Monday, January 17, 2011

"Secrets of the Sands"

Leona Wisoker's short stories have appeared in Futures: Fire to Fly Magazine,,, and more. She is a regular reviewer for Green Man Review and its spinoff, The Sleeping Hedgehog.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her novel Secrets of the Sands, and reported the following:
From Page 69 of Secrets of the Sands:
Servants placed delicately-arranged helpings of white beans and feathery greens, thin slices of roast pheasant and puff-bread, small globes of creamed rice balls, and long strips of steamed black mushrooms on the silver plates. Alyea applied herself to her food silently, keeping a pleasant expression on her face. After the long day of riding, she wanted thick food, not this fluffy stuff. Hopefully Chac could get her some dark bread and cheese from the kitchens later.

“Beautiful, aren't they?” a thin voice to her left said.

Alyea turned her head, relieved that she wouldn't have to sit silent all through dinner, and smiled at the woman sitting a bit more than arm's length away. “It's all lovely.”

“The mushrooms, I mean,” the woman said. She was short and well-fed, with greying brown hair framing a contentedly round face. “I've never seen them quite so large.”

Black mushrooms from the Horn were often the size of a dinner plate and, although a delicacy, weren't all that uncommon in Bright Bay. Alyea took a closer look at the woman, noted the northern roundness to her face, the simple cut of her dress, and the lack of jewelry, and tried not to wince.

“Everything's so much larger here,” the woman went on. “It's lovely. I imagine you grow your gardens all year round, here, don't you? I wish I could. You can keep basil going all year, I imagine—am I right?” Her smile was open and innocent as she waited for an answer.

Alyea stared, taken aback. Did this woman think nobles gardened? “I ... I wouldn't know.”

The woman seemed to take in Alyea's dress for the first time.

“Oh, dear,” she said, her round face flushing. She glanced around the room, seeming uncertain and flustered. “I'm sorry. Have I sat at the wrong table?”

“No,” Alyea said after a moment, ashamed of her initial, snobbish reaction. Everyone could be important, Chac had warned her; Alyea decided, a bit impishly, that those words should apply to an ignorant northern as well as anyone else in the room. Let him rebuke her for overfriendliness; she'd throw his own words back in his face.
This page 69 passage does hit something of a pivotal, revealing moment. It comes during a transitional journey from Alyea's comfortable existence as a pampered young noblewoman to the harsher, more dangerous conditions of the southern deserts. She's already emotionally staggering from the cultural changes she's encountering in the Horn, just a short distance from her home city of Bright Bay. This scene shows her regaining her balance and starting to retake control of events.

What's even more interesting to me, looking at this scene, is how it intersects all three major cultural zones at once: the southern desert, the coastal southlands, and the northlands. The coastal southlands, where Bright Bay is located, is geographically the center zone, blocked in by an ominous, nearly impassable wild forest (the Hackerwood) to the north and an equally dangerous strip of mountain-heavy peninsula (the Horn) to the south. But each cultural zone sees themselves as the center of the world and the others as side groups, and Alyea, in the beginning, is no different. She sees the woman (Halla) as a northern commoner, a social inferior she would not normally even speak to. But in the middle of the Horn, Alyea's own status is drastically altered; her rank means almost nothing, and the northern woman beside her is essentially a social equal.

Halla herself, being from north of the Hackerwood and without an advisor of her own, has no idea that southern desert custom dictates that a social superior must begin a conversation with an inferior, never the other way around. She breaks the ice with no idea what she's doing, and Alyea has no idea of how to correct her without causing them both horrible embarrassment. Alyea gives up and treats Halla as an equal for the moment.

Adjusting her behavior so rapidly is a promising sign that Alyea will survive the upheaval of everything she grew up "knowing to be true". Three different cultures are put into brief but revealing conflict. Additionally, this overturning of insular notions of status and propriety in the face of real-world, multi-cultural practicalities is a theme, albeit a minor one, that does run throughout Secrets of the Sands.
Read an excerpt from Secrets of the Sands, and learn more about the book and author at Leona Wisoker's website and blog.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue