(Amusingly, I blogged about this book the first time I read it… five years ago!)
So my love of Reynolds’ work is becoming embarrassingly well known. To the point where a number of people at Natcon asked me which one they should read. The first person to do so admitted that they are not huge fans of very far-future SF, which therefore makes House of Suns – probably my favouritest of his books ever – a bit inaccessible. And I wasn’t sure how she felt about the slightly baroque-feeling SF that is Revelation Space. So I suggested Pushing Ice, because I cannot bring myself to recommend Terminal World (I am still getting over that disappointment and will have to read it again sometime to figure out whether I am being silly or not). And I recommended it to a few other people, too… and then realised that I hadn’t actually read it since that first time. I’ll admit to being a little worried that maybe it wasn’t as good as I remembered, because then I would be responsible for other people not liking Reynolds, and then MY LIFE WOULD BE OVER.
Anyway, the prologue made me actually wince when I read it… because it’s set 18,000 years in the future. Oops. Happily, it’s a fairly accessible 18,000 years in the future, because it’s about a politician making deals and proposals. Her name is Chromis Pasqueflower Bowerbird, and the parliament is made up of several solar systems, but still – it’s familiar. And then it goes waaay back in time to 2057, where Rockhopper is an asteroid-mining ship about to be sent on a rather extraordinary mission. Janus, one of Saturn’s moons, suddenly starts acting in a most un-moon-like manner, which is of course something to be investigated.
What happens during the chase, and after catching it, is what the plot revolves around. But it’s not a story about technology, or a first-contact story (although there is some of that), or even really about the exploration of space. Instead, it’s about the human interactions that take place in situations like this: a small number of people confined together for an extended period of time; a small number of people forced to make difficult, sometimes lift-threatening decisions. And at heart it revolves around the friendship of two women: the captain of Rockhopper, Bella Lind, and her best friend Svetlana.
The plot, while linear (with the exception of the prologue), does not simply follow the spacers through their adventures, one after the other. Instead it skips forward several times, sometimes over decades. After the initial adventure of chasing down the ‘moon’, and the repercussions of doing so, the narrative essentially consists of extended snapshots. It shows how society changes – and remains static – over those periods; it looks at how human interactions change, and how small things impact on major decisions. How one grudge can change the way a whole community works.
I loved it. Again. I loved the space bits and, I guess, the more specifically SF bits; they weren’t too tech-heavy, but definitely detailed enough to be enthralling. The interactions with aliens (spoiler!) were cleverly, and sympathetically, and subtly, done.
I loved the depiction of how a society might function in an enclosed space, and over such a long time, too. It’s probably a bit romantic in that the society doesn’t completely implode, but I’m fine with that – there are other places for reading about societies that disintegrate horrifically.
I liked the characters. There are none that I can say that I actually loved – they’re just not that sort of people, which I perversely liked, because it pushes them more towards the believability end of the spectrum. Neither Bella nor Svetlana, leaders at different points in the narrative, come out as particularly rosy – one looks slightly better, at times, but both are, simply, very human. Flaws, frailties, grudges, narrow-mindedness, ambitions… hopes, dreams, and sacrifice.
So, I’m happy with having recommended this! It’s a fairly good example, I think, of what Reynolds writes. An awesome reach, cool characters, and galactic-yet-still-human ideas.
I’m enjoying re-reading.
I am a long-time fan of both Garth Nix and Sean Williams (more so the latter’s SF than fantasy), so the idea of a collaboration between the two – aimed at children – is exciting indeed. And I was fortunate enough to hear Sean Williams speak about the act of collaboration at Natcon50, where he discussed the different things that each brought to the writing: that (I think!) Williams wrote the first rough draft, then Nix added bits and changed bits, and sent it back again… and so on. I was particularly amused to hear that the two got into some serious brinksmanship over who could be the most gross, since they are both little boys at heart, so I intrigued to read and discover what this looked like in practice. (The answer: they do indeed manage to be quite gross. I am not a fan of rats or cockroaches.)
Troubletwisters harks very strongly to the classics of fantasy written for younger readers. The main characters are twins: Jaide and Jack. (In talking about the story, Williams admitted that he has long been intrigued by twins and their use in fiction. As I see it, it’s almost like you’re getting a character for free – and it means that you always have the opportunity for your characters to discuss things, disagree about things, or be worried about someone.) Their father is away a lot, and they know nothing about his side of the family… until a disaster means that they have to go and stay with their mysterious paternal grandmother, where they begin to learn about some strange abilities. These plot devices could have felt hackneyed and stale, being by no means original; instead they feel familiar, but by no means comfortable. Williams and Nix use the twins as a means of exploring different reactions to scenarios and individuals, and there are indications that the two will have different experiences of their abilities that will be explored in later books of the series (there will be another four). The trope of leaving home and going to an alien place is as old as fiction itself; it can be, and is used here as, the catalyst for self-discovery and learning about the world. The strange relative and slightly intimidating new environment – Grandma X and her weird house – are perfect for the target age-group: visiting unknown relatives can be a very scary thing indeed.
The plot moves quickly: the twins arrive at their Grandma’s house and soon things start to go wrong. Additionally, weird things happen when they are around: a sign their mother can’t see, a freak whirlwind, talking cats…. There is, of course, a reason for this – it’s their nature – and the narrative is largely concerned with the pair beginning to learn about their abilities, and what it means to use them. Of course, they can’t simply do this is peace and quiet. Instead, they are confronted with a rather nasty villain, and it’s in dealing with this villain and its impact on their environment that they really start to learn about what it means to be “troubletwisters”. While the twins are allowed some breathing space – Williams and Nix don’t pretend 12-year-olds can simply go on throughout the night – the main action takes place over only three or four days, so it does feel a bit relentless. Since this is certainly how it feels for Jaide and Jack, that’s a perfectly reasonable feeling for the reader.
As with Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series, which shares a certain tone with Troubletwisters, it’s unclear what country this book is set in. Grandma X lives in Portland – but not the one you’ve heard of. Reading as an Australian, I could well believe that this was set on the Victorian coast. Having visited the UK, I can imagine it set there, too, and I imagine that setting it in America would be as easy for readers there. This ubiquity is no doubt good for getting international readers; it also gives the book a certain Everyplace vibe. This could happen to anyone, anywhere.
I have two, fairly minor, quibbles with this book. The first is the naming of the twins. I quite like the names Jaide and Jack… but those names are short for Jaidith and Jackaran. These names simply do not work to my ear – Jackaran in particular seems too complicated, and I am not a huge fan of made-up names in a real-world context. I really hope that there is an explanation for the names in later books. On the same topic, but in the opposite direction, I was disappointed by the lack of originality in naming the villain (which I won’t reveal here). It seemed too mundane for something that so threatening.
Overall, then, this is a marvellous opening to what promises to be a very interesting new children’s fantasy series. It sets up the main characters as attractive and interesting, although not without their problems, as well as introducing some supporting characters who will no doubt go on to be important (did I mention the talking cats?). There is clearly a problem to be resolved – what to do about the villain – as well as a quest, in learning to use and control their abilities. Plus, of course, there’s the issue of their slightly fractured family, which will no doubt continue to be an issue that the twins have to deal with. I have faith in the two authors that this series will continue to be enjoyable, without being predictable.