The Fallen Country
by Somtow Sucharitkul
I think I may have learned a lesson from this book. Actually, two.
You see, I read this book when it was new, in 1986, when I was an angry twelve-year-old boy. I was angry for the usual twelve-year-old reasons, and to the usual twelve-year-old degree – for both, the answer is “Not much” – and reading this novel, about a boy who escapes his truly awful life of neglect and abuse through his neverending rage, which takes him into a world of snow and ice, where the cold deadens the pain and his white-hot anger is a great and powerful weapon, may have helped me realize that I didn’t really have much to be angry about, and really, I wasn’t all that angry. Not angry like this character is. There’s a scene in the book where his friends accompany him to this world, the Fallen Country, and in order to take them there he asks them to think of all of the injustices they have suffered, all the torments they have endured, and focus all of their anger into helping him reach this other place; afterwards, they confess that they were thinking about – getting grounded. Or failing Algebra. Or being jealous when their crush was smiling at another boy. Only the main character is angry about the years of systematic, violent beatings he has suffered every night from his adoptive father, or the way his adoptive mother ignores this terrible abuse, along with everyone else he has ever known, who have all been unable to help him in his war against the Ringmaster, the evil god who enslaves and tortures all of the inhabitants of this magical realm.
I think now that this book may have helped me realize that I was more like the friends, and less like the main character. And that that was okay: because while his anger gives him great strength, and the Fallen Country sounds like a wonderful place to escape to – he rides a dragon and rescues princesses, slaying hydras with his ice-sword of rage – the point of the book is that this is not a good way to live. And it makes that abundantly clear: you do not want to be like this kid. Harry Potter does the same thing, shows that while it’s awesome to be a wizard in a magical world, really, it’s probably better to have parents that weren’t murdered when you were an infant. Same thing here, only more so, because the beatings that Sucharitkul described are truly terrible.
And now that I have gone back and re-read it, here’s the second lesson I learned: books I loved in my youth should, sometimes, stay there. You see, this isn’t that great a book. There are some good things about it: the characters of the friends are nicely drawn, good renditions of Average-teenage-kid; the Fallen Country is incredible, both enchanting and terrifying, poetic and with the ring of truth; the plot and the final resolution between the main character and the Ringmaster are nicely done. But the way that the abused child is rescued by the people around him, after not having been rescued in the past, is cheesy in the extreme, and very hard to believe – nobody has cared before, even though he shows up to school daily with bruises and cuts and welts; then these characters decide to care, and lo, he is saved by their caring – and the adult characters are all awful. Not terrible morally, though the abusive parents certainly are; but just unrealistic and superficial. There’s a school counselor who doesn’t realize that her job is to report the abuse until she is talked into it by one of the teenagers. Whom she also flirts with. Yikes. It feels like the author was trying to simplify, as this is intended as a young adult book, but honestly, it my be a little too dark for that; and the result is a good book, based on a good idea, that isn’t written very carefully, or very well. Sucharitkul underestimates his audience, assuming they will believe the cardboard characters, or at least not care that they are cardboard; and the same for the weak points in the plot.
You know, I wonder if the reason I liked this author so much was because none of my fantasy/sci-fi friends had ever heard of him; I discovered this book, and I was the only one who read Sucharitkul. I also remember being enchanted by the foreignness of his name; I remember memorizing the way it was spelled, and practicing what I assumed was the correct pronunciation (Since I was never exposed to any other Thai names at the time, I was probably wrong.), and thinking how cool it was that he was also an accomplished composer of classical music.
Dammit. I was a teenaged hipster. Yeah: some things should definitely stay buried in the past.