Friday, December 26, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #360: The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis

When a work of art depicts a particularly strange world, there's a natural impulse to focus on that world and its strangeness -- it's what rich and unique and special about that work, and an easy way in.

So most reviews of Rob Davis's graphic novel The Motherless Oven have focused on the very odd world he's constructed: an alternate British youth society where kids build their parents (various contraptions, useful or not), where it rains knives, where everyone knows their deathday, and where small gods embodied in mechanical objects are part of everyday life. But Motherless Oven is just set in that world; it's at its core a fatalistic story about growing up and pushing limits, about finding out the truth and trying to escape your fate. The strangeness of the world allows those more important aspects to work -- the audience doesn't know where the limits are, what growing up means in this world, what the truth could possibly be, and whether fate can be escaped.

Motherless Oven opens on a rainy Wednesday afternoon; Scarper Lee is home, basically alone -- his mum is hiding from the rain in the cupboard under the stairs and he had to chain his father in the shed to prevent the old man (read: wind-powered brass assemblage with huge golden sails) roaming. Scarper doesn't much like people, so this is fine: as much as he likes anything, he likes hearing the clatter of the knives hitting the houses and ground. But there's a knock at the door: his new classmate Vera Pike is there.

It's never quite clear exactly why Vera takes such an interest in Scarper: he's gloomy and quiet and grumpy, and never good company. Perhaps it's the challenge she's after, or more likely she's wanted a big adventure for a while, and Scarper gives her the best opportunity. Because Scarper's deathday is only three weeks away: he'll die on another Wednesday, very soon.

Scarper doesn't like Vera, because she's confidently different and pushy and asks questions nobody can answer and calls attention to herself (and incidentally to him). But she won't leave him alone, and soon she's gathered another sad case: Castro Smith, who has Medicated Inference Syndrome and whose perceptions of the world are controlled by a dial on his chest.

Vera leads the two boys on an escape from school to find the legendary Motherless Oven, the place where children supposedly are born and craft their parents. (No one ever remembers making their parents, though everyone is completely sure that they did so.) They mostly travel through British suburbia: row houses, high streets, a few open plots of ground. And behind them are the police: hard-faced old couples in slow clockwork carriages, as relentless as old-school zombies and nearly as deadly.

Scarper and Vera and Castro travel far and see many things, but I can't tell you if Scarper escapes his deathday or if the Motherless Oven is what they were expecting. This is a brilliantly imaginative story with a unique world, filled with details both of worldbuilding and character and with a powerful ending. You need to read it for yourself.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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