Aidan is a novice, nearly ready to take his vows as a monk, despite some lingering difficult with obedience. Obedience may trouble him, but he’s learned not to mention the humming of numbers—he hears numbers buzzing from everything—lest he be accused of witchcraft. People hum low numbers—anxious, unpleasant ones; steadfast, loyal threes; confident eights— while animals and objects hum higher numbers.
Abruptly brought to the monastery for punishment, Lana hums an eleven, the highest Aidan has ever heard from a person. A beautiful, energetic, playful eleven. Lana is all of those things, not to mention highly knowledgeable of the less-mundane uses of wood—what protects, what threatens, what gives knowledge— and skilled at causing trouble for Aidan.
And then the Vikings come.
The writing is nothing special. Aidan’s way of perceiving the world is interesting and well-explained. Lana’s way of seeing the world, the way she senses trees and works with them, is less unusual but at least as interesting. Lana’s life is also more interesting than Aidan’s; he was a youngest son sent to a monastery because there would be no land for him, while she was the bastard daughter of the local lord, gifted nice things periodically but rarely enough to eat, raped—and probably impregnated and led to have an abortion— gossiped about as a noble but not respected as one. Unfortunately, we see Lana only through Aidan’s eyes, and the limitations of the writing keep her from becoming thoroughly fleshed-out and realized. We know she is energetic, trusting, and playful; but we’re not given enough to see how she maintains this lightness in the face of all she’s been through. She and Aidan both seem unrealistically young, for their ages and for their existences.
But they are in their late teens and this is YA about a somewhat-loner guy thrown together with a somewhat-loner girl in stressful circumstances, so there must be sexual exploration. Lana's part is done well; the combination of excitement and nervousness, and the survivor's need to know that she can say stop and her partner will listen. And Aidan does stop However:
“Couldn’t we . . . couldn’t you just hold me and that’s all?” . . .
“I don’t know if I can do that, Lana.” He made the mistake of looking over his shoulder at her. Just the shape of her form in the gloom and the prospect of feeling her skin against his once more sent a tingle along his skin.
A hopeful smile flicked onto her lips, not sure it should stay. “I can slap hands that travel too far.”
Glad that the wounded creature [upset Lana] had slipped back out of sight, he replied gentle, “I’m serious. I don’t think I can. You are too overwhelming up close. Better if I stay a short distance away”¹
Sorry, kid. Holding your girlfriend without the possibility of sex when you’re really horny is likely to be exceedingly frustrating. Difficult. Possibly even painful. But you can do it. You may decide it’s not worth it, but you can. And the implication in this passage that men really can’t control their impulses, that they’ll turn into rapists if their girlfriends want hugs but not sex, is ridiculous and insulting to men. It also perpetuates an untrue idea of why rape happens: because men cannot control themselves around beautiful women. And from there it’s easy to get to the slippery slope of “she was wearing a short skirt so it’s her fault.” In reality, rape is less about sex than it is about power.
It’s bizarre to see that attitude in a book that, in other place, deals well with issues of rape and of being a survivor. It’s possible that the mediocre writing is to blame, that the author meant Aidan’s “I don’t think I can” to mean “I don’t think I can without being exceedingly uncomfortable” instead of “I don’t think I can without forcing sex on you.” As written, it comes across questionably at best.
(No more spoilers!)
Otherwise, it’s a quick, relatively fun, if unexceptional, book.
The Humming of Numbers ~ Joni Sensel