The first book of a trilogy, Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster focuses on the tumultuous everyday life of Jared, a 16-year-old struggling to survive his family.
His parents are separated and strung out, and his mom is downright dangerous (an odd mix of neglectful and overly protective). He keeps himself drunk or stoned just to maintain some level of calm. Jared’s life is so crazy that when a raven starts talking to him, he barely has the mental space to worry about it.
The British Columbia-based Robinson skilfully blends wacky, over-the-top characters that would be at home in an edgy sitcom with a supernatural horror plot that draws on indigenous beliefs. By the time Robinson throws cannibalistic river otters at you, nothing prevents them from being both utterly terrifying and extremely funny at the same time.
Robinson punctuates the action with tiny chapters that, in a more conventional fantasy novel, would offer background on the story’s mythology. Here is Robinson’s version of those normally weighty passages:
"Two hundred and 52 million years ago on Earth in late May on a Monday, the trilobites were going out for Starbucks before work, la la la, near swampy Pangea, the single continent that stretched from pole to pole. The trilobites tended to avoid the weird, hippie mammals and reptiles that had decided to give land-dwelling a go and had descended into eating each other… No accounting for taste, they told themselves… The trilobites were blindsided by the end of their world. They were like, whoa, man. What the hell? … Mass extinction sucks."
Son of a Trickster works as an urban fantasy, but also reads like a parody of the genre. She goes beyond its limitations as a result. Often, the characterizations in urban fantasy are generic because authors focus on details of the supernatural story world, few of which are directly relevant to the plot.
Robinson reverses this normal trajectory. Midway through the novel, the reader wonders when something supernatural is going to happen. Aside from a raven speaking to Jared, and saying almost nothing of any importance (he warns Jared not to wear so much Axe body spray, saying it doesn’t work like in the commercials), basically nothing supernatural has occurred. Instead, we’ve become embroiled in the turmoil of Jared’s normal life.
Robinson ramps up the supernatural developments in the latter half of the novel; this long, slow build displays both her confidence and skill, as does the way she resists long, drawn-out explanations of how her supernatural world works. (Those trilobites, by the way, have nothing to do with anything whatsoever. They are Robinson’s light, breezy way to introduce the broad theme of looming mass extinction due to environmental catastrophe.)
The most impressive thing about Son of a Trickster is how Robinson can, when she wants to, cut through all of her jokes through the story’s absurd tone, and move past grandiose implications of how the supernatural intersects with Jared’s life. In these instances, she manages small, affecting insights and sad moments.
Yes, Jared finds himself at the centre of supernatural conflicts, but he’s also torn between compassion for his dad and loyalty to his mom: "He wanted to believe his mom was sorry, but his dad was always sorry and he still kept doing crap he had to say sorry for. He didn’t want to be a sucker, but he didn’t want to be alone. Everything ached and all the choices felt wrong."
Winnipeg English professor Jonathan Ball (@jonathanballcom) is the author of five books. Visit him online at www.WritingTheWrongWay.com.