February 26, 2015
(++++) RISKS OF FINDING WHAT YOU LOOK FOR
Seeker. By Arwen Elys Dayton. Delacorte Press. $18.99.
I Remember You. By Cathleen Davitt Bell. Knopf. $17.99.
Arwen Elys Dayton’s Seeker, the start of a trilogy, is an unusual book cast in a very usual form. On the surface it is yet another coming-of-age fantasy with dystopian overtones (and an occasional, rather pointless reference to science, as if that turns it into science fiction). Also on the surface, it is a story of friends and friendship, of family squabbles and outright war (both between families and within them), and of the usual dread discoveries that people, things and life itself are not what the protagonists were led to believe before they all went through life-changing circumstances. What is different here is not so much the framework, not so much the story arc, as the characters. Dayton actually does manage to humanize the protagonists and keep readers interested as the tale veers from the perspective of one to that of the next and the one after that. It is certainly true that the episodes told from various characters’ viewpoints do not have particularly distinctive styles – in that sense, the characters are types and their language is always the same, rather than suited to each one’s individual personality. However, in an adventure novel for ages 14 and up, this is actually something of a strength, allowing focus on the action and the characters’ interactions rather than requiring readers to delve too deeply into motivations and personalities. The basic notion here is the typical one of a coming-of-age trial that turns out not to be what everyone expects: Quin Kincaid, nominal central character but more like the first among equals, is expected at age 15 to become a Seeker, a role she has been told is an honorable one that involves protecting people through special training and the use of a weapon called an “athame” (three syllables: ATH-uh-may). Quin has been training for her Seeker life with close friends Shinobu, who is also 15, and John, who at 16 should be too old to become a Seeker but who came to the training late, through mysterious circumstances that have allowed him to complete it. Or almost complete it: Quin’s father, who is in charge and is an especially unpleasant character even when compared with typical authority figures in genre books like this one, deliberately dangles the Seeker possibility before John so he can snatch it away at the last minute. This leads to a cascading confusion of events that soon reveals deep-seated, multigenerational animosity and what is essentially war among various powerful families, with John’s – which, interestingly, has its stronghold in an airship, a rarity in fantasies of this type – having suffered severe victimization that John may, just may, be able to do something to reverse.
A typical sort of love story also burbles along here, with Quin and John the usual star-crossed lovers from opposing families whose animosity is right in line with that of the Montagues and Capulets. But Dayton makes the Romeo-and-Juliet theme, along with several others, less conventional than usual in books of this sort, setting the characters themselves – not just their parents – against each other, and introducing complicating factors of all kinds and in all places (different parts of the book take place in different locales, although as with the characters themselves, the geographical places are not described in any particularly differentiating detail). At the foundation of the book is a set of three laws, whose resemblance to Isaac Asimov’s justly famed Three Laws of Robotics is likely deliberate: “First law: a Seeker is forbidden to take another family’s athame. Second law: a Seeker is forbidden to kill another Seeker save in self-defense. Third law: a Seeker is forbidden to harm humankind.” Indeed, the third of these is almost identical to Asimov’s “zeroth” law, introduced long after the first three; and this third law in Seeker lies at the heart of everything that occurs. Seeker lurches a bit in its narrative, and Dayton seems aware that her broad-brush opening section, while certainly exciting, leaves a few too many questions unanswered, because she next offers a section of background that explains the history of some of the characters more clearly. One such character, whose 15-year-old body belies her extension through time, is not a Seeker but something called a Dread, and as this character, Maud, becomes increasingly intertwined with others, Seeker takes on greater depth and strangeness. Because this is the first book of a trilogy, one of its primary requirements is to start the story with a tight focus and eventually widen the canvas so that there is much more to be revealed in succeeding books. Dayton handles this aspect of the novel quite well indeed, creating a satisfying teen-adventure fantasy here while also raising enough questions of the “what does it all mean?” variety so that readers will look forward to the second book, Traveler, due out next year. Ultimately, what sets Seeker above many other books in its genre is the skill with which Dayton keeps the narrative moving, refocuses its perspective, widens and broadens the story, and implies that, however serious and mysterious things may be, there are matters of even greater consequence still to be revealed. The story arc and actual writing style are not particularly distinguished, but the book’s pacing, skillful use of multiple viewpoints, and ability to interweave unexpected implications with what seem at first to be straightforward action scenes, are elements that set it apart.
Much more conventional and heart-on-its-sleeve romantic, Cathleen Davitt Bell’s I Remember You targets the same age group with a story that also includes fantasy elements masquerading as science fiction (here, a sort of time-travel-cum-telepathy) but that sticks in all its essentials to the longstanding trope of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl (or the other way around). There is nothing profound here at all, but there are many attempts, some of them successful, to tug readers’ heartstrings. It is tempting to call this too a Romeo-and-Juliet story, especially since the female protagonist is actually named Juliet, but in fact her romance with Lucas is approached from a somewhat different angle. True, the two of them come from different worlds – he is a star athlete, she a straight-A student; he plans to enlist in the Marines after high school, while she is certainly going to college. But the drama here comes not from these differences but from the fact that Lucas seems to remember things that have not happened yet – including falling in love with Juliet and eventually dying in war. This whole setup is pretty silly, and has been done many times before: future self may have returned in some way to relive the past, and can the future be changed with foreknowledge? However, Bell plays the whole scenario straight and as if it is new. Lucas and Juliet interact, express uncertainty, struggle to understand what is going on and if anything is going on, and so forth. Lucas’ flash-forwards – or memories, if that is what they are – come more often and grow increasingly ominous, and eventually Juliet decides that the memories are real, that Lucas will indeed die after joining the Marines and being sent to war, and that there must be some way to use the advance knowledge to prevent his death from happening. In real science fiction, paradoxes of this sort have long been explored from many angles, often with considerable thoughtfulness, but in I Remember You the whole “future memory” notion is simply a plot device within a teen-romance book. Eventually the young lovers break up, Lucas does join the Marines despite his apparent memories and Juliet’s deep-seated misgivings, he does get sent to war, and certain other “remembered” events begin to happen just as anticipated. By this time, teenage romance readers will be rooting desperately for there to be some way, somehow, for everything to work out – and it does not spoil anything to say that Bell, bending over backwards to deliver a happy ending, finds one. It may not be believable, but little in this (+++) book is – and believability is not the novel’s reason for being. This is a tissue-and-handkerchief book, one intended to mirror the deep yearnings teenagers so often feel during first love while providing a setting just sufficiently outlandish to yank those feelings here and there before offering a last-minute sigh of relief. Thoroughly predictable, efficient in its delivery of the chills and romance that its readers will seek, I Remember You is really not memorable at all, nor is it really meant to be: it is romance, with a fillip of time-travel fantasy, offered purely as entertainment.