Note: this book talks about child abuse, so the review does as well.
Galloglass, by Scarlett Thomas, is the third (and final?) book in the Worldquake series that started with Dragon’s Green. I loved Dragon’s Green, which felt like it had been written exactly for my eight-year-old self, and I have recommended it to many families who have bookworm children ever since. Having now read the final instalment, I’m not so sure that I should have done. Galloglass is strange and difficult to follow, even as an adult with a reading age of (not to brag) more than eight. More than that, I think some of the messaging missed its mark by a wide margin, and I’m not so sure that I would want a child in my care to read it, at least not without having an adult to read it alongside. Here goes.
The book tackles child abuse in what starts out as a subtle and thoughtful subplot. I was initially very glad that the book was going there. It seemed like it was going to give children in that position language to understand their experiences, and end with the child talking to a trustworthy grown-up who listens to them and takes them seriously. In the end, though, the book concludes with a big preachy denouncement of how wicked child abuse is – but I think Thomas undercuts her “tell an adult you trust” message by having the child in question rescue herself before any adult knows what’s going on. Children can’t generally rescue themselves from abusers. It’s fine to show children rescuing themselves from perils that don’t exist in the real world – but abusers do, and implying that a child can save themselves without adult help is dangerous. Also, the last thing that most children who are being abused want is for a whole room full of people to be told about it hours after it’s stopped. That’s what happens in this book, without any depiction of discussion with/consent from the child. If a child makes a disclosure to you, you need to be incredibly clear with them about who you are sharing the information with and why*. I’m concerned that, in contrast to the author’s intentions, this could actually discourage children from talking. If you’re going to portray child abuse convincingly in a children’s book, you have a significant responsibility to get it right the whole way through.
It seems almost silly to get on with a book review after that, but this still has a plot and characters and worldbuilding, even if it feels like a tract rather than a novel sometimes. It features all the same characters as before – Effie, Lexy, Wolf, Maximillian, and Raven, along with their assorted relatives – and I enjoyed Wolf’s story a lot. Wolf starts out in the first book as a stereotypical big thick bully, but by this book, he has the most cerebral plot of all the children. He is scooped up into a scenario in which he must make a series of increasingly complex choices about various ethical dilemmas, all at very high stakes for him personally. I don’t want to give too much away about this plot, but I wondered at times if this part of the story was a response to Ender’s Game. If so, I thought it was a very clever and engaging take on those issues. One of the things Thomas excels at is taking stock characters and flipping them in some way to make them interesting. In Wolf’s case, she does it by making a character who would normally be depicted as stupid increasingly thoughtful and considered.
As for the rest of the book, it just didn’t work for me. Probably, that’s partly because my favourite character in the first two books was Maximillian, who barely gets a look in here. I think there were just too many plots rammed into this novel, though. There was a strange subplot involving revolutionary vegan cats that didn’t fit particularly well with the rest of the book, for example. The narrative constantly switched between different characters’ voices, often after a page or two, which was jarring. More than that, it was the friendships in Dragon’s Green and, to a lesser extent, The Chosen Ones that drew me in, and they were pretty much absent from this book. That’s not surprising – part of the book’s thesis is that individualism is inherently good, so all the children spent a lot of time off on their own adventures – but it meant that it fell pretty flat for me. The high points of the book are the few occasions when all the main characters were together, and that didn’t happen very often.
Honestly, I’ve rarely been disappointed by the second half of a book. I wouldn’t have reviewed it at all, except that I am trying review as much of the 20 Books of Summer list as possible. I’ll find something else to review for this square on the Indie Challenge, since that’s meant to be about celebrating indie publishers and this isn’t a very celebratory review. And in future when I recommend Dragon’s Green to people with children (because I still think it’s great), I will tell them they should treat it like a standalone novel.
*I hope nobody reading this ever gets blindsided by a disclosure of child abuse, but I think absolutely everyone should read What to do if a child reveals abuse by the NSPCC just in case. Do not behave in the same way as the adults in this book.