Connemara debutante novelist Alan Stephenson went straight for the teen fiction jugular on his debut and drew blood. This is my messed-up way of saying Gabby is a nifty stocking filler for those complicated folk we call teenagers this Christmas. The Sunday Independent were good enough to let me explain why.
WHO’D be a teenager these days, what with having to contend every day with raging bodily chemicals, awkward dispositions and peer pressure.
Spare a thought, then, for Gabby, the protagonist of this fleet-footed fantasy debut by Connemara-based author Alan Stephenson. If all these things were not enough, our young heroine has the added complication of transforming into a titanium-winged harpy when her humour is tested. And teenage humours are easily tested, you may have noticed.
Of Traveller stock, Gabby’s family is massacred one night in the West by a foreign hit squad intent on snuffing her out on the eve of her sixteenth birthday. The reason for this, one that slowly dawns on her in the aftermath of the attack, is the threat she poses to a clandestine crime cult based in the north of Spain who know that, as the daughter of the seventh son of a seventh son, burgeoning puberty will equip her with terrible powers.
She goes on the run, aiming for refuge on an island off the coast near the fishing village of Cleggan. Chapterless, bite size scenes carry us along as she discovers that when her adrenaline rises, Gabby grows talons and huge metallic wings while undergoing a sense of heightened sensory awareness. These very much come in handy as she is hunted across Connemara by specialist assassins, Romany gang leaders and those trying to help her.
Stephenson takes a careful aim at the teen-fiction market and hits a bullseye. It’s not rocket science, he shows us. He makes an entertaining emulsion of rhythm, danger, character empathy and the usual teenage dilemmas of getting to grips with hormones and emergent adulthood. The animals she befriends offer her what the humans around fall down on – loyalty and trust. That said, by the time of the brisk finale, she has a band of relatives and colourful local well-wishers around her that react to her plight with either familial defensiveness, desire or the awe and devotion of witnesses to a miracle.
If one could fault Gabby it would perhaps be in the magnitude of her powers which by the end of the book are so fearsome that you are in little doubt that she will come out the right side of any altercation with dart-slinging witches or crack snipers. It is important, therefore, that her deadliness is countered and subdued by all the trappings of her age and Stephenson makes sure that these are part of her saga (like when she is completely disarmed by flutters after crossing paths with dashing fisherman Crabapple Jones.
Stephenson doesn’t clutter the language with lexical flora. The modern and the mystical get fused in the dialogue, between jocular rural Irish and the dour, biblical speak of her tormentors who are packaged in the same darkly zealous robing as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code ghoul, Silas.
It’s an age-old template in a novel – a seemingly ordinary young person who develops amazing abilities. It resounds with young readers for whom nothing would be more wonderful than appearing ordinary on the surface in the school hallway but harbouring something inside that trumps their peers. Tolkien and JK Rowling built empires out of the blueprint. Even Cloud Atlas supremo David Mitchell has tried something similar (if more brain-scrambling) in his recent The Bone Clocks. If Stephenson can build on this debut and bring further riches to what he intends to be a trilogy, who knows where this could lead.
First published in the Sunday Independent