A fantasy novel with an ecological slant.
Landis’ fiction debut stars a young man in Guilin, China, named Jinsong (called Jamie Chen by his English teacher). Jinsong helps his father run the family farm and possesses a unique gift: he can understand the silent talk of the plants all around him (“when Father and I pulled the plants out of the ground—I heard their pain”). When his father dies suddenly of pancreatic cancer, Jinsong goes off to university, first in Beijing and then at the University of California at Davis. The book’s other star is a young Vermonter named Robin Dell who also possesses a secret ability: She can communicate with insects. “I would just think I wanted the ants to tunnel in a different direction and they would,” she recalls. Landis presents well-considered backstories, although both Jinsong and Robin often come across more like saints than highly emotional teenagers. Jinsong goes to UC Davis to study botany, and Robin goes there to study entomology. The two meet and fall in love. On a trip to Peru’s Manu National Forest, they undergo a mystical transformation that alters their lives and sets up at least one sequel. Landis makes several smart storytelling decisions along the way. True, her two main characters are boring paragons, committing to each other and their virtuous mission without much doubt or reflection, but Landis compensates by shifting the narrative focus to dozens of secondary characters and keeping these alternate segments short and snappy. She likewise spends a refreshing amount of time describing the details of the graduate life Jamie and Robin live at UC Davis before their grand adventure in Peru, although the narrative’s regular shifts to exposition sap momentum. Even so, the bulk of the book is smoothly paced, which is a great help considering the heart of the tale comes together in the final pages.
A lively nature-oriented superhero adventure occasionally stalled by ecological digressions.