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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.



Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published two dozen short stories with more forthcoming, and over three hundred nonfiction pieces; he currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. His fiction appeared most recently in Best of Talebones. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book export business.
11 comments on “Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room) by Ysabeau S Wilce”

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.
They're not, actually--books for seven year olds are "middle grade" books; books for teens are "young adult" books. They're very different genres and are almost always sold in different sections of bookstores and usually shelved in different sections of libraries.

Azalais

Oh goodness, I'm 44, I read Flora's Dare when it first came out, and I had read worse things when I was EIGHT. It's got references to condoms? GOOD! Twelve-year-olds need to know what those are and what they are for. They needn't be using them, but they need to know that when the time comes they SHOULD use them, because it might be sooner than you think.
And why should Flora be slim? In case it's escaped your notice, lots of people aren't.

Aelfwine

Jesu, it doesn't sound like anything terribly inappropriate for twelve-year-olds is in here. Condoms? They read about condoms in their school books. They see the adverts on the walls. And plenty of "mainstream" YA books have got much more explicit content than a mention of condoms.

Casimira

Stays are the equivalent to a bra. It is perfectly normal, and, indeed, advised, for Flora to be wearing them. Her clothes would probably be designed with that in mind.
As to whether or not they're suitable for people under fourteen- I'm eighteen, and would have no hesitation in lending them to my younger sister, who is thirteen. She knows about condoms, and the existence of drug use, and she's read worse.

Sparrow

It's hard to turn on the TV without a reference to sex, undies, or condoms, so your innocent 14 year old is most likely aware of quite a bit more than you seem to think.
Kids are very self-selecting about what they read and watch. Sure, kids happily venture into realms unknown, but that's the joy of fiction, isn't it?
It's not as if my 8 year old self was damaged by discovering that Clive Barker was too gory for my tastes, or by figuring out that *GASP* people have SEX, and they don't always wait until they're married.
If you can't trust someone to know what they like, well... GTFO MY LIBERRY!

The categories of literature aimed at young people are carefully separated in libraries and bookstores.
I think the vast majority of Middle School (grades 7,8,9) and older readers(anywhere outside carefully guarded enclaves) are pretty much aware that sex happens and, I hope, that a condom is a good idea.
The blending of contemporary slang and created slang is (just my guess, I don't know and haven't talked to the author or read the book yet)to make them feel at home. Slang serves any number of purposes for controlled/restricted humans of all ages.
Most of the kids I talk to say they guide their reading the way any adult does. They sample and fish and end up reading a variety of stuff.

William Mingin

Janni, as remarkably out of touch as I may seem, I have, actually, been in both libraries and bookstores and so know that they have separate children's and young adult sections. That's beside the fact that some people confound the two kinds of books. I'm saying that twelve year olds should still be considered children, and treated as such by adults. And that adults should not ignore the children's/YA distinction you point out.
Azalais, Aelfwine, and Sparrow, I grew up (at least to age seven or so) on a lower-income blue-collar side-street in a time when kids really did all play together in the street, so I was around kids from toddler (often, me) to 18. Except for one or two of the more exotic words, I learned every swear word along with "milk" and "ball" (in other words, I don't recall learning them), and knew how to use them (and learned to play poker before I can remember, as well). I found and surreptitiously read things really very inappropriate for my age, where I learned the one or two bad words I hadn't learned already, though mostly the effect of those books that I recall is that they made me sad. I'll spare you the kinds things the boys, at least, said to one another in grammar school, but I recall thinking in the first grade that the two boys who didn't swear were "weird."
And of course, today children can (and do) have access and exposure to even more. I'm aware of that. I don't happen to think it's, by and large, a good thing. But in any case, there is a difference between what children get into on their own, and what their elders give them with approval. The argument "because children can and do such-and-such, or know about it, it's fine, as an adult, to intentionally expose them to it, and to insert it into their entertainment" is to me a false one. But anyway, I'm only arguing this about what I consider children, up to a certain age--in this case, twelve or so.
Aelfwine, in response to
And plenty of "mainstream" YA books have got much more explicit content than a mention of condoms.
Yes, I've read very little non-fantasy YA, but I can recall one (and this is going back a ways) about a girl having an affair with one of her high-school teachers that was fairly explicit. I'm not making any arguments about what should or shouldn't be in YA books. I'm saying that twelve-year-olds are not suitable targets for those kinds of YA books. You may (you may all) of course disagree.
Azalais, a winking joke about extra-large condoms is not exactly sex-ed class. But the only thing I really take issue with in your comments, and resent, is:
And why should Flora be slim? In case it's escaped your notice, lots of people aren't.
The sentence you're referring to is:
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.
Where in that do you see me saying that she should be slim? No one would call _me_ slim either. I'm stating a fact about Flora the book makes evident and, actually, plays with.
Casimira, I do believe that stays are equivalent to a corset, not a bra. The descriptions in the book seem to bear that out--the things are tied and tightened in the manner of a corset, as far as I recall. I don't know the history of corsets, so I don't know at what age women started wearing them in the past; I only mean to say that Flora's world is different in this respect from ours. If she's 14 and in a corset all the time, it's a more formal one than ours generally is; I did not intend disapproval there. If I'm right about her stays being a corset, I'm not sure I think those are good for _any_ age, but that's beside the point. The point here is what their existence tells us about her world and, for the review, that hers are too tight and bother her, and that we are told that entirely too many times.
Sparrow, in response to
If you can't trust someone to know what they like, well... GTFO MY LIBERRY!
I'd like to say that you are entitled to any library you like, especially if you are an adult. But that statement, if applied to children, especially in the context of adults providing books to children, is in my opinion either beside the point or irresponsible. No, I do not trust an 8 year old, to take your example, to know what he or she likes yet. I do, in fact, think children should be guided and shielded to the extent they can be, without any particular illusions about that extent.
Bill Mingin

Jen

Take a look at a 7th grade reading list:
http://www.education-world.com/summer_reading/7th_grade.shtml
Some of these books are pretty heavy. Heavier than the novel you've reviewed here. Young teens have been reading this type of material in school for years, and I can remember reading adult books when I was this age. It didn't scar me.

Ah--adults confounding categories is a different matter, of course. 🙂 My experience is that children (fortunately) are pretty good at figuring out which books are the sorts of books they want to read, and at putting down books they don't feel ready for (something they very much will do). The 12 year olds (and, especially, 14 year olds you mention in the review) I've known haven't been entirely adults, but neither have they been entirely children, either. (Neither have any two teens I know been entirely alike, but perhaps that's another matter.)
What they have been is capable of finding the books they both want and need, of putting aside the books that make them uncomfortable, and of reading the books they do read without accepting them unquestioningly.
Whenever I chat with teen, even young teen, readers about they're reading, I'm struck anew by how critical and thoughtful their reading is, often more thoughtful than that of many adult readers I know, perhaps because they're more in the practice of actively questioning their world.
(I've even had such discussions about Twilight, and found that teens can be highly aware of the flaws with those books, even as they love them--much as adults can love books even when they see their flaws, actually.)

William Mingin

Jen,
well, that certainly is a pretty dreary list, but even as a kid I mostly liked either humor or fantasy. There was enough dreariness and turmoil in life, I didn't need to spend my free time with more.
But "heavy"--dealing seriously with difficult topics--is different from the issues I brought up about this book. And I'm afraid "It didn't scar me" doesn't strike me as much of an endorsement.
Janni, you keep talking about kids finding their own way to books--which they do to an extent, as they mostly don't have the freedom and resources of adults--and being able to sort out for themselves what is right for them and what they should put aside--which they _sometimes_ do (I didn't always). But that also is not what I'm talking about in the review. I'm addressing adults--the audience for this review, which I don't expect to be of interest to children--who might provide books to children. And an adult giving a book to a child, with an assumed endorsement of the book as appropriate, is different from the child finding it on his or her own.
I've made my position clear enough in the review and the comments, so I won't belabor it. In the review itself, I saw my job as informing the readers of the review about the book, including issues that I thought at least some would want to know about--I would want to. I've done that. I also gave my opinion; of course, the whole thing (barring matters of fact) is my opinion. The readers of the review can now say, "Ha! Old, out-of-touch prude. I will certainly give that book to my 12 year old niece"...or not. My job is done.
Thanks to everyone who posted.
Bill Mingin

Azalais

I consider myself lucky to have had parents who did not attempt to shelter me in any way from books. Better you should learn about these things in books given to you by your parents so that you know you can talk to them. No, a joke about condoms is not sex-ed class, but it is a joke you should get when you're twelve, maybe not when you're seven, but seven-year-olds will just not get it and read on, if they're like I was.
Then again, I think a twelve-year-old who doesn't know this stuff isn't delightfully innocent and well-protected but rather badly parented and completely unprepared for life. Got news for you, the nice middle class junior high school I went to was actually much worse in terms of sexual issues than the inner-city grade school I was. But then I think the first thing parents should tell children about books is that they're primarily a form of entertainment and no fictional character ever is to be taken uncritically as a role model, because people without serious flaws tend to make uninteresting protagonists and stories where nothing wrong is going on tend not to be about much.
Stays are corsets, but they are also like a bra. When you think of corsets you are obviously, from your tone, thinking of harmful tight-lacing, what people in the 19th century did in order to get 18 inch waists. Which is in fact dangerous because it compresses the internal organs.
However, corsets in and of themselves are not harmful. Medical corsets are sometimes prescribed to people with back injuries whose muscles don't provide adequate support, in fact.
A properly fitted corset is not dangerous; it's just a support garment for the upper body. Before the materials necessary to make a brassiere actually a supportive garment existed (you can't have a modern bra without elastic, spandex, rubber or something of that nature that stretches but returns to its shape), the only way to support large breasts safely was with a boned undergarment that would lift them up from underneath, since the technology to support them from the shoulders didn't exist. A woman who has to spend a lot of time running around needs support for her breasts.
As long as you are not reducing the waistline by more than a few inches, the only danger from corsetry is that your back muscles may weaken without proper exercise. If however your upper endowment is putting undue stress on the back muscles, that shouldn't be a problem. At any rate, it seems unlikely that people with the level of technology we see in these books would not wear corsets. If a modern bra is not available because the fabrics needed to produce it don't exist, only the most sylph-like women would be comfortable without stays. Trying to run with boobs bouncing around is not comfortable, so much so for a plus sized woman that wearing a bra or stays that don't fit would be far preferable.

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