Untimed: Mascherato, December 2012, 326 pages, cover art by Cliff Nielsen. Andy Gavin is a successful video game developer whose previous book, The Darkening Dream competed in the Winter 2012 Battle of the Books. Untimed is a young adult time travel story. The protagonist Charlie is a kid nobody seems to notice. Even his mother has to leave herself notes to remember her son's name. Charlie's father is seldom around, and the father's most recent visit was cut short when an odd detective came looking for him. Charlie later spots the detective and sees him unbutton his suit and wind himself. Charlie follows the clockwork man through a rift in the street and finds himself in the 18th Century. He bumps into a girl named Yvaine, who (for a shilling) explains that Charlie and Yvaine are among the small population of people who can travel through time. The bad news is that males can only travel to the past; it seems Charlie can't get home.
Bad Apple: Vagabondage, August 2012, 186 pages, cover art by Jonathan Willmann. Kristi Schoonover has published a good deal of short fiction in the mainstream and genre small press, some of which is collected in Skeletons in the Swimmin' Hole. Bad Apple, her first novel, tells the story of a young woman named Scree, who grows up on an apple orchard. As the book opens, Scree has not yet started first grade, yet she already masturbates with the help of her favorite teddy bear. One day she accidentally drops said Bear into a well. She calls her mother for help, but then panics at the thought that Bear will tell her mother what she's been doing, so she pushes mother down the well also. That leaves her with a father who is probably not her real father and a womanizing brother, who soon drops his first child in Scree's lap to care for.
The Battle: This is a battle between two independent books, so the first question is whether their respective authors can actually write at a professional level. Happily, the answer here is yes. Both Gavin and Schoonover make effective use of language to tell their young protagonists' stories. Untimed is written in a quick-paced, breezy style that works very well. The prose in Bad Apple is more dense, which is suitable to its much darker tone.
While I like the writing in Bad Apple, however, I'm finding it difficult to become absorbed in the story. Much of the opening 25 pages show us Scree's unhappy childhood after her mother's death. But I'm finding it awfully difficult to feel any sympathy for Scree's troubles, when those troubles are a direct result of Scree killing her own mother. Even if we assume that Scree was too young to understand fully what she was doing (and the narrative suggests otherwise—Scree is very precocious, as evidenced by her early experiments with masturbation), it's very difficult for the reader to feel an emotional connection with her.
In contrast, the opening 25 pages of Untimed do a wonderful job of pulling the reader in. In only a few pages, Gavin makes Charlie very sympathetic by showing his stoic acceptance of the fact that nobody around him can remember who he is. Then, in a YA twist that never gets old, Gavin shows that this is actually because Charlie is very special. Before 25 pages are up, Charlie has already encountered strange clockwork beings, fallen through a hole in time, met a potential love interest, and even caught a glimpse of Benjamin Franklin. We are off and running! I think nearly any young reader would be pulled in by this opening, and it works awfully well for some of us old readers too.
THE WINNER: Untimed by Andy Gavin
Untimed advances to the second round to take on either Dead Religion by David Beers or Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines.
To see the whole bracket, click here.