Racing the Dark and The Burning City by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
13 April 2011
One cannot deny Alaya Dawn Johnson's enthusiasm for young adult fantasy. In interview after interview, her excitement about this particular literary category shines through as she talks about the authors who have influenced her, people such as Patricia McKillip, Sharon Shinn and, in particular, Diana Wynne Jones, and about why young adult fantasy is so important to her. "What I especially love about young adult fantasy," she says in an article on Beatrice.com, "is a certain quality of focus, wherein even epic situations have a very personal orientation." Later in the same piece, Johnson comments, "While its greater brevity and tighter focus on character might remove some of the epic sweep of the story, [young adult fantasy] forces an economy of language; the story is all the more powerful for having been pared to its essential heart." She mentions focus for a third time when she says, of her own novel, Racing the Dark, "I wanted to write a coming of age story where the focus was explicitly personal, and the story arc derived from the main character's relationships, not some destiny slapped on her shoulders by the ill-disguised hand of the author." Johnson is very clear about what makes young adult fantasy work for her as a reader but when it comes to creating her own young adult fantasy novels there seems to be a gap between credo and praxis.
The main premise behind Racing the Dark and its sequel, The Burning City, parts one and two of the Spirit Binders trilogy, is that deep in the past the inhabitants of the world in which both novels are set have learned how to bind elemental forces such as Fire, Wind, Water, and Death, in an effort to gain some control over their environment. Insofar as we have any sense of the novels' geography, this is a geologically volatile world of oceans, archipelagos and volcanos (and, given Johnson's interest in East Asian cultures, it is reasonable to think in terms of pre-modern Polynesia and also Hawaii, though one might also look to Le Guin's Earthsea for inspiration). Lana's people, living on the outer islands, make their living from the sea, the most respected among them being the divers who harvest "jewels" from a particular species of fish, the mandagah. The community lives close to the elements; it's a hard living but a good one in its way, and most of Lana's community would be reluctant for it to change. However, the nature of fiction is such that things must change in order to facilitate the passage of the story; thus, we understand from the beginning that this idyll cannot continue.
Weather patterns are changing, the mandagah fish are vanishing and the community itself is finally overwhelmed by a huge storm. Afterwards, Lana's parents decide that the time has come to leave the island and move to Essel, the city at the heart of their world. Father Kapa will make a living as an instrument-maker and musician while Lana and her mother, Leilani, both divers, will find other work. The plan is built on dreams which cannot be economically sustained; Kapa travels to Essel alone, to work and raise money for his family to follow. Lana and her mother are left to fend for themselves in a city partway to Essel, working long hours in dangerous low-paying jobs.
As Johnson suggests, the first novel focuses closely on Lana's efforts to come to terms with the significant changes in her circumstances and the work she is engaged in, not to mention the effect of the shift in circumstances on her mother. When Lana becomes ill, Leilani, working as a hostess, first turns to prostitution in order to raise money for appropriate medicine and, later, strikes a complex bargain with the witch, Akua. Lana's life is saved but in return she is apprenticed to Akua, while Leilani finally joins her husband. To that extent the novel is indeed personal; however, what is never really revealed is what Lana is actually thinking. Johnson keeps the reader unexpectedly distant from viewpoint characters, particularly so in Lana’s case, and it becomes increasingly difficult to forge any kind of proper connection with them.
By this stage we are about halfway through the first novel and waiting for something significant to occur. Despite Johnson’s earlier comment about not wishing her character to have "some destiny slapped on her shoulders by the ill-disguised hand of the author" this is precisely what has already happened. When Lana underwent the divers' initiation ceremony, the fish she approached disgorged not one but two jewels, an event which indicated that Lana had significant powers. Lana concealed this from her community, afraid of what it meant, but nonetheless, for the reader, and for Lana herself, the revelation has already been made, and the reader anticipates that Lana must either embrace her destiny or suffer some kind of consequence for rejecting it. The interest of Akua the witch suggests that in some way or other Lana will have to acknowledge her powers but, as the novel unfolds, the question must surely be "when?"
Johnson herself seems ambivalent as to the novels' category. In an interview in Fantasy Magazine she commented that Racing the Dark is "sort of in that nether-region between young adult and adult fantasy," a niche market so tiny she may well be the only author currently occupying it, and that in direct contradiction of her own claim that the boundaries between young adult and adult fantasy are so porous as to be practically nonexistent. One might debate whether or not such labeling actually matters, but in this instance it does, because rather than paring down her story to its essential heart Johnson impedes its telling as often as she facilitates it.
Lana's own story is complicated, distinguished by long periods of marking time, waiting for something to happen, alternated with bursts of activity which are in their own way also long, drawn out affairs, often journeys across unmapped terrain, in the company of an avatar of Death, with whom Lana has struck a bargain for her mother's life, offering her own in return. At first she travels in search of ways to extend the magical protection on her own life; it is on one such journey that Lana encounters the spirit of the Wind, which transforms her into a black angel, a change she accepts almost casually. Later, she searches fitfully for her mother, who is kidnapped by Akua. These stories are in turn braided around that of Kohaku, once Lana's teacher, a man whose ambition has led him to Essel, where by striking an unholy bargain with the elements he has become M'oi, or ruler, of the city. A man who is savage and unpredictable, his behavior has brought the city to the brink of insurrection, while his meddling with the elements has unleashed the power of the volcano, bringing destruction on the city. The Burning City, the second volume of the trilogy, is set entirely within this period of upheaval, moving between Lana and Kohaku's estranged wife, Nahoa, but here Johnson complicates the action even further by incorporating the story of Ana, Tulo, and Parech, three outcasts who find themselves caught up in a war not of their making. Told from Ana's point of view, this strand of narrative will shed light on the nature of a character already present in the novels, though for much of the novel it remains unclear as to which character this is.
As conceived, the novels are undoubtedly ambitious; in this lies their strength but also their weakness. On the one hand we have a heroine who is, for long periods of time, remarkably passive, biding her time, waiting for something without being clear what it is she is waiting for. It is a difficult feat to pull off and Johnson never quite finds a successful balance between stillness and activity; nor, perhaps more importantly, does she convince the reader as to why this stillness is so necessary. When Lana moves, she inevitably moves too far and for too long; when she waits, it is as though time has slowed almost to a halt. Too often, as well, Lana's story is lost in the energy of the battle between Nahoa and Kohaku, or Ana's account of her life with Tulo and Parech. This is frustrating as there are aspects of Lana's story that are deeply intriguing, particularly her highly intellectual approach to using magic and her strange relationship with Death's avatar. Yet Johnson's portrayal of relationships particularly among the other female characters often show greater depth and color than those involving Lana, for all that she is the central character. There is a sense that Johnson is, somehow, telling this story from the wrong direction and throwing too much into the mix; Lana, the most important part of the story, risks becoming obscured by the welter of other story elements. In this case, less would indeed have been more.