CM . . . . Volume XXI Number 33 . . . . May 1, 2015
Readers meet 14-year old Adoni on a bus on a dreary November day, solitary and adrift in her thoughts: where did she get her unusual name? Does the dingy apartment she shares with her mom have bedbugs? When she arrives at home, her mother is already chasing beers and invites Adoni to do the same. Later that night, as Adoni sorts out laundry and searches her room for bedbugs, she hears a haunting melody she can't believe comes from the voice of a lone man crouched in the alleyway outside—a voice that can harmonize in multiple parts. Adoni has a gift for memorizing tunes, and when she hums the same tune again while buying cigarettes for her mom, the mysterious young man threatens her to stop singing. He then walks through a door edged with flame, a door which disappears after he walks through it.
Adoni doesn't have much time to process what she witnessed as her week goes from bad to worse. The one semi friendship she has disintegrates when her attempt to quiet the younger sibling of her schoolmate with the strange song she heard in the alley upsets the toddler and her schoolmate explodes at her. Adoni has had enough of the shame she feels, the emptiness, and the unfulfilled longing she has for love and security. She sneaks a fifty dollar bill from her mother's purse and decides to run away. She doesn't get very far from her home, however, when she notices a toddler in her building get lured away by the same lone singer she heard before—lured to go through that magic door. With nowhere better to go, Adoni leaps in after them before the door closes, and she finds herself in another world.
This is the world of The Welcome, one of five colonies created by a being named Ansgar to sustain children who are abused or otherwise vulnerable in the real world. If you look closely enough, you could see the real world, veiled, underneath the layer of The Welcome, but it's far easier not to, and enjoy the comfort of cozy log cabins, piping hot meals, the Christmas card idyll. As the novel excerpt above shows, the song that lured the toddler to The Welcome was not meant for Adoni, but she heard it anyway. She is made a temporary tenant at The Welcome, not a resident, and lives in a beautiful chalet with the other pipers.
At the chalet, amongst other pipers, she meets Steppe, the laconic and grim leader of the group, Theresa, a down to earth 'den mother' who is not a piper, but the only adult allowed in the colony, and Ritter, the rebellious and charming nonconformist who let Adoni in The Welcome in the first place. Pipers do not age, unless Ansgar wills it, and decades long grudges tremble beneath the surface, such as a feud between Steppe and Ritter.
It soon becomes evident that not all is as perfect in The Welcome as it seems. A piper must live by Ansgar's Code, in which he or she creates a song just for a deprived child, lures them to The Welcome, and is forbidden to have any contact with them. In their new home, the children can have whatever they wish for transported to them via a magical wooden box in each of their rooms, and they spend their time doing whatever they want. Any product with the name of Ansgar on it is charmed; food produced for the inhabitants tastes almost as good as the real thing. At age 18, however, the young residents are thrust back into the real world, with no defences, as unprepared for that world as they were before. Some residents even kill themselves in The Welcome rather than returning to the difficulties of the real world. It seems the pipers are more like the Piper of Hamelin than the benevolent saviours of disadvantaged youth, but no one dares to question the rules set by Ansgar.
Adoni becomes friends, and later, more than friends, with one of the troubled adolescents of The Welcome, the impetuous and spirited Natalie, and their romance is a warm interlude in the increasingly grim atmosphere of The Welcome. She also gains confidence in singing for the pipers, and she wins the a approval of the sardonic Ritter to learn more about singing from him.
The story becomes more fraught with complications as readers learn that a former practice that all pipers had to perform was to replace a child taken to The Welcome with a changeling. Changelings have no souls and need to learn to respond to humans by copying them; all of them suffer abuse and neglect from the broken human families in which they are placed. The sinister changeling leader, Sylvester, lives in the forests with other outcast changelings and threatens to destroy the pipers if they do not relinquish Ritter, with whom the changelings have an outstanding grudge. Steppe is ordered by Ansgar to negotiate with Sylvester to keep the changelings' wrath at bay. When Sylvester burns one of the pipers alive, devastating the piper community, Adoni has had enough. She arms herself with an axe and decides to go to Ansgar herself to question the injustice and perversion of the entire system Ansgar sustains.
The narrative bristles into action in the last third of the book as the changelings capture Adoni, brand her with Ansgar's name in order to make her Sylvester's puppet, and Adoni fights for her very life to escape from his clutches. Ritter comes to Adoni's aid, and when they return to the chalet, readers will squirm as Adoni must have Ansgar's name cut out of her body. A piece of the brand remains, however, and Adoni takes on some of the powers of Ansgar, herself, making her a foe equal to Sylvester as her voice becomes a weapon in itself. The final showdown between the pipers, Adoni, and Sylvester leads to a shocking revelation and reveals the depth of Ansgar's treachery in manipulating her servants.
My one small reservation concerning Challenger's remarkable achievement is that perhaps there is almost too much backstory condensed into the novel, tipping the balance of the narrative toward reporting what happened before Adoni's arrival rather than focussing on sustaining action in the present. While Adoni is the outsider who can see through the lies of Ansgar and is not afraid to stand up to her, in some ways, she is caught in a bigger story that is less about her and more about the complicated situation she enters. While it is satisfying she comes into her own in The Welcome, an entire novel could have been written as a prequel, giving the space the backstories deserve to develop into fullness.
The Voices in Between is an ambitious and sophisticated fantasy, written with evocative, brooding beauty. Challenger makes words on a page caress the ear like music or jar against the soul with a chilling and suspenseful grip. She lets the vulnerable, silenced, and invisible in society find strength, their voice, and allows them to stand up for what they believe in through the transformation of Adoni. It's also refreshing that there is diversity in the characters, and the protagonist, herself, is overweight and of a visible minority. It is Adoni's very normality, her ability to have hope, as Ritter puts it, that has the potential to break down the barriers to justice in Ansgar's twisted world.
If a prequel could have been fitting, a sequel is certainly in the works for The Voices in Between. Readers leave The Welcome poised on the edge of great danger as Sylvester beats a temporary retreat and Adoni is locked out since she chooses to return home to her mother. She, Ritter, and Theresa all return to the real world and go their separate ways. Adoni resolves to find Ritter so that she can rejoin her comrades and fight Ansgar by their side. We hope Challenger's sequel will not disappoint those who want more to urban fantasy than romantic entanglements, just as this solid debut satisfies with its excellent world building, subtly drawn relationships, and defiant hope.
Ellen Wu is a teen-services librarian at Surrey Libraries in Surrey, BC.
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