Title: The Inferior
Author: Peadar O’Guilin
Genre: Science Fiction-Fantasy, Dystopian, Young Adult
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Publication Date: June 2008
Hardcover: 448 pages
Stand alone or series: The first novel in a planned trilogy.
Why did I read this book: After Trin & Thrinidir mentioned this novel in their Smugglivus Post, and after reading some reviews online for this debut effort, I was intrigued. So, when I saw this pretty hardcover staring at me in my local bookstore’s display table, I snatched it up!
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
Stopmouth and his family know of no other life than the daily battle to survive. To live, they must hunt rival species, or negotiate flesh-trade with those who crave meat of the freshest human kind. It is a savage, desperate existence. And for Stopmouth, considered slowwitted hunt-fodder by his tribe, the future looks especially bleak. But then, on the day he is callously betrayed by his brother, a strange and beautiful woman falls from the sky. It is a moment that will change his destiny, and that of all humanity, forever…Peadar Ó Guilín’s debut is an action—and idea-packed—blockbuster that will challenge your perceptions of humanity and leave you hungry for more.*
*Note: Synopsis has been edited to remove what I conisder a pretty big spoiler. Stay away from the Amazon synopsis if you want to buy this online and remain unspoiled!
“In that people the most natural and honest virtues and abilities are alive and vigorous; those same virtues that we have warped and adapted to our own twisted tastes.” –Michel de Montaigne: On Cannibals
“And they said: ‘Father, it would hurt less if you would eat us: you dressed us in this miserable flesh, take it off.'” –Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto xxxiii, 60
There is but one law in Stopmouth’s world: eat, or be eaten. Stopmouth is a young human man, hunting with his charismatic brother Wallbreaker when they are cornered by a deadly group of Armourbacks. Stopmouth heeds the survival rule he has been taught since birth and flees from the scene, but Wallbreaker is trapped. Unable to leave his brother behind, Stopmouth returns to help fight the Armourbacks even though he knows it means his own death. Wallbreaker runs off with the distraction Stopmouth creates, but leaves Stopmouth at the mercy of the Armourbacks. Miraculously, Stopmouth manages to escape with his life when one of the mysterious globes (which are always present on the overarching ‘Roof’–the sky) falls, crashing into the building face and allowing Stopmouth to kill and escape from his stunned attackers. When he returns to the Tribe (the Manways), however, he finds that Wallbreaker has grievously betrayed him–as Stopmouth had run back to save his brother, Wallbreaker simply left, told everyone Stopmouth was dead and that Wallbreaker had fended off the attacking Armourbacks. And because Wallbreaker is a charming, handsome young man and a great fighter, everyone easily believes him. Stopmouth returns to an overjoyed mother and a shaken (but relieved) Wallbreaker–and loyal brother that Stopmouth is, he doesn’t say a word against Wallbreaker. The wedge between the two brothers grows as Wallbreaker uses his bride price to marry Mossheart, whom Stopmouth has always cared for.
Then, one fateful day, another globe falls from the sky and an impossible, beautiful woman named Indrani finds herself in the midst of the Tribe…and everything that Stopmouth and his kind know and hold as true will change.
Stopmouth and his kind are one of the few species that live under the Roof. Humans have a treaty with the Hairbeast species, in which they trade human “volunteers” for food. Volunteers, in fact, are constantly required by the Tribe–there simply is not enough food to go around. The elderly, the widowed, and the injured are called upon to volunteer themselves for the good of the Tribe and honor their families and ancestors. Thus, there is a constant, pressing need for men to hunt the other species under the Roof, and to bring back more meat for their kin. Nothing is wasted in the Tribe–as said above, the rule is simple. Eat, or be eaten.
When Indrani falls from the sky and into the hands of the Tribe, the first instinct of the people is to volunteer her–she babbles in an incomprehensible language, and though beautiful there is no room for an unproductive extra mouth to feed. At the same time that Indrani enters the lives of the Tribe, Stopmouth is brutally injured on a hunt, his leg broken. The Tribe also calls for him to volunteer himself as they fear he will never be able to walk again. Indrani, however, forms a strange attachment to Stopmouth and sets his broken leg in splints, something the Tribe has never seen before. Under the protection of Wallbreaker–who takes the unwilling Indrani as his second wife–Stopmouth lives and heals, and he begins to try to communicate with the strange woman from the sky. She knows strange things that the Tribe could never have comprehended, and the ambitious Wallbreaker will stop at nothing to get his hands on the strange new technology Indrani introduces to the humans.
The Inferior is a thrilling novel and an impressive debut from Peadar O’Guilin. Frankly, I’m shocked that this is classified as a ‘Young Adult’ novel, as it deals with some hefty, unpleasant issues such as cannibalism, rape, and bloody betrayal. Though the issue of food is central to the plot, The Inferior isn’t necessarily just a tale about cannibalism–at its heart, this is a book about living versus surviving, and what lengths people will go to in order to ensure their survival. I loved that there was no value judgment or moral label placed on the cannibalism here–while the system to our own “modern” eyes might seem barbaric, ‘volunteering’ is done in the spirit of love and duty. A mother will volunteer herself so that her injured son may live; an elder will sacrifice his flesh so that another will not have to take his place. Even later in the story when the Tribe’s practices of eating the flesh of any creature they can kill is seen through a different perspective, what fascinated me was that the act of cannibalism still was seen as a secondary blasphemy to the bigger crime of eating the flesh of any intelligent, sentient animal–regardless of species. It’s an intriguing dynamic, and one I think Mr. O’Guilin explored brilliantly.
The Inferior is also a wonderfully written novel so far as characters and plotting are concerned. Stopmouth is an ideal protagonist. Named for his stutter, most everyone in the Tribe thinks Stopmouth is an idiot. Because he can hunt well and is one of the fastest men, however, and because of Wallbreaker’s important status in the Tribe, Stopmouth is tolerated and saved from volunteering. As the main character, Stopmouth is not without his own doubts and insecurities; in addition to his own reservations about his self worth because of his speech impediment, Stopmouth’s growing disillusionment with his beloved, idolized brother is a hard thing to come to grips with. Just as The Inferior is a story about survival, the title also holds incredible two-fold significance for Stopmouth: he is the inferior to his older, handsome brother; and also the inferior to Indrani, as a ‘savage’. In spite of all these obstacles and doubts in Stopmouth’s path, however, he meets each challenge head-on, with enough bravery, pathos, and victory to win over even the most jaded readers. If it ain’t clear, let me put it simply: I heart Stopmouth.
The other characters in this novel are similarly beautifully portrayed in terms of their motivations, and are fully fleshed out (lame pun, ha ha). Wallbreaker’s initial cowardice and treatment towards his brother isn’t so much because he is just a jerk, but rather because he buys into his own hype. He perceives of himself as the infallible Wallbreaker–future leader of the Tribe, and entitled to most everything. He loves Stopmouth too, and it’s a painful thing to see how the one small event from the beginning of this novel triggers Wallbreaker’s increasing paranoia and distrust of all those around him. I loved that there is no “good” or “evil” in this book–there are just humans and creatures with their instincts to survive.
The other main character in this novel is Indrani, the beautiful woman from the sky. She also is wonderfully written as a character. Indrani is driven and fierce, and we see her change from brutally unyielding in her beliefs to becoming what she needs to become in order to live under the Roof. Her relationship with Stopmouth and Wallbreaker is absolutely tantalizing–I loved the dynamic between Indarni, with her tough exterior, and Stopmouth, with his charming naivete. The romantic elements of this novel are carried out simply and without needless embellishment–and I dig that.
So far as the plotting for this novel goes, Mr. O’Guilin also does a fantastic job. This is one of those ‘aw-crap-I’m-gonna-be-reading-until-the-sun-comes-up’ type of books. I had a hard time separating the glossy cover from my greedy hands. The pacing is brutal–so much happens in these 500-some pages, and danger lurks around every corner. The Inferior is even more than the simple fantasy/adventure survival story I have presented it to seem here in this review–to avoid spoiling anyone, I won’t go into those other elements. Suffice to say, there is a whole lot more going on. (Hint, take a look at the Genre tags for this novel.) O’Guilin’s worldbuilding is fantastic–I loved the Tarzan-like vernacular he employs for not only character names (i.e. Stopmouth, Rockface) but for locations (the Manways, the Roof) and for other creatures (Armourbacks, Hairbeasts, the terrifying Longtongues). The book is written in the third person limited perspective, with insights to Stopmouth’s thoughts and feelings, and the book’s prose follows accordingly.
If I had to cite one gripe with the novel, it would be with the lack of descriptions, and with the number of questions I was left with after finishing the last page. While I do think that Mr. O’Guilin does a fantastic job writing his characters, the action-packed plot, and accomplishing some fascinating world-building, I felt like nothing was described enough for me to get a vivid picture of the novel. We hear about the Armourbacks and The Roof and the strange, crumbling buildings that make up this world, but I constantly felt like I wanted more. More detail, more description beyond the preliminary pencil sketches. This didn’t really detract from the story in any way; it’s merely my preference. The other point that bothered me was the lack of closure in this novel. By the end of the book we learn a teasing bit more about why the world under the Roof is the way it is…but a whole new can of worms is opened up. When I finished reading The Inferior, I did not know it was part of a planned trilogy–so I was more than a little miffed with the quick, short answers. Luckily, there’s more for Stopmouth and Indrani on the horizon, and I eagerly await the release of book 2.
Notable Quotes/Parts: There’s an excerpt of the first few pages online at amazon HERE. Give it a read!
Additional Thoughts: Cannibalism repels and fascinates us, and this theme certainly was a selling point for me when I read the blurb of The Inferior. Here are a few other cool books, movies, shows that you might be interested in that deal with survival and cannibalism…
There are two types of cannibals on this list–those that resort to cannibalism in order to survive, and those that resort to cannibalism because they just like it. In the former, there’s the classic book and film Alive (following the soccer team survivors of a plane crash in the Andes) and the classic SF/Horror film Soylent Green (where cannibalism is a response to overpopulation). There’s also the novel In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick which is a superb read about the ill-fated 19th century whaling ship the Essex, which served as inspiration for Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick. HIGHLY recommended.
And, in the ‘cannibals because we want to be cannibals’ category, there’s of course Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books and films–Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. There’s the fabulous, gory and gritty The Hills Have Eyes remake by Alexandre Aja, where cannibalistic nuclear fallout survivors terrorize tourists in the New Mexico desert. And, of course, there’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in book, play or movie form.
Finally, (you didn’t think I’d forget, did you?) there’s “Our Town” episode 2×24 from my beloved The X-Files. Mmm, mmm, Chaco Chicken.
Verdict: I was very much impressed by Peadar O’Guilin’s solid debut novel. The characters are fantastic, the world building and plotting superb. I literally could not put the book down until I had devoured it whole…and I’m excited for the second course.
(You love my puns. You love them!)
Rating: 8 Excellent
Reading Next: THE (counter)DARE! The Briar King by Greg Keyes — make sure to stop by Graeme’s blog tomorrow to cheer on Ana and I!