When Peter’s mother asks him, ‘Do you feel like learning something about science?’ readers know they’d better take notice. This time, it’s a swift tutorial on mitochondrial DNA. They’ll need to be up on Global Warming too, since the plot won’t make sense to them, or to Peter, unless they’ve got some grasp of such matters.
First Light was ex-lawyer Rebecca Stead’s debut novel for young readers, published in the States in 2007. Her second, When You Reach Me, won the Newbery in 2010, and her third, Liar and Spy, collected the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize in 2013. The latter two were published by Andersen in the UK and the publishers have now reached back for her first book. Readers will be glad they have, since it is an ambitious and intriguing novel.
First Light evidently had a protracted birth, midwived by a committed editor-publisher, Wendy Lamb. The first draft was confusing, so Lamb suggested a ‘critique group’ should work through the draft with the author. After that 3-year process, more editorial collaboration was needed. The final text might sometimes hint at such difficulties, the complex plot begging one or two questions which remain unanswered. Even so, this is a very absorbing read.
There are parallel plots. Early teenager Peter lives in New York City with his dad and mom, both top scientists. The family has some undiagnosed, even mysterious issues. Mom suffers prolonged headaches; Peter gets headaches too, sometimes linked to times when he has phenomenal – but painful – moments of visual acuity. Dad is a glaciologist, regularly visiting Greenland to undertake fieldwork and before long, the whole family, plus Jonas, an amiable research assistant of Inuit descent, are off to spend six weeks on the ice. They make camp in an isolated area, and set to work. Except, somehow, Mom and Dad seem to have a private agenda which they aren’t sharing with Peter and Jonas.
Meanwhile, we have also been following the life of Thea in Gracehope, a secret settlement beneath the Arctic ice, established centuries ago by settlers fleeing from witch-hunters in England. In some ways, Gracehope is an advanced community technologically – some of the race have amazing intellects and others almost mystical powers. It is also, in practice, a matriarchy, ruled by Thea’s embittered grandmother, selfishly determined to keep things as they are, prohibiting any contact with the upper world. Resources are limited – food is strictly rationed, for example. Each person is paired for life with a Chikchu, a breed of superdog with developed powers of sensitivity; each dog’s empathic bond with its human is akin to that of Philip Pullman’s daemons. Thea is only ‘ten and four’, but old enough to see that the settlement must expand to survive, and the only way to reach new territory is via the upper world. Her own mother died – in uncertain circumstances – in pursuit of the same goal. What no one in Gracehope yet realises is that in a not-too-distant future, global warming will inevitably force them above ground as the ice shifts.
That’s a rough outline of how things stand as the action gathers pace – ‘rough’ because the attraction and credibility of Stead’s underworld lies in its detail. The plot is a slow burner, though it’s clear the two worlds will intersect and hidden connections will be revealed. Once the fuse is well aflame, the pace becomes unrelenting. It is then that many young readers will be caught up in that ‘must-know’ mode of headlong reading – a mode which adults may be fortunate enough to switch into too.