J. Michael Shell’s The Apprentice Journals follows the story of Spaul, one of the few remaining Apprentices in a post- apocalyptic America, an individual with the ability to speak to the strange elemental beings that now run rampant across the Earth. Spaul crosses paths with another Apprentice, a mute woman named Pearl, who merges with one of the fire elemental beings into a hybrid creature of frightening power. We are led on a brilliantly imaginative journey across the dystopian world as Spaul tries to uncover just what plan the elemental beings have for Pearl, and for the human race as a whole.
Shell’s writing has an aggressive velocity to it, told in first person through the guise of Spaul’s journal. The book is fairly short, only 212 pages long, but despite its breakneck pace it never feels rushed. From a purely utilitarian standpoint this makes for an easy sell: something accessible, engaging and imaginative that won’t put off a more casual audience. From a reader’s standpoint it is simply enjoyable to find a story written with such conviction that it manages to create a world, a colourful cast of characters and an epic sense of scope without overstaying its welcome. The Apprentice Journals is a prime example of quality over quantity.
There are a number of challenges undertaken that showcase Shell’s writing craft and skill. He makes excellent use of phonetic spellings to convey accents and indicate the intelligence (or lack thereof) of certain characters. He pulls off the enviable feat of creating the character of Rufus Bowagad, a slave owner who, although only in the story for a handful of chapters, is utterly despicable and completely charming at the same time. Lastly, Shell walks the tightrope of world building versus info-dumping with admirable skill, pulling the reader into a dystopian future that is dark, foreboding, but at the same time magical, possessing its own sense of strange beauty.
There are, nonetheless, a couple of issues. Firstly, while I understand the need to avoid cursing and swearing in a young adult novel, that Shell may be balancing the mangling of some post-apocalyptic words while still keeping them recognisable to his audience, and using the word “fugged” in lieu of the rather more obvious expletive feels like Shell simply hasn’t tried to be creative in his choice of words. You could argue that this is a petty gripe, but using the word “fugged” in lieu of the rather more obvious expletive feels like Shell simply hasn’t tried. I understand the need to avoid cursing and swearing in a young adult novel, and that Shell is balancing the mangling of some post-apocalyptic words while still keeping them recognisable to his audience; most of the time he does succeed (my personal favourite being “the Interred State of 95”). However, in the case of “fugged”, it would have been more prudent to just leave the word out.
The more important issue is that Shell’s descriptions seem to peak early. Much of the story’s plot revolves around the sexual relationship between Spaul and Pearl, and the process of joining with an elemental, an erotic and ecstatic experience the narrator cannot “translate into words.” Spaul “joins” in the first chapter, and this crazed, erotic charge never goes away throughout the novel. What this means is that the writing becomes a little repetitive. For almost the entire first two thirds of the book we are treated to scene after scene with Spaul and Pearl trying to control their animal urges and it just feels as if the point is being laboured: there are only so many different ways to say that something was ecstatic beyond words.
These issues are not deal breakers, however, and didn’t stop me thoroughly enjoying the book from start to finish. Shell spends the entire story doing multiple balancing acts at once, and for the most part I’d say he succeeds. The characters are well rounded, the world is skilfully built, and the story is thick with imagination. If you enjoy science fiction, fantasy and dystopia this is a book that should definitely be on your list.