[This is the first in a set of five reviews - each looking at one of our 2010 Kitschie finalists. As part of our commitment to a transparent judging process, we'll run through each of the books in turn with our criteria in mind. Please take part in the discussion below!]
Scott Andrews' Children's Crusade wraps up his three part contribution to Abaddon's "Afterblight" shared world. Introduced in Simon Spurrier's The Culled, the Afterblight posits a grim future where the majority of the world's population has been wiped out by a nasty little virus. Although Mr. Spurrier and several of the other authors focus on the big cities and the big picture, Andrews focuses his part of the story around a boarding school in the country. Over the course of three books, his protagonists - Lee and Jane - fight off a variety of nasty folk, from cannibals to kidnappers.
Children's Crusade is the series' explosive finale. It lifts the veil on Jane's mysterious past, forces Lee to confront his dark side and concludes with a vicious battle in the Houses of Parliament.
Diving in with our criteria...
Progressive (but not wanky): Andrews hits it out of the park on two counts. First, for a book about post-apocalyptic ruin, the subtext is wildly pacifist. There's no question that this is a bloody and violent story, but Andrews isn't writing escapist splatterpunk - he's using the horror of war to demonstrate, well... the horror of war. Action heroes that sleep well at night are sociopaths. Every time Lee kills, he changes - becomes a little darker, and a little less of the person he wants to be. The book's explosive ending only reinforces the point.
The second is the focus on Jane. The former "Matron" of the school, Jane was a peripheral figure in the first book and has seen her role grow and grow, until she's actually the central figure of Children's Crusade. Jane's neither weeping victim nor foolish sidekick - she's clever, resourceful and as capable and competent as any of the male characters. She's also more grounded and mature, capable of withstanding the events that break Lee and his macho father. Most importantly, Andrews writes a leading woman that's just as much a unique character as his leading man.
Intelligent (but not arrogant): Initially, I thought this would be the hardest to defend, but feral schoolchildren actually have a storied intellectual history. The recent influx of dystopian YA fiction has certainly watered down the field, but from Catcher in the Rye to Lord of the Flies to Battle Royale, kids gone wild has produced a notable amount of "serious" fiction. Children's Crusade may be packaged as cheap thrills, but it is a closer relation to "If" than to "Toy Soldiers".
By the time Children's Crusade rolls around in the trilogy, the students at St. Mark's are no longer children. The focus is now more on the difficulties of re-building society from scratch. Youthful idealism conflicts with jaded experience, and the characters are frequently forced to balance ruthless efficiency with utopian optimism. Lee and Jane want to take the moral high ground, but that's also the best place to position the snipers. Even when their small community is completely isolated, they find it difficult to establish the principles of law and order. And, try as they might, isolation is rare: whenever Lee and Jane come to a conclusion on how to run their tiny island of sanity, they're forced to reappraise it in view of the raging hordes of cultists. A lot of provocative discussion sneaks in under the cover of machine gun fire.
Entertaining (but not trite): Controversially, this is the point where Children's Crusade trips up. This is, of course, completely relative - Children's Crusade is a vastly entertaining book, this is just in comparison to the other two criteria. With the book's emphasis on Jane's backstory, a great deal of the book's narrative is used to set up the action, without actually committing to it.
The major stumbling block, however, is the open-handed commitment to the rest of the Afterblight series. The St. Mark's trilogy is already interwoven with the Arrowland series, but in Children's Crusade, Mr. Andrews also links up with The Culled. The result is a Mobius strip of a shared world chronology, and one that sadly belittles the events of Children's Crusade. Lee bounces his ethical conflicts off of one of Mr. Kane's straight-laced yeomen, and Jane's personal demons are linked with the parallel adventures of Mr. Spurrier's unnamed protagonist. Although a critical book in terms of the core characters, Mr. Andrews generously cedes the plot's spotlight to other authors. In making a diligent effort to include his playmates, Mr. Andrews sacrifices the significance of his own work in the shared world.
Extra Credit: Love the Mark Harrison cover art, but the book's intellectual virtues are downplayed by the packaging.
Overall: It is easy to discount Children's Crusade's contribution towards elevating the tone of geek culture simply because it is from a self-declared pulp imprint. Or, more simply put: just because a book has a bunch of machine-gun-toting schoolkids on the front, doesn't mean you shouldn't take it seriously. Mark Harrison's cover art is fantastic, but Children's Crusade could have easily had this as a cover. Or this. Or this.
As a genre, are we selling ourselves short? Or is it better that the subtle anti-war sentiments of Mr. Andrews' book sneak in under the radar, disguised as the dark glamour that's acknowledged to be more acceptable to genre readers? Children's Crusade raises these questions - and more - displaying why it belongs on this list.
What do you think? The 2010 Kitschie will go to the book that we feel best elevates the tone of geek culture. Is this it?