It’s been a long while since I was in the young adult demographic. Maybe things have changed or maybe I misremember but, in either case, Jamie Mason’s new YA novel Echo was a surprise. Echo pulls no punches on account of the age of its target audience. It is dark and violent, at turns both oppressive and isolating, and its vocabulary, though never ostentatious, is as broad as many novels for the adult market. On the other hand, Sarai the Snake Girl is a teenager, and the book is a scant hundred pages.
It’s been a long while since I was in the young adult demographic. Maybe things have changed or maybe I misremember but, in either case, Jamie Mason’s new YA novel Echo was a surprise. Echo pulls no punches on account of the age of its target audience. It is dark and violent, at turns both oppressive and isolating, and its vocabulary, though never ostentatious, is as broad as many novels for the adult market. On the other hand, Sarai the Snake Girl is a teenager, and the book is a scant hundred pages1.
Echo opens with a forgivable expository prologue. We have a spaceship, the Echo, stardrive damaged in some unknown catastrophe and stranded a great distance from home. The only habitable planet is a snake-infested rock known as Hegemony. As the misfortune that befell the Echo is glossed over, likewise is the decision to abandon the still-mostly-functional ship in favour of Hegemony, with its paucity of resources and its brutal winters that last more than twice as long as an entire Earth year. For all the faults of prologues, perhaps one of their advantages is the ability to get all the necessary hand-waving out of the way early (“Echo’s engines, they reminded everyone, burned dark matter, which never ran out”) in order to buckle down to the story proper.
The story proper, in this case, begins some generations after the abandonment of the Echo. All futuristic technologies (and for that matter most medieval technologies) have been lost to the tribulations of Hegemony and the descendants of the Echo’s crew subsist on thin harvests of indigenous crops and what meat can be gleaned from dangerous snake hunts. The only remnants of their starfaring past are hints and riddles tucked away in the Tales, singsong fossils of ancient knowledge long since rendered into myth.
as the echo flies by.
On a Double Dark night,
you can see clear her flight
as the good echo will
be best seen from Grave Hill.
The two central characters are Sarai, the orphaned wild girl with no equal in the snake hunt, and Petra, the little-loved village Tale Keeper. Sarai is six Hegemony years old, equating to roughly eighteen Earth years (this conversion is only mentioned in passing in the prologue and can result in some confusion later in the book when you read about, say, people in their teens being grandparents), and Petra seven. In the mornings all the children, including Sarai, attend class under the tutelage of Petra, learning by rote the Tales that are known to be important though none can remember why. But in the afternoons, it is Sarai who rules, leading her cohort — Petra not among them — out onto the salt flats to match wits with serpents. In the evenings Petra returns to her dwelling to lament her lonesome lot and the respect she fails to command from the adults of the village, outgrown as they have the study of Tales. And Sarai trudges out of the village and up the hill to the hut she shares with blinded elderly outcast Marcus.
When Petra decides that the Tales can be turned to her own purpose, re-imagining the heavenly light of the Echo as an all-seeing god named The Traveller with her as the high priest and prophet, Marcus is among those found to be inconvenient to the new order and promptly done away with. Sarai, in her grief, flees across the salt flats far beyond the edge of the village map. She lives two long Hegemony years as a hermit and, in this time, finds the original landing site of the Echo evacuees and reactivates a long dormant computer. While Sarai is slowly rediscovering truths lost to her people long ago, Petra is slowly turning the screws of her new religion ever tighter.
In Sarai’s absence the village is transformed into a brutal work camp. The Keepers, Petra’s enlisted enforcers keep everyone working to the point of exhaustion building great useless monuments to The Traveller, with vicious beatings for those who dissent or work too slow. And any time public opinion begins to sway from despair to defiance, Petra discovers a new Tale which preaches obedience and perseverance. The cruelties of Petra’s regime are presented stark and unapologetic, especially for a YA novel. But then, perhaps I simply have a weak constitution for such things. I was rendered insensible by Bridge to Terabithia as a child and cried during Titanic as a grown man.
The final act of the book sees Sarai return to this village, eager to bring her learnings to her people and discovering that they need Sarai the Snake-killer just as dearly as they need Sarai the Teacher. It is a testament to Mason’s skill as a writer that the final confrontation between Petra and Sarai, despite being an unambiguous parable of religion versus science, does not come off as polemical. Petra seems perhaps too wholly villainous, and Sarai too perfectly heroic (even going so far as too blame herself for Petra’s fall) but Echo manages at every moment to provoke thought rather than preach.
Mason does a wonderful job of bringing to life the inhabitants of the village. From Rahl, the sharp-tongued father figure of the village, to Caelin, the half-mad girl who hears voices from the stars, all are multidimensional and real. Likewise, the world they inhabit is so richly drawn that even the inevitable giant-monster-chase-scene feels fresh and evocative. If the book falls flat anywhere it is that the plot is relentlessly straightforward. Perhaps this is a necessity of the YA genre, but I have a hard time believing that juvenile readers who can keep up with Mason’s vocabulary and brave the darker turns of his tale could not handle a more nuanced plotline.
The other great flaw of Echo is that it simply ends too early. An important lesson for writers to learn is that they must begin their story after the interesting stuff has begun and end their story before the interesting stuff has stopped, but Mason takes it much too far. It is unforgivable in such a fantastic story of a lost tribe discovering their inheritance of the stars, to deny us the satisfaction of seeing the characters walk the halls of the Echo herself. In fact, while reading the book I was very much expecting that the starship would be reattained in the second act and was quite surprised to suddenly discover that I was more than three quarters of the way to the end with no such event in sight.
But it is definitely that kind of book. It is compelling and it reads very easily and it contains deep and powerful observations. I do not remember young adult books from my own youth containg passages so weighty as:
It occurred to Sarai that death was not something that happened in an instant, but was rather a process. She was, she knew, dying, even though she walked. So she was already partly dead. Therefore whatever she thought about now must have something to do with whatever it was people thought about when they died.
And right now Sarai was thinking about snakes. Was death the same for them? Did they know, for instance, when they felt their tails pulled by eager young Middlings that death was imminent, that whatever they thought of then had something to do with what snakes thought about when they died?
And so, you should read Echo. I recommend it without reservation to adults and youngsters alike. I only wish it were the first act of a three-hundred-page novel rather than a hundred-page standalone.
You might remember Jamie from his delightful voicemail epistolary about faster than light travel and geriatric turncoats, “A Better Offer” (AE, issue #2). Echo is a brand new release from Kettlestitch Books, the YA imprint of Drollerie Press. It is currently available from Amazon.ca in various e-book formats, with a print release to follow.
1. Correction: The advance reader copy reviewed was typeset to 100 pages, the final release of the book varies from 175 to 225 pages, depending on format. -ed