Monday, 19 December 2011

Les éveilleurs by Pauline Alphen - review

One of the perks of my job is being asked to read books I'd otherwise have been very unlikely to come across, and this is one of those... Les éveilleurs, Tome 1: Salicande is a fantasy novel, the first in a series aimed at older children or teenagers, although there is probably enough of interest to adults that it could be successfully sold as a "cross-over" book.

The setting is a futuristic society somewhere in Europe, presumably in France (the year is 2259), which has banned all technology dating from after the Industrial Revolution. The place is not particularly relevant, however, as the enormous changes that have taken place since the 21st century mean that the location is as universal as that of the majority of fantasy books.

The main characters are Claris and Jad, twins who are identical but opposite. The book opens with Claris taking part in a fencing lesson. She is not a tomboy, she just “wants to do some of the things unfairly limited to boys”. Jad suffers from migraines and a weak heart and is interested in more reflective things such as bonsai and Unir, a fictitious martial art that seems similar to tai chi. Their mother, Sierra, disappeared on the twins’ third birthday and it was after this that their lives began to diverge. Jad likes to remember his mother and dreams about her, feeling sure that the dreams are real, but Claris blocks out all memories of her. The twins have a tutor named Blaise. He wants to challenge their preconceptions and can remember the “Great Catastrophe” which unleashed wars, pandemics and the collapse of a great and advanced civilisation, with an entire generation of adolescents disappearing at a stroke. The community of Salicande was founded in its aftermath, with the psychic gifts - discovered, manipulated and exploited in the last century - banned  along with all science and technology. Blaise feels that things are changing as Jad is clearly developing gifts and he wonders if Claris might too.

As the story progresses, the children meet other characters who teach them about their history, the advances, abuses and collapse of the society that preceded theirs. They also begin to form an idea of what might have happened to their mother and their own future roles in fulfilling an ancient prophecy. A tournament is organised for the twins' thirteenth birthday, and this brings events to a head, leaving them nicely poised for the next volume...

Although confusing at first - I struggled to understand when and where it was set - I found the writing good and well paced, and the background history of a society that had reverted to pre-industrial technology fascinating. The unfolding story of how they’d reached that point was gripping and the characters are well developed and convincing. Sadly, the main plot was rather dull in comparison.

I also enjoyed the musings on the nature of reading and literary references. Children might miss the allusions to Virginia Woolf and Isabelle Allende, among others, but there were also plenty of references to His Dark Materials, Harry Potter and Star Wars.

My main gripe with this novel is that books are the only technology surviving from the previous age. While most of the books referred to are fantasy or mythology, there are a few, such as His Dark Materials and Harry Potter that are set, at least partly in the contemporary world. When the children learn about spaceships etc, their response is along the lines of “Oh, like in Star Wars,” but descriptions of plastic, telephones, dishwashers etc ring no such bells. I would expect them to have at least read about them, given the books listed, as even if these books don’t mention them, it shows that they are reading books from the 20th and 21st centuries. A really petty niggle is that I also found it difficult to accept a character called Ugh!

Still, this was a good read, and I'll keep an eye out for the rest of the series.

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