October 26th, 2005



I've now read two of Julie Hearn's YA fantasies, The Minister's Daughter and Sign of the Raven. While the first has many things to recommend it, it never quite coalesced for me, seeming to be two sorts of book jammed together. I liked Sign of the Raven a lot more. I read it last Wednesday, while home sick from work with a cold, so to some degree I was a captive audience. Yet I think I would have carried the book around and finished it in other circumstances, too.

It's not the best YA book I've read this year, but I would probably include it in my top ten or so. It takes a theme I've seen already this year--modern boy travels back in time to Elizabethan London--and, I think, accomplished something important: it showed that the past is another country, and people in the past think differently about some things than a modern person. (I was thinking about this yesterday, in a chat with filomancer, how not everyone takes cultural relativism for granted like anthropologists usually do.) There was a little of the wonder of this in the other book I mentioned (The Black Canary by Jane Louise Curry), but in that book the wonder got drowned in the plot issues, a lot of spies and running around, and at the end I felt that a lot of nifty stuff had been neglected, like the book had ended much too soon.

Sign of the Raven is more of a piece. The boy's issues in the present are that his mother is recuperating from cancer treatments and trying to reconcile with her mother. In the past, he encounters a group of odd people who are entertainers at Bartholomew Fair, from the "Bendy Man" who can contort himself to a boy who supposedly has "Deus Meus" in the irises of his eyes. Their goal is to rescue the body of a dead friend, the eight foot tall "Giant," and put it somewhere that the anatomists can't get hold of it to dissect. It all circles around issues of life, and death, and what makes people keep going even when they know that everyone is doomed to die eventually, and what we can do about it while still here on earth. I don't think it does this in a preachy way, either. The story carries one along, and the implications come through later.

My original post on THE BLACK CANARY.


I sent off that anthology story to the editor and of course now I just figured out what it was that was bothering me about the story. I used flashbacks to establish character.

Not standard flashbacks, where you insert scenes from a time before the main body of the story, but I did use fragments of scenes from past times. I can't think of any better way to accomplish what I needed to do, but now I wish I'd tried a different approach altogether. Those fragments of flashback, I think, are what made me feel this story wasn't of a piece. Those fragments might as well have been stuck onto the rest of the story with that gummy plastic-y stuff people use to seal gaps in their shower tile.

If this hadn't been a short story, and a short story of under 2500 words at that, I might have shown the two characters having their relationship in sequence, perhaps showing them as they together invented the story's science fictional element, then moving on to the accident that befalls one of the characters, and their subsequent figuring out of a new use for their invention. That would have taken more wordcount, for sure, but it might have been better. I might have been more satisfied with it. Alternatively, readers might have been bored by so much setup before the "real" story began. No wonder writers are neurotic.

I ended up throwing character one, who's the first person narrator, and the sf element into the midst of the "real" story, or what I hope was the "real" story. As a consequence, character two was already incapacitated and could have no lines and could not move around himself to show his relationship to character one (no, he's not dead or in a coma!). Hence the flashback approach. It was all I could think of to give some concrete detail to character one's statement that she and character two had a relationship, the only way I could think of to show it. My worry is that even those one or two sentence-long flashbacks will throw the reader out of the story.

Did it work? Time will tell.