Our hero is a teenager who once dreamed of being an astronaut, but his life in a small town is not conducive to such dreams. His father was killed in Iraq, his mother is working two jobs and his older brother is a petty criminal. Life isn’t looking to go anywhere. Then one day he has a weird encounter…
This short story is solidly in the young adult camp. Not especially inspired but at least hits the right teen wish fulfillment note.
Agnieszka lives in small village in a pastoral valley, the setting of which is strongly rooted in Polish folklore. There is a deep, dark, sinister, magical wood which extends into the valley, and out of the wood come horrors unspeakable. Every ten years, the “Dragon”, who is actually a wizard and the feudal lord, picks a girl and takes her to his tower. No one in the valley really knows why. Against all expectations, Agnieszka is taken by the wizard, and against her own expectations the wizard trains her in the magic arts. She is a poor student until she discovers that her brand of magic is closely entwined with nature and the forest.
I had a hard time with the beginning of this book. While the characters and the story are well-rounded and interesting, I had the feeling that all the sinister and mysterious stuff was going to turn into a big anti-climax. Happily, I was wrong. As Agnieszka’s journey into magic and the mysteries of The Wood continues, the political and epic sides of the story start revealing themselves. And that’s where things become really interesting. The use of a strict first person viewpoint for the book is a good choice, as it allows the reader to grow his understanding of the world along with our heroine, as she journeys from her tiny village into the much more cynical larger world. Another interesting aspect is how Ms. Novik manages to describe magic in a way that effectively communicates difficulty, effort, setbacks and dangers without making the whole thing seem hopelessly corny.
Nombeko Mayeko is born into poverty in Soweto during the Apartheid era. From childhood, she has worked as a latrine emptier. Despite a lack of formal education, she is a maths prodigy and possesses considerable street smarts. Through a series of unlikely events, she ends up in Sweden in possession of an atomic bomb. Here her life continues together with Holger 2, the non-existent (at least as far as the authorities are concerned) twin of Holger 1, a radical republican who wants to bring down the monarchy.
Because of its nature as a sequence of very unlikely, but nevertheless often humorous events, the story requires a complete suspension of disbelief, and is perhaps best read as a naif satire combined with situational comedy. The book is written in a very dry humor that turns what would normally be sad or infuriating situations into laugh-out-loud farces.
The characters are quirky, interesting and, while most are just as unlikely as the story, deeply charming. Even “The Idiot” and his girlfriend “The Angry One” engage the reader in their adventures.
On a deeper level, the story can be seen as a triumph of human ingenuity over adversity, with themes touching on how people will continue to seek a normal existence and happiness no matter what is thrown at them.
The setting is Southern California. It is the late 1980s in a world where the Axis won World War II. The occupied Western United States are now the United States of Japan (USJ), and the occupiers rule with an iron fist despite the appearance of a happy and prosperous nation. The secret police tortures and “disappears” people at the least hint of treason against the Divine Emperor. Beniko Ishimura is an underachieving Captain in the Imperial Forces working as a censor for videogames. Ten years earlier, he took part in quelling a major revolt in San Diego, and now those events are coming back to haunt him.
Oh, and there are giant robots. This is seldom a bad thing.
Even without Mr. Tieryas’s explicit admission in the afterword, it is obvious that this book was heavily influenced and inspired by The Man in the High Castle, down to the dissenting material showing an alternate reality that is in fact that of the reader; one where the Allies won and the world is very different. The world-building is excellent, showing a dystopian USJ that is struggling economically and socially while all criticism of the regime is harshly punished. The cruelty of the torture and death inflicted by both USJ agents and dissidents is graphically described to the point of making the reader squirm, but in this world such things are sadly normal.
The story is somewhat opaque in the first half of the book, but things rapidly clarify towards the end, when flashbacks to the San Diego revolt and events in the present converge. Themes of betrayal, loyalty and forgiveness are strongly emphasized in a strong ending.