Review: The Light Fantastic by Sarah Combs

I recently moved into a new neighborhood, and obviously, one of the first things I did was check out the library. Part of the inauguration process was taking out four books (yes, I already have three out…. hush), all of them from the teen section to try update my woefully old-fashioned understanding of Young Adult fiction. This book, The Light Fantastic, is the first one of the four.

First, the good. The Light Fantastic is a gorgeously written story that intermingles seven different perspectives spread across three states, four days after the bombings of the Boston Marathon. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, particularly the description of POV character April Donovan’s rare condition. April has hyperthymesia, a condition which makes her recall of personal memory astonishingly vivid. Because of this, in particular, she can ‘connect the dots’ between real-life tragedies and her life at near-light-speed. This is used as a framing device to bring the book to its central plot – a series of interconnected school shootings.

My relationship with this book gets more complicated when it comes to both the plotting and the characters. There’s a lot here that I want to like; the discussion of trauma and the ‘war’ that modern-day high school students are forced into touches on some really great stuff. However, ultimately, the seven POVs are more than one too many, leaving readers very little time to catch up or put together the lives we’re getting a window into. There’s also not nearly enough rise and fall in the action; while there is a climactic end of sorts, the slow-motion of the book as events unfold over a single day slows the narrative down too much.

I also – from an ethical perspective – don’t know how to feel about the premise. School shootings are so common in the U.S.A. that they’ve ceased to have any meaning, but that very level of incidence has meant the conversation around school shooters has changed. The narrative of the ‘lone wolf’, bullied and seeking revenge, is a painfully dated one. Instead, school shooters (even – and especially – the Columbine shooters) tend to be white, male bullies asserting power. Certainly the idea of a forum pushing people further into radicalism is frighteningly realistic, akin to places like /b/ or Kiwifarms. However, a white woman writing about a Indian boy with internalized racism, and focusing on his death-by-cop scene to the exclusion of almost all others, feels… uncomfortable. Equally uncomfortable is that the two other shooter narratives involve young, white girls reacting to bullying.

Actually, I lied. I may not know how to feel about the premise itself, but Pal’s death was unnecessary and mean, and more than a little racist given that he’s the only actual named character to die. So, let’s stop killing POC characters for Drama:tm: please?

The prose of The Light Fantastic is gorgeous, but while the intertwined plots and themes hold a lot of promise, the characters fall a little flat. Most importantly, though, the victims of the shooting should be the heroes of a story – not the “tragic” figures of bullied murderers.

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