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pac-man-ghosts

The Pentrals by Crystal Mack

I received my copy from NetGalley.

The Pentrals starts credibly enough, with a strange first person narration of a girl watching another girl. The vantage is odd and disorienting, and it’s only when you realize that the narrator is the girl’s shadow that the angles lock, and you can finally orient yourself in both space and understanding. The narrator, Antares, is the shadow of Violet, a denizen of the futuristic city of Talline, which gleams from a thousand mirrored surfaces in a canyon in the desert. The Pentrals of the title refers to beings of shadows or reflections, which in the supernatural architecture of the novel, are sentient beings enacting penance for something done in another life.

As a set up, this is neat stuff: the brightness of the future city juxtaposed against the Gothic shadow, the doppelganger reading and commenting on the bright lived life through its negative image. Unfortunately, this tense imagery is squandered, and quickly. Not only does The Pentrals deny the reader much in the way of resolution, but the basic mechanics of both the supernatural world of the Pentrals and the society of Talline are so confused (or, often, downright stupid) that any resolution is close to meaningless. Altogether, this was one of the more frustrating novels I’ve read in a while.

[From here on out, what I talk about might be considered spoilers, though much of it occurs in the first half of the book. I’ll note more clearly when I’m talking about end-of-the-book situations. The marketing materials are so vague, though, that really anything beyond the basic concept might be considered spoilers.]

I would first like to grouse about the taxonomy of the Pentrals. Antares tells us pretty early on that Pentrals are split into four classes. Class one is for immobile objects, like buildings, and we are informed this stationary changelessness drives the class one Pentral insane. Class two is for living things, like people (and presumably animals, but this isn’t made explicit). Antares, as a class two, considers herself an artist, watching closely and mirroring her Person with pride and experience. Class three is *cough cough* and class fours are in charge of the whole business somehow. This is all well and good, and I’m willing to ignore questions like, “How does Antares know this if she had her memory wiped when becoming a shadow?” or even deeper issues like, “Why is Antares so surprised when she’s told her existence is a kind of afterlife late in the book, when she told us the very same thing at the very beginning?”

My real issue is this: what kind of moral system requires the cruel, unending servitude of sentient creatures to literally stand in for natural processes in numbers that are both fixed and arbitrary? Class one is a punishment. Does that mean the number of people to be punished are always pegged to the number of indivisible things in the world? If I tear a sheet of paper in half, does a soul previously unpunished pop into servitude? That’s a shitty moral system, and I thought the unconditional election of Calvinism was bad. Moreover, is a teapot with a lid one shadow or two? A drop of the ocean divisible from the ocean? What about the shadows of rain? (Zen has some things to say about this.) In addition to being morally dodgy, this system is physically unworkable, calling up questions of the very ontology of thing-ness.

There’s also what I would like to call the Thomas the Tank Engine Effect. (I have just now coined this term for all of literary criticism. You’re welcome.) In addition to having a whole mess of Anglican guilt tripping over productivity, the Thomas the Train stories always drove me crazy because of the concept of sentient trains who also often appeared to have drivers. The class four Pentrals sidestep much of the guilt tripping by having Antares not even know what she is performing penance for – which, why would this be effective, morally speaking? whatever – but the problem of sentient trains with drivers continues.

Antares is lonely and in some ways miserable at the start of the novel, her actions completely determined by another being. Even though she has agency – she can pop out at night and party with the neighbors – she’s not allowed to use it due to inexplicable reasons. Her lifeless life is nothing compared to the inhuman misery of shadowing a building or a coma patient. So, why is it again that the class ones do not rebel and squirt off into the void like a set of troublesome trucks? Sure, we are told by our somewhat unreliable narrator that there would be consequences, but I gotta say, oblivion sounds better than the unending torture of being a class one. Leaving natural processes in the hands of tortured creatures who do not know the meaning of their torture seems a sad way to run a physical universe, to put it mildly.

Either shadows are the voids in the transmissions of the particle/wave of light or they are not. General relativity and Einstein’s light theory are referenced in the text, so scientific rationalism is a thing, as they say. So what we have here is a sentient train run on tracks with a driver, who is somehow still responsible for both the tracks and the decisions of the driver. And all this in a system where the class fours seem even more ineffective and bureaucratic than Sir Topham Hatt, which is saying something. He at least knew how to shame with consummate Englishness. The class fours are just inscrutable assholes.

But, okay, let’s just say that I’m overthinking this, as usual, and set this pseudo-philosophical wingeing off on a shelf. Very rapidly, it becomes apparent that Talline, in addition to having sentient shadows, is also a classic dystopia. While everything gleams and there doesn’t appear to be strife, the citizenry of Talline are unhappy and demoralized. Violet’s mother doesn’t appear from her room for days, and the teachers at the high school are similarly wan and drear. Everyone scarfs down Lifts! - the exclamation point is standard – a mood-altering drug which affects even the shadow of the person taking it. (When the shadow Antares manages to shake off the effects of the drug through willpower, I was deeply frustrated. So here’s a drug that can affect even the sentient shadow of a person – nevermind how – and then that drug can be overcome through thinking? Whatever.)

Children appear to be immune to whatever dystopic machinations, and even our deeply blythe and irrational main character can sort out the depression begins affecting people on their seventeenth birthdays. An assorted number of people also appear to be immune, which marks them in Scooby Doo style as either The Bad Guy or Stool Pigeons. The relationship between the dystopia and the Pentrals is both annoyingly vague and drearily obvious, and then ultimately pushed off to the next book like so much else. This is some tissue thin plotting, friends, and it still cannot be contained in one novel.

I’m not going to get into the exact mechanism for the dystopia, even though it seems blindingly obvious to anyone with even an ounce of sense – cough evil pharmaceutical company cough –  but that mechanism is so ridiculously contrived, superficial and fragile that its laughable. The rule for dystopia has to be that on some level it’s believable, even if that belief is based on irrational societal fear more than, like, strict plausibility. This one could be picked apart by dozens of things – photography, human curiousness, dark sunglasses, a visit to the doctor, not being a superficial git, a well-placed blanket, to name a few – and is based on such a low level and superficial human fear, that I don’t even know what to say.

Which brings me to another thing, namely, where (or possibly when) in the hell are we? I couldn’t tell you with any force of conviction whether Talline is even on planet Earth, or instead some kind of dystopia planet. It was well late in the book where I even figured out that Talline refers not to the country (or possibly planet, who knows?) but to a single city that can be gotten to by people outside the city, even if it is somewhat onerous, maybe. What do these people do for a living? How even do the evil overlords enforce whatever magical/physical parameters of the dystopia? Why is everyone so damn dumb?

And then there’s a love triangle. Don’t even get me started.

I don’t know, guys. I’m willing to give a lot of latitude to young adult dystopias slash paranormals, because metaphor is often more important than mechanics when dealing with the metamorphosis of adolescence.The Pentrals managed to botch both of those genres, piling up dubious imagery on top of a shaky scaffold and watching queasily while the whole thing shakes. Neither Antares nor Violet are interesting characters, and the few characters with flashes of liveliness – Sam, the evil queen – have just moments of screen time. For a narrative that seems to warn about the dangers of superficiality, The Pentrals managed not even to scratch the surface.

In your shitty, obvious metaphor department.

Boom.