Loranne Vella: Magna Mater, Merlin Publishers, 2011.

The world is changing. The seasons have vanished, and youth has lost whatever innocence it had left. The fine line between reality and cyberspace has been irrevocably blurred, and there is snow over Malta. The world is now run by the Machine. This is the world of Loranne Vella’s new teen novel Magna Mater.

Vella successfully keeps a very delicate balance between reality and imagination that creates an ambiguity that is full of tension- Alex Vella Gregory

Many will surely be familiar with Vella’s Fiddien trilogy, co-authored with Simon Bartolo whose own Deformity has come out recently. This book is nothing like it.

Whereas in the Fiddien trilogy reality and fantasy brushed side by side, in this novel reality and fantasy become one amorphic mass.

Set in an uncomfortably near future, Vella gives us a world struggling with preserving its past, and facing an uncertain future.

The novel centres around Elizabeth, a precocious teenage girl with a knack for writing and daydreaming. Elizabeth is struggling to understand why she constantly keeps losing track of reality, and the Machine offers her the refuge she desperately craves.

What is the Machine? To call it a futuristic version of the internet would be absurd. The Machine is our hyperself, an extension of our lives into cyberspace. It is no longer a tool, but a craftsman that shapes our lives. All of the characters in the novel use the Machine in one way or another, for better or worse.

Elizabeth looks upon the Machine as a kind of mother figure (hence the title of the novel, which translates roughly into the Motherly Machine). More than any other character in the book, Elizabeth extends her own consciousness into the Machine through her online writing.

The most frightening aspect of the novel is the subtlety of all these sinister changes. The erratic weather and the omnipresent Machine remain in the background to what seems a perfectly normal Maltese landscape. Even Elizabeth’s phasing in and out of reality is presented as a normal occurrence to which those around her are now used to.

The other predominant theme of the book is skateboarding (and the rivalry between traditional skateboarders and the rebel ‘sbade-boarders’). This innocent sport has evolved into a weapon, creating rival gangs. The traditional skaters are led by is-Sulfarina, a sinister group leader who has turned them into a Neo-Fascist criminal organisation stuck in the past. They set up headquarters in the Msida skatepark, which is now covered by a glass dome creating an imposing structure known as the Glaskuppel.

The rebel ‘sbade-boarders’ are a loose community of friends without any set rules or regulations. The central figure from this group is Jamie, a young teen boy from a troubled background and beset by insecurities. It is on these insecurities that Sonja plays to carry out her terrible plan.

Vella has created some very powerful characters to which everyone can relate, not least in the pivotal figure of Elizabeth. She does not treat adolescents as overgrown children, but rather the way our modern world actually treats them, as premature adults.

Beneath the apparent frivolity of their daily lives, there are disturbing undercurrents that constantly erode their innocence.

There is never a point in the book where Vella treats the characters as victims, and this elevates the story to a higher level. The link between cause and effect is a highly complex one, and not always predictable. The characters which seem unimportant prove to be crucial in the lives of the main protagonists.

Vella successfully keeps a very delicate balance between reality and imagination that creates an ambiguity that is full of tension. Although there were times where I craved more information, the reader is left constantly suspended within a psychologically powerful narrative.

Indeed, the author presses a very important point, that psychological violence is a greater crime than physical violence. This can be seen in the way Sonja manipulates everyone around her, even thepretentious Sulfarina.

The cover design is by Steffi Degiorgio and it is, dare I say, one of her best cover designs this year. It also has a very cool metallic print on the cover which I believe is a first for a Maltese publication.

This book represents yet another triumph for Merlin Publishers, not only in the quality of the book, but also in the vision and philosophy it represents.

The world is changing. There are those, like Sulfarina, who take refuge in their own little Glaskuppel for fear of change. Then there are those, like Vella, who take up their ‘sbade-board’ and face the world.

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