A few months ago I interviewed bestselling writer Tahereh Mafi for The Tempest, so I was really excited when her agent offered me a copy of her new book, Furthermore, for review.
I wasn’t completely sure what to make of the book at first. I haven’t done much fantasy reading outside of the Discworld series for a while now, and Furthermore is aimed at middle-school children, not adults. So I approached the book with a sense of trepidation.
A land of spoilers lies past this barrier…
The book follows 12-year-old Alice Queensmeadow and her frenemy Oliver Newbanks as they leave the magical but orderly land of Ferenwood to search for her father, who has been missing for three years. Oliver, who had been assigned to search for him, reveals that her father is trapped in the land of Furthermore, the dark, threatening sister land to Ferenwood.
We spend quite a bit of time in Ferenwood at the start of the book, with Tahereh really taking her time to build a beautiful world of color and magic. In Ferenwood, magic is an inherent characteristic, and the more color you have in your person – blue hair, brown skin, bright eyes – the more magic you have. This is a problem for Alice, who has no color. Of course, you an also purchase magic, but again, this is out of Alice’s reach. Meanwhile, the people around her, particularly Oliver and her father, have impressive powers.
Flowers, light, shiny bangles; that’s the world we start out in in Ferenwood, and it stands in stark contrast to the much darker and chaotic world of Furthermore that Alice ventures into. As she and Oliver travel from village to village, trying (and often failing) to stay alive and unharmed as they search for her father, Tahereh unravels the inner workings of the preteen psyche.
It’s hard to be a teen
To me, the most poignant issue Alice faces is her insecurity about her relationship with her family. She believes her mother doesn’t love her, and her brothers are so unconnected to her they don’t even warrant names. This is what drives her to find her father – aside from her love for him, their loving relationship is essentially a relic from a happier time, childhood.
It’s a concept that resonates. Perhaps the most difficult thing about the transition from child to adult (i.e. adolescence) is the warping of the parent-child relationship. You want to be your own person, pushing against their definitions and expectations just because it comes from them (something Alice does with her father, but let’s not get into that here). At the same time, you want their approval, their love, their affection, but feel unable to ask for it. The relationship that came so easily and naturally at five, six, seven, eight, seems to disappear almost completely by 11 or 12. Replacing it with something new is probably the biggest challenge child and parent will ever face, and that is exactly what Alice is trying to do in Furthermore.
This, to me, is where Tahereh really excels. As an adult, I know that despite everything, Alice’s mother does love her, and it’s important, particularly to the book’s intended audience, to really demonstrate that.
How dark is dark enough?
Aside from this underlying theme, I found Furthermore to be compellingly dark and yet somehow not completely satisfying. There’s so much buildup in the sense of danger that Tahereh builds. There’s the cannibalistic nature of Furthermore’s residents, the very real threat of imprisonment, the murky and mysterious “Elders” that seem to playing with the fates of Alice, Oliver, and possibly her father.
And yet, it doesn’t really pay off. As much danger as Alice and Oliver face, there’s never any question that they will find her father. At least not for me. For the story to have any emotional resonance, they have to find her father, otherwise why are we even here? I don’t know if this is just me and my expectations of plot development, but for me the question is never whether Alice will find her father, the question is whether or not they’ll be able to get out. In the end, though, that turns out to be incredibly easy. Frankly, a little too easy. Apparently no one in Furthermore has heard of the concept of prison guards, and those elders aren’t in as much control as certain mysterious creatures would like you to believe.
Ultimately, as much as I enjoyed Alice’s journey, I ended up finding myself more interested in Oliver and his first trip to Furthermore, or even that of Alice’s father when he was a kid. I get the sense that where the prospect of actual death never really looms over Alice and Oliver (in comparison to say, the final showdown between Harry Potter and Tom Riddle in Chamber of Secrets, as an age-appropriate example), it may have certainly loomed over a young boy entering a dangerous world for the first time with no supervision or help. Tahereh is clearly setting up for a sequel (rightly so, since I believe Furthermore will quickly become a bestseller), but what I’d really like to see is a prequel. Perhaps that’s something she’ll consider down the line as she further expands on the origins of her magical worlds.
Overall, I’m excited to see where Furthermore ends up, and I think that Tahereh has a winning formula here. It’s the kind of book that you can buy for your niece, read yourself, and then have some really interesting discussions about.