By Peader Ó Guilin
(David Fickling Books, 6 Sep 2007)
It's not every day that you come across a genre novel compared to the likes of The Truman Show. Yet these are the similarities made by The Inferior's cover blurb. I first heard of this novel over on the Westeros forums and it intrigued me right from the start. Finding copies in my local Waterstones didn't prove easy (though perhaps I should have been looking under the YA section). In any case, I was pleased when Peader kindly got in touch to see if I fancied a copy.
Anyway, what drew me to The Inferior was the premise itself - a tribe of humans living in a sort of post-apocalyptic cityscape, constantly fighting for their survival against the various other beasts that inhabit the other parts of the city. That sounded cool enough, but it was made all the more interesting by the 'globes' that patrolled the skies, hinting at a deeper sci-fi element - and technology level - than was originally apparent.
The plot itself follows the story of Stopmouth - a well-developed character with a pronounced stutter - as the day-to-day existence of his tribe is shattered by a certain event (which the blurb rather carelessly reveals). After said event, Stopmouth finds himself embarking on a desperate journey - emotionally as well as physically - in order to secure both his own future and that of his tribe.
Ó Guilin has created an interesting world, inhabited with plenty of nasty critters. I particularly liked the wetlane beasts that patrolled the canals. The human society is well-realised - I liked the way, for example, that humans that are no longer able to contribute to the tribe are expected to give up their own lives (and bodies) to support their fellows. The tribe's daily existence is pretty brutal and life is cheap. Some other reviewers have questioned whether it was right to publish/market The Inferior as a YA book, given the theme of cannibalism. For my money, I think the publisher got the YA tag spot on. While enemies are killed and consumed raw, I wouldn't say it is shown in a particularly graphic way. Furthermore, although several more mature themes are touched upon - such as sex and rape - these are not explored in serious detail. They merely add an edge to the story, a touch of realism - which I think is what Ó Guilin was intending.
The characters are, for the most part, well-drawn and engaging. Stopmouth makes for a strong protagonist and his character development is handled well. The same goes for Indrani and Stopmouth's brother, Wallbreaker. Ó Guilin builds a nice dynamic between these three main players. His prose is very accessible and the novel's plot is solid and moves along at a good pace.
Criticisms are fairly thin on the ground. The only real antagonist doesn't appear until quite late on and the sudden dynamic that this adds seems a bit forced. The desire to discover the secrets about the world is what really kept me turning the pages, but as The Inferior is the first novel in a trilogy it was inevitable that I wasn't going to get all the answers I wanted.
So - good characters, good premise, good plot. You probably think this was an easy book to give a rating for, but in truth I've found it really difficult. You see, while Ó Guilin has written a good book that's pretty strong in all areas, it never really grabbed me or excited me. I've thought long and hard about this, and I think the reason for my inability to get really drawn into the book is the fact that it is clearly a YA book. I kept thinking, as I was reading, "Oh, that's pretty cool but it would be seriously awesome if it was written for an older audience."
The problem with this of course, is the fact that it's therefore not the book's fault that it didn't quite work for me. It's my fault, because the book is good and I think that if I was ten years younger I'd have liked it a lot more than I did. So what am I meant to do? Give it two ratings - one for how much I enjoyed it and one for how much I think a younger reader would enjoy it? Or just one or the other? Tough one. I think, ultimately, that honesty is the best policy. My final rating is therefore based purely on my own enjoyment of the novel. However, younger readers might like to add an extra 'shield.'
In any case, The Inferior is an enjoyable book with engaging characters and a fresh premise. Well worth checking out if you fancy something a bit different.