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Today I’m talking about two books that are impressive, powerful, skillfully crafted reads. Both have received some minor critical acclaim (1 star for Maresi, 2 for Fire Color One), and both are books no one is talking about or name-checking, which is a damn shame. More similarities: Both are imports and both are unexpectedly short, which is both refreshing. In this eternal age of doorstoppers, concise writing remains startling and welcome, and a tightly written book that packs as much in as each of these does is even more impressive.
I heard about Maresi in fall 2016, at an event celebrating the republication of Simukka Salla’s Red as Blood; Finland takes very good care of it’s authors, and the literary agent (there’s only one in all of Finland, as I understood it, and the focus is on selling their works in translation to other countries). Anyway, that fascinating peek into publishing elsewhere aside, Maresi caught my attention for two reasons – first, I am trying to read more works in translation, because I think it’s important to hear other voices than our own, and part of that involves voices from other places. Second, it was pitched as “The Handmaid’s Tale for teens” which was a pretty compelling tagline, and has become more so as The Handmaid’s Tale has started to look more prescient and less science fictional. Ultimately, though, I think that tagline does this fascinating piece of speculative fiction a disservice.
Maresi is an odd Printz potential; stars aside, it’s on the middle grade cusp – it’s short, the print version is practically double spaced so that there’s plenty of white space and it looks like it’s for children, and it’s first in a trilogy. But it’s lovely and deep, and while the protagonist is young – 13, maybe? – the issues make this skew up, particularly the horrific scene when The Rose sacrifices herself to save the other girls and women of the Abbey.
Turtschaninoff and Prime (the translator) offer crisp, slightly formal prose and a narrative voice that lingers after the last page. Maresi says in the prologue “I am thinking about my words more than anything,” and it’s clear the author is speaking for herself as well; extraneous material is missing, making this streamlined and leaving the reader to try to understand a fully imaginary world with little to no exposition. It’s a diverse world, with multiple races and cultures, but it’s consistently a hard world, and a harder world for women than for men. The Red Abbey is a place of magic, literal and figurative; a secret world of women where learning is prized and men are forbidden. It’s idyllic, until violent men come searching for a runaway. As a novel, it’s slight — Maresi makes a new friend, goes through the daily routines, and survives the invasion — but satisfying; Maresi grows from child to woman, and makes a difficult but resonant decision to turn her attention outward, to healing the world, rather than inward, to partake of the knowledge of the island. As a parable, or a fairy tale for explaining the world, this is a powerful look at power and gender, and its terrifying for the ways in which a fantasy set in an imaginary ancient world rings so true today (and as I write this, yet another woman on my Facebook feed is posting “Me too,” trying to call attention to the prevalence of harassment and assault).
So yeah, this is pretty amazing. And as for the first in a series issue, the second book is actually a prequel and offers a complete narrative with nothing left dangling.
Sadly, I don’t actually think this will get a Printz nod – it’s genre, it’s a little odd, it doesn’t fit USian ideas of age brackets — and I don’t think it’s eligible for a Morris (Turtschaninoff is an established and award winning author in Finland and Sweden), but this deserves a close look and much more buzz than it’s getting.
Speaking of odd: This is a strange story, but one that definitely deserves some attention. Another import, this one hails from Britain. Valentine won the Guardian Prize and made the Morris shortlist for her debut (Me, The Missing, and the Dead), so she’s not an unknown, and this is certainly a book I expect the RealCommittee is looking at given the authorial credentials, despite only modest critical acclaim. But I haven’t heard about it from a single real person, and I’m not sure why. The strange title? (I keep calling it Fire Opal One, randomly.) The fact that Valentine seems to fly under the radar here? Or the unusual premise and references to well-known but not exactly household name artists? (Especially for teens.)
Regardless, all the people not reading this are missing out. Let’s take a look at some of the Printz criteria (named criteria, for those needing a refresher: story, voice, style, setting, accuracy, characters, theme, illustrations, design), and see how this one has the goods.
The story is unlike anything else I can remember reading in YA, although there are familiar elements (terrible self-centered adults, an estranged parent, a troubled teen). But those familiar elements are mixed with art and an original version of the estranged parent trope; Iris’s mother has lied on an unimaginable scale and is a case study in narcissism and greed, the recently rediscovered parent is dying, and Iris is at least a problem in a not overly familiar way – setting fires doesn’t crop up as often as self-harm, for example, and some of that is because actually that’s statistically accurate, but here it both makes sense and ties thematic material together in some fun to dissect way (I have said it before — my favorite Printz picks work as pure pleasure reading but also offer enough substance that they would stand up to the scrutiny of being taught in an English curriculum). Fire is the motif that winds through the story, in a number of ways, from the bonfire and cremation of the opening prologue to the fire involved in the creation of Fire Color One, an actual painting (accuracy!) I knew little about but am now fascinated by.
Voice, style, and character are inextricably intertwined here, largely thanks to Iris’s first person narrative. The voice is fantastic – Iris has a style that is lyrical but not pretty, with unexpected turns of phrase, as in this passage from the opening:
On the lawn below me, my family gulped for air in shock, like landed fish. They clawed at their own faces like Edvard Munch’s Screamers, like meth-heads. Mourners poured from the house, designer clad and howling, lit up like specters by the flames.
She’s justifiably angry, a smart (too smart?), observant, original thinker, observant of and slightly removed from her own emotions (for perfectly comprehensible reasons) but also self-aware. She’s also a pyromaniac and a not quite reliable narrator – not because she lies so much as because she doles out information in dribs and drabs, so that as a reader there’s a constant sense of discovery as more and more becomes clear – which could translate to unlikable or likable but unbelievable, but Iris – again, largely because of the strength of her voice – instead seems like an inevitable outcome of her (awful) upbringing. The secondary characters are this close to caricature, and yet it works because everything here is just a little over the top, including awful Hannah and Lowell and awesome best friend and mystery man Thurston; even Ernest, who is himself the tamest character, has an outsize family, talent, and bank account. It holds up because it’s all of a piece, stylistically; this is stagy like a piece by Yves Klein. Staginess – performance as art and art as performance – comprise a secondary motif, in fact, so that the slight exaggeration becomes a commentary on the topics of the novel. But you don’t have to dig that deep; it’s also a satisfying read with some solidly evoked emotional beats.
Are you convinced yet? As the title says, this is a sleeper, and I can easily see a reader being turned off my many of the elements I’m enthusiastically praising, but I do believe this has the goods — and I didn’t even get to the themes of family and betrayal, love and ambition. There’s so much here, and while it’s one of those books I didn’t love, exactly, I keep coming back to it and I find myself wanting to read it again to see how it all comes together — there’s a bit of a twist I’m opting not to reveal, which isn’t major but is a nice piece of psychological payback that left me very satisfied as a reader (emotional satisfaction) and as a critic (well played!). I would nominate this one in a heartbeat (over books I love more, in fact), and even if it falls off the table the conversation would be worth it.
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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