Sean Wright, The Twisted Root of Jaarfindor 2004. Crowswing Books. Pp. 150. ISBN 0954437446. £5.99 / $10.49.

Reviewed by Simon Mahony

In a familiar topos this novel puts the central character on a quest, one where, with the all important 'companion' who is never what he seems, they must fulfil some purpose and achieve some end. Within this framework the author does his work well.

We are introduced to the tall, ebony, amazonian heroine, princess Lia-Va standing atop her citadel looking up at her kingdom's flag for whom so many had died and off into the distance from where the last invaders had come—we are in a world where technology and sorcery exist side by side—but this is not a tale of a defence against odds but of a woman fulfilling her destiny and the dangers she must face in doing so.

Lia-Va, having won the kingdom by slaying her father in battle, is its reluctant ruler but with no interest in affairs of state, feeds her addiction for 'roots' in her obsessive drive to solve the Runeroot puzzle. Upon death the 'humans' of this world regurgitate their 'root' which contains their life memories. There is a lucrative trade in this costly sort after commodity. These memories can be relived by another 'human', while in a trance like state, having pushed the sharp pointed end of the 'root' into their arm "like a needle". The memories Lia-Va is most interested in are the last experienced by the deceased and it is these that feed her compulsion and bring her closer in some unexplained way to solving the puzzle as she is drawn by her inner 'voices' to the nearby world of Bradfindor and the shrine of St. Urbania around whom a religious cult has arisen.

The plot centres around Lia-Va's journey to the pilgrim centre on Bradfindor and her struggles, aided by her companion. Forces of a long dead spirit work through Lia-Va driving her to collect roots and solve the Runeroot riddle which will allow the summoning of the long departed Jaarfindor, Goddess of Destruction and eponym of the novel, who will invert the 'tree-of-life', causing the dead to swap places with the living. The action packed finale takes place at the shrine of St. Urbania where we are introduced to the shamutants, the albino subterranean dwellers of this world.

This book is short and with large print so would, I guess, appeal to the youth market if that is the author's aim. He throws in some vernacular that would seem equally at home in a high school: "clear your shit from the table", "I don't give a flying fuck", what are you going to do... "shag me to life" and such examples on nearly every page. There are also some unfortunate expressions such as "...doesn't want to rock the status quo" and reference to the "weapon of mass destruction" that the shamutants were rumoured to be developing. I, for one, was put off by this—not because I found it shocking or in any way offensive but rather that it was constantly evocative of our own time and culture and seemed out of place in a world so different to ours.

This novel will have a market but only a limited one. My chief reservations about this tale are that despite the setting in a place/era not of our own it is filled with constant allusions to our culture and experience rather to those of the characters in the plot: Lia-Via enters the Black Anchor Inn, "'Hello, boys' she said in her gruffest May West (sic) voice"; the commercial centre of Brafindor is referred to as "the twin towers"; there is "Leonardo Plato— Brafindor's cult scientific hero"; as one character lies dying he "saw everything larger than life, as if sitting in a cinema" ; the pilgrims to "Our Lady" sing "Hey Judas" and "Imaginus" as they throng seeking a miracle at the shrine of "Lafiette Guille" whose tale bears more than a resemblance to that of Bernadette of Lourdes.

Furthermore, there are holes in the plot. Aboard the Voyeur, the heroine shares the experiences of her cousin's 'root' with the ships captain Tullock-Cha (incidentally my favourite character whose surgically removed soul, still attached by an ectoplasmic umbilical cord, skulks in dark corners). There is some confusion as to which root they are experiencing as they share Frilek's last frantic moments of as he attempts to escape after killing the embryo of the mythical Shamadactyl. Tullock-Cha surprisingly has no guards for his sky-ship with its dangerous cargo of passengers and it is our heroine's companion that protects them during their 'trip' with both his "blood drenched axe" and again with the magic of his craft as he drives the crazed pilgrims off with phantoms; warrior or wizard, he finds it difficult to decide. There are more holes but you'll have to read the book.

What we have then is a feisty black heroine with a 'root' addiction who swears a lot and, with the aid of her side-kick, achieves her destiny and saves the 'world'. There seems to some sexual imagery surrounding the 'root' which, having been ejaculated via the thorax from a human's innards with their dying breath, is then, after being traded for cash, used to penetrate the addict's body so that the experiences of the dead person can be shared. If this novel challenges "stereo-types of gender and organised religion", as the author hopes (14), and persuades the reader to question the nature and cause of addiction then it is a welcome addition to fiction whether speculative or otherwise. But does it?

The author raises issues: the heroine is a black female; her addiction is driven by an inner voice; her companion is not what he seems; the religious cult is controlling and ultimately malignant; the pilgrims are mindless drones; the scary looking shamutants are the saviours. None of this is surprising unless you don't read much, which might be the case with the target audience. The characters set to challenge the stereotypes have themselves become stereotypical.

The book is readable in an undemanding way and as the plot lurches from scene to scene it does seem to pick up pace in the final chapters—unless of course it was this reader hurrying when he saw the end in view. I feel somewhat unqualified to judge whether this assessment would be a fair reflection of the response of a fifteen year-old.

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