Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Three books by Jan Mark

The Ennead
Divide and Rule
Enough Is Too Much Already

Orpheus was rendered uninhabitable at a speed that surprised even those who remembered Earth. It seemed to the sick and bewildered settlers that they saw their land through a shattered prism. The yellow sun turned to rust in an indigo sky. The grass grew in a wonderful variety of new colours, then stopped growing altogether. One year the leaves turned brown in the autumn and when they came again in spring they were still brown. They were the last leaves ever to unfurl on Orpheus, but by now there was no-one left to see them; except for a feral child with red hair and attenuated limbs who walked among the dead wearing a puzzled scowl, wondering why he had been left behind. He ate whatever he could lay his hands on, first poisoning, then immunising himself, since there was no-one to tear the tainted food from his fingers. He had always been a recalcitrant child, and he refused to die.
- The Ennead

The one who came to conduct him to the Robing Room was Egil. It appeared that he and Dow were never on duty at the same time.
Never alone. Hanno wrenched his face into a smile.
"Are we going to the Robing Room?"
"Why are you so eager, all of a sudden?" said Egil.
"Once I've put on the Vestments, it will all seem so much Easier." It's not so difficult to talk like them, he thought. Can I keep it up?
"It's not meant to be easy," said Egil. "You aren't on holiday."
"Easier to Understand." This is the one I have to watch. I don't trust him and he doesn't trust me. "Shall we go?"
- Divide and Rule

"Anyway," Nina said, "when we found poor old Jaws floating about we went and fetched Miss Lovell and she comes out and says, 'It's all right, children, he's just having a little sleep.' So we said, "No, Miss, he's dead," but she wouldn't have it. "He's just sleeping," she says. Well, then someone noticed his head had been bitten off - it was probably the caretaker's cat, but we didn't want to upset old Miss Lovell, I mean, that's why little kids don't like death. It's embarrassing. So Lisa-Marie Hodges says 'I expect Jesus came for him, Miss.'"
"You'd think Jesus would have something better to do than hang around school ponds biting the heads off fish," Maurice remarked.
- Enough Is Too Much Already

Jan Mark was an author amply stocked by my local library when I was growing up, so her books were a prominent feature of my mid-teenage reading habits. While idly Googling a few things recently, I was quite appalled to find that three of my favourites were out of print; this is probably one of the perils of being a YA author rather than someone who writes for grownups, though many of Mark's books teeter right on the brink between Young- and Actual-Adult; certainly her SF ones are dark and intelligent enough to appeal outside the main target age-group. It was imperative that I bought all of them at once (yay for the Amazon marketplace!), and even more imperative that I got a review up to at least temporarily halt their slide into obscurity.

While the shorter shelf-life is a hazard for YA writers, their choice of audience does seem to allow a lot more freedom in their subject matter. Of the three books reviewed here, one is straight sci-fi, another sits somewhere between low fantasy and historical fiction, and the last focuses on a bunch of mid-80s A-Level students. Mark's versatility is impressive, as she switches effortlessly between genres, the only common thread being the sharp dialogue and dry humour which crops up even in her darker works. Enough Is Too Much Already, the only one of the three that I already owned, is in fact entirely written in dialogue; the book is structured as almost a set of short stories, where our three characters tell each other amusing anecdotes about what they've been up to. It's extremely funny in places, and hasn't dated much at all despite the 20-year-old setting.

The other two books are rather darker affairs altogether. Both have themes of desperate rebellion against an oppressive social order - in The Ennead it's a cod-libertarian planetary colony with terrible penalties for the jobless; in Divide and Rule, a reluctant unbeliever is pitted against the might of a corrupt church. The settings are impeccably realised and the writing quality is a cut above your usual YA fare. It's all good subversive stuff, full of grey areas and no easy answers, and certainly no jolly happy ending. You won't find any of these titles in bookshops, more's the pity, but second-hand copies are much easier to get hold of nowadays, so if you can be bothered then I'd strongly recommend trying to track these down.



Anonymous mitch levy said...

Divide and Rule, and the Ennead have been two of my favourite books since my teens. I think particularly Divide and Rule has so much relevance today with Religion's offense sensibilities set so high - this full on exploration of how Religion reacts to an atheist mindset is brilliantly contrasted.
Hanno's mind dialogue - the hero of the story - is wonderfully written whereby you the reader hardly notice his slide away from reality. It really is a genius read, - I was interested at one point to option it and make it a film. Anyhoo as you've probably picked up I am a huge fan of the author and fully agree with the review given: Nine and a half from me too.

12:13 pm  

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