The Humming of NumbersAidan 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.

(Spoiler time!)

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.

¹p. 176-177

The Humming of Numbers ~ Joni Sensel


creature of the night kate thompsonBobby’s mother says she’s moving them to Clare for the summer to keep him out of trouble; in Dublin, he’s a bit prone to stealing cars, iPods, and purses with a small gang of older boys. She’s also taking them off to Clare to keep herself away from the moneylenders. Bobby doesn’t want to be in Clare, with the locals telling them about fairies, disappearances, and murders in the cottage where they’re living.

It’s a much darker book than Kate Thompson’s two earlier ones, though equally suffused with Irishness and just as well-written. Fairies appear mostly in the stories Bobby’s told—though his four-year-old brother keeps talking about a little woman who comes in at night for milk and chocolate—this one isn’t a fairy story, it’s a haunting portrait of a dysfunctional family trapped in their destructive patterns. Bobby’s mother is at least as messed-up as he is and their issues clearly play off each other’s. Bobby is struggling so hard against the misery and boredom of his life, but he’s barely able to see a way out that doesn’t involve substance abuse. And all while he’s struggling to get his footing and figure things out, strange noises and discoveries in the cottage throw him even more off-balance.

It’s short and powerful, with a blend of harsh realism and hope that makes it difficult but not overwhelming to read.

Creature of the Night ~ Kate Thompson

Donna Jo Napoli HushIn a Norse saga, there’s a mention of an Irishwoman captured and sold as a slave, Melorka. In Hush, Donna Jo Napoli takes Melkorka and gives her a book of her own.

Melkorka’s a spoiled teenager, firmly convinced of her royal superiority over the ordinary people and slaves, firm in her hatred of Vikings, and not very good at thinking before she speaks. Then comes her kidnapping, and her enslavement. Remembering her sister and her mother, she refuses to speak to her captors; listening to a fellow slave, she resolves to not speak to anyone. Her silence, flimsy though it is, becomes the only power she has.

It’s told in a first-person, present-tense narrative that works. Melkorka’s inner monologue reveals what she doesn’t say and lets us watch her adjust to her situation – and adjust again when it changes again. We see the helplessness of slaver, but also how the slave comes to have more strength than the princess ever did. It’s surprisingly gentle for a slave narrative, I think in part because it’s present-tense, but that gentleness is actually quite revealing. When Melkorka is experiencing something she can’t deal with, she thinks about it only obliquely, and that sideways experience is what we’re given.

The end is rushed and trite. Looking back on it, the beginning seems tacked-on, not really part of the story. But in many ways that’s part of Melkorka’s story; the experiences she has make her no longer the person she was. It’s a powerful book, which makes no excuses for the cruelties of the world but gives us a woman who can’t escape them, but can survive them.

Hush ~ Donna Jo Napoli

miriam newman ya lit ya literatureThe Moorchild is the story of a half-human/half-fairy changeling and the unrelated human family who unwittingly adopt her. Saaski’s an odd, difficult baby and a flighty child, forever running to the forbidden moor and refusing to do certain chores, like collecting rowan or anything to do with cold iron. Still, her family loves her – even her wise-woman grandmother, who figured out long ago what Saaski is – and life goes on apace, with chores and her grandfather’s bagpipes and generally avoiding the village children. Nonetheless, the freaky-odd child is a perfect scapegoat when things go wrong, and drastic measure must be taken, both by the frightened villagers and the equally-frightened Saaski.

A well-written and evenly-paced book, The Moorchild‘s great strengths are its characters caught in the middle. Though Saaski’s parents deny it at first, they know there’s something unusual about her, but they refuse to throw her out and, in fact, defend her staunchly against all comers – including Old Bess, Saaski’s mother’s mother and the village wise-woman. When Old Bess first knew that Saaski was not the human baby she delivered, she advocated trying to get the fairies to swap it back, though nearly all the methods for doing so involve putting the changeling in mortal peril – and, if she were wrong, killing the child. Even so, as Saaski grows, Old Bess becomes closer to her than anyone else, truly loving her and mentoring her, and quietly deals with the guilt of what she’d said when Saaski was a babe. And secondly there’s Saaski’s herself, neither fairy nor human, with the fecklessness and music of her fairy kin, but the love and loyalty of humans, as well. Saaski’s life in the village forces them all to walk a tightrope, and it’s done well.

If you think there’s only room in your life for one book of fairies and changelings, go read The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson. If, however, you have the sense to read as many such books as are good, go ahead and read them both.

The Moorchild

The New Policeman, Kate Thompson’s first book revolving around the Liddy family’s relationship with Tír ná n’Óg (in Irish mythology, the land of eternal youth) and its fairy inhabitants, was quite good.

The Last of the High Kings is better.

J.J. Liddy, a teenager at the time of his first adventure, is now a grown man – mostly – with a wife and four children, ranging from two and a half to seventeen years old. Everyone’s fully fleshed-out – with the possible exception of the two year old, but he’s too young to do much other than wreak havoc – but it’s the eleven year old daughter and the (I think) nine year old son who claim all the glory. She’s friends with a púka and a ghost, and he’s friends with their elderly neighbor, who claims to be the last of the High Kings of Ireland, and wants to go to the Beacon at the top of the hill one more time before he dies. J.J. just wants to get his supply of chiming maple from Aengus Óg so he can make the best fiddles the world has seen since Stradivarius, and be home more to help his wife with the children, to boot. It takes all three of these plots coming together to save the human race, who, of course, never knew how close they were to destruction. Not even J.J. knows; most of that burden is reserved for eleven-year-old Jenny.

Jenny’s a difficult character done well. She’s by nature feckless and flightly, and has a great deal of trouble understanding what other people are feeling – or even remembering to wonder – but eventually she’s forced to focus and empathize. It would be easy for that transition to ring false, but it doesn’t; Thompson has done her job well, so when it happens, it makes sense.

Thompson manages her other challenges with equal aplomb. The book is well-balanced among characters of disparate ages and temperaments. J.J. himself has aged well, being both convincingly adult and recognizably consistent with the teenager introduced in The New Policeman.

The fairies, living as they do in the land of eternal youth, haven’t aged a day.

Ulster, 1981. Not history’s most gentle moment.

Ireland, 80 CE. Not history’s most gentle moment, either.

Of course, the gentle moments are rarely interesting.

Bog Child centers around Fergus as his life centers around his A-Levels¹, the Troubles², and, increasingly, the preserved body of a girl he found in the bog. Fergus is being pulled every which way, caught between the knowledge of his brother on a hunger-strike in jail; his growing friendship with a Welsh soldier on border-duty; his own desire to get out of Ireland and into Medical School; the companionship of the archeologist who comes to investigate the mysterious first-century bog body, the archeologist’s daughter, and his dreams of the girl in the ground.

The book’s treatment of the Troubles is very strong.  The sense of entrapment is palpable, as is the heady mix of absolute love for Ireland and absolute despair over what’s happening in Ireland. Fergus and his family and friends are all staunchly Republican³, but it’s fascinating to see the shifting lines of commitment and ideas.  A lot is left unsaid, but that’s as it should be – instead of being told, we’re right there with Fergus as he has to deal with the political climate and his family’s role in it.

Into all this is tied the story of Mel, the bog child, told through dreams and visions had by Fergus.  I can’t help but think the book would have been stronger without the dream plot device, either with the flashbacks simply existing as their own thing between Fergus chapters or even entirely without them – they’re overshadowed by Fergus anyway.   I’m also not without qualms as to the historical accuracy; I didn’t see any glaring issues, either with the narrative or the archeology, but there were a few things which had me straining to remember details of bog people, Iron Age Ireland, and ancient Irish, Celtic, and Germanic art.  While there’s a brief historical note on the hunger strike, there’s nothing about the subjects covered in the flashbacks, and the only sources she sites are a BBC documentary and a book from 1969. Basically, I’m withholding judgment on the historical accuracy until I’ve had a chance to run it by the friend who actually took Irish archeology – much of what I know I learned from helping her study.

But it’s not Mel’s book, it’s Fergus’s.  And Fergus’s book is worth a read.

¹Advanced-Level examinations which UK students need to pass to go to college.  Think NEWTs, only without the magic.

²The violence and chaos in Northern Ireland from the 1960s through 1998. The Catholic minority of Ulster was primarily Nationalist and wanted to join the (primarily Catholic) Irish Republic, while the Protestant majority was primarily Unionist and wanted to stay part of the United Kingdom. Cue bombings, riots, and hunger strikes.

³In the Irish Nationalist sense, not the American Right-Wing Conservative sense.