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Monday, May 24, 2010

Zan Gah + Zan Gah and the Beautiful Country by Allan Richard Shickman



from Goodreads (slightly altered):
In Zan Gah, the hero, Zan-Gah seeks his lost twin in a savage prehistoric world, encountering suffering, captivity, conflict, love, and triumph. In three years, Zan-Gah passes from an uncertain boyhood to a tried and proven manhood and a position of leadership among his people.

In The Beautiful Country, Zan s troubled twin brother, Dael, having suffered greatly during his earlier captivity, receives a ruinous new shock when his wife suddenly dies. Disturbed and traumatized, all of his manic energies explode into acts of hostility and bloodshed. His obsession is the destruction of the wasp men, his first captors, who dwell in the Beautiful Country. When he, Zan-Gah, and a band of adventurers trek to their bountiful home, they find that all of the wasp people have died in war or of disease. The Beautiful Country is empty for the taking, and Zan s people, the Ba-Coro, decide to migrate and resettle there. But the Noi, Dael s cruelest enemies and former tormentors, make the same migration from their desert home, and the possibility develops of contention and war over this rich and lovely new land.

[Note: I am going to treat the review of both books as one in most instances, since my likes and dislikes were the same in both books.  When I am speaking of one in particular, I will make a note of it.]


 I said awhile back that this is the summer of expanding my reading tastes and reading outside of my comfort zone (as seen in the Wild Things Challenge, which I really need to do an update on).  Sometimes, that can seriously backfire.  But sometimes it works.

When I agreed to review the Zan Gahs, it was with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I have always liked history, but I was really dubious of a pre-history story.  I wanted to try something new and different, but what if "new and different" turned out to be old and grunt-ugh-ugh?  The deciding factor was that I have a friend with a smarty-pants son, and I thought they sounded like books he might like, which led me to the further conclusion that these might be good boy books, which are in short supply, so why not give it a try and find out?  There were some drawbacks for sure, but I'm glad I did.

I was worried when I first started reading Zan Gah.  The writing was very simple and almost dispassionate, like a text-book come slightly to life.  And things were laid out very explicitly, with little asides to the reader, which can cross over into pet-peevish territory very quickly for me (condescending, redundant, tangential, etc).  But though the simplistic style remained, the rest did sort of resolve itself and I found myself interested in Zan's life and trials.  I was even able to feel a bit connected to him, which was a bit of a worry, since we are so removed from that time.

I think this is the key to their success as stories (for young teens and adults as well): Shickman wrote very human characters and a very human story.  For example, Zan's brother, Dael, is a very emotionally and mentally wounded person.  This is evident in the first book, but in The Beautiful Country, things really do get quite dark.  Shickman writes a very honest account (which some parents might not approve of) of the hardships of prehistoric life, but he blends this distant topic with very universal and current psychological understandings to make it seem real and less distant.  The reader watches as Zan struggles not only to bring his brother back home, but just to bring him back, and it is at times painful and frustrating and rawly honest.  Shickman doesn't sugarcoat the past or the realities of life.  I was really impressed with how full his characters were, even when the writing at times lacked finesse.  I am always impressed and appreciative when an author who is writing for a younger audience respects that audience and doesn't treat them as if they won't understand or can't handle the less savory parts of life.  This became more and more evident as the story went on (especially into book 2) when Shickman writes of death and war and some of the more powerful and negative things people want to keep their children from -- but he deals with these things in a very good way, I think, and says some very powerful things:
"What devil is it that makes men prefer war to peace?" [Hurnoa] inquired, more of herself than her audience.  "Maybe life was too easy.  Men who do not have to struggle in order to eat, men with idle time and over-abundant energy, turn their minds to war and conquest.  I do not know why.  And yet we, the attackers, needed nothing that your people had.  And you were far away!  Why should we seek you?  Our minds were sick before our bodies were."
and then later:
"...healing and regeneration were still possible, because there is a secret place in every soul that has never yet been wounded."
This is more mature and philosophical than one generally comes across in books for this age group, and I think that's a good thing.  Shickman does his reader credit by giving them a full story, good and bad and everything in between, making it seem more real and authentic than I was expecting.

Something else that fascinated me was how much of an effort Shickman made to include all types of people, all different ways of living and different personalities and beliefs and stages of development.  He gives the reader man at the brink of some major inventions, and at an interesting cusp between superstitious belief and logical analysis.  He gives great variety: not all men and women act the same way, or think the same things, or love who they should and act as they are taught; not all tribes believe the same things or look and dress the same; not all bad guys are bad, and not all good guys are good -- Shickman didn't just make copies of stock characters and place them through out.  It seemed like he tried really hard to put across that people are people and always have been.  There are flaws there, and there are good bits, and the more things change, the more they stay the same, right?  Zan's story is a very human one, and I appreciated that.

But there are drawbacks, of course.  As I said, the writing is often very simplistic in style (though the language can be very advanced).  At times I felt like it read like one of my anthropology texts, which though not always a bad thing, wasn't always a good thing either.  I also think it's going to have a very specific audience, and most people solidly in their teens will shun it for seeming young (stylistically) or "nerdy."  But I think it will easily find an audience with precocious kids, young teens and adults who are into this kind of thing (in fact, there were times when I wished it was an adult book, so that the simple style could be ditched and the philosophical and darker elements could be explored to their extent; I think it could have been very powerful and compelling as an adult book, though, ironically, I probably wouldn't have wanted to read it...).    Sometimes the structure was a bit weird, too, but possibly my biggest pet peeve was the exclamation points.  I! Hate! Exclamation! Points! (at least when they keep popping up.  They really should be used very sparingly.  I understand that things are a little more lax in kids books in this regard, but still.)

But all in all, I'd say this was a good stepping-out-of-the-box experience, and if you like this kind of book or are feeling adventurous and want to try something new, you might want to give this one a shot.  If you can adjust to the style, I think you'll enjoy yourself.


4 comments:

  1. Let me, the author, be the first to make a comment. Thank you for a thoughtful, sensitive review. I am pleased that you found the Zan-Gah books off the beaten track. You have to admit, these stories are not for those who live on jelly beans. One of the problems of writing prehistoric fiction is that we are dealing with a violent, heartless period of human history. Careful readers will notice that I avoid violence, but when I introduce it, it is terrible, as violence really is. The Zan-Gah series won a Mom's Choice Gold Medal for excellence (I'm bragging) and for being family-friendly. Evidently Mom's Choice saw the social and literary value of the books, violence and all—and so did you. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "live on jelly beans."
    I like that.

    ReplyDelete
  3. i just got this for review and was intrigued with the premise as well. something certainly different.

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  4. I've read and reviewed this books as well and I enjoyed them. Especially the second book :)

    Great review, Misty!

    ReplyDelete

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