All That Glitters Is Foretold
The first assurance that Crystal Eaters ain't your average indie fantasy novel is its descending page count. Shane Jones' fabulist, existential coming-of-age novel starts on page 183. “It feels good to believe in one hundred,” says teenage protagonist Remy, referring to her village’s belief that every living creature is born with a precise allotment of crystals. Hyperlocal lore has it that each newborn human possesses 100 crystals. Accidents, illness and the passage of time deplete individual counts. More than a simplistic metaphor, this semiprecious symbolism sets in motion its own cosmology.
Crystal Eaters is an examination of the human relationship to mortality. And it's a countdown from the outset. Jones' structural inversion begins with Chapter 40, as Remy grapples with a rite of passage. When our protagonist's beloved dog Harvak dies, “dog-child” Remy's mourning ritual involves running on all fours through dark crystal mines. There's an observable confluence between the innocence of youth and the capacity for fantastic thought. And her mother is running out of crystals, so Remy daydreams about outsmarting death. While Remy's POV effectively dominates the novel, she's not the only agent of perspective.
Remy's father and mother both must process and confront the disease that makes her mother’s corporeal form its home. Her imprisoned brother Pants McDonovan, a prominent member of the revolutionary Sky Father Gang, supplies dark crystal contraband to guards and inmates and devises an escape plan—a reverse jailbreak—with next-generation radical Z. and Brothers Feast. Trucker Skip Callahan makes his living transporting yellow crystal to the neighboring city to power its expansion; less valuable blue, green and red crystals end up as New Age tchotchkes and quasi-rosaries.
An uneasy economic symbiosis exists between traditional rural and progressive urban society. The city seems to inch ever closer; the consensus in the village is that the city constitutes a dangerous, occult force, encroaching on family, home and way of life. On the outskirts of town, metropolitan denizens drop quarters in tower viewers and gawk at simple folk who exist without accoutrements of modern living: “... god, carpeted cubicles, televisions, dishwashers, tooth x-rays, nuggets, yoga, babysitters, meat, car washes, air conditioning with floral scents, jogging, speed dating, screens, cat-shaped headphones, keyboards, raw juice, leather interior coffins.” The heat intensifies every day, amplifying the sense of claustrophobia and dread. After all, the Sun has a crystal count too: It's 10,000.
Since time immemorial, humans of all eras, creeds and cultures have quested to reclaim lost youth or achieve immortality. Myths like the Fountain of Youth segued into cryonics and suspended animation, and now transhumanism dominates. Whether based in storytelling or science, our collective fear and ignorance of death seems almost innate. Situated within the village idiom, Remy's vocabulary resists the impermanence of existence. The blood her mother coughs up is “red slush.” “Hundred” is hope perfected. “Black crystal” may extend life. “Zero” equals death.
Author Shane Jones may not be the fantastic second coming of the literary world, but Crystal Eaters proves a satisfying hybrid of psychological realism and the surreal—all wrapped up in a young adult, coming-of-age bow. Time spent reading this novel is well worth losing a handful of crystals.