Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Voice for the Voiceless: Susan Price, Odin's Voice (London: Simon & Schuster, 2005).

A very good novel indeed with a tantalisingly fuzzy and well realised future. And no, that's not a contradiction in terms. What makes this book so effective is that Price neither pauses to let us know how we got "there" from "here", nor does she ever really stop to explain where here is. It is, for example, only a small comment about "indigenous gods" suggests we might be in the old UK, or maybe Scandinavia.

Plot:
"Kylie" is the bondwoman servant of Freewoman Perry. She isn't quite a slave: in theory she can buy her freedom from the agency who rents her out, but as this requires earnings associated with high skills (which she doesn't have) and as the agency charges training to a bonder's bill, it's all a bit unlikely. But Kylie is lucky; she seems to chanel Odin, one of the local gods, and the temple worshippers club together to buy her freedom. "Kylie" becomes "Odinstoy" having chosen to give herself to Odin, and becomes the Godspeaker of the temple.

She is replaced at Freewoman Perry's by Affroditey, the daughter of a bankrupt who bonded his own daughter to the bank and then suicided. Price does a brilliant job of showing what a nice spoiled child is like, and follows it up with an effective portrayal of separation trauma. Affroditey gets called "Kylie" and has to look after Freewoman Perry's little boy. She hates him. She has no idea how to look after children. One day in a park she is approached by a woman in black who offers her love. Love just for her. The love hungry Affroditey takes up the invitation to the temple.

This is where the book gets interesting, and ties into Mary Harris Russell's interest in what divides children's books from juvenile, and juvenile from adult. The plot continues onward: the woman in the park is Odinstoy and when she gets the opportunity to go to Mars she proposes to Affroditey that they run away together, but the child (Apollo) is part of the deal--he is really the son of Odinstoy and Freeman Perry. This isn't a romance tho', so Affroditey (and the reader) have to quickly take on the notion of rape, without the word ever being said. Affroditey also has to accept that Odinstoy--at least initially--regarded her as an adjunct to Appollo.

Then there's the sex: I'd love to be a fly on the wall when an eleven year old reader asks Mum or Dad "what's a phallus?" There's cross-dressing too, and while some of it is part of the escape plan, quite a lot is joyous and rather sexy, and more than a hint of lesbianism, and quite a bit of happy promiscuity.

Odin's Voice is pretty brutal in its portrayal both of bondage and the hypocrisies of bondage, the dissonance between what bondholders think of themselves and their bonders think is dealt with particularly deftly. Price also does a really excellent job and delineating the bitterness of poverty and the use of slavery to keep the poor at bay. If I have a qualm it's that Price's Odin is just a little too close to Jesus in her portrayal. By the end there was enough deviation in theology -- along sfnal computer randomised runes--to let it work, and Price never sinks into the naff religious orientalism of too many quest fantasies, but I think it could have done with one more twist of dissonance.

At the end of the book, even though I knew what the outcome had to be (there's a sequel after all) I was hanging onto the edge of my seat. Price creates a very quiet tension which has you reading semi-reluctantly, desperate but terrified to know what comes next.

NB: note to parents considering gen-enging their children. If you give your daughter hair that changes colour with her emotions we will know you are heartless control freaks who want to make sure your daughter is never able to lie (and thus control her own life).

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