16 April 2007

Starting in the Middle with The Silver Child

I read Cliff McNish's Silver City as part of the Cybils Science Fiction/Fantasy Award shortlist. I found it a haunting novel, but wrote: "As a novel Silver City suffers from what I call Empire Strikes Back syndrome. . . . it’s the middle of a trilogy. It doesn’t introduce its central characters or their situation, and it doesn’t resolve any of the stories."

At that time, I imagined that the first book in the sequence, The Silver Child, had introduced the main characters by depicting their previous lives and desires before the action heats up. I resolved to read the whole trilogy, writing:

One of the qualities I’ll look for in those other volumes is how well they portray the individual kids with their own personalities, hopes, and choices. In this volume, they act under some compulsion larger than any of us. . . . Over and over we read that the kids have to do this or that, though they don’t know why.
For the first volume, I pictured Milo, Walter, the twins, and others moving across the English landscape, gradually gathering, before they found their appointed spot in the blasted industrial wasteland of Coldharbour. I thought the book might show them deciding to take on their cosmic missions, or at least show us all they were leaving behind.

But no. The Silver Child plays out much like its successor. The action threads start with Milo suddenly leaving home, Thomas already living in Coldharbour, the twins and Walter having undergone their tremendous physical changes. The setting is already bleak, stormy, and claustrophobic. We see Helen and her father at home, but then her father is part of the group in Silver City, too. Thus, we learn very little about the children's previous lives.

Furthermore, I realized as I read this volume, the two children who alternate as first-person narrators--Thomas and Helen--are the two who change the least physically. The narrator closely follows Milo in the third person, but the twins and Walter appear only through the others' eyes. And in many ways those three are not only the most changed, but also the most self-sacrificing and perhaps interesting.

Once again, the characters are under supernatural compulsions to act in certain ways. For much of the book, Thomas doesn't want to help Milo--but he can't help doing so. The kids' compulsions scare them, rather they don't reveal or fulfill them. The result is a story that strongly emphasizes characters' reactions, but rarely offers decision points that test and illuminate, and I don't think the result adds up to a character-driven book. Or, as Matt Berman wrote on Common Sense Media: "That's not to say that the characters have much depth, but just that the changes they're going through are described at some length."

One detail of the young characters' backgrounds seemed more apparent in this first volume: their class differences. I've previously quoted Jonathan Stroud on how "all British books, certainly all British children’s books, you can look at in terms of the class system." (That's from this interview at the State Library of Victoria.)

Thomas drops hints in his early chapters that he's from the suburban middle-class, not used to the rough gangs of Coldharbour. Once the others come to look after him, he quickly falls into the habit of ordering them around. All in all, he's much whinier than he appears in the second volume. In contrast, the twins seem set apart not just because they crawl around like lizards and occasionally speak in rhymes, but because of their broad working-class accents. I suppose if I were British I might have picked up that detail right away.

The Silver Child is still haunting, though it held less surprise for me than Silver City; that's what I get for starting the story in the middle of things. I still plan to read the final volume, Silver World. But I can't help wishing that McNish hadn't started quite so much in the middle of things himself.

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