Friday, 28 February 2014

Book Review: The Apprentice Journals

Title: The Apprentice Journals
Author: J Michael Shell
Year Published: 2013
Genre: Science fiction, Fantasy, Romance, Erotica

In the future envisioned by The Apprentice Journals, civilisation as we know it has been destroyed. Why? Because we humans were so caught up in our dead environments that we lost touch with the Elementals – spirit-like embodiments of the classical elements that make up our world. This is turn led to the Elementals forgetting all about our existence, meaning that when they had their giant, world-wide, non-human-friendly, natural-disaster-causing orgies, they sort of decimated mankind. In the new world order that emerges, some humans are born as Apprentices, people who have the power to communicate with Elementals and manipulate the elements. Apprentices to what, you ask? Well, the book never tells us. Those that “finish” their training are just called Finished Apprentices, so I’m guessing they’re Apprentices to Apprentices? Or Elementals? I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on. And that, incidentally, pretty much summarises my experience of The Apprentice Journals.

That said, my favourite thing about the book was in fact its magic system. Superhuman powers in science fiction tend to be mental in nature and a result of some sort of mutation. Here, however, we have a post-apocalyptic world with elemental environment-based magic. It’s pretty unique and also intense. From the first page you’re plunged right into it, which can be intimidating given how technical it gets, but after the initial weirdness and learning curve you get to appreciate how intricate it is. The magic stuff plays a major part in the book, so if you hate magic then this is not the post-apocalyptic book for you.

So the main character is a white dude named Spaul. He’s an Apprentice journeying north in what remains of the good ol’ US of A, for no obvious reason, but that’s cool, maybe he’s just like drifting or whatever. Along the way he meets a girl named Pearl, who’s black, hot and mute. That’s pretty much it. Well, a lot of things happen, but it’s hard to explain what the plot is, since all the ‘events’ seem like side quests to the main plotline of this northward yet directionless journey. A lot of time is spent travelling between settlements or chilling at the beach, but there are also occasions where stuff gets really odd – so odd it feels like you’re reading a different book entirely. There are abrupt forays into what feels like different genres or different times, and while this didn’t make for a cohesive world or story, it certainly kept things interesting.

Now, there are a number of issues I had with this book.

Let’s start with race.

So apparently, even in the post-apocalyptic world of the future, we have some old world race issues. Two things in particular almost made me choke when I read them. The first is town of Tara. Taking us right back to Civil War race relations, the town is essentially a black slave ranch run by white dudes, the leader of whom has a (hot) black woman on the side. The second is the portrayal of black people. If the “negra” being slaves weren’t enough, you also have Pearl’s father and the butler guy speaking like blatant stereotypes (“Hear that you l’il sheet-eater, Mistah Kurtz Missuh ‘Prentice gonna fix yo’ feets!” p25), though to be fair, the Irish guy is also stereotyped (“Aye, and yer a fishin’ machine, Spaul! Aye’ve never seen any so fast as ye!” p 54). I mean, you can also tell that the author has an interest in language, but what he does with it is not enough. The overall approach lacks rigour and the quirky bits feel half-baked. This makes the written-in accents – only present in black people and that one Irish guy – stand out even more, which is especially egregious given this story was published just last year. There is a huge focus on race in this book and it’s a problem because the topic is handled with very little sensitivity.

Here’s where I get to the sex.

I’ll be honest: from the blurb and the cover, I’d assumed this would be a young adult novel. How wrong I was! In the very first chapter, Spaul talks about “loving” some Fierae Elementals. Throughout the course of the book, he takes part in Elemental orgies, is offered sex/daughters, causes orgies, and last but not least, has lots and lots of sex with Pearl (or to be more precise, Pearl’s body – a whole other can of worms I won’t even get into). Strangely, it’s never super explicit. There are just orgasms: orgasms everywhere. The entire book was like one big masturbatory fantasy. This wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but hey, if you’re after some white dude/black girl magic sex in natural settings, then take note.

What makes this situation worse is the fact that Pearl is so objectified – she’s the kind of character whom everyone thinks is gorgeous and whose items of clothing are meticulously described. I may be totally off base here, but my overall impression, from the sex, the idolisation of Pearl and the handling of race issues, was that the guy has a fetish. The Spaul character brings to mind those (white) guys who think they’re progressive for being able to appreciate the ‘exotic’ beauty of foreign’ (non-white) women. I don’t know if I’m just being crazy here and reading too much into things, but that was my honest impression. I often felt uncomfortable reading the book and not in a good way.

To sum, reading this novel is like stumbling upon the weird part of the Internet: it’s unlike anything else you’ve seen before, it deals with something weirdly specific (and somehow sex-related), and it’s somewhat but definitely frightening for reasons you can’t quite explain. The Apprentice Journals is undoubtedly unique. While I really liked the “atmosphere” and magic system, the (human) world-building felt lacking and I’m not sure what to make of the strange “plot”, which, by the way, ends with sequel bait. I’m also massively leery of how the author handles race issues: it’s suspect at best and racist at worst. That said, this book is certainly an interesting read if only for its strangeness.

Alex’s Rating: 2/5
(Disclaimer: I received this book for free through Goodreads’ First Reads.)

No comments:

Post a Comment