It’s a little weird, writing this post months after having read the book and having given my copy away, but my personal need to chronicle my reading life is compelling me, so here we go.
Naermyth by Karen Francisco is a take on post-apocalyptic YA that combines the tropes of the genre with uniquely Filipino references. In this world, the creatures of mythology suddenly emerge and lay waste to most of civilization. In the Philippines, these are the creatures parents used to invoke to strike fear into children’s hearts, such as the aswang, sigben, and the manananggal. Only pockets of surviving and resisting bands of humanity continue to exist, including a fort in Manila that is protected by the so-called Shepherds.
The Shepherds venture to the aswang-infested territories of Manila to find surviving humans and lead them to relative safety. One of the most efficient and competent aswang-killers among this ragtag group is a girl that answers to the name Aegis. One day, she finds an unconscious man who is about to be attacked by aswangs and saves him, only to find out that this man has absolutely no recollection that the end of the civilization has occurred.
So far so good, right? I was initially interested in reading this book because of the premise. A sustained novel of this genre from a Filipino author has been a long time coming. I was ready to experience some intricate worldbuilding, a spunky heroine, and copious amount of Filipino mythology thrown in. All requisite boxes are checked. However, I found no pleasure in reading it because the first person point of view, the dialogue, and the plot twists struck me as utterly unconvincing.
The earliest obstacle for me was the use of the 1st person POV. We see the world from Aegis’s eyes and we are led to believe that her experiences with death and violence has hardened her into a jaded person that keeps her emotions to herself. And yet, throughout the novel, she ends up shouting at people and wordvomiting at the slightest provocation. The strange connection that she feels with an amnesiac named Dorian is alluded to over and over again. For someone who keeps her cards so close to the vest, she sure talks a lot.
Comparisons with The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins inevitably crop up. Mind you, I read the THG series a couple of months after Naermyth, so my dislike doesn’t stem from unfair expectations I may have heaped upon Francisco’s novel. Collins manages to grip my attention from the very first chapter by using punchy language that smartly reveals Katniss’s laconic personality and sustaining it for an entire trilogy. This is quite a feat considering that FIRST PERSON NARRATIVES ARE HARD.
An untrustworthy narrator can destroy all the groundwork the writer has done and makes the story topple like a house of cards. Naermyth illustrates this quite clearly. It’s easy to lose the tension because you already know what the most important person in the scene is thinking. Making it work requires judicious editing and making sound decisions on what to say and what to leave out. Speaking of leaving things out, all the characters are invariably given chewy mouthfuls of exposition to advance the story. There are effective ways of conveying the details of a world–Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass did this admirably–and an inexpertly rendered exposition can destroy the promise of an interesting fantasy universe.
These elements may have been easy to overcome in my head if it wasn’t for the inclusion of a clumsily handled, overwrought, and entirely unnecessary romantic (triangle?!) subplot. I get that this is another trope of the YA genre, but every time the action grinds to a halt for the sole purpose of having Aegis, Dorian, or River (he’s some guy, don’t ask) talk about their feelings, I wanted to curl up into a ball and never see the sun again. And I don’t want to spoil the story but let’s just say that the fate of the world ends up hanging in the balance unless it is saved by ~The One~.
There were interesting and pleasurable elements. I like how certain Filipino superstitions are woven into the story and the sort of road trip to Pampanga’s diwata-controlled territories is easily the most interesting part of the novel. If only the characters were given more nuance and more narrative real estate was freed of certain tired plot points, the obvious amount of work that has gone into the research and worldbuilding would have shone through. For me, Naermyth was unconvincing from the get go and never quite managed to make me change my mind.