Monday, March 5, 2012

The Returning by Christine Hinwood

As a longtime reader of fantasy novels (and even as a shorttime reader, in my younger days) there comes a point where the generic conception of fantasy simply doesn't cut it all the time. Kingdoms warring with Earth-Shattering Consequences™, plucky young protagonists who have destinies to save the world, and full of grand-scope epic detail, the kind of fantasy Diana Wynne Jones aptly and lovingly skewered in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland—it can get tiring after a while.

Fortunately, not all fantasy deals with matters of global import; quite a few are decidedly provincial, and Christine Hinwood's The Returning is among them. It's not even ultimately a novel about war and conflict (something that even other smaller-scale fantasies miss)—the story does start a short time after Cam Attling returns from the war as the only survivor of his small village, but it's not about the war. It is instead about the aftermath, about growing older and changing, getting lost and finding yourself in unexpected places; that it happened after a devastating war is almost unimportant.

Keeping in tone with the small scale, the war in question was simply one fought between feudal lords over a land dispute. Cam is the only soldier from his homeland to survive the war, and then only because of the mercy of the victor; missing both an arm and a sense of self, he doesn't slide easily back into the routines of rural life. His family and friends are simultaneously worried and frustrated by his actions; in fact, for the first half of the novel, we only ever see Cam as a secondary figure in the stories of others.

It's this little touch—that we never see events from Cam's perspective until over halfway through the novel—that makes The Returning stand out. Were the whole novel from Cam's perspective, it might have come off as a bit solipsistic, a sort of fantasy angst novel. Instead, we see Cam's struggles primarily through the eyes of others, placing another perspective on his actions. It's such an effective device that it's almost a disappointment to come across the chapters where Cam is the central figure.

The only real problem with the multitude of perspectives offered here is that it's easy to get lost in the transitions, and the novel's short length means that most characters have a limited space to establish themselves. This space is used well—many of the central figures, especially Cam, his sister Pin, ex-fiance Graceful, and Lord Gyaar, are fleshed out well—but it means that there's a lot of blank-filling that the reader needs to provide.

Both the provincial scope and the wide array of characters provide the grist of The Returning: this is a novel about whole towns and families changing as the result of a major upheaval, not simply one or two people. There's enough variety in all the different characters—even some of the more minor ones—that it's hard to see readers not clicking with one of them. It may not have the immediate, visceral appeal that more conventional fantasy novels might have, especially with its low-key tone and complete lack of melodrama, but it's definitely a solid novel and holds up well as a Printz honor.


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