Flora's Dare, the sequel to Wilce's first novel, Flora Segunda, represents a great stride forward in her ability to involve readers and keep the pages turning. The first Flora was fun overall, but became really involving only toward the end, when the danger of Flora's imminent vanishing became urgent, and she came to grips with it. While this second book shares some of the weaknesses of the first—particularly some tendencies to thin out and render less convincing its own reality as a secondary world—it transcends them through sheer storytelling power, a deepening of Flora's character, an advanced level of plotting, with events arising with admirable naturalness from the characters and their situations, and a big payoff in revelations both deep and telling about Flora and her world.
Wilce's novels take place in the city of Califa. The first tale of Califa, "Metal More Attractive," appeared in the February 2004 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction, with novella "The Lineaments of Gratified Desire" following in the July 2006 issue. Those were written for adults. Notable was the cleverness, stylishness, creativity, and sheer density of Wilce's verbal invention, which bordered on the baroque, as well as her invention per se.
As David V. Barrett said in his review of Flora Segunda here in July 2007, the setting for these books is "what appears to be a fantasy historical version of California." In fact, Califa is essentially a fantasy San Francisco, with a steam-punkish level of technology, a fairly complex form of magic called "Gramatica," and a strong military influence; Flora's mom is Califa's commanding general.
But everything outside of Califa remains vague. There's no description, and very little reference, to anything else except its enemy and conqueror, the Huitzil Empire, which seems to be located in what we would call Mexico and to be primarily Aztec, but also Hispanic, as if the Aztecs had absorbed the Spanish, rather than the other way round. Outside of Califa and the Huitzil Empire, we have only a passing reference to goat herdsmen in the "Outside Lands." Califa's isolation emphasizes its made-up feel, leaching reality from the novel's world.
Wilce does a fine job of thinning the complex playfulness of her adult prose for younger readers, while still keeping its spice and flavor. To mix metaphors, reading Wilce, even in her junior form, is like being periodically, playfully pinched. The language has elements of strangeness about it, not only in the words peculiar to this world, such as affirmatives "Ayah" and "Ayah so," and colorful ranks, titles, family names, etc., but also in its slightly archaic and formal feel. Califa's culture is enormously formal, as dangerous cultures tend to be, with what seems to be hundreds of different bows, for instance, each of which has a particular meaning.
Wilce's adult stories, more than the usual run of fiction, depend on their language for effect, more than events or characters. When her prose is thinned to the point that we're no longer stunned by it, it becomes too apparent that the tale she's telling is just words. Of course that's true of all written or spoken tales, but we shouldn't be so aware of it. The thinning increases the impression of the story being "just made up" but paradoxically, so does the extent to which her vocabulary is still large and colorful, because she brings in words—and with them, things—that are very much a part of our world. She does this not because of the paucity of her fantasy—it is anything but poor—but as part of the reach and broad, magpie-like eclecticness of her language. To make a comparison that at first may seem far-fetched, she's a bit like the humorist S.J. Perelman, who wrote a sharp-edged, many-faceted prose bejeweled with rare words and borrowings from everywhere—the spice trade, the adventure stories he read as a youth, Yiddish, advertising-speak. (Perhaps within the genres, the comparison should be to Avram Davidson, but somehow Perelman's tone seems more apt.)
In the way that something uniquely and indelibly associated with one person, idea, place, etc., recalls it to us instantly, her introduction of current, quotidian terms has the effect, willy-nilly, of drawing in the quotidian, of leaching the sense of the fantastic, or of bursting its bubble. It's because her word choices are so immediate and concrete that they harm the book; they are so idiosyncratically and tangibly of our world, of our day, that they rocket us right back here. We get "quality time," "ginormous," "hipsters," "boy toys," chili con carne, tortillas, and tortas, among others. Flora might as well get her "espresso" at Starbucks.
When Wilce introduces elements from our history, the effect is the same, if the references are still current, for instance, a partial quote from Thomas Jefferson or a glancing reference to Isadora Duncan. When the references are to items specifically of the past—such as Springheel Jack, who figures importantly in the plot, and "yellowback novels"—they enhance the steampunk feel of Califa, as these are Victorian references, but there's still a disorienting feel of the anomalous and anachronistic. Calling the cheap adventure novels Flora reads about her heroine, the Ranger Nyana Keegan—"Nini Mo"—"yellow backs" does give a good sense of the kind of cheap, ephemeral thing they're supposed to be, but it also invokes the specific time and place to which the term belongs—19th century England.
On top of the other contemporary references we have, essentially, a rock concert, even down to the mosh pit and goths ("gothicks"). Through changes and indirection, Wilce strains to make it "other," to keep it from puncturing the fantasy too awfully, but it's still too apparent that we're in a souped-up, dream-like, highly-colored, and teenage friendly version of our own world, a play version. Isn't that what all fantasy does? Not necessarily. And not so obviously.
There are other annoyances. Flora is neither slim nor in particularly good shape, and when she has to engage in strenuous physical activity, she's extremely bothered by her stays. (A fourteen-year-old with stays? As I said, it's an archaic and formal world). And before long, we are as bothered by the stays as she, so frequently are they mentioned. It relieves the reader as much as her when she finally finds some that fit.
But there is no relief from frequent references to her, evidently, extremely easily upset "tum." Nearly every twenty pages, if that much, something threatens to make her puke, or turns her stomach, or makes it urpy, or something. Perhaps the frequent mentions were meant to be humorous, but they read like an authorial tic that neither the author nor editor was sensitive to. That's left to the reader. One more mention of her tum and I'd have puked.
(As to usages like "tum" [and names like "Nini Mo"], Wilce does frequently skirt, but is usually, thank Heaven, able to avoid the swampy lands between the rivers Arch and Twee.)
At times there are signs of haste and of a lack of careful revision, besides the myriad tummy upsets. At a crucial moment early on, Flora desperately needs to pee. Her attempt to do so at a rock concert leads to an attack that will have important consequences later. She flees, and shortly after, there's a raid and general riot. In all this, the need to pee disappears. It might, physiologically, for a while; but it should come back, and with a vengeance. But it becomes inconvenient, and Wilce simply drops it.
There is also a lot of folderol about Flora making it home by her midnight curfew (remember from the subtitle that she is "Confined to Her Room"). To be fair, it's a significant concern of the target audience. But Wilce seems to lose track of whether she does or doesn't make it. As she comes in, she says, "I was winded, sore, sweaty, and starving, but I was on time" (p. 84) On p. 85, Valefor, the house "denizen," its guardian genius, more-or-less, says, "You are late." Well, perhaps he's wrong or just being difficult. But on p. 101 she thinks, regarding her father, who set the curfew, "Did he realize I had come in late?" Wilce makes a fuss about it, then doesn't settle on what really happened.
But despite the book's weaknesses, the more one reads of Flora, the more one becomes involved and interested, which is a very good thing in a book. Any reader who feels uninvolved or unconvinced should simply push on. I'm not sure I would have read this second book, had I not been reviewing it, but once you get deeply enough into it, Wilce's storytelling and the character of Flora become completely—even retroactively—taking. The book becomes the sort one looks forward to getting back to and takes up with an "Ah, at last" sort of pleasure—perhaps a guilty pleasure for an adult, but that's as it may be. That kind of charm and interest is gold to an author, and for a reader, would outweigh far more faults than this book has.
The book's greatest strength is Flora herself, telling the story in her own inimitable voice. Irritable, cranky, full of longings that seem adolescent in a very sympathetic sense (though at times she seems a moody late twenty-something in disguise), her dreams of glory are not as delusory as they would be for us, because in her world, glory is possible. She's not always honest, honesty being a virtue that those in the power of others can seldom afford, but has a fundamental core of integrity and decency, and also good sense (an underestimated element of morality). She's affectionate, tough, difficult, sensitive, and eminently likeable.
Almost as strong an element in this volume is the plotting. There's less of the this and that, back-and-forth inconsequentiality of the first volume, before it got down to business, though this one also starts a little slowly. But Flora has several important goals here and pursues them as diligently as the severe obstacles she constantly meets allow her. And others are moving independently toward their goals, in ways that intersect her path, cause her problems, or occasionally help her along. More importantly, Flora's goals are not, primarily, about her. What gives them a greater weight is that she is trying to save her city and the people she cares about—her best friend Udo, her wayward sister Idden, even the monster that attacks her. The very satisfying interlocking of character, actions arising from character, and events is given weight, in Flora's case, by her concerns, her real responsibilities, by how she grows, how she changes, and what she learns about herself.
Give your characters lots of problems, be mean to them, aspiring writers are told. In this novel, everyone is in trouble. Flora's father, who spent the first book off his head, is sane again and strict. Her goody-goody sister Idden has suddenly become a rebel. Udo sets up as a bounty hunter, takes up with a skank, and is possessed by a murderous entity. And both Flora and Califa are threatened with destruction by a hidden monster that can erupt right out of the potty, and it seems Flora can only set things right at the cost of her life.
In addition there's time travel, earthquakes, a ghoul, a hungry demon, and a dangerous encounter with a girl so bratty and difficult she makes Flora look like Heidi.
As the plot heats up, and the action speeds up, and the situations become more dire, it would be a cold reader indeed who could be dissuaded from romping on with the story by cavils about style. And of course, the more involved we are, the more we race on to find out what happens, the less it matters if the world seems made up or not. The weight and significance of what Flora does and what she discovers help give her world, at last, quite a bit of heft.
Not only are sequels possible; given where we're left, they're necessary, though this book is complete in itself, satisfactory, and fair. When the next book appears—there could easily be several more—I think most readers will be eager to hop on for the ride. I know I will.
A final note, as to age-appropriateness of this book, especially for people who might want to purchase it for a young person: this is really a "young adult" book, though I don't consider fourteen-year-olds (Flora's age), even now, any kind of adult, not even young ones. There is clear drug use, a reference to condoms ("Madama Twanky's Netherglove sheaths, size extra large"), and what is clearly swearing, though it's given as "scit" and "fike" (and "FIKING SCIT." Even Flora is shocked).
The book certainly holds up to adult reading (not all YA and children's books do). But presumably the book is intended primarily for those fourteen and under, if the commonly accepted wisdom, that kids want to read about characters older than they are, not younger, is correct. The publisher considers the book to be for those twelve and up. I would not give this to someone under fourteen, and I think fifteen would be preferable. Hopelessly old-fashioned? Fine.
"Young adult" is not the same as "children's." Reading material fit for a seventeen-year-old is not necessarily fit for a seven year old; the two are not interchangeable, and should not be blurred together by a single term. The idea that a twelve year old might be in any sense an adult, even a young one, is for me a cause for sadness, not the opportunity to sell an inappropriate book to a wider audience. Give this book to real young adults, fourteen-year-old heroine or not, and not to children.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published twenty-two short stories, with more forthcoming, and over 250 nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.
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