Looking Forward and Looking Back: Impyrium by Henry H. Neff – Review by Oona Marie Abrams
I consider it providential that I started reading Impyrium, a young adult science fiction fantasy novel, on the same evening as parent orientation at the local middle school. My husband Jason had drawn the short straw that evening, and was across town at our son’s baseball practice with the whole brood. As the orientation proceeded, however, I realized that I had, in fact, drawn the proverbial short straw.
It was “sit ‘n ‘git.” Handouts about combination locks, color coded notebooks, three minute passing periods, online reading programs, and math classes for the “gifted and talented.” I was forced to practice “silent applause,” whereby every student, instead of clapping, waves a-la Joey from Friends (“Jazz Hands!”). And there was the closing announcement that not one administrator was on social media, so “we could all talk about them as much as we wanted to on Facebook.” I skipped the guided tour and headed home, where Jason soon found me staring out into space on our back porch. This was still my sorry state an hour later when I opened Impyrium, a novel which, I realize now, found me at just the right time.
Hob is an intelligent and industrious servant. Hazel is an inquisitive and pampered princess whose academic failures are found shameful by her grandmother, the Divine Empress. Both Hazel and Hob are the black sheep of their respective social tiers: marginalized, ill-treated, and incessantly reminded of their limitations. As such, Hob’s appointment as Hazel’s tutor provides the unique plot twist on which the remainder of the narrative hinges. One of the many pleasures of reading Impyrium is watching the unlikely friendship between Hazel and Hob blossom, witnessing how each character brings out the best in the other, and celebrating the discoveries and affirmations of both characters’ talents and passions.
For Hazel, conversations with Hob open doors to new perspectives: “Hob was her bridge to the wide world beyond the Sacred Isle, a landscape teeming with beauty, joy, and tragedy. Hazel ached to see more of that world someday.” As a result of his befriending the princess, Hob incurs the ridicule of his fellow palace servants, in addition to the cruelties of the aristocracy. Despite this, Hob still secretly cherishes and nurtures their connection: “…it wasn’t just because Hazel was a royal or even a girl. She understood and challenged Hob in a way his old friends never could…he had no idea what Hazel Faeregine would be someday. Neither did she. And that was exciting.”
Hazel and Hob transported me back to a similar longing to be with a friend who just understood me, even when (especially when) I didn’t understand myself. When I was 11, I walked home from junior high every day in the company of my lab partner turned best friend, Sam. (Like Hazel, I found it easier to befriend boys and adults than girls my own age.) There was a lot of drama, but we managed, miraculously, to sidestep it. Our walks home gave us hope that friendship could weather tough storms. It was that gift of an unlikely friendship, and the thriving of it, that made my junior high school years bearable.
Middle school culture is as complicated today as it was in 1987. At one moment, my son will be expected to act like an adult (get across an entire school building in three minutes); at the next, he’ll be reminded of some arbitrary rule that requires him to comply childishly (“Jazz hands!”). Just considering the amount of code-switching he’ll have to do in the course of one school day exhausts me. I’m worried that when he walks into his new middle school this fall, my son’s love of reading will not be nurtured or cultivated. I’m worried about the cliques and the hierarchies — what parent isn’t? I want radical change in my son’s school as much as both Hazel and Hob want equality and freedom in Impyrium. And I want my son to have a friendship as strong as Hob’s and Hazel’s, as memorable as Sam’s and mine.
Meaningful changes don’t happen overnight, but they do happen. And as Hazel and Hob show us in Impyrium, great change can only occur when we question the authorities who separate us, challenge the systems that confine us, and pay close attention to those whose voices and perspectives differ from ours.