Monday, September 17, 2012

The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson

The Chaos by Nalo Hopkinson  (Simon & Schuster - Margaret K. McElderry) might not be on your radar; I haven't seen much talk about it, and only a few reviews, which have tended to be mixed. Maybe that shouldn't surprise me so much; it's very different from what's on the YA SF/F shelves right now. It's possible that I missed the buzz, of course, but either way, I'd like to start some back up again.

In short summary, Scotch (a short form of Scotch Bonnet, nickname for Sojourner) has started feeling stable again. Her brother's out of jail, and they're going to get an apartment together as soon as they save up enough money to move out of their parents' house. She's on the dance team, and smokin' at it. She has two close friends, and doesn't have to go to the school where she was attacked and called a slut. She changes her clothes when she leaves the house--there's good-girl wear, and there's Scotch wear--but most teenagers lead a bit of a double life, don't they?

Scotch and her brother Rick go to a bar, where Rick is worried about his open mic appearance and Scotch can't get caught (at 17, she's two years too young to be in a bar in Toronto). And things get rapidly more worrisome when a giant blob eats Rick and a volcano appears in the middle of the lake...and the strange black marks on her body start to take over.

Scotch has the most authentic teenager voice I have read in ages. In the middle of reading the book, I told a friend that it reads like a contemporary; that's not a good enough shorthand for what I mean (and makes it look like I'm trying to make some sort of value judgment that I'm not). Scotch is just so present, so vibrantly of that liminal late-teens age. So waiting for her mind to catch up with her mouth. Working through being wrong, needing time to think, needing to figure out how to be right again, with herself and with other people. Working through trying to be this person that everyone else wants to claim, without allowing her to choose her path. The Chaos is surprisingly character-driven in a way that a lot of SF/F is not.

There's lots that unexpected here, even for genre enthusiasts. The Chaos doesn't bother to explain its Toronto setting for the reader, and rightly so. There's a sort of old-school, classic urban fantasy feel to the disruption, as if the weird is so weird it must be normal again; combined with the denial of mid-apocalypse, fear can feel a little distant for short stretches, but that's realistic--too much, and the characters would be paralyzed. The weirder things get, the more threads come in from surprising angles. There are duppies and a rolling calf, a bird I think is a phoenix, Baba Yaga and her house (seriously, Baba Yaga should be in everything, and I especially like this one), disembodied voices, Brer Rabbit, Anansi (and oh, the moment of Brer Nancy!). Around every corner is some new amazement. Alice is truly in Wonderland.

The Chaos touches on, or directly confronts, identity, racism, disabilities, sexuality, class, bullying, and more, all as part of the real and unreal landscape in which the characters move, stumble, and eventually negotiate, if sometimes imperfectly. There are some reviews that explain this better than I can here, here, and here.

In about 240 pages, Scotch undergoes a physical and personal transformation, becoming who she wanted to be all along. It's not so much about defeating the chaos or any particular big bad, but about remaking and repairing relationships with herself and others. I think that The Chaos makes a good read for fans of Kristen Cashore's Fire, Dia Reeves's Bleeding Violet, Alaya Dawn Johnson's Racing the Dark, and Justine Larbalestier's Liar, for a start--there's more than a little thread of "being the monster" here, and a certain horrific twist to the whole thing. 

This book is nominated in the YA SF/F category for the 2012 Cybils. I had my own copy to read and review. 

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