The playful way to figure out the universe
YOUNG ADULT FICTION: Edda,By Conor Kostick, O’Brien Press, 384pp. €9.99
AT A TIME when so much young adult fiction seems determined to shock its readers with its sensationalism or bore them with its banalities, it is refreshing to read a novel that steers well clear of both tendencies. Conor Kostick’s Edda, the concluding volume of the trilogy now known as the Avatar Chronicles, is such a book.
Far from patronising its audience, its themes, structure and allusions will make many demands of them, their reward coming in the form of enhanced insights into the social and political entanglements of the world of which they will soon become adult citizens. That these insights are conveyed in a narrative typified by dramatic encounters and populated by a richly varied cast of colourful characters, human and otherwise, is an enjoyable bonus.
As implied by the titles of the individual novels in his trilogy – Epic, Sagaand Edda– Kostick is well aware of the significance of ancient myth, legend and folk tale in the creation of his own fictions. He does not, however, merely incorporate these resonances as some sort of literary backdrop. Rather, by setting the action of his plots in the fantasy domains of an electronic video-game-playing world, he combines classical and contemporary modes of telling into a striking demonstration of the continuation and playfulness of story itself. As Penelope, the teenage heroine of Edda, comes to realise, playfulness is the characteristic “crucial to being human”, and it is an important element in his endorsement of this humanity that Kostick emphasises the centrality of story, old and new.
Where Penelope’s own story is concerned, the essential point is that, in the virtual world of Edda, she has spent almost her entire life under the domination of Lord Scanthax, its megalomaniac ruler. Valuable to him because, as her avatar, Princess, she has the ability to “script” the weapons he will need to pursue his militaristic ambitions, she finds herself, as she moves from childhood to adolescence, beginning to rebel against her role and to realise the full implications of being simply “a useful resource that he keeps under control”.
The young woman’s determination to throw off that control and to piece together the truth of her personal history provides the material for what becomes an extremely poignant quest for selfhood. “A human child,” she informs Scanthax towards the end of her quest, “yearns for someone to love. I gave that love to you and you neither noticed nor cared.”
Earlier, when Scanthax is concentrating on plans for his conquest of the contiguous world of Saga, Penelope’s involvement leads to her destiny becoming intertwined with the fortunes of a group of young idealists keen to thwart his intentions. Some of Kostick’s most engaging writing is to be found in his descriptions of the adventures of this group and in his delineation of their individual characters. His portrayal of the boy called Milan (“Who would choose to live in a world without good punk bands?”) is particularly impressive, not least his touching account of the circumstances in which Milan bids farewell to his friends. It is also in describing their adventures, whether on land, on sea or in the air, that Kostick most overtly makes playful use of at least one classical source, The Odyssey, one magical episode following another in quick succession.
One of Milan’s friends, Athena, says to him at one point: “We have to understand the fundamentals first; we have to figure out what is happening to us, what the universe we live in is really like.” It is a reasonably succinct summary of at least one of the goals of adolescence, especially perhaps of one lived in our digitally aware age. The games people play, literally and metaphorically, are complex, and Kostick’s novel offers a challenging initiation into the rules and conventions.
Robert Dunbar is a commentator on children’s books and reading