Friday August 31, 2012
Above: Another world
Review by TAN SHIOW CHIN
Author: Leah Bobet
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 363 pages
WHEN I first saw the cover of this book and read the blurb, I thought, OK, urban fantasy in dystopian future – looks interesting. Turns out I was wrong about the dystopian future part, as the story is set firmly in current-day Toronto, Canada. There are, however, elements of fantasy in it, but, interestingly, they are not the main part of the story. Author Leah Bobet is neither consistent nor clear about the origins or framework of her fantastical imaginings, but more on that later.
The story is told in the first person by Matthew, also called Teller, a born-and-bred resident of Safe. Located beneath the city’s sewers, Safe is a haven for the Freaks or Beasts or Sick of society. But these are no ordinary misfits or rejects of the world Above; the people who come to find sanctuary in Safe have extraordinary attributes. For example, the leader of the five founders of Safe, Atticus, has crab-claws instead of hands. Another founder, Whisper, can communicate with ghosts while Jack Flash attracts electricity. Matthew’s mother had gills in her neck, while his father has lion’s paws instead of feet, leaving Matthew with fish scales on his back, and claws, instead of nails, on his feet.
As you can imagine, most of Safe’s population haven’t had the easiest of times in the world Above. In particular, they have had bad experiences at the hands of the Whitecoats – doctors or scientists who have tried to “treat” them to make them “normal”.
So Atticus, has strict rules about when and how the residents should go out, in order to prevent people from Above from finding out about their little community.
The story starts with Ariel, a new resident of Safe, running away yet again from the haven. Matthew, who first found Ariel and who loves her, sets out to find her and bring her back.However, the incident serves as a starting point for an attack on Safe because there is someone or something out there, lurking in the shadows of the sewers, that knows about Safe. Someone who was part of the community but exiled after being accused of murder, and now wants to return to Safe at all costs.
The attack comes swiftly and fairly early in the story. Only a few manage to get away safely, including Matthew, Ariel, Whisper and Jack Flash. They seek refuge in the house of Dr Marybeth, an old friend of the founders and one of the few people Above that they trust. The four not only have to figure out how the shadows managed to get into Safe, but also how to get their home back.
As the story is told by Matthew, much of it revolves around his relationship with Ariel, a troubled girl who is apt to turn into a bee whenever she gets upset or angry.
Author Leah Bobet does a good job in telling the story from the perspective of one who has been brought up in this small and sheltered community, with a rather narrow viewpoint about the world Above. The narrative is also conveniently broken up by origin tales of important characters, which give us a better idea of who they are. However, Bobet fails to give a proper and consistent framework for the fantastical elements of her story. Perhaps for her, these elements only serve as a device to further a tale about the misfits and rejects of society, but to me, the inconsistencies of how some of the characters got their attributes just reflects bad story-telling. For example, Matthew obviously has inherited his Curse, as Safe residents call it, but Atticus only grows his crab-claws after trying an experimental drug when his arm is amputated due to bone cancer.
More importantly, there are no real explanations as to how the shadows that attack Safe come about, which is a crucial part of the story. At the end, we know where they originate from, but not how exactly they came into being. So, while Above does have certain interesting elements, it is not a particularly well-told fantasy story. Bobet is a first-time author, and it shows. Hopefully, she will improve her craft if she gets to publish another book.