbage. For that, she is convicted of theft and sentenced to 7 years transportation to the penal colony of Australia. She is one of 235 female convicts, including pregnant women and women with young children. Jennie is fourteen when she boards the convict ship Emily Anne; the youngest prisoner is ten-year-old Alice.

Judith Silverthorne’s account of Jennie’s life on board the Emily Anne is convincingly harsh; there is very little evasion of the horrors of the women’s lives at the hands of uncaring or even abusive guards. What helps Jennie survive are the relationships the women forge in their shared hardship. As Jennie discovers the gamut of “crimes” the women have been sentenced for, she comes to appreciate her fellow prisoners’ differences. Learned prejudices against the “doxies” Lizzie and Fanny, or the alcoholic Dottie, or the Irish-Catholic Kate, are eventually subsumed in the need to band together to survive the physical and psychological trauma of their situation. Seasickness and poor rations threaten their health. Crowded into small shared bunks or hammocks, they are afflicted by rodents, lice, and fleas. Women and children, most used to living simply but honorably, are treated like animals by the poorly paid crew and guards.

Not all the guards are as vile as “Red Bull” Chilcott, whose lecherous behaviour threatens the sexually innocent among the prisoners, and whose sexual appetites mark him as a target for Fanny’s manipulations on behalf of her friends. Some of the guards are cruel but not abusive, and some appear more sympathetic towards the women’s plight. We see a subtle connection growing between Jennie and a young crew-member, Nate, and when the ship is wrecked on a reef near Tenerife, we are not surprised that the intelligent Nate is instrumental in saving a small number of crew and prisoners.

Silverthorne does not stray from her excellent historical representation even in the romance that is beginning to grow between Jennie and Nate. The women’s ultimate fate after being saved by a passing Scottish vessel—whose Captain and crew are welcoming neither to the English nor to women—is logically supportable in terms of the political, financial, and cultural reality Silverthorne is recreating. Nate expresses his hope that his and Jennie’s lives will follow a similar path, and we are shown a narrative direction in which that could be true; but at the close of the novel, we are left with as much uncertainly as Jennie and the other survivors. As readers, we are convinced of the historical truth reflected in Convictions; Jennie’s story remains in our minds, her future pondered, long after the last page is read.

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The Case of the Missing Moonstone (2015), by Jordan Stratford

stratford-moonstoneIllustrated by Kelly Murphy.

Jordan Stratford begins the notes at the back of The Case of the Missing Moonstone by telling us that “the year 1826 itself is practically a character in the book,” and it seems that in fact the year 1826 might just be the most historically accurate character in the book. In his story, Stratford brings together a plethora of well-known historical personages (Ada Lovelace and her half-sister Allegra Byron, Mary Godwin and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont, Charles Babbage, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Charles Dickens), adjusting their ages, rewriting their characters, and conflating their stories to construct his narrative. He provides factual accounts of each of their lives in his notes, wherein he explains his decisions, and how the real historical characters were connected (and they all are, in interesting and complicated ways).

The novel opens with the unconventional young Ada being upgraded from a governess to a tutor. Mary Godwin is introduced into the equation when she comes to learn with Ada under the tutelage of Percy Bysshe Shelley—Peebs, as Ada calls him, based on his initials. The two girls form The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, named after Mary’s mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous advocate for women’s rights. As such an enterprise would be unacceptable for young ladies in their time (Mary Wollstonecraft’s advocacy notwithstanding), the young Charles Dickens is co-opted as their courier. At the end of the novel, the girls are joined by Allegra and Jane, in preparation for the sequels to follow.

The two protagonists’ reflect the complementary strengths of their namesakes: while Ada Lovelace is famous as a mathematician, Mary Shelley—as Mary Godwin eventually became—is known for her literary prowess, writing Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. “In real life,” Stratford tell us, “Mary was eighteen years older than Ada … But I thought it would be more fun this way—to cast these two luminaries as friends.” Despite that Stratford does tell us that Percy Bysshe Shelley “ran off with sixteen-year-old Mary to Switzerland, and they were married two years later,” the difference between his Mary Godwin and Mary Shelley the author is not only striking but problematic. It would be difficult, however, to create a novel for middle-school readers that tells the truth of the extremely unconventional lifestyles that Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary, and her step-sister Jane (Claire) Clairmont (who was the real Allegra Byron’s mother) engaged in before Shelley’s early death by drowning. “While in reality Peebs had died even before our story begins, I have extended his life so that he, Ada, and Mary can be in this story together.” “As with Mary,” Stratford continues, “Jane’s timeline is moved so that she can be young alongside Mary and Ada,” and “in real life, Allegra died of fever at the age of five.”

These alterations do a great disservice to young readers; Stratford’s intent of creating an engaging story peopled with historical figures is perhaps well intentioned, but more problematic than effective. Young readers interpret story as reflecting reality in some way: the expressive-realist error, no doubt, but not surprising in the middle-school audience this mystery is intended for. While it is fascinating to read a well-written novel set in a historical period and learn from the research the author has engaged in, when it is difficult to discern where history ends and fiction begins, the novel becomes far less valuable as a vehicle of knowledge acquisition—which young readers will take it to be.

It really is a shame that Stratford plays so lose and easy with the characters, as his research is strong, and he incorporates the factual history smoothly into his story. Ada is brilliantly constructed as an excessively intelligent young girl, with strong characteristics of high-functioning Asperger’s. Anyone who lives with such a child will recognize both the frustrating and the rewarding aspects of living with someone like Stratford’s Ada. Ada’s mathematical and scientific investigations are described in just enough detail to inform the reader without boredom, and the dynamics between the socially oblivious Ada and the more psychologically astute Mary are delightful. When the characters are this engaging, and the plot interesting and well constructed, we can forgive the author some degree of liberty with historicity.

And herein lies another issue with The Case of the Missing Moonstone, at least for me: as I read through it, having suspended my disbelief regarding the characters—I quite enjoyed Ada’s youthful eccentricities and Mary’s rampant imagination—I couldn’t help but feel that I had read this plot before… The title should have been a dead giveaway, but it didn’t occur to me that an author would unabashedly copy an earlier plot.

Again in his notes, Stratford is entirely forthcoming, telling us about Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), commonly accepted as the first detective novel written in English. “Our mystery,” he admits, “is a nod to some of the elements of this classic.” More than just a nod, Mr. Stratford, when your plot can be so readily anticipated through knowledge of Wilkie Collins’s. Middle-school readers will almost certainly not have read The Moonstone, so we can see how Stratford’s idea that “it would be fun to have the world’s first computer programmer and the world’s first science-fiction author solving the world’s first fictional detective mystery” could appeal. The writing is of course all Stratford’s, and he has an effective authorial voice, hints of sarcasm underlying the more straightforward narrative that young readers will really enjoy. But yet the novel bothers me. The use of an already well-known and successful premise, the drastically changed biographies of well-known historical figures: for me, these infringe upon my appreciation of the strong characterization of Ada and the interesting explorations of nineteenth-century science and literature. If it were only Ada, with a supporting cast of unknowns, in a story with an original plot… but it is not, and it is up to my readers to decide to what degree the lack of historicity and originality impacts their enjoyment. For me, it was too much.

Conjuror (2016), by John Barrowman and Carole E. Barrowman

Barrowman - ConjurorWho knew? Captain Jack Harness is an author in his own right, as is his sister Carole. In addition to his two memoirs, Anything Goes (2008) and I Am What I Am (2009), the pair have collaborated on previous YA fantasy novels, including The Hollow Earth trilogy (which I now feel compelled to read). I ran across Conjuror in an online book sale, and have to admit that what drew it initially was the authors’ name. These online book stores do little to help distinguish one YA fantasy from another; it is impossibly to tell from the descriptions which might be worth paying for, which not. Conjuror is.

The premise is a little reminiscent of Inkheart, in which the reading or writing of a story transports characters between our world and the phase space of the narrative. In Conjuror, the Animare can draw their way into paintings, travelling through space and time; they can create tangible articles merely by drawing them into being. Conjurors possess a similar magical ability, controlling their environments through song and music. The history of art and music thus features strongly in the novel, which provides an intellectual interest as well as grounding the fantasy in our own world. The plot, described in short, could be perceived as derivative: American Rémy is the descendant of a North African conjuror sold into slavery; Rémy is running from the magically powerful man who killed his mother and great-aunt, but failed the attempt to kill Rémy. British twins Matt and Emily are young, impetuous but potentially powerful animare who reject the Council and are recruited by the “MI6 of the Council,” the Orion, for whom they become probationers. So we have the set-up. Rémy only vaguely understands what is going on in his life, his powers having been hidden by his mother through fear for their lives. Matt and Em—on a quest to capture the rogue animare Caravaggio and bind him permanently within a painting—stumble into Rémy’s quest, finding what he is looking for and thus becoming targets for his enemies. For Rémy is (as far as we know) the last conjuror, and the prophesy of the Camarillo, a group of evil animare and sorcerers, is that only a conjuror can prevent the coming of the Second Kingdom, which will—in Tolkienesque fashion—“cover all the world in a second darkness.” While Tolkien is not quoted, intertextual allusions abound. When asked what he knows of the Spanish Inquisition, the foundation of the Camarillo, Rémy cheekily replies: “No one expects them, I can tell you that much.” “The Professor looked blank,” but the reader will not. Even better, the Professor at one point informs Rémy that “time is more wibbly wobbly that you think.” Those who have picked up this novel because of the authors’ name will feel themselves to be part of a larger geekdom of understanding. As they truly are.

The characters are not drawn in great depth, either; this is a novel about action and magic, not about deep human emotions. And it works very well as such. The machinations of the plot, the ways in which music and art, historical figures and places, weave together, create a fast-paced narrative that keeps the reader engrossed throughout. It is to the Barrowmans’ credit, too, that the story is self-contained, despite the publisher’s announcement at the end of the novel that “the next compelling installment in the Orion Chronicles will be released in spring 2017.” Dang. I have to wait that long?

Bottom line: even with some superficially stereotypic elements, Conjuror brings enough new material to the realm of fantasy literature to be welcomed into the canon with no hesitation.

Charmed (2015), by Michelle Krys

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 21.1.

Krys - CharmedI’ve been anxiously awaiting Michelle Krys’s, Charmed, the sequel to her gripping first novel, Hexed (2014), reviewed in volume 20.1 of Resource Links. The end of Charmed suggests strongly that there will not be a third installation in the story, and I applaud Krys loudly for resisting the current trend towards series that go on far too long. Hexed and Charmed work together to present a cohesive and complete narrative arc; nothing more is needed. I was a bit put off by the link included at the end of Hexed, but now that readers are free to continue directly into Charmed, all is well.

The one element that rendered Charmed less powerful than Hexed is that Krys finds it necessary to have her protagonist, Indigo Blackwood, behave out of character in order to move the plot in the required direction. The climax and dénouement of the novel reveal the necessity of this plot manipulation, but it would have been more convincing if Indie had remained true to character throughout. Despite her rebellious and at times resentful nature, the Indie we know from Hexed doesn’t seem the sort to maintain a web of deceit. That she feels remorse mitigates her behaviour to an extent, but her choices still feel out of sync.

At the end of Hexed, Indie and her warlock boyfriend Bishop have vanquished a large portion of the sorcerers’ Guild, but not all. A threatening message is left on Indie’s phone, with the pleading voice of her best friend, Paige, in the background. This is where Charmed opens. From here, Indie’s life spirals into a confusion of paths and obstructions, information and lies. She feels that her Aunt Penny, guardian after the death of her mother, has betrayed her; Bishop seems to be siding with the enemy (Penny); Bishop’s old girlfriend, Jezebel (the name says it all), inexplicably solicits her help in a dangerous and ill-advised scheme; people around her are having their memories altered; and no one seems to care enough that Paige is missing. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that Indie behaves somewhat irrationally in her quest for answers. She knows if she says anything to Bishop, he will side with Aunt Penny in an attempt to keep Indie safe, but Indie knows she is Paige’s only hope. Here, Indie’s responses may feel inauthentic, but the intricacies of the plot as it develops relegate this flaw to the background.

Indie’s decisions are ultimately supported by Bishop and Penny, and all three move towards the inevitable conflict knowingly, and with fear. Krys has already revealed herself as quite willing to disrupt narrative expectations, and the culmination of events does not disappoint. Indie’s independence and strength (both as a witch and as a young woman) stand her in good stead, as does the support she receives from unexpected sources. Here, in the final battle, Krys’s rich characterization and psychologically sound plot development reappear, creating a sequence of events at once terrifying and satisfying.