'Relic: The Books of Eva' warns of icy future

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Heather Terrell, a New York lawyer turned Pittsburgh novelist, admits she often dreamed of "unraveling the larger mysteries of time as an archaeologist or explorer or historian." She took up writing as a means to pursue this passion and has produced three historical novels and the young adult series Fallen Angel.

"Relic: The Books of Eva" marks the start of Ms. Terrell's latest series and her second venture into the burgeoning market of young adult fiction. "Relic" appears to have the trimmings of a fantasy novel set in an imagined land.

By Heather Terrell.
Soho Teen ($17.99).

There's a carefully constructed inlaid map within the cover and a time line of the New North's history after the cataclysmic event known simply as the "Healing." The audience quickly learns, however, that this medieval-like culture of Eva's home is the remnants of our own civilization 250 years in the future. This realization becomes the basis for the novel's central theme: technology is a fragile thing and another Dark Age could be closer than you think.

The novel begins with the murder of the protagonist's brother, Eamon. Grief-stricken over his death, Eva defies her family and the expectation of her society by entering a community trial known as the "Testing." Every year the youth of the New North travel outside the safety of the Aeirie and into the icy wilderness to scavenge relics hidden deep within the tundra.

These Testors are watched and graded on their talents of survival, excavation and knowledge of the past, which culminates in the Testor's chronicle -- a written account of their relics. The Testor who survives and provides that most worthy chronicle is named the Chief Archon, a prized position of power given rule for 10 years.

As Eva's journey progresses, the concerns of fulfilling her brother's dream of winning the title of Chief Archon are gradually waylaid by the fear she is purposely being sabotaged. Eva is a smart and determined protagonist, but her decision to take part in the Testing leaves her with few friends.

Eva finds herself ostracized because the New North's strict adherence to specific gender roles and social classes. These regulations are contained within the religious doctrine known as the Lex, created to protect its people from another disaster like the "Healing."

One of the chief leaders warns the Testors before their journey: "We need to learn again of the hunger for Tylenols that poisoned our minds; the thirst for Cokes that weakened our bodies. ... All this evil spawned from the worship of the false god Apple."

This speech reads like a clumsy assessment of contemporary brand consumption and our incessant reliance on computer technology. The heavy-handed and ominous "false god Apple," a phrase which is repeated often, sounds unintentionally comical when juxtaposed with the seriousness that it is spoken about within the text.

But there is a more nuanced meaning to the Lex's warning, which subtly urges us to consider our own knowledge of the past. While Eva pities us for staring at our computer screens for hours as an "altar," we the audience pity Eva for her faulted understanding of our century.

We may live in a time where an answer could be just a computer click away, but there are plenty of archeological mysteries we still don't understand. We have theories but we don't know. While the world built in "Relic" is unique and has a rich allegorical quality, the main plot of Eva's Testing is the least engaging segment of the novel.

The daily chapters of Eva's travel to the excavation site and her internal monologue become tedious. Eva also finds the solutions to her problems without much difficulty. My initial fear for Eva reduced to nothing; there was always another character a step away to make sure she didn't fall off a cliff, or a simple page turn in her brother's journal that assuredly held the perfect answer.

The answers that Eva receives, though, are conclusions the audience already came to earlier in the novel or at least by the end of the Testing, so the surprise and satisfaction are lost on the reader when Eva finally uncovers the true purpose of her relic. In fact, Eva's discovery of her relic and the implications it has on her culture is the most exciting part of the book, although it comes at the cost of plot contrivances and an unnecessary love triangle.

The final act of the novel also leaves the reader unsatisfied, as it feels rushed and ends so abruptly that I thought it was merely the ending to a chapter rather than the whole novel.

Still, there are worthwhile messages buried in the core of this novel. We, like Eva, should delight in the discovery of the past and the ingenuity of those who came before us. Yet, despite its larger ideas and unique premise, "Relic's" reliance on predictable tropes and uninspired plot twists sadly highlights Ms. Terrell's latest novel as another middling find in a sea of young adult novels.

Abigail Palbus is a freelance writer and peddler of comics (apalbus@gmail.com).

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