I have a couple shorter works I’ve read recently that I’d like to mention.
First, Dragons in the Earth by Judith Tarr
Dragons sleep in the earth here.
I feel them. Sometimes I see them – in my head, in dreams, in the hunched shapes of mountains curled around the flattened bowls of the valleys.
They’re always there. I’m always aware of them, but sometimes the awareness sinks down deep till I can almost forget them. . . .
Claire lives by herself, well outside of Tucson, on a mostly-abandoned ranch. She can’t live around crowds of people because she sees too much. She’s not exactly a telepath and not exactly an empath, but she sees quite a bit:
This is old land. Humans have lived on it, off and on, for twelve thousand years: since the ice receded, before the mammoth died out. I could see them if I slanted my eyes just right, huge hairy shapes shambling across the horse pastures.
Then Claire gets an offer she can’t refuse: if she’ll keep a herd of special horses at her place, their owners will fix the place up and pay her a very generous wage for keeping them. She knows there’s more to it. In particular, she can tell that they want her for this job because something threatens these particular horses. Something strange, something from which Claire might be uniquely suited to protect them.
The story unrolls from there. Claire is an interesting protagonist and I liked the other characters as well, but for me the setting is what makes this story special: Tarr draws Arizona with such a poetic eye.
And the horses, of course. I’m such a sucker for horses.
Moving on, here’s the other one, which is quite different but if anything I liked even better:
THE CALL by Peadar O’Guilin
Nessa likes that Anto doesn’t offer to carry her bag, that never once has she seen pity in his eyes. Mostly he just likes to laugh, a viral happiness that spreads wherever he goes.
But he’s not laughing right now. They are walking closer together than they are supposed to, their breathing synchronized, their gazes straight ahead, and both of them remembering exactly the same thing: the time she accidentally kissed him for ten full minutes.
It was the day Tommy was taken. The first time she ever witnessed what the Sidhe could really do to you, could do to her. And all the pointless longings broke free at once, shattering the dam she had built to keep them out. She has rebuilt it since then. Stronger than ever.
This is not the sort of story that it offhand seems likely I’d like. It’s dark dark dark. Maybe horror, maybe dark fantasy.
On the other hand, it’s no darker than The Hunger Games and I loved that.
The basic outline is this: a generation ago, the Sidhe, who long ago made a treaty to withdraw from Ireland into the sunless lands, have now acquired the means to try to get the treaty abrogated and take revenge at the same time. They’ve cut Ireland off from the rest of the world and ever since they’ve been dragging every adolescent into the horrible Gray Land for exactly one day – three minutes and four seconds in our time – where they try their best to hunt each kid down and kill him or her in some unique and terrible way. About one in ten of the kids survive, many dreadfully changed. So it’s pretty grim.
Nessa is not expected to be one of the one-in-ten survivors. She has almost no use of her legs. She is utterly determined to prove everyone wrong. At the school where kids go to train for the Call, she has both friends and enemies. All these secondary characters are well drawn, as is Nessa herself. There is a romantic element, as you can see from the snippet quoted above. I loved how O’Guilin handled that; the relationship between Anto and Nessa is integral to the plot, but not super-angsty nor more important than her friendships with other students. For a long time I thought Nessa’s main enemy among the students was way overdone, but actually he turned out to be much more important to the plot than I expected, and it would have been hard to make this story work without him being just as crazy-mean as he is. Also, I must admit, the background of this story does lend itself to a one kind of craziness or another developing in many young people.
I really liked the resolution of this story, as every piece clicks together into a seamless whole. Nessa’s determination is shown realistically, not as a magic way to overcome her physical limitations. She doesn’t get magically healed – I liked that, too. Luck plays a role in the outcome, but luck alone wouldn’t have done it without Nessa’s determination and cleverness and the support of other students and teachers.
The writing is also very good. The story’s structure is somewhat unusual, as Nessa is definitely the protagonist, but we get brief pov chapters from many, many points of view. This is what shows us the Gray Land – it is truly awful. We see it in brief glimpses as one kid after another is Called and then (generally) dies. But all these different pov don’t distract from the main plotline.
This is plainly a YA story. Just how dark and horrible is it? If you happen to have a sensitive, imaginative twelve-year-old kid – or for that matter if you are a sensitive, imaginative twelve-year-old kid – this story might be just the ticket for nightmares. On the other hand, though I’m not too keen on horror, as you may know, I had no problem with this story. The overall storyline is definitely not grimdark: at the end, though Ireland’s problems are not exactly over, the situation is much improved.
I don’t know whether O’Guilin plans a sequel, but there is plenty of room for one. I know exactly what ultimate solution I would be planning if I were writing it, and if a sequel appears, I’ll be very interested to see how close I’ve come.