by Su J. Sokol
Deux Voiliers Publishing
Reviewed by Frank Côté
I spent the last few days in chaos, during which time I read Cycling to Asylum for the purposes of this review. It was time well spent.
Here is the short of it. Su J. Sokol's eloquent prose takes us through a fascinating near-future landscape that is uncomfortably familiar. The distinctive, vivid voices of her characters make Cycling to Asylum a joy to read.
The world is stark and at times brutal but in other places so wonderful and alive. The plot took me to places I didn't expect to go, but each time, I enjoyed the ride.
They say that characters make the story, that the plot is just a skeleton that you hang the characters on. Cycling to Asylum is an excellent example of this. The world Su Sokol presents at times threatened to push me away with the brutality of future New York but the characters always drew me in. Their humanity held me in a warm embrace and kept me reading. It wasn't that the story wasn't good, but the little moments of humanity, of unity just kept me reading. Those moments were warm beacons of hope and asylum in a story that needed a lot of both. Laek, Janie, Siri and Simon make a family that is a joy to get to know. Su Sokol shows them off brilliantly. I simply loved it.
I would like to linger now, with more detail, on some of the elements of Cycling to Asylum.
Cycling to Asylum isn't perfect but there isn't much to complain about and so much to enjoy.
Cycling to Asylum's two main settings consist of future New York and future Montreal, with a little idyllic nature in between.
The severe environment of New York (and one assumes the rest of the United States) is familiar to anyone who reads the news in this post 9/11 world and fears where it all might lead. It's all the more scary by its familiarity. It's the perfect setting for the characters to define themselves. Su Sokol does a masterful job of introducing and describing this world without going too far in extraneous prose. I enjoyed the care in which Su takes to give humanity to this setting. It's not the plot elements (a demonstration leading to a clash with police) that make it real but the places, people and small moments. I loved the moments Laek and his family spent in the park. Su reminds us that even if things get bad (brutal law enforcement, gulag-like school systems, privatized assisted living) there's always something good, be it a nice park, music or just a 'capture-the-light' game for the kids.
In contrast, the future Montreal is almost a utopia. In fact it's described as such by Laek during his appearance before the Immigration and Review Board. Montreal is my home, and as much as I love it, Su gave it a lot more love in her words than I could and I enjoyed every moment the story spent there. The streets, the harsh winter, the neighborhoods, it was all there and lovingly described. It soothed me after the time spent in New York.
I can't say much about the plot. From the start, we know what will be happening in broad strokes. Laek and his family will travel north to Montreal in their bid for freedom. Siri's "kidnapping" by Michael's parents was the one surprising twist near the end and I enjoyed it. I considered it icing on the cake.
The story elements that Su chose to dwell on, were never quite what I expected. At the beginning I expected to be told the story of Laek's trip north to Montreal but this ends up being glossed over a bit. I expected to hear more about his past and the events that made him who he is, but this does not happen until much later in the book and not at the level of detail I expected. This happened here and there throughout the book but the surprising thing to me was that every time it did, I enjoyed where I ended up much more than I think I would have enjoyed going where I expected to go.
The characters of the book are the gems that make it great. Laek and his family are solidly written, well fleshed out and a true joy to get to know. I don’t usually enjoy multiple first person POV works, but this was done well and felt true to the book.
Laek, the main character is the most unreal to me. This isn’t because of any lack of skill in Su's portrayal but because he's the furthest out from my own experience. He's both broken and whole. He is heroic in his goodness. He’s a pacifist with experience in violence from both sides of the equation. He experiences savage rape in New York, relives traumatic torture in Montreal and dishes out implied violence to his daughter's would be violator. I enjoyed getting to know him during his POV chapters because I wanted to know him.
Janie, Laek's spouse, felt the most real. Loving, fiercely loyal she is both the ideal lover and mother figure to Laek and their children. I enjoyed her both in her POV chapters and seeing her through Laek's, Simon's and Siri's eyes. This sort of character can easily become a cliché but Su's handling of her vulnerable moments where Janie is fearful for her family, desperate in her love for them really hits home and avoids that.
Siri is Laek's and Janie's twelve year old pre-teen daughter was my least favourite character by a small margin. She is self-centered and self-absorbed, oblivious to the hideous environment she lives in. I found myself annoyed by her at the beginning, but her romance with Michael was sweetly done. I have a minor quibble in her portrayal because I don't feel that 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' would be the way such a child would refer to her parents. Siri is redeemed in the last quarter of the book. The strip poker incident with Gabriel and her kidnapping at the hands of Michael's parents really allow her to grow as a character. Although I feel Su could have gone further here with Siri, but it was by no means badly done.
Simon, Laek's and Janie's nine year old son is my personal favorite. His childlike view of the world delighted me and his growth throughout the book was a joy to see. I did find him a bit immature at the start but this adjusted itself in Su's writing as the book progressed. I loved his struggle between his desire for violence to avenge his father and his pacifist nature. His portrayal was well done and I usually smiled through most of his POV chapters.
Of the secondary characters, there's not much to say. Only Philip, Laek's friend, really stands out. I didn't really 'get' Philip or his dynamic between Philip and Laek but I felt I didn't really need to.
"Just go with it" seemed the order of the day there.
There's a lot to Cycling to Asylum. You want themes? Ideas? Warnings of dystopian futures? It's all in there. I could write a whole other article to discuss it, but in the end for this review, here's what I took away from it. It's all about the humanity. No matter how bad things get, there's always light and love somewhere. Find it, and you have your asylum to heal and get back out there. The family moments between Laek and his family were so well done that I treasured them while reading and will continue to do so. People are people is another idea that stuck and I enjoyed Simon's last POVs that put a neat little bow on that, with both the friendly police officers buying ice cream and his thought process on his earlier desire to kill the cop that hurt Laek.
Cycling to Asylum is a great book. I enjoyed my time reading it, I enjoyed meeting the characters. I'm not sure I want to visit Su's vision of future New York, but I loved future Montreal and who knows? There might be more than a few Laeks, Janies, Simons and Siris to meet there as well.