Monday, August 3, 2015

The First Twenty by Jennifer Lavoie

The world has fallen apart. It is twenty years after the fall of civilisation, there’s only a few scattered remnants of humanity left who are trying to struggle to survive and, maybe, rebuild.

Peyton is the newly elected leader of her Settlement’s security, they’re trying to rebuild and keep themselves safe from raiding Scavenger looking to steal their resources. One raid recently killed her father

Nixie is a Scavanger, desperate, under-resourced and driven to scrape what living they can. The Settlers seem to live a life of high luxury in comparison and the resentment is strong.

This is a post-apocalyptic dystopian world – humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction, the cities are abandoned and the remaining people are desperately trying to struggle to survive in the ruins.

And I really like this dystopian world – I like how it focuses a lot on the practicality of surviving and the possibility of rebuilding. Not with lots of despair and angst and “are we living or surviving” (yes this genre is really getting over-stuffed) but simple practical matters like how they’re producing food and finding clean water and standing together. It’s a lot less militaristic than many, far less combative and far more about survival.

A lot of apocalypse fiction loves to realy make a huge point that it’s not the zombies/vampires/plague/hockey-stick-wielding-were-beavers that you need to worry about but other people who are evil murdering raping arseholes. Usually with all the subtlety of a chainsaw wielding guy wearing his last victim’s skin.

And that kind of savagery is certainly not an unrealistic message – but this book looks more at communities coming together. Sure, it’s not perfect but the community tries, it is genuinely coming together and supporting each other and collaborating in the face of this difficult new world. We have a community of people that doesn’t need one leader to keep everyone in line with the threat of violence. We have different communities working with each other, trading, co-operating and not trying to fight each other or scrabble for advantage.

That’s not unrealistic either. Time and again history has shown us that people have faced terrible conditions and rallied wonderfully together. When faced with adversity people ARE good at rallying and supporting each other – it’s how communities started. It’s nice to see a world where humanity isn’t 3 days without a wifi connection away from eating their neighbours brains (now, cut my wifi AND my coffee and your brains are fair game). Not everything has to be grim and gritty to pretend to be “realistic”.

The story covers these two characters from very different backgrounds both pushed together and on a fairly standard quest storyline. But the quest and the world is very much a vehicle in which to examine these characters.  We have Peyton, a settler, struggling with her new responsibility of leadership while still recovering from the grief of her dad’s death. Nixie, a Scavenger, has a special ability to find water living under the total control of the dictatorial command of the perhaps unstable leader of her nomadic band desperately trying to scrape by. Together they learn different lessons – with Nixie realising there is a way to survive without being under the total command of someone, how not every part of your life needs to be controlled for survival as well as realising her leader’s lies were meant for control. While Peyton receives some hard lessons about class and possessions; even in this dystopian world. Her settlers have things that Nixie can’t even imagine, in fact her band of scavengers successfully raid Peyton’s settlers for supplies that Peyton’s settlers don’t miss. They can’t even figure out what has been stolen because they have that as a level of excess that the Scavengers can’t imagine.

This puts both Peyton and Nixie’s opinions through a radically different lenses which leads to a lot of very good character growth, conflict, examination of prejudices and preconceptions as they both learn to see their worlds very differently, understand each other and slowly fall in love

And while I do think the romance, in some ways, feels out of place, the way it is developed is very nice and natural and comes with a lot of real feeling and powerful connection between the two. Another element I like is that their love for each other and description of each other fits the setting. Peyton isn’t small and delicate with smooth skin – she has muscles and definition and calloused fingers and looks far older than her 18 years. And Nixie, though far more stereotypically beautiful, she is similarly small due to being undernourished from having to scrabble to get by. It’s a sweet romance and an excellent one between two women.

I do have a light dissatisfaction with how easy so much of this book was, especially in regards to overcoming animosity, burying grievances and prejudices et al. Here’s Peyton running around with a lot of prejudice against Scavengers and thinking (well, knowing) they killed her dad but a couple of weeks later she gets past it. A few weeks. Here’s Nixie always thinking that the Settlers are out to get them and greedily hoarding resources… and she gets over it. And then we have people like Dr.   and Graham who are virtually tripping over their halos

I mean, it’s not bad but it kind of makes my cynicism rise. The only people who are not understand and mature and sensible and empathetic and nice are the terribad evil people who are clearly irredeemable arseholes and my cynical brain just wishes it were that way. It left everything feeling just a bit… twee. It probably says a lot about my faith in humanity that I can suspend disbelief for a whole level of supernatural woo-woo and I’m happy to go with random rain making lady but people generally being nice and understand and not giving in to prejudice feels too great a leap. I realise this may conflict a little with the fact I praise the lack of savage humans trying to eat each other – but I think we can actually have conflict which isn’t easily resolved and having everyone ready to kill each other over a granola bar.

I also have to say that the entire logic of the plot isn’t always uncontrived. Like Peyton being leader of the guards of the Settlers… at age 18? There is one other candidate who is, almost, cartoonishly awful. But… that’s it? This is their own choice – a teenager or a violent rage machine? And why is Nixie, a woman who is physically inept with an essential magical skill, being risked on a dangerous raiding mission? And now is the time they decide to go on a cross country hike – taking the new person with them? And if the Scavengers are a threat to the Settlers, why do the Settlers do so little actual guarding? Couple with Dr. Easton and Graham‘s halo-ness it’s just all… not exactly contrived per se – but it can see contrived on a clear day.

Inclusionwise, the main couple in this story are clearly bisexual women or lesbians. They are very different, dedicated, capable and largely free from stereotype. I like them a lot and it’s an excellent story for them. They’re front and central for the story, the focus is definitely on them and it’s really well done.

There are two gay male characters who are not so good. Jasper is a sassy gay best friend, right from the stereotype mould. Graham is a nurturing gay father figure, the proverbial gay uncle (hey there stereotype mould) who can’t even muster up a shred of outrage over his own husband’s death (which, frankly, really annoyed me) since he’s far too busy being kind and nurturing and, literally, sacrificing himself. These “characters” are cookie-cutter caricatures we see used over and over. They were there to facilitate Peyton and Nixie’s relationship – props and tools.

I can only remember two POC – Ranger (who doesn’t get a name. He’s just Ranger) who is definitely cast in a positive light but is a vanishingly minor character that has little real effect on the book. The other is Peyton’s dead father who starts the book being buried. Which isn’t, to state the obvious, great inclusion.

The central plot line of this book – the character growth, the development, the romance, the central concept of the story are all excellent. I love the two main characters, I love the world they’re in, I love the lack of nigh obligatory grittiness that is in most dystopias. I love the class analysis and how that informs the characters, their world and their actions.

But round the edges there are enough problems to stop this being a great book. It’s just a bit simple, too many of the characters are just tools to advance the central plot and central characters and there are just a few too many little plot holes.