I love books with maps at the beginning. It’s always a good start, for me. And with this scifi adventure novel for young adults, the maps do help me to find my way around.
You see, the action is so fast-moving at times that the reader might find himself spinning around and murmuring, “Now, where am I?” The young protagonists often ask themselves that same question. They split up, come together, run helter-skelter in and out and back again and round and round. Yes, this is an adventure story that hardly ever slows down – from the moment when Mayali, a girl from the strange “other world” of Zolpash, confronts her enemy in a rural church community in Mabaruma, Guyana. As a result of this dramatic encounter, the fierce (and fearful) Mayali quickly makes the acquaintance of Joseph, a gentle deaf mute Amerindian teen – while they are both running away from the enemy.
Joseph and Mayali find they can communicate in an interesting way, without speaking. Watching their rather unlikely friendship develop is one delightful aspect of this cracking adventure novel. Joseph is sweet and what Jamaicans would call “mannersable.” Mayali doesn’t worry about such niceties; she keeps her goals in mind. She does, however, have a soft spot for Rafeek, a young beggar with a substance abuse problem, whom the friends first meet when he pulls them, splashing and choking, out of the Demerara River. This unlikely trio proceed on their quest to save Earth from the furry-fingered Spider Gods, and to find Mayali’s father, who had left Zolpash several years earlier and not returned. They propel the action in no uncertain way; in fact, they are the instigators. Several other actors play their part in the story, but are not fully delineated. Joseph has a girlfriend called Tara, for example, whom Mayali tries to befriend at one point. An army officer, Lieutenant Dasrath proves a useful ally. And there is a farcical but slightly macabre episode with an obeah woman named Miss Rhonda, which descends into utter chaos.
Now, remember this is science fiction. If you are wondering what or where Zolpash is, it is a harsh parallel world that Mayali has managed to escape from with the help of some rather slithery creatures called rocksliders. The Spider Gods (or “Brothers”) rule Zolpash; and they want to expand their territory to Earth, starting with Guyana. They are cruel and ruthless and they are shape shifters, in a sense; they are often disguised as figures of authority – government officials or policemen. No wonder Mayali and her two followers spend a lot of time running and hiding.
This is more than an adventure story, however (and no, I am not going to give away any more of the plot). There is a terrific sense of place. As in any good action movie, the locations through which our intrepid teens move – mostly in and around the Guyanese capital, Georgetown – are carefully selected for dramatic effect, and well described. There is the view from the famous clock tower, looking down on the roofs of the old Stabroek Market (which is not so charming at street level, however – the writer does not “prettify” or romanticize the settings at all). One should not stray into the tangled Botanical Gardens after dark: “Lovers used it by day, families in the afternoons, and robbers, addicts and rapists by night or so its reputation held.” Our heroes find themselves in a number of buildings – an abandoned textile factory, a radio transmission station – with rusty railings, old machines and pipes. These are just some of the settings, many of them bleak and dark, where much of the action takes place.
Water, in its many forms, is almost another character in itself, reflecting its important role in Guyanese life and society. Whether it is a dark current racing through a gully; the swelling Atlantic Ocean, as Joseph and Mayali sail towards Georgetown; the mighty Demerara River or the roaring majesty of Kaiteur Falls, water is always a presence. It is in fact an integral part of the story as it unfolds. Water is powerful, to be admired, and it is much needed.
Unexpected things happen, and very quickly, in this story. While Mayali, Rafeek and Joseph occasionally take a short breather, they are on the go most of the time. This is not just physical action, though. The teens use their skills to outwit their pursuers on numerous occasions; Joseph is a bit of a “techie,” Rafeek has well-honed streetwise abilities, and Mayali has sharp instincts and plenty of daring. These are smart kids. They often leave mayhem in their wake, on one occasion escaping by the skin of their teeth in a regular Guyanese taxi cab with a rather bad-tempered driver. These are delightful touches that make the book such a good read; in one page, we can switch from the fantastic, overblown world of the Brothers to the everyday life of a Caribbean country.
Perhaps I should add, on this note, that this story might not be quite suitable for the youngest of young adults. There is a fair amount of violence, and one particular scene (a dog fight) is not for the squeamish. There are also passing references to sex and drugs. However, that dry humor, of the Caribbean kind, surfaces quite regularly, especially in the dialogue. All the characters speak in an authentic Guyanese accent (bad guys included).
Now, one more thing. A memorable and significant character appears – and not by accident at all – in the youngsters’ lives. The name Anansi might just ring a bell for Jamaican readers. However, this is a most unusual and delightful personification of the Caribbean’s favorite Spider. I will disclose no more; but let’s just say – as expected, the Spider gets up to some tricks.
The sinister Zarco (The Brazilian) utters these words: “Fear and love is the only thing.” Yes, it’s a heady mix, and it makes for a thrilling read.
Children of the Spider is the first place winner of a Burt Award for Caribbean Literature prize, which was awarded at the 2015 Bocas Literary Festival in Trinidad by the Canadian educational organization CODE. This is Guyanese writer Imam Baksh’s debut novel. Baksh left his home on the Essequibo Coast to attend high school (Queen’s College) in Georgetown, and taught English before becoming a full time writer. His short stories have won the Henry Josiah Prize for Children’s Stories three times. This novel is due to be published on July 15, 2016 by Blouse and Skirt Books, an imprint of Blue Moon Publishing.