Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Review: The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman

"Plain" writing can be deceptive. If it's too seamless without the fanfare of style, gimmicks, or a high concept, it's all too easy to dismiss a story or a book. Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze is one such title. At first glance, there doesn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary to make it stand out (aside from the lovely cover by Kathleen Jennings). But that's the beauty of the book: it's actually flawless and excels in every category of the writer's checklist: setting, characterization, plot, description, etc., to the point that no single quality stands out, at least initially. The writing is so even and seamless that it's a textbook example of avoiding preciosity, and makes for an elegant reading experience.

There's several elements to praise Sherman. As far as the craft is concerned, she has to be credited for maintaining the reader's interest without resorting to cliffhangers and fancy (or desperate) attempts at accelerating the novel's momentum. The book moves at a steady pace and takes its time, even when our heroine is placed in a dangerous situation. It's amazing how Sherman accomplishes this feat without being obtrusive or anti-climactic.

Then there is her characterization and how complex and layered the characters are. Take for example our protagonist: she's vulnerable and foolish, but not to the point where the reader feels frustrated with the character. Her paradigm by the end of the novel could easily have been a didactic representation of stories that deal with slavery, but her crisis in the current era leads to a different, albeit parallel, epiphany. The antagonists in the story aren't caricatures, but they feel genuinely human, even when they're committing acts we should abhor.

What has personal resonance for me, however, is that underneath all this technique, The Freedom Maze feels like a post-modern fantasy story. One issue with "portal" fantasy stories like The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is the ease in which the protagonists travel from one world to another (or in this case, one time period to another) without much consequence. Here, Sherman fleshes out those implications, and that feels refreshing as an avid fantasy reader.

If you're looking for good storytelling with depth, Delia Sherman's The Freedom Maze is the book for you. There's an important coming-of-age story to be told and Sherman does so using the essentials of good writing.

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