OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
The Defender of Rebel Falls: A Medieval Science Fiction Adventure – by Erik Christensen
Publisher: Erik Christensen
Cover Art: Karri Klawiter
William Whitehall, of the town of Marshland Crossing on the colony planet Esperanza, has turned seventeen. Selection day takes place, when the authorities assign young men his age to their vocations. He had hoped, had trained, to become a Guard, just like his father Orrin who had died fighting bandits. Instead, he is appointed assistant librarian. Unbelievable! His life is ruined.
He is instructed by the head librarian to lead a tiny expedition upstream to find the source of a toxin poisoning the water supply. Bad enough they encounter murderous bandits, hungry animals, and magnificent dragons along the way. Worst of all, his every attempt to command his four young companions leads to one humiliation after another. Life is extremely unfair. Miserable failure would appear to be his lot. And what’s with the dragons? They’re not even supposed to exist. Something is seriously wrong with this world.
As you probably suspect, this is a Young Adult Novel. I don’t know much about YA novels, it being about half a century since I seriously perused the children/teenage/youth/young adult sections of either libraries or book stores. Naturally, this calls for one of my infamous digressions. After all, you need to know where I am coming from as I critique this book. So, bear with me.
I’m old. In my day they were called “Juveniles.” The target audience was roughly late pre-teen to early teen, say eight to fourteen years of age, if my own experience is anything to go by. For boys the heavy hitters were the HARDY BOYS, TOM SWIFT JR. and TOM CORBETT SPACE CADET series. I had read most of those by the time I was ten. Then, in the library of Vincent Massey Grade School in Ottawa, I discovered Robert Heinlein’s RED PLANET, Lester del Rey’s MAROONED ON MARS, and Arthur C. Clarke’s SANDS OF MARS. This was paradise! I quickly went on to the rest of the juveniles by Heinlein and del Rey, as well as authors such as Donald Wollheim, Andre Norton, and others. Then I got into the numerous Ballantine reprints of works by Edgar Rice Burroughs and transitioned into “adult” SF by the time I was fifteen.
My understanding of what a YA novel “should be” is based on this background, but, and correct me if I am wrong, my impression is that today’s “Young Adult novels” are aimed at teenagers. “Young Adult” strikes me as condescending. I much prefer the term “Juvenile.” To me, that clearly delineates the “proper” target readership, which I consider to be identical to that of the original FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND Magazine, which is famously “boys too old to play cowboys and Indians, and too young to be seriously interested in girls” which is to say, around fourteen.
Why do I find “Young Adult” condescending? Because I believe fifteen is a good age to start reading adult science fiction or fantasy. Whereas the purpose of juveniles is to provide pointers on how to become a teenager, adult fiction is required to teach teenagers how to become adults. Of course I realize I am massively out of step with the modern demand to reduce all literature to the level of children’s books so as to not offend anybody or risk teaching people how to think for themselves, but no one has ever accused me of being trendy so it doesn’t matter. I thinks the way I does ‘cause that’s the way I is. So there. “Okay, Boomer” be my motto.
Now back to THE DEFENDER OF REBEL FALLS (“About bloody time,” says the author). Where does it fit into my scheme? Perfectly. It’s the ideal book for a young teenager to read (and, it goes without saying, young people of any age who enjoy a good juvenile). The protagonist is a boy, so I’ll address the issues he faces from a male reader’s point of view. There are several female characters, and their appeal to female readers (in terms of identifying with them) would be mere guesswork on my part. The central conundrum of the book is William’s stumbling attempts to cope with greater responsibility and unsatisfying social interaction from a boy’s point of view, so that is what I will discuss.
Puberty, and its aftermath, can be very stressful. To youthful dreams of being a hero, or at least being treated as such, are added peculiar impulses to want to get to know girls for rather personal reasons. Further, there is constant pressure, peer and societal, not only to compete with other guys, but to be better than your competitors. If you are merely equal, or worse, fall behind, you are a loser, no doubt about it. Just sitting still, thinking about what you need to be, are expected to be, is enough to drive you crazy. Man up. Suck it in. Prove you’re better than everybody else. Not as easy as it sounds.
William knows what he wants to be. A member of the Guard. For some reason, people find that funny. He’s selected to be an assistant librarian. Even funnier. To say he’s humiliated would put it mildly. He is so concerned about his shattered dreams and his self-image he doesn’t realise he was selected because the powers that be think highly of his intelligence, his willingness to learn, his sense of curiosity, his ability to grasp the essentials of the overall picture, and so on. They think he would be wasted as a guard, but of immense value as an assistant librarian.
You see, Esperanza is a typical human colony world. First it was seeded with Earth life forms, plant and animal, to give colonists a fighting chance to survive. Then a bunch of people got plopped down in several locations and left to fend for themselves. Turns out interstellar travel is too expensive and resource-intensive to be common-place. The routine is standardized. No sense in leaving high tech supplies for the colonists; there won’t be any spare parts coming. Instead, set up a relatively simple medieval political system with clear-cut obligations for all, and a peasant agriculture-based economy so that everybody can at least eat. If iron is readily accessible, and other metals like copper and gold, the colonists are in luck. The librarians, preserving manuals on this or that enterprise, be it blacksmithing or oyster farming, can prepare digests of essential information to teach workers to properly exploit resources and advance local technology to higher levels. Librarians are VERY important. Only the brightest and smartest are assigned to the task. The future of the colony depends on them.
Unfortunately, Esperanza turns out to be poor in resources. So little iron is available that, apart from weapons for the Guard, the bulk of iron is reserved for nails to use in ships and barges necessary for trade. Good tools are hard to come by. Agriculture suffers. And now an unknown toxin carried downriver is poisoning plants, animals, and people. None of the books in the library have anything to say about that. New information is needed. The Head Librarian is too old. So the job is given to his young, vigorous assistant.
Trouble is, William thinks it is a terrible mistake to choose him to lead the expedition. He is so full of self-doubt he can’t even conceive of being a success. For one thing, he mistakenly believes that, in order to lead an expedition, he needs to be better than all the other participants at their jobs than they are. He hasn’t got a clue that his job is simply to make it as easy as possible for them to exercise their expertise. Instead he is constantly comparing himself to them and giving himself failing grades. He is so self-conscious over his perceived failings he can barely squeak out an order, or even make up his mind. Granted, if you were a successful sports jock in High School you might have trouble relating to such a meek, nerdy character, but to someone like me, painfully shy at that age, it seems all too real.
Yep, William doesn’t understand anything about his position. He thinks his mother talked the authorities into assigning him a cushy, “safe” job to keep her boy from harm. He resents her for this. At the same time, he feels he has betrayed her in the sense that he will probably die stupidly running the expedition into the ground, and not gloriously as his father did. Not only will she lose her son, but she will be embarrassed and ashamed. Fair to say that William is not very good at positive thinking.
Consider the other members of the expedition, all of them roughly the same age. William certainly thinks about them all the time. Charlie, for instance. A huge boy, and the member of the Guard assigned to protect the Expedition. Though a recent recruit, he’s already very experienced and has no hesitation wielding weapons to kill bad guys. He several times steps in to protect William in situations where William tends to trip over his own shield or accidentally drop his sword. Even more annoying, he subtly reminds William of things he’s supposed to do but hasn’t even thought about, like posting watches for the night. A decade of fantasising about being a Guard is no substitute for a year’s experience. William finds Charlie’s mere presence a constant humiliation. It never occurs to him that Charlie respects him and believes in him.
Then there’s Jack, William’s best friend, and protector. It is Jack who has always thwarted the bullies. Jack, who has always told him what to do. Jack, who always seems to be in charge. Though William cherishes Jack as his only true friend, he is convinced Jack wants to control the expedition, always questioning his orders, always disobeying instructions, always trying to lead the way. William actually blushes when issuing an order, so convinced is he that Jack will do the opposite of whatever he is told to do.
Rachel is an enigma. Strong silent type, and a superb huntress. She’s the one who ensures they have fresh meat. She’s the one who scouts out danger. And she’s an absolute crack shot with her bow. Occasionally, she reveals a breadth of knowledge highly unusual for a country girl. Appears to be 100% competent in everything she does. William feels like such a fool in comparison. Rachel doesn’t disobey his commands so much as simply ignore them. In fact, beautiful as she is, Rachael ignores William as well as his instructions. No chance of romance there. Besides, Jack is after her. Never mind he is rebuffed, too. Just another reason to resent Jack.
Maya is a fellow Librarian. She has studied the library and knows a great deal. She is the one who has devised a simple test to detect toxins. She is boundlessly enthusiastic and curious, a competent medic, and quite pretty. Unfortunately she has eyes only for Charlie. Another reason to despise Charlie.
Fortunately, there is one member of the expedition who took to William immediately. Namely Steve. Likes to slobber all over William. Steve is Rachel’s hunting dog. William feels comfortable in his presence and wishes he could feel the same way about the others.
Of course, William does have his sights set on a particular girl, name of Melissa, who also works at the library and has stayed behind to continue assisting the elderly head librarian. She’s beautiful, and seems to like William, but for some mysterious reason keeps her distance. William can’t figure out what it is about him that she doesn’t like. It’s driving him nuts.
Fact is William has a hard time talking to girls. Tongue-tied and awkward, combined with an ability to blurt out the first thought that comes to mind, almost always the wrong thing to say, or at least inappropriate for the occasion. Always sticking both feet in his mouth as far as he can tell. He’s so paranoid about his inability to reveal his true emotions to girls in a meaningful, attractive manner that he has become convinced that girls have a secret means of communication to share news of his latest faux pas. Humiliate himself in front of one girl and the next one he meets will smile knowingly because, somehow, she has already learned what happened. Not fair.
You may have gathered William is rather immature for his age. Yes, lack of experience. Due to his shyness and self-doubt. Not only that, but thinks too much. He overthinks everything. He tries to work out the consequences of anything he says before he even opens his mouth. The resulting catastrophe he broods over endlessly, envisioning ever widening ripple effects of failure and embarrassment. To be sure, he is highly intelligent and deeply imaginative, but both these virtues are habitually harnessed to a continued self-degradation, as if perpetually punishing himself for being a fool and an idiot. Sound familiar? All I’m saying is, he is a character remarkably easy to identify with.
Not that the book is an emotional funeral dirge from beginning to end. William is constantly fantasising about success, about establishing a worthy reputation, about explaining everything to everybody why he is so great and why they should respect him and cherish him. He is constantly thinking, planning and striving to become the hero and win all the girls. Consequently, it is taking him a long time to understand that a mindset of fantasy is not the best way to cope with reality. He feels like he is treading water, getting nowhere.
But he’s wrong, and this is the best aspect of the book, the subliminal teaching aspect. He doesn’t let his mistakes stop him. He picks himself up and keeps going. He keeps trying to do what he must do, what he has to do. Sure, more often than not at first, his continued survival is the result of other people’s efforts, or mere luck and happenstance, but bit by bit, without realizing it, he learns to react the right way when he needs to, to make the right decisions, to stop thinking ahead and simply and automatically adopt to changing circumstances, to confront reality with instinct based on experience rather than distorted wishful thinking, and so on. He solves problems and defeats bad guys by dealing with the moment rather than wasting time considering all possible implications. He has stopped overthinking. So to speak, he no longer thinks “How should I put out the fire?” He simply leaps into action and puts out the fire. Thus he becomes a hero before he knows it, to the point of being genuinely surprised when acclaimed such.
Life teaches you how to live. That is what experience accomplishes. In the process of his adventures William matures into something approaching what a young adult is supposed to be, a responsible individual who understands what other individuals are all about. To his amazement William learns his opinions about everyone he knows, his views on their motivations, how he thought they thought about him, were totally wrong. For one thing, he was far less charitable about himself than they were. Yes, each and every one of his friends and acquaintances were characters in their own right, but that didn’t mean they despised him and were ashamed of him. Most rather liked him and had high hopes for him.
True, there were people who didn’t. Part of William’s personal difficulties were that he tended to be literal-minded, tended to take people, especially authority figures, at face value. Tended to believe what they told him. Never occurred to him they might be lying to his face, trying to manipulate him. He always tried to be honest and tell the truth. That’s what heroes did. Never passed his mind that being a hero was not everyone’s goal.
Fact is William slowly learns how complex life is and how to deal with it. He leans how to cope with failure. He even learns how to cope with success. Remarkable. Given that the original concept underlying “Juveniles” is to teach young boys how to be proper citizens (to the point where some of the 1950s series seem positively fascist by today’s standards) this book is so emotionally complex it is darned easy to identify with William’s problems and stay with him as he escapes from his childish mindset and evolves toward maturity. Very useful educational tool, methinks. By identifying with William (because of my memories of life at his age) I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his experiences. I’m pretty sure most young people would, especially readers four or five years younger than William.
As for the plot, it is quite linear, easy to follow, which is appropriate for a Juvenile novel. All the events and subsidiary characters are relevant to the context, internally consistent and tidily wrapped up. Quite a lot of action to go with the internal withering, by the way. Exciting action.
What about the dragons? Why did I mention the dragons? Why not let them come as a surprise to the readers as they did to the characters? Simple. The author gives it away, so why not me? In his introduction he explains that one of the reasons he wrote the book was to answer the question “What if dragons were real and there’s a scientific explanation for everything about them?” Part of the fascination of this book has to do with revelations concerning the dragons. They are sort of like classic dragons, yet rather different, subject to what amounts to a science fiction approach to justifying their existence. Not all mysteries are resolved. Even the dragons themselves don’t know everything about their origin or how they came to Esperanza. No doubt matters to be explored in coming sequels. The dragon’s nature and character definitely one of the most entertaining features of this book.
I enjoyed everything about this “Juvenile” (okay, call it “Young Adult”). I had no problem accepting the SF&F premise, and in particular found the characterization of the protagonist above average and thoroughly credible. Besides, the very concept of medieval fantasy as seen through a science fiction lens intrigues the heck out of me. Well done, I say. An excellent read.
Check it out at: < Defender of Rebel Falls >