Tuesday 10 August 2021

The Lost Soul Atlas - Zana Fraillon

From the back cover - " For as long as Twig can remember, it's been him and Da - family over everything. So when Twig finds himself alone on the streets, he feels totally lost. That is until he meets Flea, a cheerful pickpocket, who feels like the best friend he never had.

But then Twig wakes up in the Afterlife with just a handful of memories from Earth and one big question...how did he get there?"

I am conflicted about this story. On the one hand some of the writing is beautiful, so well written and eventually I was pulled into the story but on the other hand I feel slightly mis-sold on the fantasy aspect of the book and it's based around the Oliver Twist trope which I don't like.

Firstly, the writing. I think Zana Fraillon has a wonderful knack for choosing phrases that will live with you after you've finished the story. "Fight the forgetting." which is a constant throughout the book. "Impossible is what they say when they don't want you to try." "With a map, anything is possible." It's worth reading the book for the beauty of the language.

I liked how it could have been set anywhere - the reality of children living on the streets didn't require the city to be named - which is horrifying that this is a universal reality. It could have been in any city. Some details do narrow the choices - for example the police have guns and a hotel is referred to as the Highett (Hyatt?) But those details feel incidental to the setting.

It took a long time for me to get pulled into the story - too long really - it was page 252 of a 320 page novel. If I hadn't been reading it for review I would probably have given up before then. But I think that's the point at which I was completely pulled in, all the disparate threads are coming together. The characters felt more alive and it also felt more hopeful, and that things are possible. I wanted to know how it was going to end.

I don't like the Oliver Twist trope (I really can't stress how much I dislike Oliver Twist) which is essentially what you have here in the reality based sections of the book. Twig (the Oliver character) causes things to happen and has things happen to them, but it doesn't feel like he has any agency of his own. You could say that that is because of the circumstances he is in - a child on the streets - but Flea (Artful Dodger) is a much more dynamic and engaging character. I felt for most of the book Twig was a passive character who I wasn't that interested in reading about. 

A lot of the early chapters have a downbeat hook ending. For example - "But neither the boy nor his Guardian would notice. Not until it was too late."And - "I should know by now, that if I really cared for Flea, I should never have wished at all." Basically, something is going to happen and it's going to be something bad. This is perhaps the main reason I found the first part of the book so difficult to get through.
I also think if you are buying this for the fantasy aspect of the book, you should be aware that the majority of the story takes place in the real world. Twig is tasked with opening up the Crossings between the Afterlife and our reality, so that when people die they don't forget who they are, as part of this he falls back into his memories of being alive - hence why so much of the book takes place in the real world. This allows the reader to slowly understand what happened to Twig and how he ended up in the Afterlife and combines it with a quest element of opening up the crossings.

As a fantasy reader I was looking forward to seeing more of the dynamics and creatures of the Afterlife, because what we did see was fascinating and unique. As the story is called The Lost Soul Atlas I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that the fantasy elements would play a major part. Instead they are more stepping stones between memories. This is the other reason I found the first part of the book so disappointing. We'd fall into a memory and be there for several chapters, then return to the Afterlife for one chapter before falling into another memory.

Up to page 252 I would give this book a D, and the last 60 or so pages a B because they brought everything together. So I've given it a C which I think is a fair rating.

Overall - it ended up as an okay read from me. Part of me would like to read it again to appreciate how all the story threads fit together, as I said it is cleverly written, but I don't think I could face reading the first 200 pages again. Maybe in a couple of years.

I received a free copy of this book for review.