Review Round-up: Kill Baxter and Daddy Long-Legs
Monday, July 28, 2014
Charlie Human's Kill Baxter (2014) is the sequel to one of last year's best debuts - Apocalypse Now Now. The titular Baxter has now embraced (or, at the very least, 'admitted') his magical heritage and the powers that be have insisted that he attend Hexpoort, the school for budding wizardly types. There, Baxter is challenged in three ways: survive his training, survive his fellow students and survive the upcoming magical civil war. It doesn't help that, after thwarting a previous apocalypse, Baxter has earned the enmity of the school bully, who is insistent the he and he alone be in the running for 'Chosen One'. Oh, and his girlfriend kind of hates him.
If there are similarities with Harry Potter, I assure you - they are deliberate, the scene on the train platform is especially pointed. Human's written a wonderfully cutting piece of post-revisionist young adult fantasy, where the mid-century schoolboy story has been booted into the year 2014. The world is a nastily realistic place, with no clear delineation between good and evil and corruption everywhere. Hexpoort is a Hogwarts for a decadent fascist aristocracy - a system where the ruling powers are so desperate for the next generation of child soldiers that they let the students run feral, so long as they remain loyal.
Just as the author punctures holes in the twee/charming class system of magical boarding schools, Human also goes after many of the other traditions of epic fantasy. The warrior-mages of Kill Baxter struggle with PTSD. The "rescued" girlfriends don't feel particularly swoony or appreciative. The quest to master 'the power within' involves a funk band. Baxter himself sees himself as the center of the universe (saviour for all, chosen one, etc. etc.) - but is also wise enough to seek out professional therapy for that sensation. Apocalypse Now Now was a very clever, extremely dark book with an underpinning of real insight into the teenage mind. Kill Baxter is a step beyond - a viciously sharp adventure that combines explosive entertainment with cutting satire; the best traditions of contemporary fantasy with the truth of what it actually means to be contemporary. The odd book that should appeal to those who love fantasy and those that hate it. And I would heartily recommend it either way.
Jean Webster's Daddy Long-Legs (1912) is an epistolary novel of such incredible charm that I could even forget its weirdly dodgy premise. Judy Abbott is an orphan, and a, at the risk of going Disney, "mischievous" one. Perhaps even "precocious"! At the age of fifteen, she's running the orphanage ragged - as the oldest one there, she's now more of a servant than a child, and isn't wildly enjoying herself.
To her delight - and continued confusion - Judy is given a very special sort of scholarship. One of the orphanage's trustees has paid for her to attend a very prestigious boarding school, plus a handsome stipend. In turn, all she needs to do is write to him - regularly. Judy is warned that her benefactor will not be writing back and he's not a big fan of women (in general). Ominous.
Judy manages all of one (1) proper letter before she falls into the habit of using her silent pen-pal as a form of diary. She dubs him "Daddy Long-Legs" (from a glimpse of his shadow) and takes to writing with great aplomb. He soon learns everything about her living situation, from meals to classes to boys to roommates to - perhaps best of all - her discovery of contemporary literature. Judy's been living in an orphanage, and although not completely cut off from the world, her understanding of it is joyously naive. She's off to experience everything from buying her first clothes to reading her first Stevenson novel (poor thing).
Although silent, Daddy Long-legs' impact on Judy's life can be felt in many ways. Judy never wants for much, and when she asks - or hints - or even mentions - something that can be purchased, it shows up in the post (like it or not). Similarly, Long-legs schedules Judy's vacations, holidays and summer plans for her - something that becomes increasing grating as the young woman grows up. Judy has a terrific turn of phrase, and whether she's writing with gratitude or annoyance, her every emotion comes through on the page.
The novel's uncomfortable underpinning comes with questions about Judy's independence and her agency. The former is never truly in doubt. In fact, one of the most impressive things about her character and her development is that she maintains maturely thankful to Long-legs while increasingly wanting to set about her own path. She resists his dictates more and more, and steadily makes clear that she sees his charity as no more than a loan - something she'll pay back as she makes her own life. Yet, at the same time, Judy has very little agency of her own. There's something creepily akin to grooming going on - a pretty, innocent young girl has been plucked from obscurity at age 15, and is carefully given a course of experiences and lessons until she becomes the woman that Long-legs desires. This is a Pygmalion story, but one written with incredible charm, warmth and humour.