rachelmanija: (Books: old)
( May. 13th, 2012 11:23 am)
This book was praised by several people whose taste I respect as one of the best of the year, and it’s about mutants (and disabled people, mentally ill people, and gender-nonconforming people) living in the sewers in a world that hates and fears them. It sounded right up my alley. It’s certainly ambitious, different, and thoughtful. But (you knew this was coming) nowhere near as much to my taste as I expected.

Matthew, the the community Teller (storyteller/historian) and the first child ever to be born in Safe, the sewer home of mutants (Cursed) and disabled (Sick) people who have fled Above due to persecution by Whitecoats (the medical and psychiatric establishment), has the scales down his back and claws on his feet, but he can hide them to Pass. You may see one of my issues already: an overabundance of Capitalized Words. This seems minor, but it’s distracting when there are several in one sentence, and there often were.

He is in love with and lives with Ariel, the beautiful bee-winged woman whom he took into Safe, but whose mental illness manifests in constantly weeping and running away. One night the spooky, shadow-controlling Corner, the only mutant to ever be exiled from Safe, returns and slaughters everyone in sight. Matthew, Ariel, and two others flee Safe for the terrifying Above, take refuge in the home of a doctor who knows about Safe, and… don’t do all that much for quite some time, other than hang out and contemplate their problems and how they arose, and their personal history and the history of Safe.

Incidentally, this is marketed as a YA novel. I am baffled by this. While many adults will (and do) love it, I think it’s a rare teenager who would. Also, I don’t recall if we’re ever told Matthew’s age, but if he is a teenager, that’s not essential to the story. He could easily be in his early twenties.

The book is told in Matthew’s semi-illiterate steam-of-consciousness narrative. It’s well-done and sometimes quite poetic, but it also had the effect of removing nearly everything I was interested in from the narrative. I wanted to know all about the mutant ensemble at Safe; Matthew already knows them all so well that, with a few exceptions, he doesn’t bother describing their mutations or personalities in much detail. I wanted scenes which revealed character and setting; Matthew, a Teller, was big on tell not show. I wanted to be able to follow what was going on; Matthew was extremely naïve and often confused. I wanted to know more about Ariel; Matthew idealized her as his beautiful, fragile love-object. This was all, or at least mostly, clearly a deliberate choice by Bobet, but it had the effect of making all the characters seem paper-thin (since Matthew didn’t understand them) and much of the action and motivations confusing or glossed over.

The politics came through loud and clear, but since that was the only thing that did, that ended up taking over the story. If you want to read a fantasy which carefully and thoughtfully deals with disability issues, mental illness issues, ableism, racism, sexism, homophobia, domestic violence, gender issues, intersex issues, and the persecution of people outside of the norm by the medical and psychiatric establishment, and the point made that some disabilities and illnesses really do need medical treatment and that separatism is not necessarily the answer and that you can still be unhealthily paranoid even if people really are after you, Above is for you. If you want to read about mutants in the sewers, it’s not really about that.


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