Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review of The Farwalker's Quest by Joni Sensel

Sensel, Joni. The Farwalker's Quest. Bloomsbury, 2009.

In Ariel's world, there is no technology at all - not even a simple machine like a bike or a wheelchair. Oh, once there were marvelous gadgets - but then there was a terrible war that rendered everyone blind. Eventually, sighted children were born and the world returned to normal - except that folks had lost most of the knowledge they'd had before the war. And perhaps that wasn't such a bad thing, especially if that knowledge had led to the war.

When Ariel and her friend Zeke find a telling dart, a communication device from the old days, their world changes. Instead of settling into their chosen calling as every 13-year-old does, Ariel is kidnapped by two strange men who come to the village looking for the dart. Zeke follows - and from then on, their lives are completely upended.

This isn't just a post-apocalyptic novel - there is magic in the world, from the way trees and stones communicate with Zeke to a ghost who follows the children around. If the darts are a form of technology rather than magic, then it's one never seen in our own world. Unfortunately for Ariel's people, magic isn't enough to sustain her society. Due to her culture's distrust of new ideas and therefore of travelers and outsiders, even what little knowledge each village possesses - not just historical matters but such practical things as medicine and agriculture - is dwindling. Ariel's dart leads her and her companions to the realization that there is a great storehouse of knowledge from the past that could inject vital new life into the world, if only they could find it and then disperse it.

These are intriguing ideas, but they take a backseat to the more immediate action of the story, which involves Ariel's kidnapping, escape, and search for the Vault of knowledge. Her relationships with Zeke and with the enigmatic Scarl (one of her kidnappers) are always first and foremost in Ariel's thoughts, and this makes sense for a 13-year-old who always thought she'd be a healer like her mother, not some pivotal piece of a scary and all-important quest. Ariel's anguish and joy are always on-target and sometimes even move the plot forward - and yet I kept wondering about her world. How could each village stay so insular - didn't they need to trade with each other and even intermarry? Wouldn't they rely on goods from afar - and wouldn't new ideas arrive with those goods? (Reading Patricia Wrede's worldbuilding questions probably has made me a very picky reader of fantasy, indeed) I also got no sense of Ariel's culture - its religion, cuisine, dress, attitudes toward women. As a result, the action is vivid but all else is a bit hazy. Oh, and one more thing - at one point, Zeke says "geez." As a short form of "Jesus," this seemed out of place in a book that, whether or not it takes place on an Earth of the far future, certainly doesn't mention the existence of Christianity. Just a quibble, seeing as how I was nattering on about language last week.

Thanks to fine writing, interesting characters, and an imaginative plot, I stuck with this pleasant fantasy all the way to the end. However, I couldn't help thinking it could have been a great fantasy if more care had been taken with the details. I will definitely read whatever she writes next - which may well be The Timekeeper's Moon, a sequel that will be out in early 2010.

Recommended for fantasy fans in grade 5 - 8.

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