Looking for another The Hunger Games or Divergent? Here’s a brilliant Young Adult novel set in a dystopian Ireland. Imagine living in a country where every single teenager gets “The Call”. Without warning, you are transported to the baroque horrors of the Grey Lands where the vengeful Sidhe hunt you for sport, killing you or worse. Much worse. The odds of surviving this ordeal are improving through intense training in special colleges and now perhaps one in ten teenagers make it back alive. Nessa is the girl least likely to succeed with her legs twisted by polio yet she is absolutely determined to be the very best she can be. Tension builds as we learn the horrific fate of other students as they are “Called”. But who will be next and can Nessa and her friends make it through?
The Call was inspired by the beautiful northwest of Ireland where he grew up but now Peadar O’Guilin lives just outside Dublin. He has written plays, published short stories, and performed as a stand-up comedian whilst holding down a day job. I tracked him down to ask him a couple of pertinent questions about the book …
Q: Why did you choose to make your main character a girl not a boy?
A: When I first started reading, female protagonists spent their lives peeping out from between the covers in the romance section of the bookshop. Now and again, a few would make the journey over to the SF shelves, especially if the writer were somebody like C.J. Cherryh or the late, great Tanith Lee. I loved those books, but took no particular note of the character’s gender, except to think, well, the authors are female, so naturally that’s the type of character they’re going to use.
My own short-stories had a few female protagonists, but only when the story really needed one. My default, even for the bit-players, was “standard” straight, white male. And then, one day, the internet exploded with talk of “diversity”. Back in the beginning, the definition was so limited, it was almost enough for a book to pass the Bechdel test. But even then, the debate looked to me like a lot of angry people shouting at each other and I didn’t want to be involved.
However, beneath all the passion were a few arguments that made me question what I was doing. The main ones were: 1) The world is diverse, if your stories are not diverse, you are not reflecting reality. 2) Everybody likes to see themselves in a story, so, why shouldn’t they? 3) Every book that adds to the overwhelming mass of “standard” characters lends credibility to the idea that only one type of story is valid.
At that point I decided to reverse my previous default. I would always start with a female protagonist unless the plot demanded otherwise. And that, dear friends, is the story of how Nessa came out of the aether with two X chromosomes…
Q: Many reviewers appreciate that there’s no predictable “love triangle” in the story – though there is plenty of romance. Did you deliberately set out to break the formula?
A: I didn’t set out to break the formula. I generally don’t read the type of book that has love triangles in it. I am always more interested in the life and death tension of a story, rather than the will they/won’t they tension. It’s not that I dislike romance. I am a human being who has tender feelings now and again. When I write romance into a story, it’s usually a fantasy I’m creating for myself, that I want to believe in. Love triangles only confuse my simple soul.
Q: Did you find yourself drawing on your own experiences as a teenager as you were writing the book?
A: Very much so! I went to a boarding school when I was Nessa’s age. I took a smelly bus from the same station as hers, following much of the same route. Obviously, the idea of a refectory, of classes and a dorm, are extremely familiar ones to me as a result. I also read some dodgy love poetry and wrote lines that were far, far worse than anything she quoted!
Q: The world building includes an Ireland being shut off behind an impenetrable barrier; a terrifying yet wronged enemy; and hard choices children have to make when they are far too young. Were you ever conscious when writing of exploring your country’s recent past, or are the roots all in Irish mythology?
A: I am very conscious of history. We Irish have seen both sides of colonialism. We were colonised, but in Scotland, and in North America, we were also colonisers. The famous US general, Sheridan, often misquoted as saying “The only good injun’s a dead injun”, was of Irish stock. Almost every human being alive today lives where they do because their ancestors drove out somebody else. The fact that the concept is right there in the Book of Conquests is just a reflection of how long we have been doing this to each other. Ethnic cleansing is a horrible practice that I hope we are starting to grow out of. But the consequences live on a long time after the crimes, and in a way, that’s what my book is about.
Peadar O’Guilin has written an intense and thrilling story which is definitely my favourite Young Adult novel of the year so far. With a deft touch, Peadar builds very genuine, complex characters with a great deal of humour and humanity. I loved Nessa: her unfailing determination, her unflinching honesty about her condition, her fierce friendships and, ultimately, her strength of purpose which shines through at the tremendous climax.
So, with the nights drawing in … why not treat yourself to a fresh, thought provoking, and really scary story?
David Fickling Books; 01 Sep 2016; Hardback; £10.99