Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Ambassador by William Alexander

Two criticisms come up frequently in reviews of William Alexander's Ambassador: the sci-fi adventure plot "sits uneasily" next to the family drama plot, and the family drama remains unresolved at the end of the novel. I would like to go on record saying that neither of these things bothered me. In fact, I love the length of the novel (222 pages), and I'm glad Alexander didn't make it longer just so he could tie everything up nicely.

The story is first told from the perspective of an envoy, a highly intelligent plasma-like creature who must select an ambassador from Earth. He chooses Gabriel Sandro Fuentes after observing him babysitting his twin siblings at the playground. He builds a blackhole in the dryer in Gabe's basement and uses it to send a sort of projection of Gabe to another playground, one where child ambassadors from all over the galaxy meet to play games as a way of negotiating with each other.

I wish I could have read the novel without knowing that, back on Earth, Gabe's family was going to be picked up by Immigration.  (His parents and older sister are undocumented.) But you can't review this book without acknowledging the way Alexander plays with both meanings of the word "alien," and the way he uses the sci-fi adventure plot to show how different groups of people (and aliens) can misunderstand each other, leading to terrible and unnecessary conflict.

Because I was anticipating what happens to Gabe's family, I don't think it had the dramatic effect it would have otherwise. So for me, the book didn't really become dramatic until half-way through, when the mystery of the ships at the edge of the solar system comes into focus and extraterrestrials start targeting Gabe violently. At that point, I was hooked.

I did have a moment at the end of the novel when I asked myself, did Gabe change and grow over the course of this novel? Did he even make any mistakes? He is selected to be an ambassador because of his thoughtfulness and ability to "code-switch," and he uses these skills to good effect throughout.  Where's the moment where he acts out or resists the role that's thrust upon him?  I don't think this novel quite follows the usual "hero's journey" arc.

But after thinking about it, I realized that Gabe does make mistakes--at least two, which I won't describe because it's spoilery. But his mistakes are of the unintentional, understandable variety. And that fits with what I think the author is trying to show: that people of different backgrounds may misunderstand each other, and this can lead to terrible consequences if we do not make the effort to get to know each other rather than retaliating.

All in all, I think this is a remarkable adventure story. It celebrates a character who avoids conflict and acts thoughtfully, but it is still full of action and Zorro-like wise-cracking. And every adventurous episode supports the big idea. I do think that Gabe accepts his role as ambassador with surprisingly little resistance, but I love the idea that children make the best ambassadors because they are more curious and flexible, and therefore more likely to befriend creatures who are different from them.

As for the unresolved nature of the family drama, there will be a sequel. But frankly, I think this book can stand alone. In fact, I think it's a hallmark of Alexander's work to leave some things unexplained and unresolved. It still drives me a little crazy that I don't know why certain people change into goblins in the world of Goblin Secrets and Ghoulish Song, but that just keeps me thinking about the stories.