Monday, January 21, 2008

The Truth-Teller's Tale -- Sharon Shinn

The Truth-Teller's Tale is another YA novel (see my post below about the good, bad, and ugly of these books), this one more in the fantasy genre. According to the book jacket, Sharon Shinn's book The Safe-Keeper's Secret is the precursor to this tale; my students who have read both said that, while there are some characters in common, this newest novel is a stand-alone work and not merely a continuation of the storyline from the previous one.

The Truth-Teller's Tale contains a delicious mixture of all of the best storytelling ingredients: a coming-of-age story with magic, intrigue, danger, and romance at every corner, with the opportunity for self-reflection on the part of the reader. The story focuses on Eleda, a young truth-teller, who happens to be the mirror-twin (exactly opposite appearances) of Adele, a safe-keeper. Truth-tellers have the incredible ability of only being able to tell the truth; relatedly, they can also tell immediately if someone near them has spoken a falsehood. Conversely, safe-keepers such as Adele never betray a confidence; once they have learned a secret, they will carry it to the grave no matter what the consequences might be. For a YA novel, this is a spectacular premise. It paves the way for a book that asks important, philosophical questions that adolescent girls should have the opportunity to explore: Is there a role you are "meant" to play within society? Is it better to be honest or loyal -- or does it depend on the situation? How are your greatest gifts also your greatest weaknesses?

The novel also opens with a gripping premise: Eleda and Adele are taken on a journey to the palace where they meet the queen, the newly-born princess, and the royal safe-keeper. While this is certainly not ground-breaking or innovative, the possibilities for a story of adventure and peril are almost endless. When Eleda, gazing down at the little princess, blurts out, "She will be a loving child and a delightful woman...and she will be an obedient daughter. You will certainly have less trouble with her than you do with your son" (25, Viking 2005 edition), we know that the mirror-twins' relationship to the royal family will not end with this visit, and we eagerly turn the pages to discover what brave, death-defying enterprises these two special sisters will enter into in the upcoming chapters.

But it is here -- as early as chapter three -- that the novel begins to disappoint. Though Shinn had so many opportunities to turn this into a rollicking tale of sisterly heroines to rival the excitement and adventure of the standard adolescent boy fantasy fare, the book quickly becomes what so many YA novels collapse into: a story about teen crushes. Eleda, Adele, and their boy-crazy friend Roelynn spend the rest of the book using their magical powers simply to find out, and keep, secrets about the hunky stablehands, actors, and dance instructors who come and go through their small town. They do not foil a plot to assassinate the prince or save the country from a terrible monster or invader. They chase after boys. For the rest of the book.

When I read this novel as part of a book club at the school where I teach, the girls in the group told me that they liked this aspect of the novel: "But that's what we spend most of our time thinking about!," they explained. I found this horrifying for two reasons. First, these girls are some of the smartest, most capable students that I have the good fortune to see in my classes every day -- if it is true that they would rather dream about their date to homecoming than plan and work for their very bright futures doing almost anything they'd like, then I have little hope for the accomplishments of the next generation. Second, and perhaps more important, if the first reason is in fact true, then it is even more imperative that YA writers provide young readers with characters that inspire them rather than characters that mimic them.

The Truth-Teller's Tale is a fun, light read that would probably be best classified as "teen chick lit." Though I agree that fiction can be a wonderful escape from the serious, overwhelming concerns of day-to-day life (see my initial post for my explanation of my favorite literary genre), I don't think that it's impossible for books to provide this and give us something to aspire to. (If you're looking for a book that does both, I'd suggest In Her Shoes, Philippa Gregory's historical fiction about the lives of little-known Elizabethan women, and The Thirteenth Tale as some recently-published options; for a classic YA fantasy series that accomplishes this and that anyone of any age can enjoy, start here.)

Final Verdict: *1/2

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