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Isamu Fukui
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2008

Tor Books / Tom Doherty Associates
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-7653-1767-4
432 Pages; $16.95
Publication Date: 03-04-2008
Date Reviewed: 03-31-2008

Index: General Fiction  Science Fiction

Teenage novelist Isamu Fukui pulls no punches in his first novel, 'Truancy'. From the get-go everything is in your face and tough to ignore. We're plunged into the world of the City, where the Mayor is giving one Mr. Caine a dressing-down. An armed revolt against the schools that calls itself the Truancy has attacked again, and the Mayor is disinclined to accept any more excuses for Caine's failure to corral them. Students are to be numbered, branded and controlled. End-of-story — if it weren't just the beginning.

'Truancy' is a blunt-edged fable, a take on the US educational system so severe that "Orwellian" is just a decent way to begin your description. But there's a muscular glee in this bare-fisted free-for-all, an eye-poking delight that brushes past subtlety and wrestles it to the ground. Fukui takes a simple hero's journey and doesn't make the mistake of over-complicating matters. There is the City, the System and the students. Ready, s— GO!

As befits a fable, the plot is pretty simple. Tack is a fifteen year-old kid who is trying to stay out of trouble, but in Fukui's diabolically designed world, that's damn near impossible. The school he attends is run almost like a prison, with one educational goal in mind; blind, mindless obedience to the powers that run the school and the city. One afternoon, being pursued by bullies, Tack jumps over a barrier and escapes into District 19, the one deserted part of town. There he finds an incongruous scene: amidst the rubble-strewn streets, a lemonade stand, manned by a kid not much older than he, a kid who should by all rights be in school. The teenager calls himself Umasi and dispenses wisdom as well as lemonade. Meanwhile, Zyiud, the leader of the Truancy is plotting even greater violence and mayhem. It's only a matter of time before Tack finds himself called out to make a decision that will change his life and the lives of those round him.

Fukui's world is stark, drawn in simple lines but done elegantly enough to seem more like a fable than an errant schoolboy's rant. There are no science-fiction inventions here beyond the invention of the world itself, which is a boiled-down reduction of the worst our world has to offer. Though he never names the City, I was inclined to see something New Yorkish. Tack has a little sister named Suzie and parents who barely show up long enough to make the little indistinct trumpet sounds that we used to hear in the Peanuts cartoons. Everything is brutally circumscribed by a system that's designed to crush creativity and any impulse that might lead one to Question Authority. There's a sort of YA Kafka-esque feel to 'Truancy,' a touch of the absurd that keeps the built-in polemic nature of the work from becoming tiresome or overbearing.

Characters are built from big sturdy blocks that fit together well. Tack starts out as a harried nothing, the sort of kid that nobody notices. But as he's drawn into the world of Umasi and the Truancy, he grows in a manner both predictable and enjoyable. He learns to question and fight; he becomes a force to be reckoned with. His sister, Suzie, is charmingly but not cloyingly sweet. Umasi plays the Obi-Wan Kenobi role and is over-written just well enough to keep us liking him. The Mayor, Caine and a series of luckless lackeys are froth-mouthed monsters, but real enough to make readers cheer every time a new scheme is frustrated by the freedom fighters who call themselves The Truancy. And as for the Truancy, Zyid and his compadr├ęs are violent and ruthless enough to be just as disturbing as their autocratic opponents.

Fukui uses the same combination of simplicity and power in his plotting and his prose. 'Truancy' may go where you expect it to, but it does so with a lot more violence than you actually hope, and that's good. The body count is high enough to be disturbing, especially in a climate of school violence. The writing isn’t elegant, but it's smooth and sinewy when it needs to be. If you’re going to punch somebody out, elegance can be counterproductive.

'Truancy' is a novel that has a sort of retro feel to it. It's simple and straightforward, eschewing fantasy or the fantastic in every way other than the setup and the setting. In some ways, it's reminiscent of an episode of The Twilight Zone. Fukui manages to walk a pretty fine line; we have to believe in the reality of the world he describes, and we do; but the elements of fable and the absurd also have to be observed. It's certainly relevant on a number of levels. Fukui speaks to the rigidity of education as we know it by putting a fist to its face. But the unconscious elements of school violence, the surfacing of male power fantasies, and the sweetness underlying the relationship between brother and sister keep that first fist from battering the reader into a rebellion against the writer. Isamu Fukui is an articulate teenager and an adept writer whose first novel, 'Truancy', is entertaining. It's also educational, effectively using many of the same methods it depicts with such graphically violent glee. Fukui ignores every trend he may have been exposed to and shouts out what he wants to say. Readers on the receiving end of Fukui's rant might be quite surprised to find out just how enjoyable it is to have this smart teenager yelling at them.

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