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The Stone Chameleon

by Nick Wood

(Maskew Miller Longman, Young Africa Series, 92 pages, published 2004, ISBN 0636062554.)

Review by Nick Gifford

cover scanThis is an intriguing one: science fiction/fantasy for young adults, set in South Africa, and also set reading in that country, having been placed on schools' reading lists aimed at readers for whom English is a second language.

YA fiction tends to be covered at infinity plus either when it has potential to crossover to the adult market, or where the author is of interest to the site's readers for other reasons. This one falls into the second category (Nick Wood wrote the haunting African Shadows, featured elsewhere in infinity plus) - while The Stone Chameleon has plenty of charm it's not likely to work for most adult readers purely on its own merits.

Taking it for what it is, though - an engaging adventure for teenagers - it stands up well. On his first day at school, Kerem finds himself an innocent pawn caught between two gangs fighting for control - and with his head forced down the toilet. Surely things can only get better ... They do, after a fashion, as Kerem finds his feet, refusing to conform to peer pressure and managing to find a small number of friends he can trust.

What makes this of interest to genre readers is its rather odd mix of science fiction and fantasy tropes. I'm always a bit uncomfortable when authors mix these two genres in the same story: while SF and fantasy sit side-by-side in the bookshops, they tend to do very different things in the pages of a book. I love good SF, I love good fantasy, but it's very hard to find a blend of the two that works as well as either taken neat. To his credit, Nick Wood makes a pretty good fist of it. This is SF because it's set in 2030, and one of the gangs includes members with bodiliy modifications: the features of wild animals grafted on for show ... and for more practical applications. This is fantasy because, after a rather lengthy build-up, The Stone Chameleon turns into a quest story involving a lost artefact, an animal with special powers, ancient wisdom.

On balance, it works better as a fantasy than as SF: while the quest is central the SF trappings only really serve to add a few neat touches. If the author had concentrated on making it a real fantasy story, launching into it sooner and developing the themes of ancient knowledge, this could really have been something special; on the other hand, the early passages suggest very strongly that Wood could write excellent gritty, contemporary stories in this setting. As it is, The Stone Chameleon falls somewhere in between, a book with merit and which will probably work well with a young audience, but which might have been far more.

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