Sometimes you just want to read a book that starts off with a bang and then proceeds to run its legs off. A book that’s able to work realistic emotions and characters into a narrative, while also advertising high-concept plotting. And if that same book just happens to contain preternaturally intelligent felines, snarky computers, futuristic barbarians, and a world underwater, all the better! Debut novelist Emily Diamand comes out swinging with such a book as that. Raiders’ Ransom is a post-apocalyptic tale of a future Britain, but it eschews moralizing in favor of a slam-bang setting. Better make sure the edge of your seat is nicely padded. You and your kids are going to find yourselves perched there for the majority of this tale.
Thirteen-year-old Lilly’s day was normal to begin with. She took her seacat (Cat) out for some fishing just as she always did. But on returning to her village, Lilly finds her Granny dead, the boats of her village destroyed, and the prime minister’s daughter kidnapped. The culprits? Raiders. The year is 2216. Much of England is underwater with Greater Scotland laying claim to all but the last ten counties of England to the south. Like futuristic Vikings, Raiders haunt the coasts, and one of them is Zeph, son of the Angel Isling chief, heir to his power. When Lilly and Cat set off to find the prime minister’s daughter and rescue her, they run into Zeph and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. To trade for the daughter, Lilly has taken a “jewel”, a rare artificial intelligence system from the days before the world changed. Now everyone is fighting to get their hands on it, and Lilly and Zeph must outwit their enemies and survive their trials, if they want to get what they want. The real question is, do they even know what they want anymore?
The other day I was at a talk about children’s literature and the speaker mentioned that what kids remember from book isn’t metaphors or even (half the time) the author’s name. It’s usually characters and plots. It got me to thinking about this book. Diamand splits her point of view between two very different characters. There’s Lilly on the one hand, under the distinct impression that she has a quest to fulfill, and there’s Zeph on the other, just as certain that his future is as his father’s heir. Lilly starts off a pretty upright citizen, but Zeph takes some reforming. He has a heart and a soul, but it’s buried under a lot of cruelty taught to him by his pa. To become a man he has to be turned away by his father, and that’s painful. You find yourself rooting for both characters, even when they’re at odds with one another, because you honestly believe that they’ll make the correct choices in the end. Add in one particularly snarky machine (who I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of in future books in the series) and then there are three “people” worth following.
The book avoids a lot of the mistakes post-apocalyptic novels usually make. For this story to work, the plot needs to take place not just in our future but also in our future’s future. We have to believe that in the future there will come a time when gaming devices with artificial intelligences can create fantastic interactive games in three-dimensions. After that, the world collapses, the sea levels rise, and humanity is thrown into a new dark ages. Now what I particularly dislike is when an author establishes all this and then sets the book a measly 30 years in the future. What good does that do anyone? I suppose the idea is that if you do it only slightly in the future, kids can gasp and go, “Oh no! We better change our ways!” But Raiders’ Ransom isn’t some preachy tome. It’s a swashbuckling adventure narrative and as such it makes sense to set it in 2216.
The future we see here has some similarities to the one in The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer. Both books involve clever children using a knowledge of the past to defeat a terrible present. Both involve scenes where old-time goods are recovered and reused. This is tastefully done, with the possible exception of a funny moment where a Mr. Saravanan says, “Be careful! . . . Those are Harry Potters. I have half a dozen historians fighting to get their hands on them.” Ditto the mentions of Metallica and Manchester United.
And, of course, I like the cat. Cat is just one of a fine series of felines published in 2009 that act like their real-life counterparts. It would not be entirely insane to pair Raiders’ Ransom with The Cats of Roxville Station by Jean Craighead George. In the George book, feral cats act and respond according to their instincts. In the Diamand book, Cat acts like a cat but has a certain intelligence that sets him apart. That intelligence will do you little good if you don’t know how to interpret what he does. Example: Apparently when he’s twitchy or nervous, that’s bad. Best that you do what he indicates. At the same time, you can’t read this book thinking that Cat’s abilities are all in Lilly’s head. At one point she is captured and Cat uses his talents to outwit the guard on duty in a truly inspired manner. It’s a good book for cat lovers, really.
I’m calling this a book for the 10 and up crowd, but make no mistake that there are some dark elements at work here. The trial by knife where Lilly is questioned in a violent manner never leads to anything much more than psychological terror, but for the squeamish that might be enough. The fact that the poor little prime minister’s daughter spends much of the book scared is a toughie too. Still, I’ve found that things like that tend to upset adult readers far more than children. Kids have tough emotional hides that we sometimes forget about when it comes to literature. Some concern has come up regarding the chief’s concubine. Does her presence in the book make it difficult to read this to middle grade kids? I don’t think so. She is always referred to as the man’s wife. No overt sexual references are made (though there are plenty to read between the lines). Kids won’t get what she is, only adults. But it’s worth noting. As for the language, it’s fine. Apparently while I’m sure that other words have been lost to the waves of time, there is one moment when Zeph refers to a wife as a “skank”. So that word, of all terms, proves its longevity. Ditto futuristic sketchy slang like “find your plums” (you can pretty much figure it out within context).
I wouldn’t say that this is a book for everything as it can prove to be a hard novel. But for any kid interested in action/adventure who isn’t afraid of a little sci-fi as well, this is well worth seeking out. Fun, well-written, the whole nine yards. Diamand is a woman to keep your eyes pinned on from here on in.
Source: Review from ARC sent by publisher.
“Cat puts up his nose to sniff the breath of wind barely filling the sail, and opens his small pink mouth to speak.”
Notes on the Cover: Why is it that when a disaster occurs it’s always Big Ben who pays? My husband and I were watching the first episode of the television show Flash Forward a month or so ago and there was a completely extraneous shot of Big Ben on fire that we found rather hilarious. Poor old clock.
Notes on the Title: Apparently the book was called Flood Child at one point. I’m a little upset that they changed that. It’s a lot more interesting than boring old Reavers or Raiders and their respective ransoms.
Other Blog Reviews:
British Title: Reavers’ Ransom
- Here’s a useful booktalk for the title.
- This book has the distinguishing characteristic of winning the inaugural Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction competition way over in old jolly London town.
- An interview and extract from the book are found here .
- Another interview and additional information in the Huddersfield Examiner.
- The book has appeared on the New York Public Library’s 100 Books for Reading and Sharing 2009 list.
- And finally, Barry Cunningham talks about how he selects the Times/Chicken House shortlist, mentioning Diamand’s book more than once.