Sunday, June 21, 2015

Rook Song - Naomi Foyle

In my review of the first novel in Naomi Foyle's post-apocalyptic Gaia Chronicles, Astra (2014), I said I would keep an eye out for the sequel. I did but it ended up on the mighty to read stack so I'm a little late reviewing this. The novel appeared in February.  I thought the first novel had some pacing issues but that it was conceptually very interesting. In this second volume Foyle continues to develop these concepts, showing us the other side of the conflict outlined in Astra. Rook Song is in many ways quite different from the previous novel but certainly no less interesting.

Seventeen-year-old Astra has been evicted from Is-Land after receiving a devastating neuro-therapy aimed to remove certain potentially dangerous bits of knowledge from her mind. She is taken in by CONC, the organisation that provides humanitarian aid to the people living in the Southern Belt, a toxic wasteland on the doorstep of Is-Land. Astra finds herself alone in a community torn by conflict, surrounded by people with unknown agendas. Not knowing what else to do, she starts the search for her biological father, who was evicted from Is-Land so long ago that she doesn't remember him. With very little to go on and few people she can trust, the search turns out to be even more dangerous than Astra expected.

This books is probably a Sad Puppy's worst nightmare. In the previous novel we already encountered a society based on ecological principles, where family structures are very different from the traditional family and where the gay/straight dichotomy is practically meaningless. In this book, Foyle elaborates on the conflict between Is-Land and the outside world, which shows distinct parallels with the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is not particularly positive about the Israeli analogue either. The book is also full of dark skinned people, depicts disabled people and people whose gender identity is not clearly male or female. It is, in other words, an unapologetically and thoroughly progressive novel.

Foyle introduced a lot of very specific vocabulary to describe Is-Land society. Words like code-father, shelter-mother, Gaia garden and many more. In this new setting the mix becomes even richer. Astra is exposed to a multicultural society, where a variety of languages are spoken and where one of the political movements prefers to express itself in free-style rap. Foyle plays  with the intricacies of translations, the difficulties of communicating with someone in a language neither of the parties speaks fluently, and with the use of personal and possessive pronouns to refer to a character whose gender is ambiguous. All of that makes for a very interesting mix. The language in this novel is one aspect of it I very much enjoyed.

Almost the entire novel is set in the southern belt which appears to be modeled on the Gaza strip. As a result of the conflict that ended the world as we know it, the area is toxic, unsuitable for agriculture and chronically short of drinkable water. Chronic disease and genetic defects are common, and proper medical care scarce. Although the place is absolutely uninhabitable, many of the people living there are staying in the hopes of regaining the property they lost in the creation of Is-land. To keep them out, Is-land has raised some formidable defenses and is ready to upgrade them once more.

Internally the Belt is divided too. The N-LA feels it is the political representative of the people and has in recent years kept a fragile armistice alive with IMBOD (Is-Land border guard). In recent years a more radical faction has arisen however. Fed up  by the status quo and inspired by religion, they lash out at the three parties and soon the belt is on the edge of war. It is all there really, the impossibility of creating a state out of the strips of land left to the Palestinians by Israel, the lack of an economic and ecological basis for such a state, Israel's controversial security wall, the conflict between Fatah/PLO and Hamas and the UN's marginally effective programs in the region. Foyle raises the stakes a bit by adding genetic manipulation and severe environmental degradation to the mix but the inspiration for this conflict is unmistakable.

Astra, who has had her doubts about the indoctrination she received in Is-Land, is still not prepared for the political currents she has to navigate. She spends most of the novel figuring out how the world outside Is-Land works and functions as our guide in the process. Rook Song is a departure from the single point of view narrative we encountered in Astra. Foyle uses quite a few in this novel, showing us what goes on in the different layers of society in the Belt as well as how the Second Generation border guards Astra was supposed to be part of are fairing. As a result, it is less introspective and a bit faster paced. Although the majority of the chapters are still focused on Astra, the shifts to other points of view help build the tension in the story. Peat's point of view in particular is very disturbing.

The gap between Astra and the Sec Gens (as they are called in Is-Land) is widening. Where Astra remains human, and gradually gains a deeper understanding of the world, Peat is dragged down ever deeper into the indoctrination of IMBOD. The booster shot that Astra avoided makes them more susceptible to this type of control but also enhances them physically. Peat is slowly changing from a boy into a super soldier and then descending into animalistic behaviour that would shock even the Is-Land population if they knew about it. The spiral of radicalisation on both sides is frighteningly realistic even with the speculative elements Foyle adds to this part of the story. If I were to venture a guess I would say retrieving Peat's humanity will be one of the topics for the third volume.

Despite being almost a hundred pages longer, Rook Song felt like a much faster read than Astra. Where the first book aimed for a rising sense of unease with the flawed utopia that is Is-Land, in this novel we meet the problems of the world head on. It makes for a faster paced novel that nevertheless finds space for a whole range of social issues. Astra has to learn fast to keep up with the changes in her life. It is mostly a matter of taste, Foyle aims for very different effects with these novels, but I think the second book is stronger than the first one. By the end of the second novel Astra is taking her life into her own hands leaving plenty of possibilities for an even stronger third volume. I have not seen a title or publication date yet but it is already on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Rook Song
Author: Naomi Foyle
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Pages: 474
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-78206-919-5
First published: 2015

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