Saturday, March 24, 2007

Growing Into the Trilogy: David Stahler's THE SEER, Sequel to TRUESIGHT

As a young adult reader, I found my way from THE HOBBIT to the three volumes of THE LORD OF THE RINGS simply -- the books were already published. The same applied to Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. As an adult discovering the fresh possibilities of a new trilogy by Philip Pullman, I devoured THE GOLDEN COMPASS. And then I had to wait for the library to add THE SUBTLE KNIFE, and wait literally years for the end of the story in THE AMBER SPYGLASS. It was agony.

So when Vermont author David Stahler Jr. brought out TRUESIGHT in 2004, I braced for the long wait for the other two parts of his planned trilogy. It's hard to do: read a good novel and reach the end of it, knowing that the story is incomplete. This spring (April 10) the second volume comes out: THE SEER. I tucked into the advance (uncorrected proof) copy without re-reading volume 1, and couldn't put it down. It's a keeper. But to show you why, I'll backtrack to the beginning of it all.

In the little farming community of Harmony, on a distant planet with twin moons, everyone is blind. They know that in other places, eyes provide vision -- but their own eyes don't. Jacob, a pretty ordinary boy about to turn thirteen, knows his community made a choice to be this way: stepping away from evils of greed and self-centeredness, searching for a closer knit community with a kind of purity and firmly closed barriers to contamination. Although there's a sighted section of the planet, it's far away, urban, and seen as evil.

The trilogy's first volume, TRUESIGHT, provides Jacob with a terrible choice: As his eyes unexpectedly begin to function, he becomes an outcast, an abberation. Moreover, vision brings with it knowledge, and home no longer looks simple, pure, or even safe. Can Jacob's innocence be restored? Is he willing to endure the cost?

Here's an example of what he values at home:

The song ended and Harmony exploded in applause. Jacob joined in. He felt whole again, connected to the mass of people expressing their appreciation to the chouse. The feeling of peace lingered, leaving him dazed and barely listening to the high councilor's speech to the community.

But on the other hand, Harmony's rules are absolute, even as Jacob's father patiently spells them out all over again:

"Hey, all I'm saying is that we take care of one another. Except for a very few things, we don't depend on the Seers for our sustenance. That's what makes us unique. It's what makes us pure. Hardship is good for the soul. It keeps us honest."

Still, Jacob's own honesty can drive him out of Harmony.

As THE SEER opens, Jacob struggles to reach the sighted city on the planet -- the home of "Seers," as he himself has begun to be called. Amid the towering buildings and frighteningly strange urbanites, he learns the ropes of true friendship and even romantic love. But were his parents and their neighbors right? Does vision lead to a hunger for possessions, a hunger that will compromise the goodness of the soul? When a new friend criticizes Jacob's home community, he sticks up for it:

"It's not that bad, you know. I was pretty happy until ..." He knew the words but didn't want to say them.
"Until you began to see?"

Without spoiling the plot, let me note that Jacob's choices -- deliberate, and paid for dearly -- lead him toward a third option: a world where willing individuals can look at events and people in newly potent ways.

Stahler's often tender portrayal of the quest that takes us from childhood to genuine adulthood is clearly rooted in the best values of his own rural upbringing. The sweetness of a summer afternoon in the grass, the strength of friends who grow wise together, and the agonized weighing of ethical choices are braided into this strong story. Even though the concluding volume of the trilogy is at least a year away in terms of publication, I recommend THE SEER as a compelling read. And, inevitably, after I finished it, I re-read TRUESIGHT and it was just as good that way.

The trilogy, due in part to Stahler's productive streaks of writing (and he's also an English teacher and dad!), was interrupted by publication of two stand-alone novels that Stahler brought out for "young adult" readers in the meantime: A GATHERING OF SHADES, and THE DOPPELGANGER, both darker Gothics that depend on a twist of fantasy rooted in the nature of evil. And maybe that's more true to today's urban experience.

But give me the struggle and reward of the Truesight trilogy instead, with its conviction that our friends and our inner sense of truth and justice can together bring us through fear and risk, to happier times. We earn the good parts. And that too, I think, reflects the Vermont ethos at its best.

No comments: