Buy F&SF • Read F&SF • Contact F&SF • Advertise In F&SF • Blog • Forum

August 1999
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

Current Issue • Departments • Bibliography

Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Armageddon Summer, Jane Yolen & Bruce Coville, Harcourt Brace, 1998, 24.00

The Cure, Sonia Levitin, Harcourt Brace, 1999

Clockwork, Philip Pullman, Arthur A. Levine Press, October 1998, 14.95

Never Trust a Dead Man, Vivian Vande Velde, Harcourt Brace, 1999

I thought this column would be easy. My editor said, given that I had been requesting a number of titles generally considered to be YA in recent months, that he'd be happy to see a YA round up for the magazine, and I jumped at the chance. What, after all, could be simpler than reviewing books like the lean and less complicated ones that introduced me to the genre in the first place?

When I read a YA novel, some part of my brain kicks into gear, opening a window into that younger reader; I read unfettered by the desire to see every detail and every complexity of life captured and reflected in words. I want, for certain, to be moved, but I allow myself to be moved by things that a more hardened reader wouldn't. In short, I exchange skepticism for vulnerability. I approach the books with a little more trust, and a little more faith, in the outcome; I reason that there will be comfort and entertainment and not a little joy along the way.

And of course, reading with this more simple desire, I assumed on some level that writing about it would be, well, as simple, as reducible.

Let me now be penitent. I associate YA novels with the simplicity of youth—when, in fact, youth was no more simple a thing than adult life is. All edges and complexities are worn away in memory by time, but they were there. And some of the books I've read recently—curled up into a uncomfortable chair in my office because reading in bed requires light which wakes the baby -- reminded me of this, not in a humbling way, but in a way that makes me reflective. Well, okay, a slightly humbling way.

Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville write a lot. They don't normally do it together, although if Armageddon Summer is any indication, that's a great pity. There are several different ways of collaborationg, and Yolen and Coville have chosen to write alternating chapters, from the viewpoints of Marina and Jed, a young girl and a young boy whose lives are changed when their parents find God in the form of the charismatic Reverend Beelson. What makes Beelson's Believers a bit different from your run-of-the-mill loons is that they know the exact day the world is going to end—and, of course, they know how to beat that end. They climb mount Weepacut, where they, as righteous men and women, will be saved from the fires that will destroy the world below.

Coville's Jed is a non-believer, a boy roped into the end of the world by a father driven mad with loneliness and despair after his wife's desertion. Yolen's Marina is a girl with a great desire to believe, because belief might be the only thing that holds her family together. They are both extremely credible characters, juggling a sense of responsibility, fear, anger and insecurity in just the right measure that they are sympathetic.

Marina and Jed are told that the world will be destroyed in fire and after that, they, the True Believers, will come down from the mountain. Fire comes; it will probably not surprise readers to learn that it doesn't herald the end of the world. But at the end of the novel, Jed and Marina are wiser, their lives changed both by what they can—and cannot—control. To Marina's joy, her mother comes to the realization that her belief was unwise, and they all come down from the mountains.

But they see more than they understand; through their eyes, Yolen and Coville paint a bleak picture of adults who are both pathetic enough to be laughable and pathetic enough to be dangerous. I don't know how I would have reacted had I been thirteen when I read this. Marina is so glad to have her old mother back . . . but it's so obvious to me as an adult that her old mother and the glassy-eyed fanatic are halves of the same coin, and that the search for salvation—for the thing so much bigger than you that you can give up the responsibility of choice and the terror of having to make and live with a decision—will still consume her, and her children.

There are no easy answers in this novel, and there are no simple characterizations; both writers are skilled enough to paint a full picture even through the narrow experience and tangled affections of their narrators. It was a lovely piece of work, but only a simple one if you don't look beyond the surface.

Sonia Levitin's novel, The Cure, is theoretically more complex. It opens in a distant future -- in 2407—and focuses on the unfortunate life of one Gemm 16884. Gemm is a throwback to an earlier age; one in which individuality and not conformity were the rule. In order to spare himself and his twin the total negation of "recycling," Gemm voluntarily undergoes The Cure. He is selectively drugged and he is then "sent back" to relive life in a period of earlier earth history.

The year is 1348, and Gemm becomes Johannes, a German Jew in a Strasbourg that is all too aware that Jews might be responsible for the plague killing people by the thousands. Levitin's writing once Gemm becomes Johannes is at its strongest; she evokes the reality of his terrible and short life without a misstep. Unfortunately her ability to create that reality is so strong it makes the frame of the future look very thin and jingoistic. It can however be argued that her point is that the fabric of that future life, devoid of deep emotion and artistic impulse is thin and jingoistic.

The Cure is a way of forcing a member of the United Social Alliance into a world in which the brutality and violence of an uncontrolled and emotional world has not be expunged. This makes sense. Because Gemm has never been exposed to pain, the pain is to be a terrible jolt, a slap in the face; a wake up call without parallel. And because Gemm shows a tendency toward music, they have selected a period in which music and pain are tied together. The music in question is not tied to pain, but to dignity in the face of insurmountable adversity, and I would expect that the men and women choosing this Cure would be aware of it. That quibble aside, Gemm lives the life he is meant to live and is called back from it when it is at its worst. And then he must make a choice, given what he knows of the past and what he knows of his present.

The making of that choice is the weakest part of the book; although Levitin is at pains to introduce us to the horrors of that earlier life, it's clear that the choice Gemm is offered is not really a choice; authorial sympathies inform the whole book in a way that Coville's, in Armageddon summer, don't.

That said, she acknowledges what must be acknowledged: that humanity is both profoundly ugly and profoundly beautiful and we cannot have one without the other, although the struggle to do so is important.

* * *
Philip Pullman's Clockwork is not, as many had hoped, the third novel in the trilogy His Dark Materials; it's a short piece that is aimed at younger readers, although the book is packaged in a way that clearly screams "All ages! All ages!" And perhaps it is.

Subtitled "or All Wound Up", this is a story of clockwork, creativity, desperation, and love. It is dark and gloomy in tone; Pullman's ability to evoke menace is delightful, and possibly the strongest element of his work in this book.

It seems that Karl, the apprentice clockmaker, has fallen behind in the most important endeavour of his young life. Every apprentice clockmaker ends his apprenticeship by creating a masterpiece of springs and gears which he then places in the magnificent clocktower for the entire town to see. The day of the unveiling is tomorrow, but Karl has nothing to offer the town; he has not been doing his work, devoid of inspiration.

Fritz, the local writer, has also not been doing his work, but he is cheerfully certain that all will turn out well for him, and when he is called upon to read his latest horrific invention to the patrons of the local tavern—for he writes tales of horror and mischief—he begins what is not yet finished.

And falls into his own story, a victim of it rather than an author.

This is on one level a story about the clockwork prince, a child made to be the perfect heir to a King and Queen whose concerns were either political or personal, but never parental, and the young girl who saves him. The King and Queen, authors of the little princeling, were nonetheless incapable of love, and just as Fritz, the writer, or Karl, the apprentice, they put into motion events over which they had no control because they also had no deeper understanding and no capacity for love or responsibility in the aftershock of their initial impulse.

I would like to say that I liked the story more—because all of the elements of it are like clockwork when it functions perfectly—but I found that, like clockwork, it was almost too precise.

* * *
Which leads us into the last novel, which is anything but.

Vivian Vande Velde's Never Trust a Dead Man is a young adult novel that was over far, far too quickly. Does it make you think? Sort of, but really, on first pass it's just charming and amusing enough that thought is suspended in the best possible way.

A rather unfortunate young man by the name of Selwyn Roweson has lost the woman of his dreams—and the woman he's been pursuing in the obsessive and calf-like way only an adolescent can—to his rival, Farold. Which sucks. But it gets worse . . . because when the rival winds up dead, he's the only suspect, and the town is in the mood for rough justice.

So they put him in the tomb with the dead man he didn't actually kill . . . and things go from bad to worse when the not very fast-witted young man is given an opportunity to prove that he's innocent—with the help of an old, ill-tempered witch and his murdered, and very irritating, not- quite-dead dead rival.

Did I mention that Selwyn is not always extremely fast on the uptake? Neither is Farold; the two manage—just—to keep on top of things while they try to find the real killer before it's discovered that Selwyn's execution wasn't. Successful, that is.

I have no idea if a book like this would appeal to young adults or not. As a teenager I lacked a sense of humor, and in truth, I'm only developing one now with the advent of small children because it's either that or go completely insane.

Never Trust a Dead Man is a murder mystery with a twist and a great sense of humor. It also has a gentle lesson or two about appearances and sexism and relationships. This is the first book by Vande Velde I've read, but it certainly—with luck—won't be the last, and while it doesn't scream "all ages!" it probably should.

To contact us, send an email to Fantasy & Science Fiction.
If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to

Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Hosted by:
SF Site spot art