Scott Parkin’s review of my new book, Rifts of Rime

After all the excitement of this week, I am off on vacation to Maine. But to keep you entertained and well informed, with special permission from AML’s own Scott Parkin, I am reposting his review of my new book, Rifts of Rime.

This was originally posted at the Association of Mormon Literature (AML) Discussion Board. You may want to visit it and look at what’s going on in Mormon lit.

In addition, don’t forget to look at my other books, Scholar of Moab, which was awarded AML’s best novel of 2011, and was a Finalist for the Montaigne Medal, a national award for the most thought provoking book. Look at the reviews at the link.

Also “A Short Stay in Hell” is tearing up Goodreads. Warning, do not read if you don’t want to stay up all night thinking. Take a look at AaronR’s discussion ongoing right now at BCC.

Since I’ll be sailing, eating lobster, and biking through ancient forests, I won’t be checking this often so I’m turning off comments on this post until I get back.

To the Rifts of Rime Review!

Review
=====

Title: The Rifts of Rime
Author: Steven L. Peck
Publisher: Cedar Fort (Sweetwater Books imprint)
Genre: Fiction
Year Published: 2012
Number of Pages: 280
Binding: Trade Paperback
ISBN10: N/A
ISBN13: 978-1-59955-967-4
Price: $14.99 (print); $3.75 (ebook)

Reviewed by Scott Parkin for the Association for Mormon Letters.

A brief review and three mini-essays on related questions.

Before I get into the review proper, it seems only right that I disclose that I am a Steven Peck fan, and have been from the first work of his that I read. In fact, I asked to review “The Rifts of Rime” precisely because I have read and liked Steven Peck’s recently published novels, short stories, and blog posts (I’m not a poetry guy, so I haven’t read much of that), as well as his stand-up presentations at conferences.

So I can’t pretend I didn’t come into the reading with anything less than a full bucket of (well-earned) charity, more than a little willingness to give the author the benefit of any doubt, and a presumption of depth and cleverness sufficient to convince me that if something didn’t make sense it must be my own lack of skills or imagination rather than the author’s.

The problem is that fandom is a two-edged sword—along with ready forgiveness comes heightened expectation; inherent in being put on a pedestal is the potential to topple off.

Fortunately for me, after reading “The Rifts of Rime” my fandom remains strong and my pedestal for the author has gained some new buttresses. I liked this book for a variety of reasons that I will attempt to explore in the mini-essays that follow.

**Summary and Review**

Long ago the god-like Wealdend quickened five animal species to high intelligence, self-awareness, and self-determination. These creatures (gray squirrels, tree squirrels, marmots, wolves, and ants) share the world with their unquickened cousins, along with an injunction that no Quickened shall kill another.

Untold years later the societies of the Quickened have grown, flourished, and found equilibrium with one another at a pre-industrial level. Craftsmanship abounds but engineering remains limited in a medieval/enlightenment society largely organized and structured by species differentiation.

The tree squirrels love the word and are adept at paper-making and poetry; the marmots are physicians and philosophers; the gray squirrels are warriors; the wolves are nomadic storytellers and hunters; and the ants remain largely unknown by dint of their inescapable difference as the only non-mammalian quickened species (and lack of evident vocal chords). Each species (caste?) is essentially separate and self-contained within an integrated society. Each has a role, customs, and social norms and all seem essentially content. There is a fundamental equality with each species performing its role as part of a greater whole, governed by a council with representatives of each.

The story begins in a time where reverence for the Wealdend has faded into a beloved folklore embraced by most as religion, appreciated by others as fable, and dismissed by a few as myth. That softening reverence has brought with it an emerging revolution where the peoples’ reverence for tales of the Wealdend and the Quickening are used as cynical tools of motivation to justify radical overthrow of traditional order by the Thane of the gray squirrels who is determined to subjugate all others under his leadership.

The story alternates viewpoints between Pinecone, a poet of the tree squirrels who finds himself embroiled in the politics of rebellion as he tries to preserve his religion and social order against the Thane and his cynical manipulations, and Leafe, a paper-making tree squirrel thrust into a warrior’s role with a faction of the gray squirrels opposed to the Thane. We follow these two characters through discovery, intrigue, revelation, and ultimately war as they attempt to defend traditional order and restore peace.

“The Rifts of Rime” is a vividly imagined science-fantasy that puts interesting characters and uniquely realized cultures through difficult conflicts that I found engaging, interesting, and relevant. It deals with both social and existential questions in a direct, unflinching way within a world that is as imaginative and self-consistent as anything I’ve read recently.

The novel is marketed for young adult readers but has been reviewed by many as a middle-grade tale, presumably because it uses talking animals as main characters—though if age of protagonists matters, we are dealing with a university graduate assistant, trade guild leader, and senior military officers. While I believe the story is accessible to young readers, its sweet spot is with readers who can engage at the level of existential exploration. Though it is a relatively direct conflict with clearly defined issues and sides, I don’t believe that clarity should be mistaken for simplicity. These are foundational issues of loyalty, hope, social role, social boundary, ethnic prejudice, manipulation of religion for political gain, revisionism, and nature of god, among others. These are core elements that demand their own space, not convenient add-ons. There is a deceptive depth to the story that will be lost on younger readers.

The writing is clean with only a few plodding sections, and the regular appearance of squirrel poetry was endearing and relevant both as plot element and expression of the author’s own love of poetry. It’s not the sparkling prose you see in Peck’s other novels, but it is strong and readable and never gets in the way of the story being told. In terms of physical production, there were a disappointing number of typos and editing glitches (more than a dozen), and while the book is completely readable I thought it was somewhat distractingly over-designed. I’m not a fan of the cover art.

I very much enjoyed “Rifts of Rime” and look forward to its announced sequel. It succeeds on multiple levels as adventure, morality tale, social comment, and philosophical primer. It’s well-written, vividly imagined, and consistently realized in a nicely paced story that kept me fully engaged. It should appeal to both younger and more mature readers, and offers more than a few nuts to ponder and savor long after the cover is closed. Highly recommended.

**A Question of Audience**

I was surprised to see how many people on GoodReads reviewed “Rifts of Rime” as a middle-grade title. I suppose that starts with talking squirrels and progresses to the back-cover blurb that describes Peck’s novel as “akin to Brian Jacques’ ‘Redwall’ series.” As I suggested earlier, I think “Rifts of Rime” is certainly accessible to middle-grade readers, but I think it does Peck a disservice to assume that Rifts is a thin or simplistic story. Direct, yes; simplistic, not so much.

One of the things about genre readers is that we tend to find age-based audience categories less useful in gaging how interesting a novel may be. Many adult fantasy readers choose to read entirely within the YA category because they find the stories to be every bit as conceptually complex as general market stories, but less prone to excesses of sex or violence (though extreme violence is becoming increasingly trendy in YA genre novels these days).

For me Rifts falls into this category of broad audience story that is specifically accessible to younger readers—but not specifically limited to them. The conflict is fairly clean with an obvious bad guy (and his minions) and a set of obvious good guys. The goal here seems not so much an analysis on nuances of goodness (or badness) as an exploration of the challenge of recognizing when social convention and groupthink lead us to do bad things in the name of good causes or social order. When both opposing forces represent social authority and can quote the same scripture to justify their causes it can become difficult for ordinary people to decide which is good until the conflict is already well advanced.

It’s an idea that has relevance and appeal to all age levels. The fantastic setting and situation does not imply young readership or the Disney taxonomy of intelligence.

This is where comparing Rifts with “Redwall” seems unfortunate. Jacques creates a simple conflict with an conically obvious bad guy, Cluny the Scourge—a rat who uses his tale as a whip, wears a batwing cloak fastened with a ferret skull, and kills for the simple joy of being evil. Peck creates a charismatic, powerful leader who has earned his current title as Thane through strength, service, and wisdom, and is both loved and respected by those around him. He is an implacable foe, but he is not just a caricature of evil.

One is a simplistic conflict centered around an obvious villain typical of middle-grade stories; the other is a clear conflict centered around competing versions of horrible events offered by people with equivalent social and moral authority, one of whom must be lying, but neither of whom seems suspect to the average citizen—the villain is obvious to us, but not to all the characters in the story.

One presents the direct feints and thrusts of straight-forward battle; the other explores the challenge of convincing honest people to fight against established authority. Redwall brings an external enemy to our doors; Rifts threatens all we know from within our own trusted authority structure.

Redwall is a deservedly popular middle-grade series that succeeds in delivering on the promises made in its first chapters of a clear, iconic battle of good and evil: us versus them. Rifts starts at a level of complexity well beyond anything even suggested by that venerable series and delivers on the promises it makes of a more nuanced set of challenges and conflicts centered within the broader community: us versus us. We are required to think, not just to experience.

Both are appropriate for younger readers; Rifts has more to offer more mature readers—not least because of the complexity of its world-building.

**A Question of Creativity and Imagination**

In the review section above I referred to Rifts as science-fantasy, which may seem odd for an obviously fantasy story. My primary reason is this: in creating his world, Peck has gone to unusual effort to create a fully realized, deeply imagined world that is both unique and plausibly real in light of his squirrel protagonists. Peck didn’t just replace humans with squirrels and trivially squirrelish behavior in a general medieval morality tale; he created practices, folklore, poetry, common wisdom, and customs specific to each Quickened species that are plausible extensions of known animal behavior.

For example, strong emotional reactions from the squirrels include involuntarily closing their eyes, rubbing their paws, or pounding a back foot. The angle and height of the tail is a secondary component of all communication and emphasizes attitude and respect. Rubbing noses and grabbing cheeks represents variably familiar social interaction (not unlike the social kiss, which can mean different things to different people). Aphorisms revolve around trees and nuts, military honors are named for paws and tail, and constellations are named for badgers, wolves, and other familiar animals. Squirrels feels vulnerable and tend to panic when too far from a tree.

One of the games of science fiction is to create rigorously plausible futures and institutions based on knowable facts—or at least reasonable extrapolations. Peck has used real knowledge of animal behavior as a basis for creating the details of his characters, their behaviors, their institutions, and their responses. A squirrel duel involves a lot of scurrying up trees and along limbs punctuated by brief attacks designed to take advantage of height or position. Fact drive creativity, and unique plot elements and details of milieu flow from there.

For some that rigor may be intrusive; it does slow the pace in places as details are presented. It’s the same trade-off that occurs with rich physical description versus spare—it’s a stylistic choice that will appeal to some and seem overwrought to others. For me it added creative thickness and imaginative depth.

This attention to unique world-creation and imaginative plot development moves this story into that crossover category of conceptually plausible but unique world-building normally associated with science fiction in a story that is otherwise pure fantasy. The author has engaged the game. It’s one of the many things that engages me as a genre reader—Peck knows the conventions of genre and has paid proper respect to them in a story that is otherwise very much about basic existential exploration.

**A Question of Religion**

One GoodReads review expressed disappointment that Rifts was a Christian novel, and another opined that the philosophical/existential questions were presented too starkly and directly.

This will be a matter of taste, but I personally like the way that Rifts goes directly at core existential questions without window dressing, toe-scuffing, or masking metaphors. The society of the Quickened is founded on the undeniable fact that some animals are quickened and others are not—direct evidence that normal evolution cannot explain. In fact, among the wolves only the women are quickened—their mates remain wild (interpretation of social statements is left as an exercise for the reader).

This glaring evidence of artificial uplift (The Quickening) so permeates the assumptions and behaviors of the Quickened that the distinction between philosophy and religion has all but vanished. There is no doubt of the fact of supreme beings, though there remains much debate as to their nature.

In fact, that clear evidence creates its own problems and foregrounds some very basic existential questions. With direct evidence of the Wealdend as one-time intervenors in their affairs, the core question is no longer whether they exist, but rather where are they now and what is their nature? If we’re blessed (Quickened), then why are we killed by the unblessed (unquickened)? How can the Wealdend allow the good to die and the wicked to prosper? Why do the Wealdend not intervene to eliminate useless suffering?

The Quickening does not eliminate these questions; rather, it make them that much more poignant and troubling for the characters. If the characters didn’t wonder about these kinds of questions I would have to doubt their intelligence.

And Peck goes straight at those questions. That he offers possible answers for some of those questions is apparently a turnoff for some readers, who seem to want to deride the text as didactic or preachy. For me the questions arise honestly from context, are handled with grace by characters who seek to understand for their own peace—not as grand enlightened preachment—and who then move on to full participation in ongoing events. These characters ask fair questions and struggle for sensible answers without excessive navel-gazing or endless maundering.

I suppose it is tad heavy-handed at times, but I’m okay with that. This story is as much about characters seeking answers to basic questions as it is about the approaching war that has made those questions newly relevant. It would be irresponsible to reveal such questions without spending some time looking at them.

One reason I appreciated the answers Peck offers through his characters is that they seem consistent with my own LDS understanding and resonant with my own LDS cosmology. The Wealdend are a married pair who allow the Quickened to make their own decisions after providing them with guiding wisdom. They enable revelation but require the recipient to reach out and act by their own effort to complete the transaction. They are both joyful and sorrowful at turns.

There is also an evident Nephite/Lamanite vibe where competing cultures reject each other precisely because of their differences in interpretation of shared cultural lore. This sibling rivalry adds venom to some conflicts that made them that much more interesting for me.

Maybe my LDSness blinds me to Peck’s shameless didacticism, but I don’t think so. The society and mythos he has created is consistent and the characters react plausibly within it. The very fact of the Quickening is so pervasive and startling that the question of cause never fades, and the idea that religio/philosophic elements would thus permeate their society is more than reasonable. That they happen to resonate with my own worldview is a bonus, but not the reason; I read fantasy to experience a richly imagined and delivered world that expands my ideas, not to be reinforced in my assumptions.

For my dime, this novel delivers. I like a concept-dense piece, and appreciate honest musing within reasonable limits.

I understand that Steven L. Peck wrote this novel twenty-odd years ago and is only now publishing it. That doesn’t surprise me. The writing is not as polished nor is the pace as brisk as “A Short Stay in Hell” or “The Scholar of Moab,” but the same unique viewpoint, unflinching approach, and attention to plausible extrapolation and richly detailed characters and worlds is as clearly evident in this earlier tale as it is in his later works.

This is not a great novel, but it is a good one that shows all the promise of initiating a very interesting series that I actively look forward to reading. My fandom for Steven L. Peck’s works has found yet another justification in “The Rifts of Rime.”

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