The Rule Book and Calendar of Kittery Embers by Sherwin Sleeves: Inspiring Dark Magic from the Collective Preconscious

I wrote the original version of this this review for Amazon.com, for the e-book.

I am a friend of both Sherwin Sleeves and Sean Hurley, although we have never met in person. I came to their work through the Atoms, Motion and the Void podcast. Listening to the series I immediately knew I was enjoying the work of a tremendously gifted storyteller, experiencing pure improvised storytelling, gradually delineating an increasingly structured story but with explosive twists and surprises along the way. That series takes its cues from an earlier era, while still referencing the wrenching dislocations of technology and conspiracy theories of the modern world; I felt as if I were sitting around a campfire with a brilliant and slightly demented village elder telling his life story, making it impossible to determine just where reality ended and fantasy began.

The Kittery Embers story is his young adult novel. If I had to assign it a genre I’d call it fantasy, although it does not slot neatly into one of the modern genre slots like “teen supernatural romance.” It is here and there inspired by the Harry Potter books, but it feels as if it is older, with deeper roots into the bedrock of our storytelling subconscious. In fact, it takes many cues from our common Greek myths, and I’m also reminded of Russian fantasists like Bulgakov and Gogol.

The basic structure is as old as storytelling itself: our young heroine is separated from her home and parents, in two distressingly horrific and stunningly beautiful twists of fate. She has some very unusual resources to draw on, most intriguingly her “rule book and calendar,” which is a sort of page-a-day calendar that dispenses humorous advice, and tells the future. She has some very odd animal friends, and around her are some kindly and grotesque adults. These do not seem terribly trustworthy, and can’t be counted on to have Kittery’s best interests at heart.

This story is utterly subversive in the best sense, in the way that the unexpurgated Grimm’s fairy tales are subversive: that is, they are designed to prepare a child to confront a world that is not actually a fuzzy, kind and gentle one, in which time and space twist and fold in on themselves, there are hidden agendas everywhere, and reality itself seems to be decaying into dust or going up in smoke. Kittery’s world is both familiar and exceedingly strange, and one has the constant sense that there is a story behind the story that Kittery is only dimly aware of.

As in Rowling’s work there is plenty in here to please adult readers, and in fact the events and images may be a bit nightmare-inducing for young children, so I’d say it is probably suitable for young readers ten and up.

I believe Sean will eventually be recognized as one of my generation’s finest storytellers. I fully expect to see his work on the silver screen, directed by the likes of Guillermo del Toro. I’ve described him as “Garrison Keillor on mescaline” because of the way his writing veers between compassionate, minute details of human emotions and mind-bending twists as he molds reality into something both familiar and startling. But above all, Sean/Sherwin has a gleeful love of the English language and a passion for what words can do. He is not yet well known. Get to know him.

Saginaw, Michigan
June 17, 2013

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