Violence, Riots, and a Glimmer of Hope: Salt

Dark and effective, although that knife is missing the grooves meant for a three-fingered Dweller. Details, details.

…sounds like I’m talking about Toronto over the weekend, doesn’t it? Sigh. As much as I love The Hunger Games and Maze Runner, I don’t immediately gravitate towards speculative fiction in the post-apocalyptic vein. I need to be in the mood. Sadly, the G20 riots this weekend  put me in the mood for a violent, post-apocalyptic thriller. Enter Salt*, the first in a trilogy by multiaward winning New Zealand author Maurice Gee.

Hari is a child of the Burrows, where an entire group of people have been forced to live underground in the shadow of the all-powerful Company. He lives by his wits and a strange ability to break into the minds of animals and tell them what to do. When his father is taken to be a slave in the mysterious Deep Salt, a place no man every returns from, Hari follows, intent on his rescue. Along the way he is found by a Dweller who goes by the name of Tealeaf, and her young charge Pearl, an escaped daughter of Company who is fleeing an unwanted marraige. Both Tealeaf and Pearl are able to see into people’s minds and adjust their memories and make them do their bidding. Tealeaf agrees to help Hari develop this skill, for she has foreseen the future, in which Hari and Pearl will play major roles.

Gee’s setting is remote and teetering on the brink of social and political breakdown. He is brutal and honest in his portrayal of the aftermath of war and the chaos that follows the end of a totalitarian regime. We often forget, not just in fiction but in real life, that vanquishing the oppressor does not lead to peace or freedom. In this case, even when Company falls, there are other corrupt leaders waiting in the wings to take control and seek vengeance of their own. Tealeaf warns Hari and Pearl that there will be decades of conflict, a fact we often forget in the glorification of war and conflict.

The story picks up after the third chapter, after which I zipped through in a couple of hours. Gee wastes no time with a lot of build-up or drawn-out battle scenes. His exposition is necessary, and for the most part, concise. He leaves a lot of gaps in the history of his world, but not so many that it’s distracting.  The gaps allow the reader to wonder and ruminate and draw connections on his or her own.

Gee is a muscular writer. There isn’t alot of imagery in this book, despite it’s comparisons to high fantasy, and yet the few visuals that he does created are dark and memorable. It is a violent book that may keep younger readers up at night. For example, Company members are armed with bolt guns and wear electric gloves that are used to shock dissenters. Gritty stuff, but necessarily so- Gee is creating an honest portrait of a society that lives to survive at any cost. There is no place for euphenism or skirting around the point in a novel like this.

Salt ends with the possibility of hope, as Hari and Pearl, believed dead, escape to a cloistered forest off the inland sea to farm and raise their children.** But, given that there are two other books to follow, it is clear this is a welcome moment of reprieve before the conflict boils over once again.

Look for my review of Gool, the second book in the Salt Trilogy, this summer from CM Magazine.

Salt is available in North America from Orca Book Publishers.

*This book is in no way connected to the movie Salt, featuring Angelina Jolie. Thank God.

**Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming. This pattern has become standard in fantasy: Boy meets girl, boy hates girl, boy and girl complete impossible, life-threatening tasks together, boy and girl realize they are in love, and in some cases, girl gets pregnant, therefore providing hope for a new world and a better future. Fortunately (or fortunately, depending on your reader), there is no spoken declaration of love, nor is there any mention of physical consummation. The closest thing I could find is a line in which Hari “sleeps next” to Pearl, and then Tealeaf mentions her pregnancy a chapter or two later. The lack of sex and romance is probably a wise choice, considering the target readership for this book is boys 12+, but those of us with a need for even the smallest modicrum of romance could have used some words of affection or perhaps a gesture in an otherwise violent, bleak novel. For an example of how this is done well, please see The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. Hari could learn a lot from Peta (August 24th, people- I can hardly wait!!!!!)

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