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.

Subscribe to the M&G

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.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

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’.

Related stories

Advertising

Subscribers only

Come what may, the UIF will pay

The fund – the main safety net for unemployed workers – will run at an almost R20-billion deficit

‘Terrorised’ family shines a light on traditional leadership for vulnerable...

The ambiguity between traditional and constitutional leadership has been exposed by the violent banishment of an Eastern Cape family

More top stories

Zuma foundation claims ex-president was prepared to testify, but Zondo...

Zuma’s namesake organisation twists facts and the law – he told Zondo he would answer questions but only in private to the deputy chief justice

Property developers slap Jo’burg environmentalist and conservancy with R197m lawsuit

Century Property Developments and Riversands Developments are suing for income they have allegedly lost because of objections raised

What to do about leaders spouting vaccine misinformation

Refuting lies about vaccines from people in leadership positions may be less about changing their minds and more about protecting those listening

President urges caution against more contagious Covid variant as SA...

The curfew is shorter, alcohol sale times almost normal and more people can meet at religious, social, political and cultural gatherings
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…