I have a theory that if philosophy and religion hadn’t already attacked this question ad nauseam, the current academic conceptualization of the determinism vs. free will debate might be packaged as “Star Wars vs. Harry Potter.“ That is, we have the gasping and hoarse “Luuuke, it is your deessttinny” vs. Dumbledore’s passionate argument that Harry isn’t to be ruled by a prophecy; his reactions, rather, determine the course of his life (e.g. choice, though I suspect Rowling came up against a philosophical conundrum in that she discovered a few books in that they were a tad deterministic and then had to dig her way out through Dumbledore, which she did quite brilliantly).
Anyway. The reader at this point will probably say something like “fine, but what does this have to do with The Talisman of Elam?” To which I would respond that my first reaction to the book was that it initially places itself firmly in the realm of expansive, futuristic sci-fi, but also firmly within the more entrenched lines of patriarchy and destiny. That is, main character Jason Hunter finds out that he is the Heir of Elam, and therefore has a role and a duty to perform in relation to saving the Earth, his parents, and the universe. This role was set in place prior to his birth, knitted in his DNA. It made me question the good/bad nature of things in the novel; after all, we’ve seen how well this sort of thinking worked out for Charles and Diana. How is it in sci-fi that the characters are so sure they are on the right side, or that there ever is a right side? Yet, they inevitably are, because we as viewers or readers could not back them unless they were. So I found myself uncomfortably on the side of determinism and patriarchy, at least in the first half of the book, because I certainly could not be for the awful Oruq and the Thothians. Yet at the same time I was incorporating a beautifully conceptualized, unique universe/landscape. This required me to walk a bit of a line. If the universe is expanding and contracting, so was my mind as I read this book – back and forth between history and the future, structure and lack of structure, tradition and new ground, archetype and stereotype.
I was very engaged. I found myself thinking about the book when I wasn’t reading it, wondering where the characters would go next (although I had no doubt they would come out on top). Certain situations seemed unbeatable, and I was charmed by the clever and unexpected ways the characters worked their way out of them. Mastro pays good attention to details such as physical sensations and smells, so I felt like I was experiencing what the characters were experiencing. With profound regrets to its legions of fans, I did not particularly care for Dune, because the book never felt alive to me, and Elam does not have that problem.
As I don’t wish to put too many spoilers in my review, I’m happy to say that the patriarchal problem seems to dissipate at the end of the book. I almost cheered, quite honestly, because the appearance of De Orlanean helped me to resolve some inner conflicts created by the book (in that a hero with a thousand faces always seems to have a male face). The ending came in a whirlwind, and as Jason works through the puzzle of how to accept who he is and also learn how to put it to use, I found myself reading well into the night in order to see how it would end. The foreshadowing of an unexpected romance doesn’t hurt either, and I will certainly be seeking out the next book in this series.
Plot: Three kids, main character Jason Hunter and his friends Kevin Hayashi and Amelia Reis, start to notice some odd things happening in their New England town. They discover a spaceship, which they initially take for a sort of joyride, but then are convinced by aliens that they need to go on a journey to save the Earth, and then to find the Amulon Talic. In this journey, they must escape several alien chases, visit many bizarre planets, try new foods, and meet other people from other planets, all of whom have agendas of their own.
Setting: Many different planets of the universe, as Stevie Nicks might say, and the universe itself. Largely, spaceships of many different kinds, and Mastro does a good job of showing both their similarities and their differences, and grounding us in their divergent technologies.
Characters: I liked the characters and felt connected with them. Jason is a prototypical hero: thoughtful, determined, kind, good. I think his personality is his predominant trait – he doesn’t seem to have a particular skill other than being the Heir and able to hold the Talic, unlike Amelia who is good at languages and Kevin who is a brilliant flier. The chemistry and energy between the characters was fun, and Shalan in particular grows through the book and becomes far more interesting at the end than she is in the beginning. I loved Takkadian Pheno the giant spider, and Bob the orb – both of whom I hope reappear in the next books. My only concern surrounds the character of Ardemesius. I’m smelling a Gandalf rising (free associate here to the Doors song) and am hopeful Mastro either doesn’t do this or he does it in a unique way. I might add that I loved the names in this book. It’s a gift to cleverly coin both outer-worldy and domestic names well.
Style: Nicely done, well straddling the middle reader genre and sci-fi. A few very minor typos (parent’s instead of parents’, very minor things like that). Engaging throughout, and it left me looking forward to the sequel.
Overall Impression: Four stars. A highly enjoyable trip through the universe, with imaginative, likeable and unique characters and interesting challenges. Perhaps a bit too clearly good-and-evil. I’d love to see some shades of gray start coming out between the two sides, and I think a good place for that would be in the book’s suggestion that some of the anger directed at Earth is due to Earthers’ carelessness with environmental stewardship. I’d recommend this book to any lover of either middle reader fantasy or sci-fi.