Sister Maryam lives on Onewēre, a small island in the Pacific chosen by the Apostles of the Lamb after the Tribulation destroyed life on Earth as we know it. The people of Onewēre lead their lives according to the religion of the Apostles and unquestioningly follow their Rules. Part of this means that indigenous girls entering womanhood are sometimes chosen to live in the Star of the Sea, the Holy City that’s located on a huge ship stranded nearby, where they are allowed to serve the Apostles directly. When young Sister Maryam finally makes the crossing, she quickly learns that life in the Holy City is very different from what she expected, and the beliefs she has held all her life are shaken to the core.
The Crossing is the first book in Mandy Hager’s YA dystopian SF series Blood of the Lamb. The novel was first published in New Zealand in 2009 and won the 2010 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award. Thanks to Pyr, a publisher with a great track record of importing titles from other English-speaking markets, it’s now also being published in the United States.
So, let me perfectly frank: I’m not the target audience for this book, and I’m well aware of it. This is one of those Young Adult novels that aims squarely at its age range. Some YA novels can be read and enjoyed by adults. Others don’t cross over that well. The Crossing is an example of the latter. This is a novel that could connect in a very significant way with teenagers, especially female ones, but as an older (and probably more jaded) reader, I couldn’t get around some of its flaws. In a nutshell: it didn’t work for me, but I know that it could work very well for its audience.
The novel’s main character, Sister Maryam, is a young female protagonist who is in the process of becoming a young, strong female protagonist. That evolution is the most important aspect of The Crossing—and the one that may make it a success, because it will inexorably drag the right reader into the story and not let go until the end. Ripped from her familiar surroundings during a momentous time in her life, Maryam is forced to confront a new, horrific reality in dire circumstances. She’s been conditioned to such an extent that it takes her a long time to accept that everything she’s been raised to believe is a lie. She’s forced to sink or swim, learn and grow, bend or break. It’s not an easy journey, making this a dark, grim story even by today’s dystopian YA standards.
The novel’s setting—Onewēre and the Star of the Sea—is an interesting one. Its secrets are only gradually revealed as Maryam discovers them. Some of its aspects will ring familiar to experienced SF readers; others are more unique. If this happens to be the first time you hear about The Crossing and the book sounds like it might be your cup of tea, I suggest not looking at the plot summary on the back of the book (or, probably, at many other reviews) so you can discover it along with Maryam.
One of the main problems with The Crossing is that it takes Maryam such a long time to come to terms with her new reality. Even late in the novel, after witnessing and being subjected to some horrific acts, she still has trouble letting go of her beliefs. Of course, she’s been thoroughly indoctrinated from childhood, so it’s understandable that she wouldn’t just shrug, say “Oh, so that’s what’s really been going on all this time,” and walk off whistling. Still, there’s a certain point in The Crossing where I felt that this process of mental adjustment had been dragged out too long—and after that, it went on for another handful of chapters. Do you remember that scene in The Matrix when Neo is first awakened and learns of the true nature of reality? His mind can’t handle the complete shift in perspective. He’s so utterly shocked that he throws up, unable to process anything. The Crossing is basically one long exploration of a similar mental experience, except the revelation centers on religion rather than the nature of reality, and instead of vomiting there are a few hundred pages of anguished hand-wringing. It gets to the point where you want to shake the poor girl because she figured out the truth 100 pages back, but then she’s again confronted with the truth, leading to yet another round of “Oh no it can’t be true.”
Another issue with the novel is that there’s practically no moral grey area to be found. It’s hard to go into much detail without swerving into spoiler territory, so this is intentionally vague. The villains of the story are so over-the-top evil that they would be comical, if not for the horrific nature of the world they’ve built for themselves. Their victims are almost uniformly innocent and good. Everything is incredibly black and white. The main exception to this is unfortunately also the most clichéd character in the entire book. (What does every YA novel with a female protagonist need? Yep.) The Crossing is built around a stark divide, most notably in terms of gender and race, and most of the characters fall into their assigned roles too neatly and easily.
All of this would be easier to handle, and probably less noticeable, if the novel had been written more smoothly. It’s easier to ignore a book’s issues, especially in a straightforward YA tale like this one, if you can just let yourself get sucked into the adventure without being distracted by poor writing. In the case of The Crossing, I actually winced when reading some of the unnatural dialogues, clunky plot devices, and melodramatic scenes. Mandy Hager also tends to use similes to native fauna and flora so frequently that it becomes a point of irritation. Opening the book randomly to Chapter Fifteen: “A harsh, dry cough wracked his thin frame, and the ugly purple marks of Te Matee Iai continued to creep across his skin with the same voraciousness as the kona roroana vine showed in suffocating tall trees.” Same chapter, only two pages later: “Again Maryam struggled to contain her mirth: the vain boy had puffed up like a frigate bird luring its mate.” A few of these would be okay, but after a while it just gets too much.
In the end, though, I think that this book will find and work for its target audience, because despite all of its issues The Crossing is a dark, compelling story with a likable protagonist going through a significant process of discovery, both of herself and of her world. A cynical reader’s clunky parable about colonialism can be a great and empowering reading experience for the right person.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on Jan. 9th, 2013.
“Another issue with the novel is that there’s practically no moral grey area to be found.” Everything you say in this paragraph is just… spot on. Not just about this book (which I haven’t read), but a bunch of other bad books I’ve encountered. I don’t think it has anything to do with young adult novels being specifically geared towards a younger audience (that is, the “target audience” you reference), but rather a matter of flat, bad writing (which exists in undisputed “adult” novels as well…). The only differences would be the cliches of the genre, which maybe speak to you less specifically in young adult fiction…
I agree – flat, bad writing is most definitely not limited to YA and can be found in adult novels too, in spades. I’ve just found it more prevalent in YA. Maybe there’s an attitude that “we can get away with it” for younger readers. Maybe it’s purposeful simplification to make a book *cringe* age-appropriate. I don’t know. There’s excellent YA out there that offers layers and surprises and depth and originality. I confess that’s what I hunt for when I review YA. I just feel the occasional twinge of guilt when I point out a lack of such in other books, because I know that some younger, less critical readers may not be sitting there with a mental red pencil, checking off a book’s problems, and instead just enjoy a fun story for what it is. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that’s more or less what I was trying to express in this review: it’s okay not to see a book’s problems, if you’re having fun. But I can’t shut up and not point out those problems, if I see them.