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Over the Sea: CJ's First Notebook by Sherwood Smith

Published by Norilana Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Life is rough when you don't belong, particularly when you're living in the rigidly conformistic 1950's, when difference was suspect at best, and quite possibly downright subversive. That's the problem the first-person narrator is struggling with when a mysterious girl appears at her window one night to tell her stories of a distant land with a girl queen who struggles against adults who think her weak and easy prey.

One night Claire actually takes her to the other world, where she gets to meet other girls that Claire has rescued from unhappy situations. They all live in a beautiful white palace on a mountaintop, where the few adults are a steward and servants responsible for keeping things in good order, not bossing Claire and her young friends around. They play together and encounter the spoiled-brat son of one of the local villains, having a most hilarious fight, which leads them to create a secret hideout for themselves so they can spy upon him and his toadies.

But each visit must end, and the protagonist has to go back to Earth and her regular life. Between visits she is growing steadily older, and all the time she fears that soon she will grow up too much and Claire will no longer be able to take her to that marvelous other world where children don't get punished just for being themselves instead of the image of their parents' desires, and where brutality isn't considered just good child-raising practice. But all the time she's afraid that if she says anything about her fears, she will offend Claire and her exclusion will come all the sooner.

And then comes the day when Claire announces that she has learned a spell by which the protagonist may be able to stay forever in her magical world rather than having to return to Earth at the end of each adventure. But Claire warns that it is irreversible -- it involves reaching through paratime to find an alternative version of the protagonist who would otherwise have died in an earthquake and putting that girl in her place, then changing her to the person she would've been if she'd been born on the magical world instead of Earth -- and Claire's world is not without its dangers. But the protagonist is willing, even eager, to put behind her for good the fear that all too soon the visits would end for the simple reason that she's become too old and is no longer a child.

To mark her transition from visitor to native, she chooses a new name, Cherene Jennet, which is soon shortened by the other girls to CJ. At first she bridles at the diminutive form, until she realizes that it perfectly reflects the mocking abbreviation of the name of their rotten enemy, Prince Jonnicake, to PJ. And thus the true fun begins, as CJ leads the girls on one adventure after another to trouble him and his stuck up mother Glotulae, who are enamored of decoration to such a ridiculous degree that the girls nickname their palace the Squashed Wedding Cake for all its endless ornamentation.

But it isn't all play-fighting against an enemy so stuck-up as to be barely able to see where he's putting his own feet, and thus easy to trip up. There are also very real dangers, such as the Yxubarecs, a race of shapeshifters who were exiled to a floating city on a cloud for their abuse of their powers -- and who then learned how to move their cloud-land about at will so they could continue their pastime of kidnapping people and taking their appearances. With the new twist of throwing the originals over the edge of the cloud to their dooms so there won't be two people with the same face.

Claire had created magic transport-pendants against just such a danger, but by some mischance CJ isn't wearing hers when Prince Monahina of the Yxubarecs kidnaps her and takes her to the cloud-land. So she has no choice but to find a way to outwit the spoiled, bad-tempered princess who becomes increasingly frustrated at not being as beautiful even after shape-shifting, not understanding that beauty is more than just physical appearance.

And then there is Kwenz of the Chwahir, older brother to the even more sinister Schnit back home in Chwahirsland. Both of them are adept in magic, and not the gentle, careful white magic that Clair has learned. Instead of carefully building magical energy in harmony with nature and gently shaping parts of the world into forms more amenable to human life, Kwenz and Schnit have specialized in the sort of magic that coerces nature with overwhelming force, burning up the magical energy in the process (for which it is called black magic because the burned-up magical energy leaves only darkness behind it). Magic that can force vile transformations such as a shrinking potion to reduce their victim to the size of a doll, or will-binding spells that reduce people to obedient puppets.

Meanwhile, the magical worldgate by which Claire was able to bring CJ to her world reopens several more times, delivering children from other times and places. All of them have several things in common -- they lived in times of trouble, they learned to act independently of adult direction, and they came to a point at which it was no longer possible for them to remain in the places of their birth. One of them even seems to be a sort of alternate version of Claire herself, born on an Earth not quite like our own. But all of them are welcomed, and Claire finds places and responsibilities for them in her land.

It's quite an interesting read, however unpolished and loosely plotted it may seem in comparison with her other works. Events follow one another like beads on a string, often with only the most tenuous connections between them, and there are plenty of events that occur completely without explanation. These are the earliest stories Sherwood Smith wrote about Sartorias-deles, the magical world of Inda and Crown Duel. The original versions of what would become this book were written when she was a pre-teen, and in preparing them for professional publication, she has struggled to preserve the voice of her younger self while bringing the language and overall structure of the story to a level that would pass muster. But it's really aimed less at adults than at readers the age she was when she first wrote it -- and most pre-teens are less interested in careful plotting and story logic than in a story that moves right along and provides plenty of fun.

And fun there is in abundance, once we get past those first few frightened chapters when the protagonist is afraid that even the slightest wrong move could result in her being cut off forever. It's a real mark of just how much American society has changed in the past few decades that a lot of young people today (other than those who come from seriously dysfunctional homes) will probably find it difficult to identify with her initial fear, or the home life she describes in which beatings were the norm for all kinds of trivial infractions, including playing with a child deemed to be of the wrong race or religion -- and pleading that you didn't realize you were doing anything wrong could get you even more punishment for "making excuses for misbehavior."

In addition to the story proper, we also have a number of pictures of the characters which Sherwood drew at about the same time as she was writing what would ultimately become this volume. The big-eyes style was a fashion in drawing at the time, not directly related to the moe style in manga and anime, but probably coming from a common root, since large eyes in proportion to the rest of the face do create a sense of cuteness and innocence which many people are drawn to, quite possibly at an instinctual level.

Review posted June 11, 2010.

Buy Over the Sea: CJ's First Notebook from Amazon.com

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