Judged by Melissa • find her on Goodreads
I have trouble comparing books cross-genre, in general; it’s too easy to start faulting a book for not being something it was never intended to be, like saying 13 Little Blue Envelopes was bad because Ginny didn’t have a magic sword. So I went into this terribly conflicted about what, exactly, I was looking for in choosing a book to advance to the next round – I didn’t think it was fair simply to go with my default, the fantasy book; in general I think the best fantasy literature in the last forty years has come from the young adult section of the library, and it gets ignored for that very reason, so I like promoting it. And putting a relatively inexperienced novelist up against Louis Sachar in his prime… that’s not very fair either. So I went back to the basics.
The Demon King and The Cardturner are both very good books – obviously so, since they advanced from the first round. The Demon King is an extremely exciting story, everything you’d want from an epic fantasy: multiple viewpoint characters, dark magic, plots against the throne, and at least three factions all at odds with each other and the promise of more in books to come. I particularly like the strong worldbuilding and the fascinating backstory, with the intersection between legend and reality as the story of the Demon King is constantly called into question (and the truth of it was beautifully poignant on so many levels). Chima’s characters are interesting; she takes the stock figures of the rebellious princess and the outcast hero and gives them life enough that they’re archetypal rather than stereotypical, which I think is something epic fantasy often fails to do. I’m also a sucker for a good romance, and there are several in this book, not all of them healthy, but all of them perfect examples of how teens explore being in love (Amon and Raisa, anyone?). I was definitely drawn into the story, and the ending sets up the next volume in the series well.
The Cardturner, for its part, is a beautifully written and tightly plotted novel that’s exactly the opposite of the world-spanning The Demon King; it’s about one young man and his relationship with his “favorite uncle” Trapp, and how that relationship changes because of the relatively prosaic game of bridge. Maybe it takes someone like Sachar to make bridge, now the province of the old and uncool, interesting to an audience of young people, but make it interesting he does, and I’m incredibly impressed by that. Sachar’s strong characterization on all levels is also impressive, because everyone Alton interacts with is unique and well-defined, even the one-off bridge partners he and Trapp encounter. It’s this skill with characterization, I think, that makes Alton’s romantic entanglements so compelling, particularly since it’s uncommon to see a boy as the POV character in a love triangle. And then there’s the story behind Trapp and the great love of his life – a story in which legend and history are tangled much the way they are in The Demon King. The Cardturner really is exquisite.
So there you are. I liked both books and thought them both very good. But I’m not allowed to advance both of them; there must be a winner. So now I’m going to tell you why it’s The Cardturner.
I said before that I think YA fantasy is at the top of the heap when it comes to all fantasy literature, and my temptation is always to privilege the YA fantasy book over a YA mystery or a YA contemporary novel. I’m particularly inclined to do so in the case of high fantasy, which seems to be disappearing from the field these days. However, as much as I liked The Demon King, I didn’t feel good about giving it that push. Raisa as a character is multidimensional; her storyline is not. It is the all too familiar tale of an adventurous girl forbidden to be herself and forced to do girly things, and since the reader is meant to identify with the heroine, the implication is that those girly things are bad – and this ultimately teaches girls who are interested in domesticity that there’s something wrong with them. I am tired of seeing the empowerment of nontraditional femininity come at the cost of dismissing the traditional kind.
I would, however, merely have been disappointed that Chima took the easy road here if it hadn’t been clear that she was willing to sacrifice good sense to achieve that adventurous-girl trope. Raisa is the heir to a queendom, and they’re not giving her queening lessons? In all Raisa’s griping about what she’s being taught, there’s never a mention of learning geopolitical history or the basics of strategy; if she gets it, she gets it second-hand. I simply don’t believe that Raisa not being taught to rule is solely the fault of the man who wants to insinuate himself onto the throne; nobody says anything like “wow, she’s sure not getting taught like her mother the queen was” to suggest that this is a new development engineered by Gavan Bayar. Yet Raisa’s mother, even in her enthralled state, has a good grasp of politics, and she had to learn that somewhere – so where is Raisa supposed to get it, if her mother isn’t providing it? The only thing this omission does is reinforce the image of Raisa chafing at unfair restrictions meant to stifle her personality, and I fault the author for not trusting her characterization enough. When Raisa’s plot is compared with Han’s, with its complexity of someone searching desperately for his place in the world, the difference is even more striking. Given that Raisa’s plot is half the story, I consider this too big a failing to let slide.
On the other hand, I had a really hard time finding flaws in The Cardturner. It’s slower than The Demon King, it’s not as exciting, the romance isn’t as powerful (let’s talk about Amon and Raisa’s potentially doomed love affair sometime), and there are all those sections on bridge that might be off-putting to a young reader, even if Sachar does provide useful summaries and shows how to skip the longer bits if you want. But the only way I can really call those things flaws is to set up some artificial standard by which all YA fiction should be judged, and I’m not going to do that. Besides, all those things make the book what it is: tightly plotted, smoothly characterized, and all without the seams showing. Alton’s voice is evocative of youth, from his vocabulary to his approach to life. As the book begins, he’s rather… laid-back is the wrong word, but so is apathetic; he’s somewhere in the middle, willing to take action if he’s pressed into it, but like so many teens uncertain of what he wants to take action about. He’s honest enough not to want to have anything to do with his great-uncle Trapp, wealthy great-uncle Trapp whom Alton’s parents have been pushing him toward since he was a child, hoping Trapp will write them, or at least Alton, into his will. And Trapp isn’t any more enthusiastic about having Alton around; his treatment of Alton as not very bright and probably not very reliable is exactly the way you’d expect a man of seventy-odd years to treat a teenage boy. Their relationship progresses in a way that feels natural, with both Alton and Trapp overcoming their respective first impressions of each other to come to a state of mutual respect, so when I reached the first climax (there are two) I was engaged enough with both characters to be emotionally moved.
Alton’s relationship with Toni, Trapp’s former cardturner and bridge protégée, really captivated me because it looked like it was going to be a typical romantic relationship until it was sidelined by Alton’s “best friend” Cliff, and the scare quotes are there because I think Cliff’s habit of stealing girls Alton’s interested in isn’t entirely coincidental. That Toni and Alton manage to come back together at the end says a lot about the nature of teen relationships and how shared interests are far more powerful a bond than casual attraction. Alton is sort of bumbling along here, which I found endearing, and this romance, though not as powerful as Raisa and Amon’s (did I mention I really liked that one? Because I did), had an incredibly satisfactory resolution – or, possibly, a beginning.
The one issue that I think readers of The Cardturner get stuck on is how mental illness is addressed in this book, specifically Toni’s schizophrenia or lack thereof. I think it’s possible to read this book as being dismissive of the seriousness of mental illness, since Toni’s diagnosis is shown to be false; that could imply that Sachar thinks it’s possible for people with schizophrenia to be sane but misunderstood (and therefore capable of fixing themselves if they just want it badly enough). But that’s not the way I read it, for two reasons. First, it’s very clear that Toni does not have schizophrenia – her hearing her dead grandmother’s voice is established as fact, not as a delusion she’s having. I found this interesting because it kept The Cardturner from being a problem novel with a sort of is-she-or-isn’t-she coyness; I like a little supernatural thrown in with my realistic fiction sometimes. This approach means that Toni not taking her meds is not only reasonable, it’s the only possible approach; one does not take antipsychotics if they are unnecessary. Second, the circumstances of Toni’s diagnosis are iffy. No reputable psychiatrist would treat schizophrenia simply by throwing pills at the patient, which is what seems to be going on here. I don’t want people thinking that psychiatrists are quacks and that mental illness is imaginary, but I also don’t think it’s a good idea to forget that sometimes the system fails us – a point that is reinforced in The Cardturner by the forced hospitalization of perfectly sane Annabel King, and we are not all that far from the days when that sort of thing was possible. It’s still an uncomfortable aspect of the novel because Sachar doesn’t ever show a positive side of psychiatry, which allows for the reading that psychiatry is always to be distrusted, but this isn’t a book about mental illness, it’s a book about bridge, and in general I don’t get the feeling that Sachar’s got an axe and is looking for a grindstone.
The feeling I do get from The Cardturner is that it has a sense of completeness that The Demon King lacks. (And before anyone starts yelling about how The Demon King is part of a series and therefore can’t be complete, I didn’t ding it for being just part of a bigger whole. In fact, one of the brilliant things Chima does is give us a sort of mini-resolution, wrapping up one aspect of the story while opening up possibilities for something new. Han learning the truth about himself resolves the issue of why he doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere; Raisa being forced to flee resolves the question of her mother’s increasingly erratic behavior. That was all very good. It’s just not the kind of completeness I’m talking about.) It satisfied me on a visceral level, left me feeling at peace with the world because not only did everything come out all right, it did so on a narrative level and an emotional level and an analytical level, too. The whole story just fits together so perfectly it’s hard to remember, as you’re reading, that somebody crafted this book. And since my preference in reading is solidly skewed in the direction of the fantastical, the fact that I could experience this with contemporary fiction left me thinking there was something special about it. And that sense of completeness is why I’m advancing The Cardturner.
Congratulations to The Cardturner, which moves on to Round 3!