Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Country of Ice Cream Star

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, my wife Marie contributes a brief review of The Country of Ice Cream Star (Ecco, 2015).

The Country of Ice Cream Star is only superficially described as "post-apocalyptic." Most post-apocalypse books talk about either the survivors in the immediate aftermath or shortly thereafter, and there are people with living memories of the event. This book is set in the new normal that has emerged multiple generations after the event...but it's only eight decades after, because 21 is an advanced age in those who survived.

This book reminds me strongly of the description of The Princess Bride as presented in the narrative; it is terribly tempting to say "...Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion..." But that only works once. Besides, there are differences - this book has child soldiers
instead of pirates, and a living saint instead of a princess. Nevertheless, this book shares the essential lesson that life is beautiful and painful, full of adventure and fighting and love, and also deeply and painfully unfair, and scattered in among the tragedy and beauty, there are some really good funny bits.

There are two main stumbling blocks that I see for the reader in maintaining suspension of disbelief, rooted in difficulties of our culture rather than any flaw in the writing, and they are well worth getting over. First, the author, Sandra Newman, has given each group in the book a distinctive voice and dialect, especially the main character's, and that requires some getting used to. Second, our culture does not permit children of the ages in this story the power, agency, and capability that they show; but without what we would consider adults this world works and makes sense. Even so, the practice of using "every child" instead of "everybody" and "my children" instead of "my people" draws an emphasis to the essential youth of all the actors that the characters are all blind to. This is especially marked when an actual adult is dropped into the action as the event that breaks the initial equanimity, and the main character calls him, too, a child.

In fact, that particular factor is one of the most admirable part of the storytelling, how the author does such a good job of showing things that the main character does not see, at least at first. She does not talk down to the audience, either. Even minor characters have depth and humanity. There are few clear-cut bad guys, even when individuals are in conflict and even when they do evil things to one another. People have motives for what they do that make sense and conflicts arise from those motives. The main character is permitted to make poor decisions, learn from them, and feel guilt which changes her priorities. And there are some horrific things done in this book; it is not a light read for a lazy day at the beach. The characters learn and grow, quickly (perforce) but with natural arcs that allow initial imperfection either to become a hard-won positive or to grow into a deeper flaw - it is refreshing to see both options available.

Also, as is typical in real life, alliances change, sometime rapidly, as circumstances change, Today's enemy is yesterday's friend, with all the grief and rage that comes from that. And when yesterday's enemy is today's friend, earlier conflicts are not allowed to disappear either just because the alliance is needed.

Love is not a simple thing either. In this way the story differs from The Princess Bride. Although characters love each other deeply, there is no uncomplicated feeling. While people do heroic and horrible things because of it, love is still only one emotion and motivation among many.

The cast is large, but so well introduced and so well marked by the language, names and behaviors that it is easy to keep track of them. Sandra Newman has written a truly remarkable, compelling and vivid story. It is highly recommended.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your books (typically comics or detective fiction) featured here, send me an email.

No comments: