Arthur A. Levine, 2012, 368 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-545-29670-0
I really should preface this review by saying that I’ve had a decade-long nerd-crush (in the most geeky platonic sense) on Leah Bobet, and so anything I write about her debut novel Above is likely to be highly subjective. But time has come to pay tribute to Leah, and this review might as well be the best way to do it.
It started, appropriately enough, at a Science Fiction convention. (If you don’t come out of a major SF convention with at least half-a-dozen nerd-crushes, you’re not attending them correctly.) August 2003, Toronto: The much-maligned Torcon 3 worldcon. I was attending a panel about Artificial Intelligence, featuring several genre big-time writers when the discussion veered severely off-topic. After a few minutes of this nonsense unchecked by the moderator, a voice from the audience prompted panelists to get back on topic, please? As someone who gets exasperated at bad panel moderation, I silently tipped my non-existing hat at the young woman who had brought back the panel on-track. Reading a post-convention report by Cory Doctorow gave me the name to go along with the person.
And that, with a bit of hindsight, was how I became aware of Leah Bobet.
Not that I could have avoided her, given that over the following years I kept seeing her name attached to a growing number of fascinating short stories. As if being a remarkable new author wasn’t enough, she also worked as a bookseller at the legendary Bakka-Phoenix genre bookstore and became a regular panelist at a number of Toronto SF conventions I also attended. When you go to a lot of SF conventions, you learn how to pick panels by participants rather than subject matters. Leah quickly became one of my reliable makers for good panels. At some point we started greeting each other in that “Oh, you, from that other convention!” fashion. Most seasoned SF fans have this weird proprietary sense of “I knew that author way before the rest of you”, and I suppose that Leah is one of “my” discoveries in that way. When Above was announced, I was thrilled to re-enact the classic fan-paying-for-author’s-drink convention ritual on her behalf.
So, if you only get one thing out of this review, it’s that Leah is awesome, you should read what she writes and if you find yourself at a convention where she is on the participant list, make a point of attending her panels. (Also, don’t be shy and say hi: she’s friendly.)
I should have reviewed Above when it came out in January 2012. Instead, I was… otherwise preoccupied in taking care of a newborn daughter and taking an extended sabbatical away from just about everything, including reading and SF conventions. Now that I’ve managed to read the novel and am now paying my dues with a review, it’s 18 months later (24 months later considering that I’m posting all 2013 reviews in a yearly January 2014 lump) and the chances of this review helping the novel’s sales numbers are approximately close to nil.
And I feel guilty, because you really should read it.
Gloriously set in and under Toronto (have you seen that gorgeous cover art?), Above is an acknowledged re-thinking of the old city-underneath-a-city premise, where marginalized outsiders come together and build a community of their own by living off the scraps of the city overhead. While treatments of such an idea run the risk of growing overly sentimental (or worse, romanticized), Above takes a harder-minded stance and adds just enough urban fantasy to make things interesting. In Above, Safe is a place underneath Toronto where people who can’t fit in normal society can gather. This being a fantasy novel, their differences run deeper than usual, with body deformities and supernatural powers that clearly can’t be reconciled with consensus reality. Our protagonist is a young man who has lived all of his life in Safe, but that soon ends when the refuge is attacked by someone it once exiled, and survivors have to seek refuge… above.
Mix well with a tough romance between two dysfunctional characters, and the result is a tough, gritty, fascinating and uncommonly mature debut novel. It’s at its best in quieter character-driven moments: As I edit this review months after reading, my strongest memory of the book is an awful epiphany during which the protagonist recognizes that he has badly hurt someone he loves. It’s a novel filled with terrible moments, sharply-defined characters, a bittersweet conclusion and a strong sense of place. It growls ominously when other debut novels shout, and it’s that kind of admirable restraint that makes it work. The ending has the maturity to acknowledge that self-isolation is not the answer to co-existence problems, and it’s too smart to glorify the outsiders at the complete expense of the white-coated mainstream. It’s unfortunate that the style of writing may be a bit too difficult for casual readers (I had to slow down, and ignore my growing resistance to Capitalized Meaning), but once you get used to the prose, it delivers on the way it chooses to tell the story.
On a somewhat grander genre consideration, Above feels like a novel from a new generation of fantasy writers: street-savvy authors who have grown with a strong sense of connection to others thanks to the various social networks that weren’t available to older writers. There’s an innate sense of social justice and inclusiveness to Above that simply feels different from the fantasy norm, and it’s a set of values and ethics that have far more to do with ongoing online discussions than genre conventions. Leah Bobet is far from being the first (or only) author to take this attitude and mesh it with the conventions of genre fiction, and I can’t wait to see where this trend takes us.
Similarly, I may be 18 months late in reviewing Leah’s first book, but I’m also 18 months closer to the appearance of her second. That means that you too can catch up! Read it now!