Tired of cookie-cutter young-adult novels? The cure awaits, in the shape of E.C. Myers' astounding Fair Coin — a book which, among other things, achieves the feat of seeming like a dark fairy tale and a clever science fiction epic, rolled into one. It's a fast-moving book full of twists and cool character moments, and definitely ideal for adults who miss the days of engaging, idea-driven science fiction.
It's been a while since I read a book that was as much pure fun as Fair Coin, which keeps the ideas and the revelations coming thick and fast. I don't want to give away too much of what happens here — but suffice to say that what you think is going on in this book isn't exactly what's going on, although Myers plays fair and provides plenty of clues early on for the alert.
In Fair Coin, a kid named Ephraim comes home to find that his alcoholic mom has tried to kill herself, which is only the latest in a long chain of self-destructive behavior. But after he gets his mom to the hospital, he finds out that she had a particular reason for wanting to die — Ephraim's dead body turned up earlier that day. Or at least, the dead body of someone who's identical to Ephraim in every way, even down to the wallet and ID cards.
Ephraim's dead duplicate was carrying a very special coin, a quarter bearing the state insignia of Puerto Rico. (Except that Puerto Rico isn't a state, and doesn't have any state quarters.) And then he finds a note in his locker, telling him that if he flips the coin and makes a wish, it'll come true. So of course, he wishes that his mom wasn't an alcoholic wreck recovering from a suicide attempt — and the next thing he knows, his mom is a happy career woman who never touches a drink.
Not surprisingly, the book starts delving into "be careful what you wish for" territory, but never feels like a cliche. And even though it wears its Twilight Zone influence on its sleeve — the characters actually talk about watching the Syfy Twilight Zone marathon and later watch some episodes — it's a good deal more fleshed out and provocative than your standard half-hour dose of Rod Serling weirdness. The wishes that Ephraim makes seem to restructure the real world according to his wishes — but the unpleasant side effects seem both random and confusing. It's not a simple "every wish has an unexpected but poetic drawback" — more like the coin just rewrites the real world in a haphazard, unexpected way.
And the coin-inspired weirdness gets more and more dizzying as it goes along. Sometimes, Ephraim will toss the coin when he's at home in bed — only to find himself, a moment later, on the other side of town eating dinner with someone who's unexpectedly his girlfriend.
Ephraim confides in first his best friend Nate, and later the girl he has a monster crush on, Jena. But they both have unexpected (and opposite) reactions to learning about a power that can apparently reshape the physical world — and the knowledge that Ephraim has a totally uncontrollable but awesome power changes his relationships with both of them, in ways that are just as unpredictable as the coin itself.
Don't start reading this book after about 8 PM, unless you want to be up past your bedtime finishing it. Especially once you get about halfway through, and the reality-cracking weirdness really starts to ramp up. It reminded me of Paul Melko's The Walls of the Universe, in a really good way — not just with the stuff about a mysterious doppelganger and a weird device, but also in the way that both books feature a lot of problem-solving and cool teamwork.
And Ephraim makes for a refreshing protagonist, both in his relative lack of angstiness and in his readiness to do the right thing when he's faced with a tough decision. A lot of books, dealing with the premise of a young guy who gets an insanely powerful artifact, would try to spin out the plot by having the main character be kind of a selfish jerk, who gets corrupted by all that power and makes things worse and worse until he finally repents. That would be one way to keep spinning out the plot and deepening the idea of "be careful what you wish for." Myers, very wisely, avoids that pitfall and makes Ephraim both smarter and more likable than that storyline would allow.
The main characters in this book are all nerds, which makes their reaction to the discovery of a magic wishing coin a lot more entertaining. Everything they do is grounded in a knowledge of pop culture and basic science, so they're just self-aware enough to avoid making mistakes that most of us would know to avoid. They're not so self-aware or self-referential that they ever start getting annoying, however. This is a teen science fiction novel for the TVTropes generation.
And like I said, there are some very clever twists, which keep turning your understanding of the coin and its powers upside down until you pull back and realize that the picture is actually bigger and weirder than you ever realized. (And yes, there are some plot holes you could drive a semi through here and there, but they're pretty easy to overlook as you're flipping pages and admiring the plot gymnastics.)
And the thing that keeps Fair Coin a great character-driven novel, rather than just a fun spin on fairy tales and Twilight Zonery, is the focus on how the wishes with the coin change the people in Ephraim's life — and thus, by extension, Ephraim himself. (He's the only one who remembers what the world was like before he changed it, unless he's physically touching someone else when he makes his wish.) And instead of just asking "What is reality," Fair Coin delves into some pretty fascinating questions about what makes us the people we are. When you change a few major details about the world, what are the people in your life going to be like afterwards? And how are your relationships going to be reshaped?
Fair Coin is definitely a great specimen of the young adult novel that also works as a fun, entertaining piece of science fiction. It could easily have been published with either label, in fact. If you've been jonesing for a science fiction book that's got clever ideas as well as a fun story, you should totally pick up Fair Coin. Just don't plan on doing anything else until you finish reading it. [Amazon]