By Brian Farrey
Fantasy and historical fiction have long been creative playgrounds for authors to comment on contemporary issues. Two new books for young readers – one by a legend in the field, the other by an emerging voice – carry on this tradition by exploring how fear and misinformation can be used to manipulate people, and how the experience gained is sometimes more precious than received wisdom.
But for muskets, powdered wigs and tricornes, readers might be excused for thinking “Loyalty,” the latest novel by Medal winner Newbery Avi (“Crispin: The Leading Cross”), is a book about the America today. .
A deadly pandemic is ravaging the population. An armed police force intimidates and assaults the people it is meant to protect. Heads of government restrict the right to vote when elections do not go their way. Activists lead economic boycotts. Fanatics dox political opponents. Homes and businesses close their windows against civil unrest.
“The Boston air that everyone had to breathe was full of competing politics,” says Noah, the teenage protagonist of “Loyalty.” “I had a feeling the city was ready for a big fight.”
This fight is the impending revolutionary war. The year is 1774 and all of New England is a boiling cauldron of confusion and chaos. At one point, the Americans think the British are invading Cambridge, while the British are sure the rebels are about to attack Boston. Neither is true, but leaders on both sides are using misinformation to stoke fear and rally people behind their causes.
After Noah accompanied the British on a mission to remove gunpowder from a local warehouse, rumors abound that a dozen American militiamen were killed in the raid – despite none being there first. place. Echoing modern conspiracy theories like the Big Lie, QAnon, and Pizzagate, insurgents are using false rumors to incite a gun mob bent on revenge.
Noah knows the truth, but who should he ultimately give his loyalty to? The British, who execute deserters and urge citizens to serve on British ships? The Sons of Liberty, who caned Noah and murdered his loyalist father by tarring and feathering him? If the British were our protectors, I thought, why had they tried to kill us? Why did we have to run away from them? If the rebels are for freedom, why did they kill my father? Which side Noah will choose is the book’s central question, unresolved until its final pages.
More interesting is the story of Jolla, a former slave a few years older than Noah.
For Jolla, the decision of who to support is easy: the one who liberates his people. Alas, neither the UK government nor the Sons of Liberty seem interested in doing so.
Many leaders of the Revolution, Jolla points out, enslaved black people, and slaves were offered for sale in the same broadsheets that called on Americans to stand up for their freedom. “All this talk about freedom, to me, is like finding a feather,” Jolla says. “You know it’s from a bird. A bird of freedom. But the bird is not there. It was just flying.
“Choose which side you’re on,” Jolla told Noah on the eve of the Revolution. “Or find a third way.” In a nod to the present that’s also true to the story, that third way, for Jolla, is to flee to Canada. For Noah, a white boy with infinitely more options, it starts with learning to believe in himself and stand up for principles rather than parties.
Young readers who walk through the siege of Boston with him will be rewarded with a novel that challenges their ideas of American history and their notions of loyalty and patriotism.
“The Heart Counterclockwise,” by Brian Farrey (“The Vengekeep Prophecies”), also encourages readers to be true to themselves and consider the source when faced with opinions that contradict their own experience.
On the same day that a mysterious onyx statue of a young female warrior appears in the fairy tale land of Rheinvelt, a little brown-skinned boy with a clock where his heart should be is discovered within the walls of the country’s palace. . The child Alphonse is immediately adopted by Empress Sabine and his wife, but as he grows Sabine warns Alphonse to hide the truth about the clock in his chest lest people hate him because he is different.
It’s hard not to read this as an analogy for anyone who’s felt the need to hide a fundamental part of themselves from the world.
For Alphonse, it sucks joy and daring out of his life.
“Now when he dealt with those who had always treated him with kindness and affection, he looked deep into their eyes, searching for any secret hatred they might have buried within themselves.”
Worse still, he is told to hide his mechanical heart from his other mother, Empress Dagmar.
“If he could not trust the Empress to accept him as he was, who and what could Alphonsus trust?”
True to Sabine’s warning, the citizens of Rheinvelt eventually learn Alphonse’s secret and fear what they don’t understand. When the people turn against him, Alphonsus finds an ally in the Onyx Maiden, who comes to life to protect him. The two are clearly linked in one way or another. And like the Sons of Liberty in “Loyalty,” the villain in “The Counterclock Heart,” a power-hungry white villager named Guntram, uses misinformation and fear to rally an army against them.
In the wintery north, meanwhile, self-exiled wizards send their preteen sidekick Esme back to Rheinvelt to kill the Nachtfrau, the “evil witch” who lives in its menacing woods – and who also happens to be Esme’s mother.
The Nachtfrau isn’t exactly evil, of course. Wicked wizards used rumors and lies to turn the populace – including the witch’s own daughter – against their enemy.
Cocksure Esme’s challenge is to reject the lies the wizards have taught her in favor of the truth she has learned from her own experiences.
“The Collective had never encouraged her to think,” notes the narrator. “To be strategic, yes. To learn the complex pronunciation of cants, certainly. Corn … think? On the contrary, the thought had been discouraged. She had learned obedience. React without thinking.”
Reinforcing this theme is one of the cleverest devices in the book: a magic box that answers questions with two answers. One is the truth; the other is a lie. Determine what is the responsibility of the interviewer.
Alphonsus and Esme inevitably join forces. Alphonsus helps nurture Esme’s growing empathy and she teaches her to rediscover her confidence – traits they will need to face their final challenges.
In the neat conclusion to this entertaining, fast-paced, thoughtful novel, we learn that a chilling omen about a counterthe heart clockwise (worried since the beginning of the book) is also not what it seemed.
This is just another example of believing something before all the facts are known, and this time we are the culprits.
“The last lesson is this,” one of Alphonse’s allies told him: “There are things you learn. And there are things they tell you. Sometimes they are the same. Sometimes they are not. When they are identical, pay attention. When they are not the same, pay Following attention.” Wise words for anytime and anywhere.