I hadn't read anything by Sandra Newman, who has written a number of books thus far in her career. But I picked up her latest, The Country of Ice Cream Star, at the suggestion of a coworker who enjoys the same kind of gritty SpecFic tales of harsh future worlds that I do. My first thought, before I even opened the cover? "Wow. This thing is a monster." Which is why I hope you'll excuse the fact that it's taken so long to read the whole thing and prepare this review. But I promise you, despite the length of the book itself, there wasn't a single page that was a chore to read.
Readers know the purpose of the story, the journey that it contains, before the novel itself unfolds. We're told from the very beginning by narrator and protagonist Ice Cream Star that this is the story of how she brought a cure to her people, and all the other people of the world around her. But the true pleasure of this book is in finding out exactly what the significance of that declaration is. In what used to be Massachusetts before an unknown plague either wiped out or drove the general population to a legendary place called Europe, Ice Cream Star and her band of Sengles scrape out a meager existence by raiding old houses and scrounging what they can from the woods. They deal with their allies, avoid their enemies, and once they reach the age of eighteen they die of an unknown sickness called only "posies." It's a harsh, fierce, and beautiful world for Ice Cream, her brother, and the others that make up their clan, and she is just as brilliant and intense as the world around her.
What she thought would be a fairly predestined existence is turned on its head when one day while scrounging around some collapsing houses, she and her clan find a "roo." He's a white man, fully grown, and is brought back to the Sengle camp in a mixture of both curiosity and concern. But soon he integrates himself into daily life in Sengle camp, even learns the rudiments of their language, and the significance of his presence becomes known. Desperate to save her brother Driver from dying of posies, Ice Cream demands to know how it is that the roo, Pasha, lived beyond eighteen. Because of what she discovers as their friendship and trust develop, and through the sudden changes that start to take place in their woods, Ice Cream and her clan are catapulted into a fantastic adventure that I can really only compare with the Lord of the Rings in its scale.
Ice Cream is no hobbit, and there is no Sauron lurking on the eastern seaboard. But there are Russians with powerful guns and a need for child soldiers, a city of Catholics ruled by a santa reina, a race of warriors that guard a walled city called Quantico, and the promise of a cure for posies if only Ice Cream and Pasha can somehow retrieve it from the ships that hold it safely offshore. It sounds like a pretty straight-forward adventure: overcome the adversaries, get to the goal, and live happily ever after. But oh dear reader, this book is so much more than that.
There are an incredible number of things that Ice Cream has to worry about on a daily basis, looking after her Sengle clan and caring for her ailing brother as well as managing allies and deciding what risks are worth taking not just for herself, but for those who depend on her in a world that is reliable only in its difficult circumstances. Sandra Newman takes all these into consideration as Ice Cream tells her story, weaving them into the larger plot in a way that doesn't ignore the larger challenge but also conveys all the things that can distract Ice Cream from her goal. These seemingly small everyday developments, and the relationships that they inform and change, have huge ramifications as the story goes on and Ice Cream must regroup again and again in the face of changing situations.
This story is brilliant. But what's even more brilliant is the way in which it's written. The entire thing, in the voice of Ice Cream Star, is written in a fantastic vernacular that Newman invented for this purpose. It sounds like a cross between AAVE and Haitian creole, and as I mentioned, this enormous book is comprised entirely of this incredible linguistic feat. The language flows so smoothly, it doesn't give the impression that Newman wrote out the text and then translated it into Ice Cream's vernacular; instead it sounds like she's actually thinking in that voice as she writes. Which does mean that it took me a couple of chapters to accustom myself to the pattern of writing, of speech and the expressions that it contained. But oh, what a rewarding experience once my brain really started to engage. The language is like the world around the characters, like Ice Cream herself: stark, honest, with pockets of obscure truths and observations that made me have to stop reading for a few seconds to just appreciate the beauty of what had been said. I think my favorite example from the Advance Reader Copy that I read was something to the effect of "I love you like broken legs." The truth of the description there, the pain and the torture with that feeling of adoration for someone, is just such a simple way of describing an emotion that sometimes even prolific writers fail to communicate well.
At Sirens Conference this past September I participated in a great discussion of race in SpecFic (and fiction in general). It was observed there that unless a character is specified of belonging to a minority race or ethnicity, they are presumed to be white. Similarly, characters are assumed heterosexual until proven otherwise. In this book, it's pale skin that is an anomaly, pale skin that indicates a minority status and a sense of apart-ness, of otherhood. It's what makes Pasha immediately interesting to and separate from the Sengles, and I as a reader didn't even think to consider the racial implications in this novel until that point was driven home by Ice Cream's descriptions of Pasha's coloring. It's a subtle but profound way of refuting the general trend in a lot of literature, to assume a certain color or race until told otherwise, and the way that Newman accomplished it with her directness and the perspective of the characters is just beautiful.
This is not a book to be missed. It's brutal and wonderful and so very human in the way the characters react to situations they never even imagined. They carry a spark of determination combined with a sense of hopelessness, and through it all is this pervasive feeling that Ice Cream will always keep moving forward simply because she never stopped to think that there was another option to her. With Pasha by her side, and her clan in her heart, Ice Cream is a formidable character with a story to tell that you won't forget. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman will be released on February 10th, and I highly recommend that you mark your calendar and make your pre-orders now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.