Thursday, May 2, 2013

Zenn Scarlett and Schools in Fantasy Novels

   Both of the books I'm reading this week have as a major theme one which I've been planning to write about for a while now - that of learning. I really love it when a science fiction or fantasy novel that I am reading features some of the main characters being students to some extent. I think you'd be surprised at the number of amazing titles which fit into this category! I'll briefly mention some of those titles at the end of this post. In the meantime, this week's books were 'Zenn Scarlett' by Christian Schoon and 'Etiquette & Espionage' by Gail Carriger, both Young Adult titles.
Strange Chemistry, £7.99
   'Zenn Scarlett' is released today (May 2nd), the debut novel from Minnesota author Christian Schoon, and Strange Chemistry have picked up the UK rights to a two-book series. It's aimed at roughly a 12-plus age-group.
   This first novel introduces us to Zenn, a 17 year-old studying to be an exoveterinarian in a Ciscan cloister on Mars. She's learning how to treat all sorts of exotic alien species, from the rikkaset - a small marsupial which can alter the colour of its fur to camouflage itself - to the Kiran sunkiller - a huge flying creature so called because its presence blocks out the light of the sun. But all is not well on Mars. The initial colonisation by humans created an artificial environment in some valleys, and alien Sandhogs have made the land fertile, but civilisation on Mars is now at risk after the Rift with Earth. Replacement parts for machinery and essential products are no longer available, and it remains to be seen how long the colonists can last on their own. In addition, the lease on the cloister where Zenn is training is in danger, and she wants to help her uncle to save the school. 
   There were lots of elements to this story that I really enjoyed. Schoon's creativity with his menagerie of alien species is astounding - I particularly loved the description of the Bloodcarn, a gigantic arthropod which has 'a huge, fluorescent-orange centipede back section with what looked like a tarantula growing out of its front end.' These 'alpha predators' reminded me somewhat of the Slake-Moths from China Miéville's 'Perdido Street Station' in the primal terror they cause. I also loved the detail involved in the description of the various veterinary procedures Zenn is learning to perform. In one particularly memorable sequence, she uses a high-tech bone and tissue generator to heal a friend's pet cat which has been hit by a car. The amazing thing about this procedure is that the software which should direct the machine in what to create is broken, so Zenn must perform this task herself - a dizzying accomplishment in anatomy, visualising perfect capillaries, splicing arteries, calibrating synapses, and recreating organs and bone. Zenn as a main character was far from perfect (and quite annoying at times), but there was enough going on with the plot that this was a forgivable fault. The main theme of tolerance, as Zenn and her colleagues struggle to get the human colonists on Mars to accept their alien friends and charges, is an important one, especially for the young age group this novel is aimed at. I thought that the device of dropping the reader right into the deep end of life among aliens on Mars was perfect for this exciting and enlightening story. 
   'Etiquette & Espionage' by Gail Carriger was released earlier this year by Atom Books. Once
Atom, £6.99
again, it's aimed at an approximately 12-plus age-group. It's the first novel in a proposed four-book series - The Finishing School. It's set in the same world as her popular Parasol Protectorate series, which I have heard good things about but have unfortunately not read. 

   'Etiquette & Espionage' tells the story of fourteen year-old Sophronia, sent away by her despairing mother to finishing school. Unfortunately, her mother is unaware that Sophronia has been recommended to this school due to her adventurous and inquisitive nature, and as well as the curtseying, handkerchief-waving, and dancing her mother desires her to learn, she is also taught hand-to-hand combat, the art of dispensing poisons, bribery, and blackmail. Just for good luck, the school also boasts both a werewolf and a vampire teacher. It's a tremendously fun adventure, and an inventive introduction to a bit of steampunk for young people. 
   I've been noticing that a common thread in a lot of my favourite science fiction and fantasy is the concept of a main character attending a place of learning. 'Ender's Game' features a battle training school, where Ender learns the art of war through a succession of difficult games played in a zero-gravity Battle Room. In 'The Name of the Wind', Kvothe wins a scholarship to attend University of Imre, studying Naming among other things. Brandon Sanderson's sensational new Stormlight Archive series begins with 'The Way of Kings' in which one of the storylines features Shallan Davar becoming the apprentice and student of the scholar Jasnah Kholin. Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time series features the White Tower in the city of Tar Valon, where girls may train to become Aes Sedai if they possess the talent. Of course, one of the most famous modern fantasy series - Harry Potter - is all about a school of magic. The classic Earthsea trilogy features the school of wizardry on Roke Island, where Ged, a poor farmboy from the island of Gont, eventually rises to the position of Archmage. In Trudi Canavan's Black Magician trilogy, a slum-born girl named Sonea discovers her talent for magic, and attends the Magician's Guild to learn to control that talent. 
   These have barely scratched the surface of science fiction and fantasy titles featuring schools, universities, or broader interpretations of learning the craft of magic. Please comment below with any of your own favourites. I'll have to keep adding to my list! 

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