October 09, 2008


The Unnameables. By Ellen Booraem. Harcourt. $16.

Flora’s Dare. By Ysabeau S. Wilce. Harcourt. $17.

     Names have power – this is a notion as old as magic. These two books take the notion of naming into new and fascinating realms, with intensity and underlying meaningfulness made all the more impressive by the fact that The Unnameables is Ellen Booraem’s first book and Flora’s Dare is Ysabeau S. Wilce’s second.

     The basic setting of The Unnameables is not unusual for a book about growing up and “finding oneself” in an isolated and difficult location: the story takes place on an island called Island, populated entirely by people whose names reflect their purposes in life – Farmer, Spinner, Butcher, Shepherd, and so on. Into this insular (in both senses of the word) community comes Medford Runyuin, whose origin is unknown (he washed ashore as an infant) and whose name clearly refers to no practical function. This makes him anathema to the puritanical townspeople, who still speak old-fashioned English (“I think there be hope,” “Wouldst thou take a pen?”). The story takes place when Medford is 13 and about to be responsible for big changes on Island, although of course he does not know this. As in other novels about growing up and becoming self-aware, the protagonist has a Secret (you can almost hear the capital letter) that will Shake Up Society. Island is governed by The Book, excerpts from which begin many chapters and use the work’s full title: A Frugall Compendium of Home Arts and Farme Chores by Capability C. Craft (1680), as Amended and Annotated by the Island Council of Names (1718-1809). This particular Good Book – perhaps Booraem intends a comparison with literal reading of the Bible, although she never says so explicitly – guides Island’s people through simple and orderly lives, and all works well as long as no Outside Influences intrude. Indeed, Island residents who create Unnameables (things of no use, such as poetry or art) are forced to leave for the Mainland and are never heard from again: “Just what is its Use, boy?” one character asks Medford after the boy carves a stick. “Do not do that again. …This is serious, a banishing thing, Medford.” But the appearance on Island of a strange character called Goatman proves more serious still, as Medford and the newcomer share feelings, thoughts and ideas, and it soon turns out that Island has its share of Secrets beneath its apparently placid exterior. Few individual elements of the story are unusual, but Booraem knits the various threads together effectively and well, and she creates characters (Medford, Goatman, Medford’s friend Prudy Carpenter, and others) about whom readers will really care. The book eventually moves into questions of what sort of Use is worthwhile, inviting readers to think about (among other things) whether art and storytelling, for example, are useful – a refreshingly philosophical approach to a coming-of-age tale that stands well above the pack.

     Flora Segunda, Wilce’s first novel, was also a standout, and so is its sequel, Flora’s Dare, in which the genuinely bizarre settings and characters of Flora’s world become even stranger than before – and the question of names, and what they say about who Flora really is and what she shall become, turns out to be crucial. “The courage must be the Fyrdraaca in you, but the pragmatism is all Hadraada,” an enemy tells Flora just before trying to kill her – which he fails to do, because she kills herself. But not permanently (issues of life and death are very complex in Wilce’s book); and by novel’s end, Flora has actually decided that she should be known by a different name altogether. Why that is so, and what the other name signifies, are important elements of this story. Yet they are only two among many, as outlandish characters change shape, form and (apparently) motivation again and again while Flora tries to learn about the dangerous “magickal” language called Gramatica: she needs it in order to become a Ranger and protect the city of Califa, which is being shaken apart by earthquakes. Wilce does not flinch from frightening images: “Georgina Segunda was a ghoul. Her Anima remained trapped in her corpse, in a kind of living death. I couldn’t imagine a worse fate. Your body decaying while your mind stayed active. Lying like that for years. Stuck in a coffin, while the worms nibbled at you and your entrails congealed into goo – it made me sick just thinking about it. …In a blur of motion, she was almost upon us, clawlike hands outstretched, mouth a gaping maw of rotting black teeth.” But Flora’s Dare is no mere horror book: it is a journey toward self-awareness. A letter that Flora receives from one of her mothers at a critical time proves to be one key; an actual Key also proves crucial as Flora labors to save Califa. Characters and revelations fly quickly through this very fast-paced book, which needs to be read slowly both to keep all the plot strands straight and to maximize the enjoyment of a particularly well-wrought tale – which, readers will be happy to learn at the end, is sure to lead to another Wilce novel about Flora (or whoever she has now become) in the future.

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