by Jean Roberta
For the past two weeks, I've mostly been reading student assignments. However, the two recent books sent to me by Lethe Press are much more interesting.
“Almost five years ago, right before I turned fifteen, people stopped asking what I wanted to be when I grew up because it was obvious I wasn’t going to. That’s when I got my diagnosis. Acute blah-blah-blah leukemia. That’s what I heard, anyway. The words that doctors use in these situations have way too many syllables making them almost impossible to remember.”
This is how Jake Margate, the narrator of Never Rest by Marshall Thornton, introduces himself. According to the blurb on the back of the book, this YA novel is a version of Frankenstein. The comparison seems apt, but this modern version is both more and less horrifying than the original.
Jake has gone through years of nauseating, exhausting, ultimately useless treatments, and he is ready to give up. So are his conventional doctors, who try to prepare his mother to accept her only child’s impending death.
Jake’s mother is a key character, and she is determined not to accept the loss of the son for whom she has sacrificed so much. She is divorced from Jake’s dad, who morphed from a struggling musician (before the divorce) to a software-inventer with a second family and a more upscale lifestyle. As Jake explains: “He had spares. She didn’t.”
The narrative sounds completely convincing because it is told in Jake’s pitch-perfect adolescent voice. He can’t hate either of his parents, although he suspects that his mom would like him to blame his dad for “selling out” and remarrying. Jake’s father has made an effort to stay in his life, but his mother has been almost fanatically determined to save him at any cost.
Although Jake tries to assert himself as a legal adult, his mother has had to make painful decisions for him for so long that she is not willing to give up. She moves him into a shady, isolated “clinic” run by Dr. Harry, who admits that his treatments are experimental and that he can’t predict how his patients will respond.
In this last-ditch facility, whose costs are not covered by any American medical insurance, Jake meets other dying young people, including a friendly boy called “Goth,” whose parents actually named him Goliath. Despite his name, Goth is abnormally small, and he has had cystic fibrosis from birth. He and Jake realize that they want to be more than friends.
After being given a substance called “Property Five,” Jake is assured that his cancer has disappeared, but Dr. Harry keeps anxiously testing his “vital signs.” At one point, the doctor pushes a protesting “nurse” out of the room so that he can restart Jake’s heart. No one gives Jake enough information about his condition, but he gathers enough clues to form a very disturbing hypothesis.
Despite the macabre plot premise, this novel is full of the black humour of a young man who has always been the victim of fate and adult power. The reader comes to care about Jake and Goth, and to hope a miracle will enable them to have a life together.
Nothing has really been resolved by the end of the novel, but Jake seems to have caught his mother’s determination, and he is not willing to let Goth die.
After Jake has given Property Five to his lover, he watches Goth open his eyes.
“’What happens next?’ he asked me again.
This time I answered: ‘I don’t know.’ I caressed his cheek with one hand. He was already cooling. That made me happier than I’d been in a very long time.
We’d figure it out. We were ready.”
The other book is an anthology of speculative fiction, Survivor. Edited by Mary Anne Mohanraj and J.J. Pionke, this collection is about mostly young, resourceful survivors of extreme conditions. Some of these stories are post-apocalyptic, and some are about survivors of social or personal injustice.
In the space opera “Scream Angel” by Douglas Smith, “scream” is a highly addictive, hallucinogenic substance extracted from the oppressed inhabitants of a colonized planet. Trelayne, the central character, has a change of heart when he fully understands that his employer, the Merged Corporate Entity, is keeping him under control by keeping him addicted so that he will co-operate in committing genocide.
“On Abydos, Dreaming” by John Linwood Grant is another space opera that sensitively explores religious differences and the ethics of creating artificial intelligence.
“The Good Liar” by Steven Grassie is set in a kind of medieval alternative universe, somewhat reminiscent of Star Wars, in which a brilliant woman manipulates the men in power to avert an unnecessary war.
“Mold” by Eric Gern is a witty contemporary story about a mother escaping with her two children from a violent husband and a house with mold in the attic. Told by the son, the story shows why he would rather lock himself in a car filled with the unusual, ever-growing green stuff than let himself be taken prisoner by his belt-wielding father. In the end, the mold functions like karma.
“A Stitch in Time” by Canadian writer Tonya Liburd is a heartbreaking story of another abused young man who can’t accept the sudden death of his girlfriend, who seemed like the only person who could really love him. He buys a magic spell that enables him to go back in time to a concert where he can make love to her, over and over. Yet the present contains possibilities, and he has to make a choice.
Limited time and space don’t allow me to summarize all sixteen stories in this anthology, but they are all well worth reading. When conditions are extreme, fictional characters show more strength and creativity than they knew they had.