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Ten Hearts For The Country — And Language — Of 'Ice Cream Star'

I love arguing about books. Tell me Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the best modern American novel ever written and I'll fight you. Tell me it wasn't and I'll fight you, too. I'm just scrappy that way.

And Sandra Newman's new novel The Country Of Ice Cream Star is going to cause some fights, cause some clamor among the finger-wagging ranks of the sensitive literati. People who care about books (and who care about seeming to care about books) are going to go nine kinds of bonkers over this thing because it presses just about every single big red button there is.

Is it a book about black people and their experiences written by a white lady? Yep. Is there rape and murder? There sure is. Slavery? White colonialism? Religious fundamentalism? Check, check and double-check. Is it an apocalypse story with a plague that has conveniently wiped out 80% of the population of the American Northeast (at least), leaving none behind but several generations of black children who all die before their 20th birthdays like some kind of freaked-up mashup of Logan's Run and that old Star Trek episode, "Miri?" Hell yes, it is.

And it stars a teenaged girl on a quest to save the world, who would make the perfect YA heroine if not for the fact that she is ten times the heroine of those found in any of the tales whose bones this one steals — and, thus, ten times as complex and ten times as real. She would shame Tris Prior to her knees in a heartbeat. Would spank Harry Potter, steal his wand and send him on his way in tears.

So here is where I am going to say something totally unlike me. Something that actually pains me to say: Don't fight about this one.

The voice Newman has created is bold and lyrical and, better still, complete — belonging to her pulp universe alone.

Don't fight, because this book is just too good. Don't fight, because it would be a shame for the beauty and the power of Ice Cream Star (both the novel and its namesake main character) to get lost in a flood of bickering over who gets to write what about who, and where to shelve a book that reads more than a little bit like a bloody indictment of the entire post-apocalyptic YA genre. Just read it, and sink into it, and let it crawl into your head before you make your judgements.

That, my friends, is Ice Cream Star, narrating the story of her life. Oh, did I not mention that the entire book is written in cant? In slang? In a debased (but inarguably beautified) version of English, developed among isolated knots of survivors over 80 years of want and struggle?

And when I say the entire book, I mean the entire book. Not a page, not a line, survives unmussed. The voice Newman has created is bold and lyrical and, better still, complete — belonging to her pulp universe alone. And it doesn't suck (which is amazing), doesn't read weird or false (which is rare), and doesn't trip those alarms that signal artifice over art or verbal buffoonery over the natural sway and slide of the language as it grows. I have almost never seen an equal to the beauty she finds in words here — the droog's Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange, maybe. But honest to Burgess, I hear more Shakespeare in Ice Cream's cadence than I do anything else. There's a flow to it that I found soothing and dangerous, both — like slipping into a warm bath full of sharks.

So please, read this one. Hang with Ice Cream as she and her people flee before armies, before invaders and death. War with her. Sit with her in rare peaceful moments (saying, of a quiet afternoon between calamities, "Be life joyeuse, their selfish noise. Every two that weep, be gladness to me that they weep for nothing"), and adventure with her as she sets out among strange companions to find a cure for dying. If you can't find worth enough in the words themselves, then the tale will carry you. And when the tale lags, the words will buoy you up.

Read now, fight later. Or better still, forget the urge to battle just this one time, and take the thing for what it is — a beautiful, bloody, tragic and joyous tale well told.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.