by Megan Spooner
Reviewed by Michael Potts
Teenagers have enough problems searching for their identity, but imagine a sixteen-year-old girl trying to find her identity in a post-apocalyptic world in which people she trusts continually betray her. This is the fate of Lark Ainsley, the main character in Meagan Spooner’s fine teen fantasy novel, Skylark, whose struggles are described in intimate detail from the first person point of view.
Lark Ainsley lives in a domed city, “The Last City on Earth.” It has an artificial sun and presents the appearance of eternal reality. There is an interesting parallel throughout the book between Lark’s own feeling of separation from reality and the separation from reality of what she originally called home. In a sense, she has always been homeless without realizing it. Her oldest brother, Basil, disappeared years ago while searching looking for power equipment in the war-ruined world outside the city. Lark kept a paper lark he had made for her as a memento. The lark has floated, and Basil tells her, “You weren’t meant to live in a cage, ‘little bird.’” She does not fit in her city in which people follow their assigned place like clockwork. The Last City on Earth is a Newtonian, mechanistic state, and machine imagery is used throughout the book.
Lark’s other brother, Caesar, is a Regulator, a law officer who arrests those who fail to follow city laws. Pixies, small robots that flay and have sensors are used to detect law violators. City leaders label punishment, in good Orwellian fashion, as “adjustment.” Lark’s father opposed the Regulatory Board and was adjusted, returning home as a machine-like, emotionless being.
Energy left over after the wars, or the Resource, is called magic, although some of that magic is electricity and other familiar forms of energy. The city “harvests” children when they are old enough, using certain ones, the Renewables, as energy sources for the city. As the story opens, Lark is disappointed that she has not been chosen for Harvest Day—she believes the propaganda that when children who are chosen are “harvested” they then move on to adulthood. Lark sneaks into the school to see if her name is on the list of children to be “harvested”—she is not—but later she violates a rule and is brought to the Institute of Magic and Natural Philosophy to be harvested. She is pleased at first; however, when she arrives at the Institute, a woman with glass filaments in her skin that reached into machinery carrying the Resource away warns Lark and tells her to run. Lark cannot escape, and ends up staying at the Department of Harvest and Reclamation. Here staff attaches her to a machine which Lark believes is harvesting her energy. Gloriette, a ruthless psychopathic administrator, runs the harvesting program and is one of the creepiest characters in the book. She has a purring voice and addresses Lark using bird names such as “Gosling”.
Lark seems to regenerate her power like a Renewable even though Renewables are supposedly extinct. Lark starts to feel empty, a feeling with which she struggles throughout the story. The fact that that city officials lied to her about the true meaning of Harvest Day has turned her world upside down, and she escapes the Institute (despite being betrayed by her brother, Caesar) and the city. She has a vision of being unified with the woman attached to the Institute—when their minds join the woman tells Lark to listen for a bird call that will help lead her to the Iron Wood. Lark hopes to find a renewable like her and to find her brother Basil. The world outside the city is unfamiliar, with the empty expanse of the sky adding to her feelings of emptiness, loneliness, and fear. Spooner vividly portrays a girl from a (literally) sheltered environment encountering the wide world and reacting to the night sky, her first encounter with wind, and her first encounter with flowers and with bees. A pixie comes after her, but she slaps it down and crushes it It repairs itself, but Lark is in control now, and the pixie develops an individual personality and consciousness as it travels with Lark, who gives the pixie a name: Nix. Another companion through part of Lark’s journey is a feral boy, Oren, who imitates bird calls—Lark knows then that he will lead her to the Iron Woods. Lark’s relationship with Oren is stormy, but he guides her in a dangerous journey, avoiding hostile animals and feral, cannibalistic humans who have evolved into monsters.
Once Lark reaches the Iron Woods, her world—and the reader’s world—is turned upside down. Lark meets a girl named Tansy, who leads Lark to a place that will change her entire view of the world and of the people in it. Lark grows, not only in knowledge, but in maturity and in her self-identity. Multiple betrayals from those she trusts and deliverance by those she does not trust help her to become a better judge of individuals and better able to survive in a tight spot. After an ultimate betrayal by someone she had trusted, Lark must decide whether to stay to defend the people she loves or to flee. Her new knowledge and the betrayals she has suffered has shattered what self-confidence she had. Although she feels inadequate, she must choose. She makes a decision which will affect those she loves, her view of her own abilities, and her decision regarding the future course of her life. Lark will either discover her identity or be lost in emptiness. The climax reveals the results, but the denouement is open-ended enough to leave room for a sequel. Readers should hope for a future volume so they can continue to explore Lark and her world.
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