Friday, April 2, 2010

Sometimes, You're the Monster

Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Agate Bolden)

Iolana is a diver, and she's just made her first dive to steal precious gems from the sea. She gets two: one a lovely blue, and the other a forbidding red that marks her for--she doesn't know what, but it likely means that she will never leave her tiny island home. She hides the red stone, and things begin to happen. The spirit world, the environment, the political climate, her relationships with family and friends--they all come into play, and when her island is flooded, her family must leave, and be separated. It turns out that Lana's mom would do many bad things to keep her safe, and Lana, in turn, would do anything to keep her mother alive. Handily, plenty of people with terrible intent are happy to lend a hand, even Death her(?)self, and in turn, Lana may unknowingly destroy all.

One important theme is power, and the abuse of it; this is played out in Lana's apprenticeship to a witch, and the witch's use of her for her own ends. Even when Lana realizes this, it's very hard for her to recognize what's happened. This story also has a very strong feeling of being about women. There are men, yes, and they have storylines and lives of their own, but the central struggles with motherhood and family and love felt like they were coming from a different place than in a lot of stories where Girl Has an Adventure. Lana isn't taking on The Adventure Boys Have. It's difficult to explain, but I'm simply left with the impression that epic heroine's journey here, even if it plays to the same endings others have, is being approached somewhat differently than usual.

This is a complicated universe, and the many threads drag a little around the 2/3 mark, partly because you don't know what matters and what doesn't, and the part where you see where some threads are going is delayed by the episodic nature of this part of the story. As the first part of a trilogy, the story starts in a small space and many paths fan out as the plot moves along, though this first book, in my opinion, is not in the pattern of many "part one" books lately that serve only to set up a world. Lana develops quite a bit between the opening pages and the closing, as do other characters and themes, and while things certainly aren't resolved neatly at the end of the book, there is a sense that a new part of the story will begin in the next volume.

Racing the Dark is set in a world inspired by Polynesia and (I perceive) Japan; people of various backgrounds and beliefs wander lands that don't map to Earth geography. I think inspired by is the key phrasing here, because this goes further than filing the numbers of off existing places/people and renaming them for convenience. There are things obviously drawn from reality; Lana's home island has houses on stilts to get up and away from floodwaters during the rainy season. It felt like the ways that people lived were drawn from their geography first, and from the in-world religions and cultures, and lastly from the real world, and then rarely and when it seems like it would be very hard to explain a concept quickly (ex. "pagoda" is used once to explain the shape of a building). Another example might be that on Lana's home island, she doesn't have to wear a blouse--it's warm enough, it's not needed culturally, etc. When she goes to other islands, she has to wear one, and there's a struggle with not wanting to change vs. fitting in (and staying warm in a different climate). That's just one example of something that seemed to me to draw on reality, but something fitted into the world for a purpose. For my taste, I appreciate that such details aren't magically hand-waved, but addressed in terms of their physical and emotional impact; I also appreciate that they're woven into the complexity of the world.

This book ends on a really dark note--surprising for the first part of a trilogy, in a way. The follow up is due out June 2010.
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