Fantasy fails to enchant

ELEVATION: THE THOUSAND STEPS 
by Helen Brain (Human & Rousseau)

“A mage’s name is better hidden than a herring in the sea, better guarded than a dragon’s den.” — Ursula K le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea

I must admit, I’m not the target audience for a young adult fantasy. But Helen Brain’s book — the first in an intended series — promises interesting things: a video trailer set to ominous music claims that it is the “most exciting dystopian novel of the year … set in a post-apocalyptic Cape Town”.

And, besides, as Ian McDonald (the Everness series), Paolo Bacigalupi (Shipbreaker) and Ursula K le Guin (The Earthsea books and more) have demonstrated, good young adult fantasy can entrance and intrigue readers of any age.

Elevation’s plot employs familiar tropes, and a reader can’t resist ticking them off: workers reared and culled in a sealed underground bunker; a child marked for glory by a mysterious birthmark and amulet; a devious and corrupt high priest; lust-worthy young men competing for the heroine’s hand; a postapocalyptic surface world ruled by a near-feudal elite; a quest for a set of four magic objects, which, if found, can restore the old gods and stave off the end of the world. Recently, the first of these has been used very successfully by Hugh Howey in Wool (although rather more convincingly by Tim Lebbon in Echo City); the rest recur so frequently the references are uncountable.


In this genre, that may not matter: Brain has ample scope to assert difference through her chosen setting and the power of her narrative and characterisation. That doesn’t happen. Postapocalyptic Cape Town feels just like postapocalyptic young adult anywhere else. There are a few references to characters having brown skins or bearing African names, but these never signal intriguingly different experience.

Our heroine’s descent from the Goddess is marked by her milky-white skin and red hair, as well as her birthmark and amulet.

The belief system underlying the book’s magic owes nothing to the belief systems of Cape Town’s wine estate workers and fishing communities — who are presumably the forebears of the book’s equivalents — which still carry echoes of East Asian tradition.

The environmental apocalypse is loosely explained. The main protagonist is shallow, silly and surrounded by stock figures from Central Casting. (The point of being an adult writing a younger character is that you have the knowledge to reveal the complexities lying beneath a naive surface.)

The writing is dull and literal, pinned down by the kinds of choppy short sentences Le Guin would never bore her young adult readers with.

There’s no nuance, no poetry and, above all, no sense of wonder. When we are told about the amulet (“… the silver circle with a polished brown stone balanced within it. There are four clasps on the chain but only one has a charm hanging from it”) it sounds like something you might buy at Truworths.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.
Advertising

The case against Floyd Shivambu

The flow of money from VBS Bank would seem to suggest that the EFF’s second-in-command was an ultimate beneficiary of proceeds of a crime

Cabinet reshuffle rumours: Unlikely to happen any time soon, but…

Persistent rumours of a cabinet reshuffle may be jumping the gun, but they do reflect the political realignment taking place within the ANC

Gauteng responds to grave concern

The news of Gauteng’s grave site preparations raised alarm about the expected number of Covid-19-related deaths in the province

Nigeria’s anti-corruption boss arrested for corruption

Ibrahim Magu’s arrest by the secret police was a surprise — but also not surprising
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday