I’d like to talk a little bit about grammar (No! Wait! Come back! etc.), and how expectation relates to understanding. Fundamentally, grammar is a way of creating meaning through organization: signs which have more or less commonly-agreed-upon independent meanings are, through equally normative rules of arrangement, imbued with a greater sense of meaning than would be the case if they were just slapped down on the page in any random fashion. This normativity is important, as without at least some shared conception of what constitutes "meaning," communication is impossible. Therefore grammar—language itself—arises from a communal pool of expectations. In English we expect that the first "thing" in a sentence will be the subject, we expect that a verb will follow, and then maybe, if we’re lucky, there’ll be an object or complement of some kind to round it out. Usually. In many ways these expectations exist primarily to be thwarted: with apologies to both Paul Grice and Claude Shannon, information is the unexpected. Thus “Man Bites Dog” is newsworthy in a way “Dog Bites Man” is not.
These expectations also operate at levels above the sentence, pushing beyond what is traditionally understood as grammar into the more diffuse, less formalized realms of textual cohesion and discourse: we expect the beginning of a sentence to relate to the ending of one before it; we expect (at least in the western academic tradition) an argument to move from the general to the specific; we expect stories to have beginnings, middles, and ends. These expectations are at least partly why I’ve gone off on one about grammar here instead of starting this review as I had originally intended, which was like this:
The Country of Ice Cream Star is an astonishing book, to whose primary virtue this review will utterly fail to do justice.
That would have been far more arresting, wouldn’t it? But you’ve got to give the punters what they want—which means that now I’ve got the larger concepts established we should get down to some details. The Country of Ice Cream Star is Sandra Newman’s third novel, a post-apocalyptic dystopian affair that has been widely billed as YA—though for reasons we shall come to it would probably be best not to hold on to that classification too tightly. First, however, that virtue, which is almost impossible to describe but simple to illustrate:
No child ever know a time be happiness until it gone. Time Pasha come, when we still raiding in the Massa woods, I swore to worry. Yet this been before the Nat Mass armies took no Massa child. Driver bell and vally still, he rule and never weaken. We live wolfen through our wars. (p. 28)
It’s all like this, written in a mutated version of African-American Vernacular English. Quoting fragments here is a frankly unsatisfying substitute for the experience of over 600 pages of immersion, as the cumulative effect is entrancing and frequently, literally, catch-in-the-back-of-your-throat breathtaking. If you’re in any way inclined to dismiss "non-standard" Englishes and their worth in literature then this is not a novel you’re going to enjoy. That will be your loss, frankly, because in taking this dialect and warping it, in ripping these words from their more conventional, normative, expected bases, Newman has worked a cleaving between signifier and signified, creating a situation where form frequently is meaning: words as music.
Yo Radio hop over to the windowsill. There she arch and say her yorry miaow. Behind her in the window go the river through the tumbledown bridge. River slip around the beams, the metal splay and twisten. I watch the blackish bluish brownish water till my spirit settle. Radio sit in my view and lick her rosy pawpad. (p. 50)
See? The recommendation is for reviewers to discuss extended quotes at length, but I’m really not sure what else I can bring to the party; this is what the writing is like, and, while it takes a couple of chapters to attune your ear, once you’ve learned how to listen the symphony is irresistible.
Annoyingly, that’s the kind of pull-quote line worth saving for the end of the review and I’ve gone and used it up barely a quarter of the way in. However reactions to this book seem to stand or fall on one of two things, of which by far the more significant is the style, so I really have little choice but to foreground it. It’s one of a number of brave decisions on Newman’s part, as such linguistic nonconformity represents a challenge even for more experienced readers, let alone younger adults; but also because, as with works such as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang or Iain M. Banks’s Feersum Endjinn, the entire enterprise stands or falls on the author’s ability as a ventriloquist; get too writerly or literary, indulge in too many ten-dollar words, and the suspension of disbelief is shattered. It’s a measure of immense skill on Newman’s part that in a book of such length I can think of only a single instance when Ice Cream’s voice didn’t ring true. (I would also point out that invented languages have a fairly strong pedigree in SFF: this too will be relevant later.)
Ice Cream, I should belatedly reveal, is Ice Cream Fifteen Star of the Sengle tribe, who lives in a not-so-far-future “Nighted States” decimated by “posies.” Seemingly some form of cancer, this disease kills anyone over the age of about twenty and everyone who isn’t black, regardless of age. With her brothers and sisters, Ice Cream subsists through hunting in the woods of the former Massachusetts and scavenging what remains in evacuated cities, while maintaining a fragile peace with other local factions: the pious Christenings; the industrious Lowells; and the debauched slavers of the aforementioned Nat Mass armies. She is one of the most charismatic and engaging characters I’ve encountered in a good long while: prideful, earthy, brimful of piss and vinegar, and deeply, humanly flawed. It’s one of the crueler tricks of the book that for most of it you forget she’s just fifteen, as she acts as her tribe’s second-in-command, cares for their children, hunts, harangues, organizes, and conducts ill-judged affairs with unsuitable boys:
My heart be kicking in my side. I shut my eyes against him. Yo in this dirt, with all my trembling wounds, I love the thing I love. (p. 155)
"Cruel" because one of the main questions implied by the worldbuilding is that this is essentially a nation of orphans, raised by their extended families with generations spanning barely a decade: how does a society like this organize? How is knowledge maintained and produced? Does a shortened span raise or lower the worth of an individual’s life? We’re well into the Hobbesian realms of the "nasty, brutish, and short," and comparisons to Lord of the Flies are inescapable and, as we will see, explicitly invoked. "Cruel" also because, at the ripe old age of fifteen, Ice Cream is mature to a level that elsewhere we’d describe as "beyond her years" but here is entirely in line with them. "Cruel," finally, because while she acts like an adult she really isn’t, and this is thrown into sharp relief by two incidents: her older brother Driver’s inevitable contraction of posies, leaving her as the de facto leader of her tribe, and her accidental discovery and eventual befriending of Pasha Roo, one of the fabled white adults seemingly immune to the disease. Pasha brings with him hope and a warning: the Russians are coming, and while they will enslave them all they also have the cure.
"Washington," I say soft. "I heard of this. A sleeper city been."
He nod like tired conscience. "Ya. Be bigger war there. Roos will come from every part. Come by . . . things that go on water. Ride on water?"
"Boats," I say with choken need. "And cure be there? On boats."
"Yes. At Washington. Ain’t lies." (p. 92)
Inspired by this, Ice Cream sets off down the Eastern Seaboard on what can only be called a quest. On the way she gets shanghaied by the governors of Ciudad de las Marias, a rechristened New York, and installed as the figurehead of the city state’s mutated Catholic faith, despite her rather rudimentary theological knowledge: “catalico Maria go from unfuck birth to all adventures” (p. 248). While various power factions try to exploit what they see as her naïveté, she in turn attempts to leverage her newfound influence to steer an army towards Washington.
This second act is the other point around which reactions appear to divide, so now seems an appropriate moment to pause briefly and further consider grammar (Hoorah! Yay! Word to your mother! etc.). It’s hopefully not too controversial to contend that there is such a thing as a grammar of genre, and to further contend that, pace current trends towards blurring generic boundaries, this grammar is why genre matters. It’s something that extends beyond the familiar tropes most of us recognize and concerns the way in which they are arranged in relation to each other, and the way those arrangements create meanings greater than the sum of their parts. Similar signs can have very different meanings depending on those with which they collocate, and according to the context in which they’re positioned and the expectations we as readers bring to that context: the innocent farm boy in a Sword and Sorcery epic is probably going to rise to be king, whereas the innocent farm boy in a Mills and Boon is probably going to rise in a rather more priapic fashion. Different genres are written, if not in different narrative languages, then at least in different dialects. The reader’s familiarity with that dialect and its grammar—in essence the reader’s ability to predict how the arrangement of parts might play out—directly affects understanding and appreciation. Thus Mark Lawrence writes “Boy Rapes Woman” and prompts little more than exasperated eye-rolling, while Kameron Hurley writes “Woman Rapes Boy” and reddit throws a collective shit-fit. It’s a Subject/Object thing.
This doesn’t mean that grammar must always be adhered to, of course, and the generic divisions are by necessity pretty hazy. If the old saw is that a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy, then a genre is a narrative pattern with a press office and a marketing budget. Even so, by choosing a genre in which to write, authors implicitly create expectations within their readers which they may choose to fulfill or dash accordingly: Romeo and Juliet would famously be a comedy were it not for that unfortunate suicide business in the final scene.
The convenient similarity between Juliet and Ice Cream’s ages allows me to somewhat clumsily wrestle things back to the book under question. On first reading, the simple fact is that the second act drags a little. Momentum kind of halts as Ice Cream gets bogged down in the minutiae of las Marias inter-factional politics while she also loses quite a bit of agency through being manipulated by various members of those factions. If, like me, you’d started this book expecting to read it in Dystopian Young Adult, then you might find its actual narrative dialect a little confusing. However, overcome the tin-ear of the generic monoglot and you realize that the narrative is as much a pidgin as the language it’s delivered in: this isn’t written in YA, it’s written in Epic Fantasy. There’s a disparate band of variously and uniquely talented individuals (the warrior, the diplomat, the spy), all led by a charismatic "chosen one"; there’s a protagonist persuaded from their comfortable pastoral existence by a mysterious yet worldly older figure to pursue a lengthy quest that may destroy an all-pervasive threat; there’s an Army of Evil massing on the borders of the known world; there are signs; there are portents. There’s even a map inside the front cover, for the love of Ilúvatar.
This, then, is Lord of the Rings as retold by an edgy Russophone New Yorker instead of a fusty English professor of Anglo-Saxon (told you the pedigree of linguistic invention would be relevant). As with the book’s idiolect, your ability to enjoy it depends upon your ability to listen to the right things, to read in the appropriate genre. The cast of thousands and internecine politics that seemed so unsuited to a notional YA novel make far more sense as EF: Pasha Roo is a very down-at-heel Gandalf and the political shenanigans in las Marias are essentially Aragorn raising his coalition of men (which would make the second act analogous to The Two Towers. In a devastated New York City. Like I said: brave decisions). Ice eventually prevails upon various parties to stop, collaborate, and listen, and heads south for a climactic confrontation at Minas Tirith / Quantico.
The final act sees Ice Cream attempting to relieve the rag-tag inheritors of a long defunct tradition as she allies with self-styled Marines protecting the White Tree / House. In a wonderful inversion the forces of darkness are here represented by hordes of angry white men, and the appearance of adults at the last brings not Golding’s English officer-class restoring stiff-upper-lipped good sense and moral order, but war-weary, nihilistic soldiers indulging in chaos, destruction, rape, and pillage. This is something of a shock, because by this point I was fully expecting (there are those pesky expectations again) the crowning of a queen, or the destruction of a ring, or something, anything, suitably heroic. But just as the star-crossed lovers’ poison-related travails prompt a generic reframe, here too one final switch awaits: from Young Adult to Epic Fantasy to Shakespearian Tragedy. It all looks to be ending well, then badly, then in the most infuriatingly ambiguous manner possible. Infuriating not just because it leaves the reader hanging, but because that ambiguity is wholly appropriate and earned; embedded in the novel at levels both stylistic and structural, so it’s not like you can even get properly angry at it for pulling a fast one, or for thwarting expectations undeservedly.
Reasons to otherwise voice discontent are also thin on the ground: there’s a dubious redemption arc for a significant supporting character (the detailing of which would give away just a bit too much to go into here), but otherwise the only real complaint is that the interrogations of theme and content are less well developed than those of style and structure: some aspects of the worldbuilding and plot—cohorts of African-American children doomed to die before they see out their teens; a religious establishment’s uninvited interference in individuals’ reproductive decisions; the overrunning of Washington by a quasi-military government who see themselves as heirs to a tradition they don’t fully understand and which never really existed—represent clear nods in the direction of allegory or satire but are never really explored to any substantive depth. These are more in the way of missed opportunities than full-on flaws, though, and the linguistic invention glosses over these cracks so hypnotically that it’s possible not to notice them at all, which is rather like complaining that all that paint on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel serves to cover up a bit of dodgy plastering.
It’s not an easy read in terms of either style or content and the effort necessary to learn its grammar is far from negligible, but this is not sitting at a classroom desk endlessly reciting declensions, this is all-in immersion with one of the most fully realized and beguiling personal tutors you’ll ever have the pleasure of spending time with, acquiring a language which makes even the ugly beautiful:
Mamadou watch on this with face besweaten. He skinny from his sickness, and his face look skullish dread. He look like he belong to this hell underworld. Can see he known what he will find; he seen this in his hated dreams, these days. And he stand there with his starven looks, the king of these red children. The king of flies and murder. (p. 365)
Multilingualism brings many benefits, and The Country of Ice Cream Star code-switches effortlessly to an effect that is never anything less than mesmeric. It is, once more, an astonishing book.
K. Kamo has a master's degree in globalization and teaches in Japan, facts that are more related in theory than in practice. He blogs at this is how she fight start and occasionally tweets. He also regrets not choosing a less abstruse pseudonym.