September 21, 2006


Storm Thief. By Chris Wooding. Scholastic. $16.99.

Annals of the Western Shore II: Voices. By Ursula K. Le Guin. Harcourt. $17.

     Nominally fitting into the science-fiction genre, these books for preteens and young teenagers really would fit into the “self-discovery” genre if such were recognized.  Their settings and occurrences may be otherworldly, but the issues their young protagonists face are very familiar indeed.  It is thanks to the high skill of both the authors that neither book feels like a mere genre entry, and both transcend the facile “who am I and what will I become?” question.

     Storm Thief is another frightening and intense tour de force by the author of the chilling The Haunting of Alaizabel Gray.  Chris Wooding sets this novel in a place called Orokos, which is periodically and unpredictably lashed by “probability storms” that literally change everything – landscapes, streets, buildings and people.  The hero, Rail, was struck by a storm once, and now needs a respirator to breathe.  The heroine, Moa, is an outcast and criminal, the daughter of dead rebels against Orokos’ corrupt rulers.  This bare description makes the book and its characters seem formulaic, but Wooding will not allow them to be so.  The story revolves around something called a Fade-Science artifact that Rail and Moa find and that the city’s most powerful people want – and are willing to do just about anything to acquire.  Although Rail and Moa pick up allies, such as a golem, spies and betrayal dog their steps everywhere: “Right at the moment, a boy was watching them from behind a pile of crates, a boy who had heard a rumour.  A rumour that someone was paying good money for information about a dreadlocked, dark-skinned boy with a respirator and a pale girl wearing green pants.”  Moa, it turns out, is needed to make the artifact function, so she and Rail have some value to Orokos’ rulers – and as a result, the two eventually learn why the probability storms occur, and how the storms fit into the history of Orokos, and about the “empty, hollow things, mindlessly following rules that we had laid down for ourselves,” that were the people who made Orokos what it eventually became.  “You broke the world and nothing is different!” yells a horrified Moa.  But the book ends, if not with a better world, at least with the possibility of one.

     The world of Voices could use a great deal of improvement, too.  Ursula Le Guin’s followup to Gifts takes place, like the earlier book, in an area called the Western Shore – specifically in a city called Ansul, a onetime center of trade and learning that was conquered 17 years earlier by desert-dwellers, the Alds, who deem reading and writing evil acts, punishable by death.  Only one place in Ansul still has a few books: Oracle House, which the conquerors have left untouched because they believe demons live there.  Actually, Oracle House is a sanctuary for 17-year-old Memer, who finds himself sent by his Waylord to live among the Alds and learn more about them.  The Alds call Memer’s people heathens, which “meant people who don’t know what’s sacred.  Are there any such people?  ‘Heathen’ is merely a word for somebody who knows a different sacredness than you know.”  This is a world that sounds disturbingly familiar, although Le Guin creates no direct parallels to our own, making it clear that this is a story of people who “have peace in [their] bones” and want only to live free from tyranny.  But of what does tyranny consist?  Le Guin asks this question often, and here as elsewhere, provides a thoughtful story that offers no definitive answer.

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