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Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1993

By Orson Scott Card

The Madagascar Manifesto: Child of the Light, Gluckman & Guthridge (St. Martin's, cloth, 389 pp, $22.95)

The premise is an intriguing one: An alternate history in which the Nazis actually carry out a plan that was once seriously bruited about -- to establish a Jewish homeland on the island of Madagascar. Naturally, with the Nazis doing it it's more along the lines of a public relations effort, with the Jews actually brutalized prisoners in this new "homeland." But since this is volume one of a series, I imagine that later volumes will take us through some kind of effort at revolution.

A strong premise -- but what kind of novel is it?

I had my fears when I read the first chapter of Child of the Light. It takes place in a Nazi concentration camp, with characters that we do not know and events so disturbing, so demoralizing, that it hardly makes us want to go on with the experience. Gluckman & Guthridge wrote the chapter well enough, but their choice of opening "hook" -- for that is all that the first chapter is -- is an unfortunate one. Especially because it's completely misleading.

The real story, which is launched in the second chapter, begins long before the concentration camps, and we do not get back to the camps for hundreds of pages. The story is of two German boys -- good friends, though Solomon Freund is a Jew and Erich Weisser is a gentile. Their parents are partners in a tobacco shop, but Mr. Weisser deeply resents his dependency on Jews. There is tension between the families from the start, and the boys are caught up in the sort of conflict that later makes possible the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany at large.

But there is far more to these boys than the matter of Jewishness, more than the fact that they both fall in love with Miriam Rathenau, a beautiful and talented Jewish girl who soon becomes famous as a performer. Gluckman & Guthridge, in the best Romantic fashion, have made Sol and Erich deeply contradictory men -- Sol fundamentally good, but unsure of his own strength and courage; Erich filled with hate of his father and yet acting out his father's brutality, confident of his ability to master anyone, including his Nazi overlord. Miriam never quite descends to the level of mere "love interest," and other characters are also drawn effectively enough to engage our emotions.

Erich Weisser also has a psychic connection with dogs, which, besides its symbolic value, also gives him a skill that is valued by the Nazis, so that he is at least acquainted with some of the major figures in the Nazi Party. When leading Nazis come on stage, they are not made into mere monsters for us to loathe -- we are permitted to see glimmers of how they seem to themselves. This makes their loathsomeness all the more credible.

The authors have researched the period well -- or at least they fake it well enough to fool me. The hit songs, the social concerns, the attitudes are convincingly drawn; this world feels real. It also put the tune of the nightclub hit "Glow Word" on my mind for weeks. (There was only one absurdity -- a moment when a German character wonders why Americans called a beef sandwich a "hamburger." No German would give a moment's thought to such a question, since Germans would instantly see, not the word ham, but the name Hamburg, and correctly deduce the etymology of the sandwich. But a single howler in a historical novel is far better than average.)

In short, Gluckman & Guthridge have created characters, situations, and ideas powerful enough to draw us eagerly through even a work as long as this one promises to be. They did not need a distracting and misleading "hook" like that first chapter inside a concentration camp. It is especially misleading because so little of the book actually deals with concentration camp life, and having that chapter up front will certainly drive away some -- perhaps many -- readers who might otherwise have loved this novel. (I am tempted to speculate that Gluckman & Guthridge may have been pressured by editors into adding that mistaken first chapter, if only because I have had several experiences with editors who have "clever" ideas like that and won't rest until the author gives in and damages his own book. But of course it's just as possible that Gluckman & Guthridge misunderstood or mistrusted the appeal of their own book and either added or left that chapter at the front.)

Don't be put off, either by the fact that this book is the first volume of a series or by the fact that it begins as if it were going to be a deeply depressing journey into hell. Instead it is a vigorous and passionate Romance in an intriguing, well-imagined alternate history, and by the time the story dips into hell, we know the characters so well that we are willing to go there with them. This first volume ends with the landing on Madagascar; it will be fascinating to see where the story goes in later volumes, and whether Gluckman & Guthridge can maintain the high level of storytelling they have begun.

I doubt that this book will be seen as Important in the world of science fiction. Series are usually not taken as seriously as stand-alone novels, and this book breaks no new ground that demands that sf aficionados pay attention to it. Indeed, it is almost unfortunate that the book is going to be marketed as science fiction, since its natural audience is likely to come more from those who follow Michener, Howard Fast, or Irwin Shaw. But who cares whether the book is hailed as the salvation of science fiction? To those who read it it will be a powerful, perhaps unforgettable experience, and Gluckman & Guthridge establish themselves as writers capable of producing a first-rate popular novel.

Child of Faerie, Child of Earth, Josepha Sherman (Walker, cloth, 159 pp, $14.95)

Young adult novels can often be forgiven for cliché, because their audience has not read everything yet and therefore sees most old ideas as new. Still, I'm an adult reader and I almost gave up on Child of Faerie, Child of Earth, not because it begins badly, but because it begins so familiarly. Rezaila, the Queen of Faeroe, has a half-human son who has fallen in love with a mortal girl -- but one who belongs in Faerie because of the "first stirrings of Talent" in her. I must confess that Talent with a capital T is likely to stir my gag reflex, and the opening chapter was so arch with phrases like "Come, lad, what's so very urgent?" and "She's not of Faerie at all, Mother. She . . . is a human" that reminded me of that humiliating moment in the movie Dune when poor Linda Hunt was required to say, portentously, "I . . . am the Kwisatz Hederach."

So I gave up and skipped to a place near the ending, just to see if it stayed that cliché ridden. And to my surprise, the story wasn't really about the Queen of Faerie or her boring son who falls in love with human girls by magically spying on them and then saying things like, "And win her, I shall." In fact, the novel is about the human girl, Graciosa, and when we finally get to her story, it's actually a delight. It's still familiar -- the human who must pass various impossible tests and gets magical help to pass them; the human who doubts her own power but then, in the moment of crisis, is able to draw on them just in time -- but Graciosa herself is quite engaging -- and so is the writing of Josepha Sherman, when she gets away from high-toned fantasy-speak and writes plainly and simply.

And here's the thing: That which drove me crazy about the opening of the book is precisely the sort of thing that young readers are completely oblivious to. An eleven-year-old girl, reading that opening, isn't going to say, Oh, no, not this tone, not this kind of story again. She's going to get drawn in because it's all new to her. And so that naive reader will be able to receive quite a delightful and touching story.

Still (Card says grumpily) the book didn't need the triteness, the archness, the emptiness of the opening. Sherman could have started us with the point of view of the main character, and let us find out about Faerie and her magical love when she did. The naive reader wouldn't have lost a thing by having a better-structured book. And we jaded old fantasy readers wouldn't be driven off with a stick when all we wanted was to read the good story that Josepha Sherman had to tell.

Del-Del, Victor Kelleher (Walker, cloth, 180 pp, $17.95)

Del-Del is a young-adult "problem novel." Like an after-school special, it deals with a serious topic in a therapeutic way. But Kelleher is not trying to write a book in which loose ends are all tied up at the end of 47 minutes. Indeed, the farther you get into Del-Del, the more you become aware that Kelleher isn't going to give his readers any pat answers.

Beth, the narrator, is in a family still recovering from the death of the eldest child, Laura. It is her younger brother, Sam, however, who seems to suffer the most, as he becomes more and more violent and hard to live with. Beth comes to realize that he is -- or thinks he is -- possessed by an alien being, or perhaps a demon, named Del-Del, and she is forced to deal with this problem virtually alone. But all along, there is the distinct possibility that Del-Del is not an outsider at all, but rather something arising out of Sam's own soul, his own inner torment, so that victory will come, not by getting rid of Del-Del, but by helping Sam to contain or control or, perhaps, simply release his demon.

Kelleher's novel is simple and powerful, told in the first person by Beth, usually a difficult narrative strategy but here exactly right. It provides the frisson of a good story of dread without wallowing in gore or demonology. And you truly come to care about and believe in Beth and Sam and their family, so that the ending is at once emotional and real.

(Will you forgive me an aside about the mechanics of bookmaking? Both Del-Del and Child of Faerie, Child of Earth are from the same publisher, and both books use typefaces that are eccentric, call attention to themselves, and are annoying to read, even in books as short as these. It is tempting for book designers to look at a really interesting font and say, That one's pretty, let's use that! But those pretty fonts should be confined to titles and chapter heads and other "spot" uses. For the body of a book, stick with the clean, readable fonts that quietly do their job of helping our eyes go effortlessly from word to word.)

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