Sunday, April 5, 2015
BREAKING SKY: A New Novel from an Old Friend
A few years ago--when the Twilight madness was at its height--I decided I would read the novels, just so I wouldn't feel culturally illiterate. I should say also that I was teaching high school English at the time at Western Reserve Academy, and most of the young women I taught (11th graders) had read and/or were reading the novels. (A few denied it; one, especially, condemned the novels--on literary terms, not religious ones--when I asked who had read the books. I'll add that no boys in the room confessed to any Twilight hours.)
As a literary critic and book reviewer--and an adult (an old one!)--I felt a little odd reading Twilight in public places--places like coffee shops where others could see me. (I know: I'm a coward.) So I used the modern form of reading deception: Kindle. I started it on July 13, 2009, and recognized within the first few sentences that I was not the audience for the book. (Duh.) But as I read through (and finished) the first volume (the only one I would read), I certainly understood the appeal of the book for young readers. Especially young women.
I felt the same way, of course, reading the opening pages of Cori McCarthy's new novel, Breaking Sky. But I knew that "going in," as they say. YA novels are, well, for YAs, not for seventy-year-old retired English teachers. Teens are invariably the heroes in teen fiction; many (most) adults are messed up--or worse (see Harry Potter).
But I read Breaking Sky with pleasure for a variety of reasons. For one--there's some personal history. I taught her older brother Evan in 8th grade at Harmon Middle School in Aurora (he's now a diplomat in Russia), and Cori herself was in 8th grade the year I retired from the school (the 1996-97 school year--but I didn't know the 8th graders well that year. I had a student teacher in the fall; I no longer taught all the eighth graders (the school had hired another teacher, a very bright young man); I retired in mid-January. So ... I knew who Cori was, but I did not know her very well, not at all. My loss.
I had read (and enjoyed) Cori's first novel, Rain, and I was eager to see how/if she had changed and/or grown as a writer.
I also am very interested to see in her work how the boundaries of YA fiction have expanded since the days when I was teaching it to youngsters. Mild cursing, explicit mentions of (but not too many details about) sexual encounters--these were largely unthinkable in the days of yesteryear. Cori's first novel, a futuristic one, dealt with human sex trafficking (off planet); this one features a prominent gay character and some hanky-panky among some of the principals.
A few details about the plot of Breaking Sky. We're a bit in the future (2048); the USA is no longer the dominant military force on the planet. That ranking belongs to China, whose military has developed "red drones," planes that fly so swiftly and acrobatically that they can easily defeat the more traditional jets of the US (and the West's) arsenal. But the US has secretly developed a new design--planes called the Streakers--that possibly, just possibly, can compete with the red drones.
Because the Streakers fly at unthinkable speeds (Mach 4 and beyond), the Air Force is experimenting with teen pilots, young men and women whose reaction times are greater than those of adults. Our hero (heroine)--named, appropriately, Chase Harcourt, is freaky talented (she's the best of the young pilots), but her life is cluttered with "issues," as well--including an estrangement from her father, a general. Anyway, don't want to spoil it for readers, so I'll just say that international relations heat up in Breaking Sky--and very quickly so. And Chase plays a key role in the conflict.
I enjoyed Cori's occasional allusions (stated and tacit) to Star Wars and The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (not that it's relevant--but her brother Evan was a Tolkien-freak). And she has written some very emotional scenes whose content I will not mention for obvious spoiler-alert reasons. I was interested, too, that she opted not to use/create new slang but had her young cast use locutions that today's readers will instantly recognize. It's as if our colloquial language had frozen in the years between now and then. (Same thing with cultural allusions.) Characters use expressions like talking trash and I need more space.
I think young readers will love Breaking Sky--readers of both genders. Computer-game guys will like the aerial acrobatics and warfare, et al.; young women who loved Twilight and The Hunger Games will find much to relate to here, as well. And many (most?) young readers who learned through Harry Potter that adults are complicated rather than one-dimensional will find more of the same here.
I'm proud to know Cori McCarthy and wish I'd hung around Harmon School another year to get to know her better. She might have taught me a few things.