The Wind Singer is a children’s novel and so comes with all the pluses and minuses of that genre. The pace is quick with little room or time for digression or a lot of descriptive detail. The upside is that the book never once bogs down and keeps pulling the reader along. The downside, though how much of a downside will mostly depend on age and expectations, is that characterization suffers a bit and there are a few places where it would have been nice to have gotten a more full picture (both visually and in terms of plot context/background).
The story is a typical kids’ dystopia but with more of a fantasy cast rather than a sci-fi one which is often the case. The city of Amaranth is the dystopia in question. Within its walls the people are strictly divided into castes (denoted by clothing color as well as assigned houses) based on their yearly performances on the “high examination”. Individual scores affect family scores (and thus where you live, what your job will be, status, etc.) and expectations are that the people will work hard and strive to be “better today than yesterday. Better tomorrow than today” as empirically and publicly noted by their test scores.
In this world the Hath family sticks out like a sore thumb, as is clearly, warmly, and comically portrayed in the opening scene — the two-year-old’s first testing day. It gives nothing to say she does not “pass”, and the same is true of the family as a whole. None of them seem to care much for the system and do nothing to succeed in it. This is true of the mother, father, and Bowman the young son who is a well-developed empath with some telepathic power as well. His young sister, Kestrel, is equally unconcerned about her rating but is, unlike the rest of the family, openly rebellious.
It is a single act of brazen defiance on her part that kicks the main part of the story off, setting in motion a chain of events which lead her, Bowman, and a “tag-a-long” loner (Mumpo) to undertake a quest to return the voice of the wind-singer to Amaranth and thus end its enslavement to this rigid system. While the kids are on their quest, the mother and father, separately punished for their children’s misdoings and for their willingness to defend their children, begin themselves to defy the Amaranth society.
While the dystopic genre has been frequently mined, the use of actual tests I thought to be pretty original. And while an adult may find the “message” a bit obvious, it isn’t too heavily played for the intended age group. The quest is also filled with some highly original and imaginative encounters, especially the mud-people who live below the city and the rolling towns stuck in a perpetual war without casualties. In fact, one of the weaknesses of the book is that the early stages of the quest seem more vivid and interesting than the latter stages, where the children begin to actually fight the book’s “big evil” (the morah) and its armies. The exception to this is a battle scene between the Morah’s army and the eagles/wolves. Though this is one of the better described and more moving scenes in the book, it is also an example where the author probably could have jumped in even more fully.
The quest story is interwoven with the parents’ story back home and while not as dramatic, they add a larger context to the story as well as create some tension by pulling the reader away from the kids. The father’s story seems more thought out, however, with the mother’s suffering somewhat in comparison.
The ending itself is a bit perfunctory though not particularly unsatisfying. The story as a whole had, as I’ve said, some wonderfully imaginative sections, its strengths well outweighing its weaknesses (especially considering the age group) and most readers will be quite eager to continue the story.
Wind on Fire — (2000-2002) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Kestrel Hath’s schoolroom rebellion against the stifling caste system of Aramanth leads to explosive consequences for her and her family: they are relegated to the city’s lowest caste and are ostracized. With nothing left to lose, Kestrel and her twin brother, Bowman, do the unthinkable: they leave the city walls. Their only hope to rescue the rest of their family is to find the key to the wind singer, a now-defunct device in the city’s center, which was once the course of happiness and harmony in Aramanth. But the key was given to an evil spirit-lord, the Morah, in exchange for the Morah’s calling off its terrible army of Zars. Armed with desperate bravery, wits, and determination, Kestrel, Bowman, and a tagalong classmate set off to find the key. Along the way they meet allies and foes, but in order to succeed in their quest, they must face the most sinister force of all: the powerful Mora