Sharp North by Patrick Cave; Or, a Novel That Addresses my Zombie Fears

h1 September 15th, 2006 by jules

sharpnorth.gifAt the risk of sounding like a big ‘ol flake or pathologically worrisome (which I probably am), I must admit that I fear one of those awful, grim catastrophes in my lifetime — whether it be biological or environmental or warfare-related or what-have-you — that will make life not unlike a zombie movie. Rather, the atmosphere will be such. We’ll all be afraid to go out, or — worse yet — simply won’t be able to go out; I’ll be kicking myself for not having stored cans of food and bottled water; and I’ll be pining for the old days of freedom, wondering why I ever took for granted even the uninspired or monotonous days. Total chaos. A total dissolution of the rules of society we agree upon. Hey, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, and I do have at least one other friend who admits to this fear as well. (In fact, when I saw the horror that unfolded for the lower class of New Orleans during the flooding that occurred around this time last year, I thought, this is how they must feel.) I guess when I became a mother, too, these fears intensified, but I digress . . .

In Patrick Cave’s 2004 sci-fi thriller, Sharp North, we are treated to such a world; it’s not so much immediate doom-‘n-gloom, but we see the aftermath of such a disaster — in this case, an environmental one. Cave invites us into a future dystopian Britain that has been reshaped, to say the very least, by the pernicious effects of global warming.

Mira, a headstrong teen who knows she was adopted as a child, lives in a remote Scottish mountain village (och, the very hinterlands, lass) whose purpose is to generate power. In the novel’s opening, she witnesses the death of a woman — who, inexplicably to Mira, looks familiar to her — at the hands of policemen clad in grey and retrieves a piece of paper the woman had been clutching; much to Mira’s confusion, her name is listed as well as the names of several others. Now suddenly living in a world shrouded in mystery and great confusion, she makes the difficult decision to flee her snowy, isolated home — the only home she’s ever known — to get some answers. Her unanswered questions are profound ones, indeed: Where did I really come from? Why have I been assigned a “watcher”? Who am I? What is, truly, my life’s story?

Since Eisha and I commit to providing spoiler-free reviews, I don’t want to say too much — and what I’ve already said is free-for-all information, given on the book’s jacket. But let me add that we also meet — far away in an altogether different, gritty, bleak urban setting — Kay Saint, from whose perspective some of this story is told. Kay is a drug addict and roams the streets of the city at night after clubbing, trying to keep away from his bodyguard. Kay lives in a privileged world ruled by the Great Families and the Fertility Board. How he and Mira hook up and what cloning has to do with the larger storyline is for you to find out, should you want to read a fairly compelling sci-fi thriller. And, no, I didn’t just tell you anything else that will ruin the surprises for you. (Regarding the cloning theme, I want to tell you that, if you enjoyed Nancy Farmer’s The House of the Scorpion from 2002, you’d enjoy Sharp North. But, well, I’d be a bad professional reviewer, because making such book comparisons makes me uneasy. They might possess the same broad themes and I can totally understand why people make such comments, but just like I can’t bring myself to say that The Black Keys are like The White Stripes, I can’t clump these two books together. They’re still two totally different bands, two totally different pieces of writing. Nonetheless, many reviews will compare the two books).

I admit to not knowing a whole heck of a lot about science fiction (one of the joys of this blog for me is that I’ve forced myself to stretch a bit and read books I might not otherwise normally pick up), but, technically, that’s the genre into which this book falls. I dare say, though, that it’s Science Fiction Lite (any science fiction geeks — and I say that lovingly; I’m married to one — who have read this book and want to enlighten me here, please do so). It’s also a thriller, a survival story, a mystery and suspense novel, an adventure story. The back of the copy I hold in my hands says that The Observer describes it as a “taut thriller.” I don’t know if my right brain let me down when reading certain chunks of Cave’s writing (particularly in the novel’s middle) — which, unfortunately, happens quite frequently when I’m reading the action and the adventure passages in action and adventure novels (lame of me, I know) — or if Cave’s writing tends towards the, um, untaut at times, a bit of wandering in the novel’s mid-section. But, nevertheless, it’s not a huge complaint on my part. It’s still, overall, a gripping novel and most certainly taut at the end, in particular, with nice twists and surprises that kept me on my toes.

This sweeping novel’s (it’s a veritable tome, over 500 pages) greatest success is our Mira, who puts the pluck in the well-worn phrase “plucky protagonist.” Aye then, she kicks some serious arse. Cave has created a complex, fascinating, and courageous character to add to the list of the heroines of young adult literature. Unfortunately, Jan Barbieri, who functions as the novel’s primary villain, is too much of a one-note character and not fleshed out enough to give the creeps that I think he was supposed to give me.

It’s also impressive how Cave lays out his plot over the course of the novel — what he reveals to the reader and when and how he expertly and slowly divulges, via the characters, the events that led to the day of the novel’s opening. And, lest you think this read is merely another sci-fi novel about cloning, rest assured that it’s about much more. Cave tackles class issues, the environmental disaster (that I fear in my lifetime or my children’s), genetic engineering, and more. The VOYA review puts it well: “Cave deftly illustrates a frightening reality in which clones are the least of evils that include population controls, rising sea levels, insufficient technology, and an appalling class system.”

When it’s all said and done, Cave contributes an “Author’s Note: A word about climate change, cloning, and the background to Sharp North.” Normally, I might be tempted to avoid reading such an afterword, not wanting to spoil my reading experience and not wanting that bit of ponderous instruction on the part of the author. But I was ever-so ready to read this one, and I enjoyed it. It doesn’t help what I call my zombie fears, but it’s thought-provoking and made me want to wave my hands and shout out a few amens and hallelujahs. Cave writes:

“{I}t is well-known that rapid climate change is taking place right now. It has probably been known for twenty or thirty years, yet this is one of the many life-changing issues that governments really don’t want to tell the truth about. It is, after all, much easier to have a good wrangle about birth control, firearms, quarter percent interest rate changes, or (of course) how best to keep that old oil flowing than to tell people that they need to change the way they travel, consume, or work.”

Och. Hallelujah.

2 comments to “Sharp North by Patrick Cave; Or, a Novel That Addresses my Zombie Fears”

  1. Oh, also — one more quick thing for anyone who might be interested: I *think* that Cave is making a trilogy out of this storyline. I think the second book might be out already. I really should just look it up, but, honestly, I’m not going to read it further. Good stuff, but I’m ready to move on. — jules

  2. Yes, the second book came out already:

    -Originally in Britain:
    Blown away. London : Simon & Schuster UK, 2005.

    -Recently in America (and elsewhere?):
    The Selected. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.

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