Moral Boils

Now and then I wander down the aisles at the local public library and pick up a book by an author whose name I don’t know. A new author is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re going to get.

Sometimes you have to spit something out.

After 140 pages of Mortal Coils, by Eric Nylund, I’ve got a bad taste in my mouth. At the start of the story we meet twins Eliot and Fiona, who are just about to turn 15. They live with their grandmother and great-grandmother, and Grandmother is insanely strict. No music, no movies, not even store-bought soap. A list of more than a hundred rules is taped (or possibly nailed) to the wall. In a word, these young people are being horribly abused. Grandmother allows (forces) them to work part-time in a pizza parlor, but what that has to do with the plot is unclear; it seems to be just an extended display of degradation.

It soon appears there’s a reason for Grandmother’s determination to control their lives. Or maybe Grandmother is just a sadistic bitch, it’s hard to be certain. Apparently she’s protecting them from their other relatives. There are two feuding families, you see. Some sort of uneasy truce is being maintained between the families, but the twins’ mother was from one family and their father from the other. The parents are long gone, most likely dead, but the existence of the children threatens the truce.

These families seem not to be quite human. Possibly they’re angels and devils, though they have limousines and laptops and helicopters. The angels, sad to say, are pretty nearly as bad as the devils. Aunt Lucia (one of the angels) poisons children wholesale. Grandmother has just now killed a man by slitting his throat, for no very clear reason, and she’s one of the angels too.

When the families discover where the children are living, they’re dragged off to visit Grandmother’s kin. It’s decided in a family council that the children will be given some tests — of heroism or valor or something. If they don’t pass the tests, they’ll be killed. Meanwhile, the other family is also plotting to kill them.

Eliot and Fiona are victims. They’re not being sexually abused, but in every other way they’re in thrall to monsters. There is nothing good for them to hope for, other than to avoid being butchered by their relatives. They can’t trust any of the adults, other than possibly their great-grandmother, who is 104 years old and has shown, thus far, not a shred of spunk. It appears they have some superpowers, but they haven’t been trained to use their powers — and if somehow they manage to master their powers and emerge triumphant from their tests, what’s the happy ending? They get to cozy up to their creepy, sadistic family.

This is not my idea of a fun read.

Effective plotting does, of course, demand that a likeable hero (or, in this case, a pair of them) face real difficulty and emerge triumphant at the end. Eliot and Fiona are likable, and the challenges they face are certainly difficult. In that sense, the story is effective, and some readers are bound to like it. But in an action adventure novel, effective plotting also requires that the heroes have a positive goal toward which they’re striving. When their only goal is to avoid being killed, what you have is a horror story.

The end of a horror story requires that the hero vanquish the forces of evil. The monster has to be dead. In the case of Mortal Coils, it’s hard for me (again, after only 140 pages) to see how that can work. For two reasons: First, there are too many monsters. Killing them would mean a bloodbath, and likeable heroes do not do bloodbaths. Second, Eliot and Fiona are simply too weak, and the forces arrayed against them are too strong. The idea that they will somehow win the battle is not very believable.

However, Nylund doesn’t seem to have made up his mind about the tone of the book. Whatever it is, it’s not horror. Given a pair of 15-year-old protagonists, it might appear to be directed at the younger side of the Young Adult market, but the circumstances facing Fiona and Eliot are too dire to fit comfortably within that niche. Still, what else can it be but YA when one of the devils, Beal Buan, whose title is Lord of All That Flies (lord of the flies, get it?), spends five pages manufacturing some special chocolates with which to tempt Fiona? The Lord of All That Flies has a master confectioner, acolytes in pink jumpsuits (no, I’m not making this up), electric mixers, copper kettles, dozens of chefs, and a boys’ choir to serenade the chocolate with “The Chant of the Rum-Sugar Plum Fairies.” I’ve never seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but what else can this chapter be but an homage to that movie? If the whole book was this kind of fun, I’d be happy to keep reading, but Grandmother’s rules have already made fun impossible for Eliot and Fiona. Not gonna be no fun in their lives, not ever.

Leafing forward to page 500 or thereabouts, I see that the twins have mastered some magic and apparently found in it sources of wonder and inspiration. But I don’t feel up to slogging along with them while they get there. The acid would eat right through my hip boots. Either that, or I’d get fat on the chocolate.

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