Monday 21 July 2014

The Country of Ice Cream Star

(July 2014)

This is a little off-the-radar, if reviews in the Guardian and Independent can count as off-the-radar. What I suppose I mean is that in the grubbier SFF corners of the web I occasionally inhabit this has received absolutely no play whatsoever. Arguably writing a widely-read and controversial (for want of a better word) article about old-school SF isn’t the best way to ingratiate yourself into that little community, but your Tors and your SF Signals don’t seem to have clocked to this at all. This is both a surprise and a shame because The Country of Ice Cream Star is a very special book indeed.

No child ever know a time be happiness until it gone. Time Pasha come, when we still raiding in the Massa woods, I swore to worry. Yet this been before the Nat Mass armies took no Massa child. Driver bell and vally still, he rule and never weaken. We live wolfen through our wars

In a dystopian America where the entire adult population has been wiped out by disease, bands of children have managed to form a precarious and splintered peace in New England, living lives of hunting, scavenging, and fighting occasional skirmishes with other tribes (ranging from ritual posturing to full-on ‘murder war’). The narrator and protagonist is Ice Cream Star of the Sengle tribe, who live in the Massa woods alongside the pious Christenings, the inquisitive Lowells, and the debauched slavers of the Nat Mass armies.

The world changing epidemic appears to be some form of cancer, called ‘posies’ by the survivors, and it basically strikes everyone over the age of twenty or so. And also everyone who isn’t black, regardless of age. I don’t know how this would work as a real world pathology, but as a device it leaves us with a world populated almost exclusively by black kids who know they won’t make it much beyond their teens. This, of course, is replete with all sorts of real-life resonances and opens up a huge range of other thematic and narrative possibilities.

For example: it’s never entirely clear how long after the epidemic the story occurs, but generations have clearly passed, certainly long enough for tribal traditions and customs to become well established and for the patois the characters speak to have evolved beyond the AAVE on which it’s clearly based. But then, when a ‘generation’ is barely two decades, how does that affect societal change? Does it speed it up or slow it down? Retaining cultural knowledge clearly becomes an issue, and if every child is likely to be without parents by their sixth birthday then how does a society of orphans structure itself? It’s impossible not to acknowledge Lord of the Flies while discussing how the various tribes who inhabit the Massa woods adapt to these conditions, and, pace Hobbes, we’re well into the realms of the nasty, brutish, and short.

So initially the book trips along very nicely as a standard, if exceptionally well done, dystopia, with all the attendant room for social commentary and thematic exploration of human nature that implies. And then, about a third of the way through, the plot and setting take a hard right turn and we ain’t in Massa any more, Toto. Ice Cream gets installed, a touch improbably, as a living god in the remnants of New York City and the story takes on a very different character. To be honest the opening sections of this second act were a bit of a downer, as a whole new set of characters, social structures, and internecine politics get established and played out. This has the unfortunate side-effect of robbing Ice Cream of a large degree of her agency as she becomes just another piece on the board.

However, after a couple of chapters of this a subtle recalibration took place in my generic expectations. In terms of plot, at least, this isn’t really dystopian SF, and it certainly isn’t YA*. No, at heart this is Epic Fantasy, or at the very least Heroic. It’s long enough that it might qualify on size alone, but we also have: a young protagonist on a quest into to save her people by stealing a macguffin from an evil unknown; a supporting cast of characters each with their own uniquely useful talents (the warrior, the diplomat, the spy); lengthy journeys across the land; factions of shifting allegiance who help or hinder as they may; armies of darkness (though that at least is nicely subverted) massing on the borders of the known world ready to invade; forbidden love; honour; betrayal; sacrifice; and a grand climactic battle of the allied forces of good against the monolithic hordes of evil. Once you realize that this is what’s going on then the story starts to read quite differently, and what initially threatened to be relatively tedious second and third acts start to race by; it all makes much more sense if you view the roos as orcs and Quantico as Minas Tirath.

And then it ends. In a manner which is distinctly unepic and unheroic. I’m going to riff on this a bit now and try not to give too much away, but I’ll drop in a couple of quotes to act as spoiler buffers just in case you want to know absolutely nothing. Come back after the second for the pat summary, if you will.

Mamadou watch on this with face besweaten. He skinny from his sickness, and his face look skullish dread. He look like he belong to this hell underworld. Can see he known what he will find; he seen this in his hated dreams, these days. And he stand there with his starven looks, the king of these red children. The king of flies and murder.

So after working out the Epic Fantasy angle I was feeling really rather pleased with myself, right up until the finish. I was also greatly enjoying how the text was subverting more traditional ‘kids gone wild’ stories such as, yes, Lord of the Flies, especially with regards to notions of maturity and authority. And then the ending comes and I have to reassess both those views. It’s both jarringly abrupt and agonizingly frustrating, but, it should be noted, neither of those things are the same as ‘bad’.

Quite apart from all the other stuff going on, Ice Cream is a protagonist capable of propelling an entire novel through sheer force of personality alone. While she’s only fifteen, in the terms of the story that’s basically middle-aged, so this combined with her strength of character means it’s very easy to forget that she is still a teenager. Certainly she makes good and bad choices, and cons and gets conned herself throughout the rest of the story, but all that occurs amongst her peers; it’s only at the end that she has to try and match wits with actual adults and then it becomes terribly, painfully obvious that she’s totally out of her depth; that for all her pride and vigour she’s still a child, vulnerable to the corruption and predations of older, more cynical, more jaded minds. I really hope there’s a sequel in the works, not just because I want to read more, but because if that’s how her story ends, well…

Their Mary call Maria, and catolico Maria go from unfuck birth to all adventures.

Welcome back, spoilerphobes. I should, I guess, mention a bit about the characters and the language at some point before I finish. Those quotes above are entirely representative of the style of the book; certain factions Ice Cream meets later on speak in a more ‘standard’ form of English, but the rest is narrated in her native patois. Writing stuff like this takes a huge amount of commitment and talent to do well because missteps stand out even more than normal, and it says great things for Newman’s skill that in a book of this length I only noticed a couple of duff notes. Far, far more often the effect was one I’m obliged to refer to as ‘lyrical’; when you rip words from their more conventional bases you give them freedom as aesthetic objects beyond their more prosaic function as signifiers, so when it’s done well, as it definitely is here, what you end up with is words as music. Some passages are just breathtaking:

Yo Radio hop over to the windowsill. There she arch and say her yorry miaow. Behind her in the window go the river through the tumbledown bridge. River slip around the beams, the metal splay and twisten. I watch the blackish bluish brownish water till my spirit settle. Radio sit in my view and lick her rosy pawpad.

And finally we have Ice Cream herself, who’s a hugely compelling character. Prideful, earthy, honest, brim full of piss and vinegar, and just simply fierce: once she’s under your skin you have no trouble in understanding why she inspires so much love and jealousy in those close to her. While I’m definitely not a fan of the ending of The Country of Ice Cream Star, the preceding 600 pages contain a combination of quality ideas, characters, and writing the likes of which I’ve not read in a good long while. It’s not an easy book, It’s not a pleasant or unproblematic book. It is, however, a very, very good one indeed. Be bone.

*There’s really nothing that qualifies it for that label apart from the main characters’ ages.


  1. May put this on my list. For effective use of patois if nothing else. You and I sharing much the same experience and meta-cognition on language I can see having the interest, but you have to wonder how many readers have the patience, or the literacy...

    You should read "Beasts of No Nation" by Uzodinma Iweala, who, besides writing entirely in a West African based English patois, makes a compelling character of a child soldier who commits the crimes of a war criminal. Think "Blood Meridian" in West Africa with child soldiers, except there's a redemption, and not cheap. I hate the book a little, because the writer's simply better than I could be, and he's a medical doctor (the fact he has a sociology degree takes some of the edge off my awe).

  2. Now that sounds very interesting, and I see that it's fairly short as well. Think I'll definitely have a look at that, but it sounds like I might have to pick the right time for. Doesn't exactly sound like comfort reading...

  3. I have to admire the books you take on. I haven't the fortitude right now for stuff like this or the Attic Buddha one. More's the pity I suppose.
    Off to check out her article now.

    1. Yep, loins were girded before I started this, for sure. The Buddha in the Attic is barely 200 pages though, so that's easier (in terms of length, if nothing else). I really can't recommend that one highly enough.