November/December 2009 issue
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Iron Jaw and Hummingbird by Chris Roberson; Viking Children’s Books: New York, 2008; $19.99
What if the Chinese had taken over the whole eastern hemisphere when Christopher Columbus left Spain in 1492? And what if this military and cultural expansion eventually led to the Chinese colonization of Mars? This alternate history sets the scene in Chris Roberson’s Iron Jaw and Hummingbird.This book is a unique blend of science fiction and history. Chris Roberson bases the main conflict on the actual Chinese Boxer Rebellion from the late 1800s. For instance, the name of the religious uprising on Mars is the Society of Righteous Harmony; during the Boxer Rebellion a similar group called itself the Righteous Harmony Society Movement.
Chris Roberson’s dramatic story features adventure with a dash of romance. The main characters are a thirteen-year-old girl, Gamine (Iron Jaw), and a sixteen-year-old boy, Huang (Hummingbird). Huang, a failed scholar, is force by his influential parents to join the Army of the Green Standard as an officer. But before he reaches his post, bandits attack his caravan and capture him as a slave or, as the bandits say, their pet. Despite his slavery, he empathizes with the bandits against the Governor-General. Gamine’s life changes from that of a pampered scholar to a wandering con artist on the whim of her aristocratic mistress, Madame Chauviteau-Zong. After three years of cons she joins a religious movement for food and shelter. After a while she becomes the leader by posing as a holy person through whom the “powers” speak. This gives her a chance to get back at the society that cast her out. Interestingly, the characters’ stories don’t converge until over halfway through the book. Both Huang and Gamine live lives on the run. When they finally meet, they decide to quit running. United by a common goal, they plan a coup against the corrupt Governor-General.
Another distinct element of the book is the realistic characterization. Almost all of the other characters have a history, which makes them feel more genuine. For example, the bandits seem like classic bad guys, but when you learn they used to be miners with dangerous working conditions, they seem more like people, not bloodthirsty criminals.
I can relate to Huang because he likes to think things through and not rely on impulse, and he eventually becomes the bandits’ chief tactician. Also, he and I share a hobby: chess. While Huang plays a different version called “elephant chess,” it’s the same concept. We’ve all felt guilt before, so I think we can all relate to Gamine. She never stops feeling guilty about the victims she scams. She tries to make amends by leading her people to better lives.
Despite the plot and character strengths, the end was disappointing. I won’t tell you what it is, but if the audience sees a large meat cleaver on a table during a play, they expect somebody to use the meat cleaver. Don’t just sum it up with a butchered pig on the table in the next scene.
I would recommend this book because, even though it takes place on Mars, it seems like the story could happen anywhere. With a strong plot and realistic characters, I really cared about what happened to everyone.