I read these two recently acclaimed young adult speculative fiction novels over the Christmas break, and I liked one very much, despite its faults, while I hated the other, despite the interesting premise and better-than-adequate writing.
First, I read Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King. Cringe. The protagonist, Glory, spends almost the entire book grousing about how self-centered her best (and only) friend, Ellie, is. However, it’s Glory herself who comes across as self-absorbed and practically narcissistic. Everything that everyone else in the book does or says is all about Glory and how it affects Glory and what Glory wants. Yes, she’s the narrator of the story, but still I never felt for a moment that Glory had any insight into how someone else in the book might be feeling or what someone else might be thinking. Nor did I feel that she wanted to have that kind of insight. Even the one unselfish thing that Glory does toward the end of the book is sort of mixed-up and full of thoughts about how Glory feels about her own unselfish act. The fantasy part of the book, in which Glory and her friend Ellie see flashes of what has happened and what will happen to people they meet, adds to the story as it reveals the possibilities that lie in the future, but the initial impetus for their ability to see the past and the future is rather ridiculous. They drink a shriveled up, powdered bat. Really. And then they can see brief glimpses of other people’s timelines. I thought through about half of the book that someone was going to realize that both Glory and Ellie were simply bat-crazy and horribly, mind-numbingly egocentric.
Belzhar was a much more satisfying read, even though the language and dialog in the book were not as well-written as Glory O’Brien. The difference was that I somehow cared about what happened to Jam (short for Jamaica), the narrator of Belzhar, whereas I just wanted Glory to hurry up and grow up and get over her navel-gazing. Belzhar tells the story of Jam and her classmates who are in a Special Topics for English class at a special school for teens who are having trouble coping with life and regular school. The teens can’t be mentally ill or drug-addicted, but they are all borderline, dealing with issues in their recent past that have made them unable to cope for one reason or another. Jam is at The Wooden Barn because she recently lost her boyfriend, Reeve, and the grief is killing her. When she realizes that the journal that she writes in for English class can transport her to a magical place, Belzhar, where she can reunite with Reeve, Jam is both thrilled and scared. Is she going crazy? Are her interludes with Reeve real, and how can she make sure they will last forever?
Even though I saw the plot twist coming, and even though the pacing of the novel was uneven, and even though the dialog was sometimes clunky, and even though I wanted to excise the minor homosexual subplot, I enjoyed reading Belzhar. I was intrigued to find out what had happened to Jam and her friends to bring them to their school/retreat, The Wooden Barn, and I was even more curious to see how they would succeed or fail in coping with the issues that they brought with them. Unlike Glory, Jam actually retains, or regains, the ability to care about other people, even while coping with her own difficulties. Jam, like all of us, is a flawed character, and we come to see just how broken she is by the end of the book, but I could identify with her in a way that I couldn’t with Glory O’Brien.
So, read Glory O’Brien ‘s History of the Future for flashy writing and empty, self-centered characters.
Or read Belzhar for engaging stories and characters described in slightly more pedestrian writing style and execution.