Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Urgle, by Meaghan McIsaac

What happens when everything you’ve ever known and believed in gets turned on its head? What happens when you come face to face with the group of people you’ve always been taught to hate? What happens if you can’t save the one person you’d do anything – anything – for?

The Ikkuma Pit is a harsh place to live in, a volcanic hot-pot with a sky of smoke and steam, a place where one wrong step could end your life. But for Urgle and his brothers, like the brothers before them and the brothers before them, right back to the time of Rawley, the Pit is their home, the only place they have ever known. Each boy is left at the edge by their heartless Mothers when they are born, to be taken in and looked after by a Big Brother, until the time when the Big Brother leaves. Everyone must leave to make room for the new, but no-one knows what lies beyond the Pit’s walls.

But this is all about to change: against the odds, a Brother has returned. He brings with him unwitting devastation and the strange yellowish creatures that pursue the Brother are just the first in a multitude of new experiences thrust upon Urgle. For when these creatures, Tunrar Goblins, can’t reach who they want, they take the next best thing: Cubby, Urgle’s Little Brother. Without thought or hesitation, Urgle leaves the Pit and everything he’s ever known to find Cubby, to save his Little Brother and bring him home. It's a race for his life, for Cubby's, and perhaps even for every Ikkuma Brother.

Right from the beginning, Urgle reminded me of Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go – the themes are similar, as is the sense behind the words and the story. I can see similarities between the storylines too, though actually Urgle’s world is very different to Ness’s. When Urgle leaves the Pit, all the things he’s taken for granted are pulled out from under his feet. There’s the basic stuff like the fact that he’s never experienced full sunshine before, never seen an old person, never had to barter for food or goods, never heard of such a thing as a soldier. But there is bigger stuff too, things he never imagined he’d have to face or to consider, like the fact that maybe the tale of Rawley and the Mothers isn’t the whole story. But who can he believe, who can he trust to tell him the truth?

Meaghan McIsaac has written a mind-blowing and outstanding adventure. This is where fantasy excels: the creation of another world to get us to think about life’s bigger questions. It made me think again of Socrates’ Allegory of the Cave (which was first introduced to me by A S King in Ask the Passengers): “People chained in a cave are only able to see a wall. The wall has shadows cast from a fire they can’t see. They guess at what the shadows are. Their entire reality becomes these shadows.” (Ask the Passengers, pg. 111). Urgle and his brothers have grown up in a Socratic Cave, knowing only what is passed down to them from their older Brothers. They can interpret the events of their past and their existence only according to this basic knowledge, but of course the information they have is severely limited and full of holes. How will Urgle react when new information comes to light? Will he ignore it, deny it, incorporate it into his known reality, or have to completely rebuild his reality from scratch?

When he leaves the Pit, Urgle finds himself caught between two worlds and in the middle of an age-old battle, the story of Belphoebe and Ardigund. Thrown from pillar to post and manipulated by both sides, he must face some really difficult choices, life and death, and figure out which path to take. He doesn’t always make the best choices, though, so the question is, will he take the right one in the end? And which is the right one?

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