by L.M. Fuge
Random House Australia
Review by SF Winser
There are often temptations to give a book a pass. And there are certain things an author dreads hearing. For Fuge, I'm guessing that the fact she's sixteen – that the first draft of 'When Courage Came to Call' was finished when she was fourteen – are facts she's probably sick of hearing about herself, already. And it's tempting to give her a pass for that reason, she's young and sick of being judged by it..
Judge her as a writer – not a sixteen year old writer – I tell myself while feeling like a jerk. This is a book for teens who may spend real money on this. They deserve an honest review. So does Fuge. Do it. Jerk.
First things first. Or last things: The last two or three pages of the book are nearly pure cheese. Overwrought and self-consciously dramatic. I want to strangle whichever editor allowed this to go out without one more rewrite of this section.
For a book about war, the tactics displayed by the 'baddies' side are sometimes quite terrible. They run war like children who don't know how to hold a gun. They spend more time on clean-up than they do on invasion. They fail to guard strategic points properly. The fact that they seem to have won is almost unbelievable. But, much of the tactical issues could be explainable, for various reasons. For example – some armies DO suck at war. They're often known as the 'losers'.
And, my last point, when one of the baddies' plots is revealed, it's revealed through an overheard conversation that is terribly exposition-heavy.
'Sir, as you know our plan was to do X.'
'Yes, plan X. Explain X to me even though we've already done it, I already know it and there's no need for me to hear about it.'
'Of course! But call me by my secret name, first, which is irrelevant right now, just to drive the point home to any people who can't be listening that I am secretly lying to them.'
'Sure, secret agent who just did this other treacherous action that I am mentioning for no good reason!'
'Yes, that action which I undertook for reasons you already know but which I will also reiterate, apparently at random!'
And now, my jerkly duties undertaken: praise time. I think by now I've proven that I am not going easy because of the author's age. So believe me when I say this is a damn good book. There's lots of action – it's an adventure novel that keeps the blood both flowing and pumping. But, and this is where it gets good, there's also a lot of examination of the morality of war. Fuge pulls no punches explaining horrors of a truly human dimension. People die. People who shouldn't. In terrible ways. And Fuge brings us through these while refusing to revel in the situation. There's a temptation to milk these passages for tears or anger or horror, but Fuge usually keeps the emotion on just the right side of that easy answer. Imm, our narrator, is always somewhat confused by these situations and runs through all the potential reactions, at varying levels of drama, so that the rare oversteps such as the final pages of the novel are actually a bit of a shock to the system. Imm never knee-jerks into an easy solution. He never embraces the idea of means-to-an-end, nor does he jump into pacifism. He's a real character, wrestling with the potential of his actions or inaction in difficult circumstances.
The world-building is also pretty superb. This is an implied post-post-apocalyptic world (at least, that's my reading). There's technology and prosperity, but sometimes no electricity. Or there're emperors and medieval-style merchants, but also helicopters and missiles. This all fits together, somehow. And Fuge, like a master storyteller, gives us almost no background. This is just how the world is, and her characters deal with it. So we do, too.
And the writing itself is often quite good. There's a lovely rhythm to most of it. Fuge deliberately layers words and concepts on top of themselves which sometimes leads to one or two tautologies that I chose to write off as a deliberate choice to suit the audience. There was one part in particular that just worked for me:
“There were no shadows to hide in, no dark to blend in with... I was like a newborn child with no form of defence. We had the rifle, of course, but I wished we hadn't. I hated its power, hated the feeling that I, ordinary Imm, had the power to kill. But no-one was ordinary anymore. Everyone had to become extraordinary, or die.
And I wasn't going to die.”
Writers are often told NOT to re-use words. But Fuge does re-use words. Deliberately re-uses them to hang a concept-rhythm upon. It's a technique I like (and have been known to dabble in), and Fuge usually handles it well.
So – A good book with a few flaws. In other words, nothing terribly bad that wouldn't be ignored by anyone totally into the reading experience, no matter the author's age. Lee Child and James Patterson get away with worse. (James Patterson, in particular, has tendencies toward too much exposition and too much drama) The 100% perfect book only comes around once in a lifetime, for the rest I just gauge value by one question: was it worth reading? And to that, I give a wholehearted affirmation that requires no courage at all.