Book Review - Flora Segunda

It has been awfully long time since this blog had a book review, but then its been an awfully long time since this blog had writing often at all, and one must have words, mustn't one, eventually? At least this one.

Flora Segunda was publish in 2007, and given that there are many blogs covering YA that are wonderful and very authoritative (far more than this blogger, who reads YA the way that a walrus must eat beef - awfully rarely and with pleasant and recurring surprise that such a thing exists), the fact that the title has not come up before was a bit stunning, because its a beautiful book, that has only been more present emotionally since the reading of it. Perhaps, in part it's that simply it's been a very long time since simply reading a book. There has been squeezing in some in the corners, but not really reading, not REALLY reading in an awfully long time, and January was not the most delightful of months, so this was a wonderful book to have as a friend.

Flora, if you, gentle reader, have never heard of it either, is a book about a young girl, the heir to an old great family of the land of Calif, who is approaching the date of her Catorcena. Perhaps gentle reader you are already clever enough to have spotted something that I am boggled to say it took me about a quarter of the book to recognize - that the book is set in a fantastical version of Southern California. This was one of the great charms of the book for me, that the flavor of the magic and world building is wonderfully different from others I've read - the enemy kingdom is based around Aztec and Maya culture, the wizards are, in many ways, sort of a cross between Zorro and a gallivanting 19th century cavalry officer, though both genders (if that whets your appetite, I positively demand you read this book, and then make long emails back and forth with me and we shall make up grand stories about the inheritors of Nini Mo's ranger legacy).

The tone of this book, even apart from the setting and feel of a young magical California, is unique, I literally cannot think of another book to compare it to. At first I was concerned I would not enjoy it. With the first few sentences there was a mention of the word 'potty' in a humorous setting - in the end though, what the book did was make me realize why I DON'T usually like 'low' humor in a book aimed at children: because usually it feels like an adult condescending to the child, going 'well, I know you're too stupid to get subtler humor, so I'll throw a fart in here.' Only, the thing is, when you're thirteen (catorcena is your fourteenth birthday, a playful and clever life of the quinceanera tradition common in the parts of the US that are influenced by Mexican-American culture, which if you're not familiar with it, I recommend a google image search), well, frankly for most of us a bit of that humor IS a PART of our sense of humor. I know, I have a thirteen year old, now, and I was one once, a long time ago.

What was wonderful about this book was that the little bits of the lowbrow that came out were simply... human. Simply believable parts of the way this very human girl thinks. This came as a wonderful revelation to me, to where I could enjoy her, the same way I enjoy my own sons. Flora came across as precocious, but attractively, believably precocious instead of simply being an adult in the clothes of a child. Those parts of my heart that are pre-adolescent sympathized with her. And, this made the process of her growing up in the book - for its very much a bildungsroman in all the best ways - much more poignant and familiar and honest. In a sense watching her grow reminded me of the boys growing up in 'Finding Neverland', another book with a very wise command of what the difference between adulthood and childhood, the relative strengths and weaknesses of both.

And that was what really made the book something I will remember - the book so honestly and sympathetically observes growing up ( a process, after all, that isn't something one succeeds or fails at, so much as just happens to do whether one likes it or not, in so many ways), that what in other writer's hands might have been little more than fluff and farce carries a force and poignancy that trickles into the heart and rests there. The books delicacy of touch grants the reader, perhaps, the right, to be, once again, a child, a right that we as adults, so seldom are given access to. My oldest son read it too, and I wish now I'd read it at his age, because I'd love to understand the difference in the way I might have felt it back then.

The mind boggling thing about the book is that, with all the deftness and sympathy and gentleness, how much serious ground the book truly does cover. Living with mental illness, the traumatic effects of war, the dark power of patriotism, racism, and so much of the disillusioning sorrow of late childhood. At the end of the book, absolutely none in Flora's life, no matter how well-meaning, really seems to be terribly virtuous, or even really fully capable of loving Flora completely, in the way that a child needs to be loved, completely, by someone. There is, in the end, absolutely none entirely trustworthy in her life by the final page. But the beauty of it is that, this doesn't make it a tragedy - it simply smiles gently at you and says 'You see? That's what you'll learn when you grow up,' and then proceeds to delicately guide you into loving every one of those deficient, imperfect, untrustworthy people, in spite of it all.

I could go on - I could write a whole other reverent post about the sheer beauty of the senses in the novel - there are sensations in this novel that I swear Ms Wilce snitched from the inside of my dreams. But the poetry of this novel is so deeply integrated into the power of the plot, that I'd just start repeating myself.

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"The God of the Bitter-Black Wood", or, "Seven Glass Eyes"

Once there was a wicked man, who lived far too long, and on his belt was a leather sack, and in the sack were seven glass eyes. And each day he would open his sack, and the eyes would turn and look at him, until one day, they would not look away, and he could no longer live in the city of men. So he left, and went into the empty lands.

And on his belt he had another leather sack, and in this sack were seven berries, bitter-black and dry, with the seeds rattling in the heart of them. But the empty lands were so empty! So he took from the sack the seven berries, bitter-black and dry, and buried them in little mounds, and waited for the rain. The rain took a long time in coming, but he waited, for he had already lived far too long, and he had time. And then the rain came, and the little berries sprouted thickets, bitter-black and thick with thorns.

Then the man went round to the seven bitter-black hedges, and opened up his other sack, and in the nook just above the roots, he nestled, in each hedge a single glass eye. And then he trimmed the low branches, so that the hedge grew high and broad into seven trees, and the gnarled thorns wrapped round themselves into a trunk, and in the wrapping, wrapped around the eyes, and closed them in tight. And the growing took a long time in coming, but he waited, for he had already lived far too long, and he had time.

And then he waited, for the trees to bear their fruits, for the winter was coming on, and the flowers were fallen, and the buds displaced. And the fruit too was slow in coming, but it came, too, rich black-violet, and heady with its own smooth bitterness. And the birds came down and gnawed their beaks against the bitter-black skins, until each thousand-fruit split broad, and in the center of each fruit was a pink and mournful tongue. And all the tongues cried out against the man.

And though the growing had been slow, the song was quick, and the hearing quicker, and a great storm came down, and it tore and fought, and heaved and wept, and buckled and drank, and vomited all that it drank down. And when the storm was gone, the man came out from under a brake of ferns, and six trees lay before him, snapped off at the trunks, just above the ground. And in the jagged stumps, laid clean and clear and watchful, there were six glass eyes. And the man rejoiced and took the eyes, and put them in his leather sack. And the tree that still remained stood quiet in the empty-lands, and said nothing.

But God came down then, and sat by the man and watched him as he tied the sack up tight. And he watched as the man went to the lone remaining tree, and from it plucked seven berries, closed up and shriveled, dry and rattling, and he put them in the other sack. And then, the wicked man, turned and he looked at God, and God was what he always had been - not God, but just the God of the Bitter-Black Wood. And the wicked man reached out his hand, and the God of the Bitter-Black Wood plucked out his glass eye, and set it in the open palm of the wicked man. And the wicked man put the eye in the little leather sack, and turned to walk back toward the city of men.

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