“He made an angry sound. ‘Slave,’ he said. ‘That’s what you are. Black as an ink slug. I found you and I claim you. I’ll name you too. Slop’s your name. Come here, Slop.’ Fliss smiled at him. She had known years of this sort of treatment. The wall stood between her and it. She felt sorry for him.”
Maurice Gee is an award winning Kiwi author. His copious awards include the New Zealand Fiction Award and the New Zealand Children’s Book of the Year Award. With over thirty titles under his belt which include everything from children’s classics to adult fiction, he is a literary national treasure. The Severed Land is Gee’s latest offering. It is a young adult fantasy novel and was published earlier this year. It’s very much a good old fashioned adventure-quest tale.
The premise is pretty straight forward. The world has been divided by an invisible and impenetrable wall. On one side we have the violent soldiers of two very powerful families, the Morrisettes and the Despiners. The rival families are at war to gain ultimate power and ruler ship over the land. On the other side we have the peaceful forest world. This is home to Fliss, our young heroine, her surrogate mother Shoo and the mysterious Old One, an ancient and powerful being that is holding up the wall with his mind.
Our adventure begins on a day like any other for Fliss. She is perched in a tree watching in amusement as the soldiers foolishly try to penetrate the wall with their canon. Although their countless attempts have been futile they have yet to give up. Amongst the chaos of explosions, what appears to be a young drummer boy makes a bold move and tries to escape. His attempt is unsuccessful and the soldiers quickly close in on him. They have him cornered against the wall and are preparing to shoot. Witnessing the whole event Fliss makes a brash decision and pulls the boy through the wall and saves his life. You’d think this boy would be pretty appreciative, right?
Wrong. The boy she just saved is named Kirt, and he is not a drummer boy at all. He is a young Despiner soldier. Upon meeting Fliss he shows no gratitude or respect. Why? Because Fliss is black, and on his side of the wall she would be enslaved. Fliss is disgusted when she realises she’s just saved an over privileged, overfed, racist Despiner. To make matters worse the Old One then tells her that his arrival had been foretold and that they must work together and set off on a perilous quest. The fate of the wall depends on it. The Old One is dying and will therefore no longer be able to hold the wall up. But alas my friends, there is another, the Nightingale.
It turns out the enigmatic Nightingale is none other than Kirt’s sister, Lorna. Unfortunately she is on the other side of the wall and being held captive by the Morrisettes. Although neither is thrilled about their obligatory team up, there’s something in it for the both of them. Kirt wants to rescue his sister and Fliss wants to keep the wall up protecting her home. If they have any hope at succeeding, the pair will have to find a way to work together. The other side of the wall is a place of cruelty. It is unforgiving and filled with many dangers. The Morrisettes and Despiners aren’t the only nasties on the other side.
Will they find Lorna? Will their opinions of one another change? Will they make it back alive? And if so, can they make it back before the Old One dies and the wall falls? If you want to know the answers to these questions you will have to grab yourself a copy of this intense page-turner. You’ll fly through it. It isn’t a long novel, but it is rich in depth. It is unflinching and unafraid as it boldly parallels our own dark history. It is wildly intelligent and Gee’s use of the English language has a classic elegance that you don’t often see in this genre of fiction any more. For me, all the best fantasy and science fiction feature some kind of social commentary. They are genres which seamlessly lend themselves to metaphor and social analysis. When you dive into a fantasy based world, it’s that truth and relatability that make that world believable. This medium gives you the opportunity to create something truly powerful, and that is exactly what this author has done. It’s a fantastic read that will have you gripped from the first page. It packs a powerful punch and evokes a lot of strong emotion from the reader (I personally boiled with anger during passages such as the quotation I opened this recommendation with). You really take an emotional journey with these characters as they embark on their quest.
It’s a fantastic story, beautifully written and flawlessly executed. Fliss is exactly the type of bad-ass heroine that both girls and guys need more of. It’s not only a riveting adventure story, but also a fascinating character study of this unlikely duo. I judge a book on its ability to make me feel something, and this one evokes a broad spectrum of emotions. It doesn’t baby its audience, which is a habit many authors writing for this category tend to fall in to. Instead, it challenges the reader and really makes them think and ask questions, not only about the characters and the world which they inhabit, but also about what’s going on in our own world. This is exactly the type of fiction that appeals to me. It's why I love storytelling in the first place. It can be used not only for entertainment, but also as a tool to help us better understand ourselves and the world we live in. Well that’s it for October’s recommendation. I look forward to sharing next month’s pick. Until then, may your days be filled with peace, love and poetry.