(SPOILER WARNING: Because I like this book and you should read it; please note that there are minor spoilers after paragraph seven. Everything up until then is spoiler free, however.)
Expectations are funny things, and I’m not just talking about setting them too high or having none at all. No, I’m talking about ones of genre, of expecting one kind of plot or tone and finding yourself with something completely different. For any kind of artist, it’s a gamble. People generally know exactly what they’re looking for, be it romance, dragons, or a dystopia filled with laser-wielding robots. To pretend to deliver that only to make an abrupt shift is just as apt to turn someone away as it is to delight him/her.
The Child Eater by Rachael Pollack is a book that played with my expectations and played with them hard, and damn, I’m really happy it did so. It’s great.
The Child Eater follows two children separated by space and time. Matyas is a poor kid living in a medieval world where magic exists. His parents are abusive, and when he sees a mysterious man flying, he decides to run away from home to become a wizard. Simon Wisdom is an upper-middleclass American living in the present. His family motto is, “to be more normal than normal,” which is hard to follow when you’re born with mild psychic powers.
Both are plagued by the same, awful visions of a dark hallway filled with gruesome paintings and pleading children. At the end of the hallway is a monster known as The Child Eater.
When I first picked up The Child Eater, I assumed I was reading a kid’s book. The prose is somewhat simple and unassuming, the two main characters are young, around 11 or 12, and both of their stories start off with a version of, “Once upon a time….” My expectations were firmly set!
For the first 30 or so pages, my expectations were met. It was a little dark for a kid’s book, but when a monster is eating kids, that’s to be expected. But then things started to get rather gruesome, with talking heads, dismembered body parts, crying ghosts, and quite a lot of blood. Kid’s books can be dark (see The Golden Compass), but this felt like a little much.
The more I continued, the darker and more complicated everything became until I realized that no, this isn’t a kid’s book. It reads like one, and at times it certainly feels like one, but it isn’t. Instead, this is a dark, complicated novel with wonderful horror elements and deeply flawed characters. It’s a novel that managed to keep me on my toes, scare me once or twice, all while feeling like a Brian Jacques or C.S. Lewis tale.
It’s very rare that a book can make me feel like a kid yet treat me like an adult.
Strangely enough, it isn’t The Child Eater himself that sold me but Matyas. At first I didn’t like the wannabe-wizard all that much. He’s headstrong to a fault, has an anger problem, and in general, makes some very rash and poor decisions. I sympathized with his home life, but once he left, I expected him to start changing for the better. He never does.
It doesn’t help that his quest is a selfish one. He wants to learn how to fly for himself and for himself only. It has nothing to do with stopping The Child Eater or bettering mankind.
It’s hard to sell a reader on negative character growth, but The Child Eater managed to do so. There was a time when I told myself I didn’t care about Matyas at all, would be happy if he died, yet when he started to struggle, I found myself rooting for him. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t trying to better the world; he deserved to succeed because we all do.
While Matyas follows a very strange character arc, Simon’s is a bit more straightforward. He’s living in a world without magic, so when the visions appear, he isn’t sure how to handle them. His father, who is no stranger to bad dreams, tells Simon to ignore them. “They’re just dreams!” is Jack’s go-to answer, because his son needs to be normal. Simon is left on his own, too scared and ashamed to ask for help but also in desperate need of it. There is, after all, a monster after him.
Simon’s struggle through this kind of horror story is one we’ve seen before, though it’s executed well. No, what makes the real-world portion of The Child Eater interesting is Simon’s father. Jack Wisdom is a wonderfully complicated character, playing both parts of angry/overprotective parent and terrified/helpless father. Even when he’s making poor choices and acting like a fool, it’s still hard to really get angry with him because he always has his son’s best interests at heart.
With two stories and two main characters, The Child Eater sets itself up with and excels at parallels. Matyas and Simon are vastly different yet eerily similar too, and for those who enjoy literary analysis, there’s a lot to explore and unpack.
The Child Eater isn’t a flawless, novel, but honestly, the problems I have with it are quite minor. There’s a brief lull in the action somewhere around the late middle of the book, where both characters take some time to advance their abilities. It’s ultimately a required section, but it really slowed things down. Thankfully, it only lasts a few short chapters.
The second flaw is the magic system itself, which is mostly undefined and strangely pretentious. There are spellbooks about the color of songs on Jupiter, for example, and while that’s an interesting set of words to put together, it doesn’t make for compelling magic. Once again, it all eventually comes together in the end, but it made the, “learning magic” section a bit hard to get through.
At the end of the day, I picked up The Child Eater because I thought it would be a fun little novel to kick back and relax to. I enjoy kid’s books now and then (see The Golden Compass), and I expected a similar kind of whimsical tale. Rachel Pollack delivered, but she also gave me more than I had bargained for. As the characters age, so too does the novel, until it’s staring at tough decisions and the idea that redemption might not be possible for everyone.
This one’s a keeper.