Thursday, September 13, 2012

“Symmetry and Artistry in a Well-Told Tale”

A Review of Seth Hammons Unheard Of [Book One of The Keys] (2012, ISBN 978-0-9859841-0-6)

Welcome to a brand new world. Two actually. The first is real, the other a writer’s creation. Both are equally important to this book.
            The first is a world that allows an author, almost independently, to publish a high-quality book without a publisher. I am talking more and more often in my reviews about these ultra-small, independent, and DIY authors and presses because they are growing in prevalence. Print on demand is virtually indistinguishable from large-volume runs that were the norm only 3 short years ago. Seth Hammons has written one of the best books I have read from this world in some time, and it bodes well for the future of literature that a book like this is in the world.
            The second world is the one created by the author. It centers on The Iori Keys, a group of islands wherein two classes of people reside—the Imperial Iori and the workaday Brecks, the former of whom oppress the latter.
            The differences between the two are numerous, familiar, and important: be it Science vs. Nature, Dogma vs. Paganism, formal schooling vs. orally passed knowledge, materialism vs. simple living, aggression vs. peace, or privileged vs. working class, Unheard Of tells us all about ourselves—our predispositions, our prejudices… and it does so with a simplicity and depth of craft that plays lightly like the music with which it is centrally concerned.
            The success of this music is its symmetry. For the first third or so of the novel, three central characters—the spoiled son of an Iori duke, the granddaughter of elderly farmers, and an ex ship’s navigator fallen on hard and drunken times—live their parallel lives. Although it is the sublime inevitability of good storytelling that we know that they will meet, Hammons makes us wait until the time is as perfectly ripe as the fruit and wheat yielded on the family farm.
            Although both the characters and the circumstances are deeply rooted in traditional storytelling themes—as are all the secondary and tertiary characters—Hammons gives us plenty that is fresh and new. His use of music as magic and explorations of other arts, such as whittling, all show a thorough understanding and reinforcement of the main themes through extended and well-rendered metaphor.
            In his Acknowledgments, the author says that his first foray into novel writing was a million-word epic that is not this book. All the practice shows. The prose is rich and rhythmical. The pages fly by. And I cared very much about the main characters. Their frustration, pains, and wants became my own. I rooted for them, and became emotionally and vocally moved when they were thwarted—or when they thwarted themselves.
            Like the works of Shakespeare or Tolkien, a well-crafted fantasy speaks to us through the ages and the mists of make-believe places to exactly where we are. The prejudices and injustices of Hammon’s set of islands are our own. Religion, economics, schooling, family—these are central pillars of any society, or set of societies, and if it were not for the thrumming hold of the cadence of the prose, one could get pulled into more modern matters of the war in the Middle East, ongoing prejudice in all areas of society, and what some are calling the “class war.” It is impossible to remain neutral when reading Unheard Of.
            Of how many books can we say the same?
            Unheard Of has some big surprises… some real “I didn’t see that coming” moments, but each are grounded securely in the story. There are no cheap tricks or gimmicks. And being the first book in a series (at least, I hope Hammons is writing more), there are some pressing matters with which we are left to wonder.
            I would happily recommend Unheard Of to those eighth grade to adult. There are some beautifully rendered maps by Zeyan Zhang (who also did the cover) and a Glossary. This is an excellent book for a discussion group, and the Glossary seems to be specifically crafted to suit just that.
            Reading the biographies in the back of the book, I can’t help but root for both the author and illustrator.
            No matter which world you consider—the real one of publishing and those trying to make their way in it or the fantasy one in which these memorable characters reside—this is a story that deserves a broad and loyal audience.

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