Wednesday, September 12, 2012
2013 Contenders: What Came From the Stars, by Gary D. Schmidt
What Came From the Stars opens in the middle of an epic fantasy conflict, dropping the reader square into an alien, unfamiliar world with zero explanation. It's not particularly easy to follow, but it's clear that there is a group of people called the Valorim, that they're under siege, and that they're losing badly. Before their loss is complete, one of them forges a chain, and imbues it with the Art of the Valorim before sending it off on a journey through space. As it happens, the chain finally alights in the lunchbox of one Tommy Pepper, a sixth-grader in Plymouth, Massachussets.
Tommy is having a lot of problems. His mother has recently died in a car accident, a tragedy for which Tommy blames himself. A greedy real estate developer is angling for his family's home. And his younger sister, Patty, has stopped speaking entirely, communicating only in looks and gestures.
Once Tommy puts the chain on, strange things begin happening. Immediately, he has magical artistic talents. He says words in an unknown language, and begins to confuse his own life and world with that of the Valorim. Bizarre events begin taking place around him, starting relatively benign, but becoming increasingly malevolent. It becomes clear that someone from the other world is very interested in getting the Art back, and they're willing to do anything to obtain it.
As a plot summary, it sounds like it could be interesting indeed. But the execution is terribly muddled, and it simply doesn't cohere in a way that would make the book successful.
Two of the biggest problems were the same ones that bothered me so much about Okay for Now, Schmidt's much-discussed book from last year. One is that the central idea, that art is tremendously powerful, is compressed into a crashingly obvious metaphor -- the MacGuffin is called "the Art," and the discussions about it between the characters read more like philosophical conversations than actual dialogue. The second is that the book is jam-packed with subplot after subplot, only some of which are given adequate time, but all of which are resolved in an unsettlingly upbeat ending.
There are other issues, which I can't discuss without spoilers, so don't read on if you're averse to such things. The structure of the book is confusing to the point of completely frustrating the reader. Although the epilogue(s) help somewhat, it's terribly difficult to figure out what exactly is going on in the fantasy-world sections. It's a deliberate technique, one that does perhaps give the reader a feel for what Tommy may be experiencing, but it errs on the side of being too obtuse. This is especially true once the plot crosses over into the real world. There's a weapon, for instance, called an orlu. Tommy fights with it at one point, and several other people are around to see it. Yet it's never described, other than a statement that it's worn at the shoulder, and I still don't have any idea what it might be.
I also don't understand what's motivating Tommy at times. The plot requires the presence of a creature from the other world, an O'Mondim (which, as these things go, sounds to me less like a monster, and more like a particularly stout brand of Irish ale). Tommy makes one out of sand and more or less accidentally brings it to life, but there seems to be no reason, conscious or otherwise, for him to do it. It has to do with the Art, but how exactly the Art functions seems unclear as well. Why does Tommy forget nearly everything that's happened after the Art returns to the other world? And why, for that matter, does everyone else? And if everyone else has forgotten what's happened, how does Alice Winslow recall enough to write the glossary at the end?
Honestly, I kind of wanted the whole book to turn out to be a sort of poltergeist thing, in which the stress and trauma that Tommy has experienced start manifesting themselves in unusual and unpleasant ways. However, the book doesn't really give the reader the option of reading it that way, as there are physical artifacts from the other world that remain through the ending. You could read it as a metaphor, I guess, but I don't think it holds together enough to really make that practical.
As you may have guessed, I'm not among them, but Gary D. Schmidt has an intensely loyal and devoted following. I don't think even they are going to get behind What Came From the Stars enough to push it to any of the ALA awards, however. It's an interesting idea, but unfortunately, the novel itself is fatally flawed.
Published by Clarion / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and out now.