A STERKARM KISS
The memories I had of A Sterkarm Kiss, sequel to The Sterkarm Handshake, were hazy and unpleasant, rather like memories of a good night out tainted by a hangover. Upon rereading, I have discovered that it is indeed an interesting but horrible book. While just as well-written and more complexly plotted than its predecessor, this novel was rather unpleasant to read. It is one of the most morally — uh, let’s say “grey” – – books I’ve read. Yes, that includes the entire Song of Ice and Fire series.
The story takes up some vague length of time, likely several years, since the conclusion of The Sterkarm Handshake. The FUP has completed reconstruction of the time tube and started relations with the Sterkarm clan in an alternate universe that has not been tainted by the events of the previous book. Rather than attempting to foster slow friendship, the FUP seem eager to show the Sterkarms every kindness of the 21st century. They have planned a wedding to unite the Sterkarm family with their blood-enemies the Grannams. Brought back into FUP’s employ by the promise of reunion with her beloved Per, Andrea must negotiate the new political situation while dealing with her conflicting emotions. After the wedding dissolves into a gruesome attack, the Sterkarms are driven to genocidal rage against the Grannams. Violence ensues.
I feel A Sterkarm Kiss was more than likely intended as the second part of a trilogy. It ends on a fairly major cliffhanger, with all indications that the story was meant to continue. The third book was never published, it if was ever written at all. I speculate that Scholastic pulled the contract, though since this novel was published at the very dawn of the current ya boom, perhaps three book deals were still a rarity in ya publishing.
It is not unusual for sequels to escalate the conflicts present in previous books. In fact, it’s downright necessary when writing a series to ensure escalation in one way or another. A Sterkarm Kiss, in this regard, succeeds. It’s also not unusual for the escalation to include a darkening of the themes – but even in a world of such ya titles as The Hunger Games and Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children, this book is quite dark. I remember finding the book challenging as a teenager, and was surprised to find it still quite shocking as an adult. There is such intense hatred in so many of the characters.
Susan Price is skilled at writing the physical and emotional feeling of violence. Her themes are subtle and interesting. While the obvious way is opened for a discussion of cultural imperialism, violent colonial invasion, and corporate criminality, Price manages to illustrate her message without beating the reader over the head with it. This is refreshing, after The Poisonwood Bible‘s sledgehammer approach to certain, overlapping themes. Whether or not the FUP were intended as a metaphor for the British East India Company, the comparison is readily made.
My difficulty arises in the characterisation of the Sterkarms. In the previous book, while there was moral ambiguity, the reader is clearly meant to sympathise with the Sterkarms, especially Per. In this book, the characters are ever-so-slightly different due to being in a different world and different situation. Though the reader feels impelled to sympathise with this world’s version of the Sterkarms, it is made difficult by the bare and brutal violence they inflict in the name of vengeance. This moral turpitude, and the animosity demonstrated by so many of the characters, makes this book hard to enjoy.
I did not enjoy A Sterkarm Kiss anywhere near as much as I enjoyed its predecessor. This was disappointing, and is made even more disappointing by the fact that the third part of the story, which I assume was to be a conflict between the first book’s Sterkarms and the second book’s. However, if, like me, you are a completist, you will need to read it if you read the first. Please don’t let it put you off reading the first.