This review was moved up in my queue due to me receiving a print copy.
So, when David S. McCrae asked me to review his novels, I did not know what to expect, exactly. I read the blurbs, and frankly, wasn’t sure then either. When the books arrived, I started reading, and it took me quite some time to adequately formulate my thoughts on them.
At the time of me writing this review, the author has contacted me and told me that there were editorial improvements being made on a typo/etc.-level, but, considering that Vagrant Summer is, to my knowledge, the freshman novel of the author, that aspect wasn’t something that overly deterred from my enjoyment of the novel. There are a few glitches, but not enough to break the reading flow. The layout is basic and each page has a central header of the title/chapter/day that looks like it’s a bit too close to the text.
In fact, I have completed Vagrant Summer in less than 2 days, exclusively while in bed or in the bathtub, after long days of reading, editing and staring at the screen. At 319 pages, this means that the prose flowed rather well, and that the book kept me engaged and invested in the story.
Okay, so far regarding aesthetics. When you open the book, you are greeted by a hackneyed, unremarkable, generic and cryptic prologue of folks awaiting some sort of non-defined cataclysm. I almost put the book down right then and there.
I didn’t, and neither should you. Matter of fact, you can easily skip the whole prologue and miss out on nothing. It is just an abstract frame that establishes that something went wrong.
Fast forward an indeterminate amount of time, to Day 63. Day 63 of the revolution in Eden.
What is Eden? Well, Eden is a kind of pre- or post-apocalyptic society; a land. The Judeo-Christian associations with the name, one of innocence and untouched lands, are something that deeply suffuses the book, but in order to discuss the precise nature of Eden, I need to dive into minor SPOILERS – mind you, these pieces of information are provided swiftly, and efficiently. Unlike in many comparable glimpses of strange geographies, you won’t have to puzzle together components of the basic structure and rules of the world depicted. When something becomes relevant, the narrator, “Brigg” (aka Dartmouth) provides the relevant exposition – not in a unified, big dump, mind you: We get the information we need, without annoying teasing or imprecision, and, more importantly, without endless, cluttering exposition-dumps à la 2312.
Okay, so Eden is divided into sectors, seems to be a verdant, relatively rich land, and has a rough population estimate of 300K people. While a kind of penal colony-like system exists, it is only hinted at here and there as an abstract threat. The land is governed by the Fifteen – a council of sorts, each of whom is tasked with one area of public life: Information, collecting the dead….Hilariously, the Fifteen often play against stereotype: The member of the Fifteen who collects the dead, for example, dresses basically like a Gothic Lolita or like a character out of a Kaori Yuki manga. Anyways, there seem to be aptitude tests in the school system; these decide your career in accordance with the Fifteen’s requirements. The system presented, in short, isn’t so radically different from ours, with the authority that is depersonalized in real life, incarnated in the persons of the Fifteen. As such, our response as readers, conditioned by years of reading dystopias, is one of immediate mistrust, something curiously and sensibly, not shared by the general populace of Eden, who, like proverbial Adam and Eve, take on an almost innocent glow that might be construed as naiveté by jaded cynics.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I mentioned a revolution, and if you expected something akin to Hunger Games or the like, let me cut in right now and tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. You see, in spite of Eden having no aerial navigation, and, indeed, not much in the way of private transportation either, it is a world that is nostalgic in its innocence, with carts and the like next to trains. Similarly, in spite of technology as a whole being less prevalent than in our world, there is an internet of sorts, the Interactive Network (and yes, there is a member of the Fifteen tasked with it). One day, a book showed up on this web – the book that started all. One Summer. This work actually kicked off a whole movement, one that questioned the Fifteen – the book was censored and vanished, but its content did not go away. Instead, people rallied. A new forum was founded and a name coined: Causes. (Once more, this has, obviously, mythological relevance.)
This name was chosen, obviously, since it made it hard to really pinpoint the growing movement. Then, an individual dubbed “Hatcher” proposed to duplicate the circumstances described in that book to change Eden’s system; Hatcher and a cadre of folks known as directors generated a set up rules for the Causes to adhere to – and thus, the revolution was born. 13000 adolescents walked out of Eden’s society, out of their projected career paths, all in non-violent protests and for wildly different reasons. They would be supplied by allied sympathizers within the Fifteen’s regular societal system, the white-wearing Contacts.
This book is not the chronicle of yet another grimdark, societal collapse, of good revolutionaries overthrowing an evil system; instead, it is the chronicle of a non-violent revolution. Now, beyond all the gaming books I read, I also read about 3 -4 books per week. It is probably a testament to the cynical zeitgeist that I have never, ever read a work of fiction that deals with this topic. In fact, it is remarkable by how the book manages to convey the idealism of the Causes in its structure: We have exactly ONE, brief fight scene in the book; we have escape scenes, infiltration-scenes of sorts – but I considered the book to be more exciting and captivating than the entirety of the Hunger Games. Yeah, you read right. Discussions and discourse herein are often nail-bitingly intense and actually surprising.
Because it’s smart. Because the book’s characters are smart. Unlike a ton of books these days, you will not be 30 steps ahead of the characters all the time, shaking your head at their thick-headedness. The plots the characters face and the intrigues that suffuse the 29 days that this book covers, are actually SMART. Maybe, that’s the roleplaying experience of the author, but it is decidedly refreshing to see a cadre of characters that don’t behave like idiots. The analytical abilities of the heroes, their theses, etc. are presented in a way that makes it really fun to read along.
Now, as to the characters: The Causes know each other mostly by their forum names, so it is these I will use as well. The central characters would be as follows: Briggs is the protagonist, obviously did not have a nice childhood per se, but remains idealistic to a fault, with a keen analytical mind and a somewhat endearing, but also odd white knight complex. Dice, in many ways, would be his foil: Similarly smart, but cynical, he uses dice to determine the outcome of his actions, on whether or not to do something, etc. The catalyst of sorts would be the child Mika, whom Briggs meets at the beginning, right after a prolonged trip in the wilderness, camping, etc. – she is looking for her dad, who vanished under mysterious circumstances. While she is a child and thus does become a “Timmy” of sorts once in a while (I.e. she needs to be saved from the proverbial “well” here and there), and while she behaves like a kid, she is, surprisingly, not annoying. It is rare that an author manages to captivate innocence, vulnerability and optimism of an innocent girl so well without making their destruction a cheap tug at the heart’s strings. Rest assured that Mika retains her spirits and integrity throughout the book.
And then, there would be the elephant in the room. The event horizon of annoyance. The Jar-Jar Binks of the book, if you will. Yes, that bad. Kay. Kay is, apart from Mika, the primary female protagonist of the book. She is Brigg’s foil and they had a history of disagreeing online. She is also the love interest by proximity and joins the search for Mika’s father because she is convinced that Briggs wants to rape, or at least fondle, Mika. Scratch that. She is convinced that EVERY man in this world obviously is not only a pervert, but also interested in little, prepubescent girls. And she CONSTANTLY reasserts this. Over. And. OVER. AGAIN. Whenever there’s a rest, she insists that the guys sleep in other rooms, as far away as possible, not once sans jab that they might try something.
…yeah, her behavior is a bad cliché that is all the more grating in the context of the novel. You have probably guessed it by now, but yes, she is a survivor of sexual abuse. She is pretty much the epitome of the bad literary cliché of how to depict such a character if you’ve never met a victim yourself. Honestly, I consider her depiction as almost insulting. It is a sad fact that I have seen up close the consequences of severe abuse, and how different people handle it. The depiction here, though? They’d probably all be insulted by it. Kay is grating.
The issue of her depiction also taps into the other aspect that can be construed as a severe detriment in the overall course of the novel’s plot. In fact, while I really enjoyed this book, I often caught myself thinking that it would have been nice to read this back when I was an adolescent, because it captures the mindset of youthful idealism and optimism so perfectly… but, at the same time, the book fails pretty hard when it tries to talk about anything even remotely pertaining sex or romance, key topics, particularly for adolescents. There is a distinct unease permeating not only the narration, but also the prose, whenever the topics are even hinted at, with what could be organic banter undermined by Kay’s paranoia and Brigg’s (understandably) defensive statements.
Here’s the issue: Brigg is protesting so often (because Kay complains so often), that it almost undermines his stance; he takes so long to actually burst with indignation, it’s astonishing…and this delay makes him feel, at least for a short while, suspicious. His outburst also, ultimately, seems to be efficient, which may not send the best message, but YMMV. This mistrust and unease also afflicts the reader at one point, and is most assuredly generated by the omission of any form of explicitly calling sex or the like by their names. There is this whole blanket of discomfort surrounding the topic, and while it could be excused by Brigg being the narrator and thus caught in the stigmatization of the topic in his mind, this extends to book #2, but more on that subject there.
Anyways, the obvious unease (of the author?) regarding the subject matter can also be seen in some jarring statements regarding gender roles; when Brigg talks about “masculine urges/courage/pride” and stuff like that, I felt like I was reading something out of time. Similarly, the depiction of both men and women tends to run along, unnecessarily, I might add, these lines.
Now, don’t get me wrong: The author manages to craft well-rounded, interesting and proactive characters, both male and female – it is ONLY in the interaction of the characters with regards to their gender roles and sexuality, that they suddenly become somewhat weird, almost as though an arch-conservative, ideological censor-screen was put over them, snuffing out, for that second, any personality.
Now, this *may* be chalked up to a brainwashing of sorts, to the strange society of Eden, but there is not one indicator in the whole book that such antiquated roles would be propagated on a cultural level. So yeah, these instances, while relatively few and far in between, made me cringe. Oh, and guess who is the main character of book 2? Bingo. Kay. We’ll see how she fares when we see the world through her eyes, as opposed to that of Brigg.
Anyways, while this may sound really negative, it frankly shouldn’t. You see, the journey of the characters and the way in which, time and again, the net, the basics of the revolution etc. are developed, is amazing: From supporters to vanishing directors to the not-so-secret police of the Fifteen, who only arrests, doesn’t kill, and is SURPRISINGLY kind and helpful…and not at all dystopian in their mannerisms, the developments are absolutely amazing. The logical progression of extremists, the Zealots, distancing themselves from parts of the ideology of the Causes; the fact that the Fifteen have complex machinations and counter strategies, the mysteries heaped upon another – this book, in spite of the previous complaints I fielded, was an amazing reading experience.
In fact, the stunning realization I had at the end, was that I had never read anything like it. The optimism and idealism that suffuses this book remains unbroken to the very end; indeed, this was one of the most uplifting, exhilarating reading experiences I had in a while.
Vagrant Summer left me wanting more, in spite of the aforementioned shortcomings in the romance/love-department: The world is fantastic and the characters are, for the most part, people that we want to see succeed. They are not one-dimensional buffoons, they behave in smart and concise ways, and the narrative tempo of the novel knows how to keep you engaged. The world of Eden and its symbolism are interesting, and I have never seen an author tackle the topic of a revolution in, what can be seen as a utopia, in such an interesting manner, illustrating the power of non-violence, of basically the humanist spirit.
This is not a perfect book; it is a freshman offering; but it is one that managed to have me deeply invested in the world and characters it portrays. It left me with an uplifted, positive feeling; its smart plot caught my interest and kept it. In short, while this book has severe deficiencies in one category of its plot, it otherwise manages to be something we get to see only very, very rarely:
It is honestly original.
For me, that makes up for the aforementioned flaws; hence, my final verdict will be 4.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo. If you can see past the flaws, this is amazing and may be worth my seal of approval as well; for me, personally, I can add it.
Now, let’s see whether Kay gets some much needed depth in book #2…
You can get this book here on Amazon!