Kuan’s Wonderland by Henry Tam
Review by Floresiensis
Review by Trish Burns
Kuan has spent his young life living quietly with his father by the sea. They live in hiding, father types up his life’s work while teaching his son at home. Kuan picks up his father’s anxiety about hidden enemies, and the fear of being found.
One night Kuan is drawn to the sea by a strange sound – a type of splash he cannot identify. Going too far out into the water he is swept away, finding himself captured by a submarine of the alien Shiyanese in whose waters he has apparently been found. Meeting a trio of colourful characters who will play very different roles in his adventures, he is at first treated as a potential spy for the hated enemy, the Potokan, and put to work as a slave labourer, performing the vilest tasks for the highest caste of Shiyanese. One of his new masters is convinced that he has been sent to them for a reason, but for Kuan the situation holds only despair.
But Kuan finds a friend, one of a different type of species entirely. This friendship enables him to take more initiative through the adventures and dangers which follow. Both friends are confused about the unfamiliar world they are in, confused about Kuan’s mission there and about how to find his father, confused about whether Kuan should accept the invitation to work his way up through the strict hierarchy of social ranks or not. When politics and science combine to cause a nightmare scenario, Kuan learns how the rampant and the ruthless can never have enough.
The story is original and very engaging. The fast-moving adventure in a new world, which sparkles with visually captivating creatures and imaginative technology, has already begun by the first line. He faces many challenges of which the main one is to hold onto his independent view and his compassion for those affected by the actions of others. The search for his father, his mainstay throughout the story, ends in a way which is credible yet astonishing. The book does not pull its punches about the way in which people (and aliens) treat each other. In engaging with real-world troubles which don’t have tidy solutions, it offers more than than we normally expect from the fantasy genre.
This novel is by Henry Tam, better known for his work in the area of inclusive democracy. Set mainly but not entirely in an alien society, it will appeal to teenagers and young (or not-so-young) adults. The structures of society and their consequences play out in the action, but they aren’t intrusive, and the well-sketched and believable characters and the lively pace keep the momentum going.
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