I really like William Sleator (his books are a nostalgia I had, specifically INTERSTELLAR PIG and THE BOY WHO REVERSED HIMSELF). He has books which are amazing, such as HOUSE OF STAIRS and THE LAST UNIVERSE, and books which are not, like TEST. However, his best books are horrifying and utterly raw, with none of the characters being able to hide behind a lack of self-knowledge. The teens in his novels are presented in a stark light that shows all their strengths and flaws, and he lets them hang themselves with their own thoughts and words.
Once in an article about Sleator, I found him compared to Nicholas Fisk, a British science-fiction who, like Sleator, also mainly wrote for children. So I picked up A RAG, A BONE AND A HANK OF HAIR (a title that conveniently leaves out the Oxford comma, which is ironic? Maybe? Should I be quiet now?). The second book in the photo above is by Roger Zelazny, one of my favorite writers, and an author who I never knew wrote books for children. The closest I’d come before was A NIGHT IN THE LONESOME OCTOBER, which was a light book, more of a romp than an adventure, but still clearly in the adult category.
(Now is the point to say that I’m not sure what that means in reference to myself and my own reading since I’ve been into Zelazny since early High School, if not Intermediate School, and so he was, in effect, my YA.)
I’ll take on Zelazny first because reading this book was like reading Sleator’s TEST, except that I was able to finish it. A DARK TRAVELING reads as a book written to a young audience by a writer who thinks this is what a young audience wants to read. The plot is bare bones thin, the characters uncomplicated, the struggles slight, and the writing–which Zelazny often makes beautiful and haunting–is flat, dead on the page. I can’t even give you a summary of the plot here because it vanished so completely from my mind after I finished. I mean, it involved witches, werewolves, aliens, multiple worlds, mechanical golems, all of it hodgepodged together in a way that provided no coherence, mainly because there was no room to build that coherence. In 151 large-font pages you can’t do much world-building, and Zelazny doesn’t, instead relying on ideas somewhat explored in the AMBER series (i.e., in a multi-verse everything exists somewhere). Zelazny is one of the writers I want to build a complete collection for, but I won’t be adding this to that collection.
It’s disappointing to be disappointed, especially with a writer I know and love (the work, I mean, as I have no idea what Zelazny the man was like). It’s an entirely different experience to be disappointed by a book you have little-to-no expectations for. A RAG, A BONE AND A HANK OF HAIR falls on this line with a boy tasked with infiltrating a group of people recreated from before civilization ended (i.e., now, apparently) who are being studied by scientists for…reasons. The scientists used science to reconstruct these people from organic refuse they found in the ruins, which somehow also recreated the kind of people they were and how they lived at the time.
Which is…whatever. Internal hand-waving aside, I don’t really care much about science in books as long as it’s internally consistent with the story. I’ll take this as science fantasy and be fine with it–and I am fine with it. Like Sleator, Fisk’s story is brutally dark and unapologetic in how it depicts people, especially the main character. To my mind, the world depicted is a little thin, but that makes it more like a dream than a literal accounting, more a nightmare mood piece than a beware-this-could-happen.
For whatever reason, I just didn’t fall for Fisk’s voice here. It’s good writing (unlike, I have to say it, Zelazny’s book) but maybe it’s too clinical for me? One aspect of Sleator’s writing is that he puts you in the head of his characters completely, not thinking their thoughts, but witnessing those thoughts and their actions from inside their bodies and minds, so you can’t help but see them as hopeful, petty, brave, and flawed.
In these books, both Zelazny and Fisk keep the reader at a distance, which means it’s hard to create empathy with the characters as real people. And now, more than ever, we need Sleator’s kind of empathy as practice for the real-life necessity and moral responsibility of seeing other people as real people. Lives depend on it.
*Really, if nothing else, you should read HOUSE OF STAIRS. Here’s a link. Go buy.