Sixteen-year-old Ephraim Scott is horrified when he comes home from school and finds his mother unconscious at the kitchen table, clutching a bottle of pills. The reason for her suicide attempt is even more disturbing: she thought she’d identified Ephraim’s body at the hospital that day.
Among his dead double’s belongings, Ephraim finds a strange coin—a coin that grants wishes when he flips it. With a flick of his thumb, he can turn his alcoholic mother into a model parent and catch the eye of the girl he’s liked since second grade. But the coin doesn’t always change things for the better. And a bad flip can destroy other people’s lives as easily as it rebuilds his own.
The coin could give Ephraim everything he’s ever wanted—if he learns to control its power before his luck runs out.
-cover and synopsis courtesy of goodreads.com
Atmospheric Analysis: While this cover is appropriate, it’s also exceedingly bland, with dull, washed-out colors and nondescript fonts. Meh.
Planetary Class: Contemporary sci-fi thriller. There have been quite a lot of these lately, haven’t there? Luckily, as we’ll see, it’s a stand-out in the genre.
Mohs Scale: The single science fictional element–developed with some rigorousness–marks this as a 4 on the Mohs scale for One Big Lie.
Viability Rating: The science behind Myers’ book starts fairly strong, but gets more convoluted in the particulars as the book goes on. This leads to at least one gaping plot hole, where the characters seem to ignore how the counterfactual rules that Myers has given us actually work.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: The prose of Fair Coin falls squarely in the “passable” category; it’s efficient enough to carry the story, but not particularly well-crafted. In fact, there are some odd points of word repetition, as well as a few lines of awkwardly-inserted political rhetoric near the novel’s end (the book’s last paragraph, similarly, was altogether too pat for my liking). However, the dialogue is great–naturalistic and believable.
Warning: Spoilers in the footnotes!
It sometimes feels as if genre occupies a universe wholly separate from other fiction. Whereas contemporary works mostly use trauma to explore the emotional situation of its characters, genre fiction instead uses trauma as inciting incidents or for archetypal window dressing. In genre fiction, for instance, the orphan child is orphaned both because it creates an opportunity for that child to be a changeling or long-lost lord, and because it’s what has always been done in fairy tales and myths; it is more rare that we find characters who have been orphaned because an author is genuinely interested in exploring what it feels like to grow up parentless.
(For an interesting take-down of this, see Wes Anderson’s recent Moonrise Kingdom.)
This is true for many YA genre novels as well. Children are set adrift–like Arthur Pendragon and Telemachus–because it sets them up to later be heroic. While there’s value in these narratives, they never quite ring emotionally true for me; their mythic sparkle means that they feel far out of reach from the more mundane (though trauma-touched) events of my own life.
That’s not true for Fair Coin, EC Myers’ March debut. Though the framework of the story–a contemporary science fiction thriller that bears superficial resemblance to at least two recent YA releases1, not to mention a few television shows2 and movies3–is quite standard, the emotional life of Ephraim Scott is refreshingly real. Our hero begins the novel with the discovery of his alcoholic mother’s drug overdose. In their messy apartment, he deals with the aftermath, trying to get a hold of his impoverished life–while simultaneously juggling standard teen tensions of school and girls.
When he finds a magical coin that offers him an opportunity to fix his life, it’s understandable why he might take it. Ephraim isn’t like the children of Half-Magic; he’s not well-off, but bored. He has real problems, poverty and alcoholism and an absentee father. And the girl he likes doesn’t like him back, to boot. It’s no wonder he might want to fix things.
And yet when he flips the coin and makes a wish, his new life is just as thorny as the one he knew before. As Fair Coin warms up, Myers remains very true to actual teen experiences. There are no improbable superpowers or apparently world-changing developments. There are, instead, abusive parents, skeevy teenage boys, and crises of parental health.
It’s in this honesty that the book is most strong. Ephraim is an utterly believable teenage boy–awkward, a little obsessive, smart but not preternaturally so. His friend Nathan is likewise very real, and while the boys engage in some untoward behavior and commentary about teenage girls, sexuality, and the female form, navigating these issues is close to the heart of Fair Coin.
Because it’s as much a romance as it is a thriller, and it’s a very tender, nascent one. As someone who was once a very shy very nerdy high schooler, Ephraim’s crushes and romantic anxieties felt refreshingly real. He bumbles toward romantic confidence as only an inexperienced teenage could, with plenty of hiccups and awkward stops.
And yet Ephraim–and his love interest Jena–are so nicely rendered that I never stopped rooting for them. Sure, at times Ephraim’s gaze felt distinctively male, but Jena is written with enough complexity and depth that she never felt objectified. She was also wonderfully smart (smarter than Ephraim!). With her solid handle on theoretical physics and her revolving wardrobe of funky eyeglasses, she was easy to cheer for even when Ephraim and Nathaniel weren’t.
There were certainly times when my patience with Ephraim wore thin–his failure to notice an all-too-obvious plot development4, and his drawn-out inability to grasp the mechanics of the coin itself5, both tried my patience. Still, through the novel’s first two thirds, the characters were otherwise so vivid, and the pace so relentless, that I didn’t much care. AndFair Coin was definitely well-paced; I made the mistake of reading it several mornings in a row in the bath and was pruney and late to work each day–simply because I couldn’t bring myself to stop reading. This is one YA SF thriller that is legitimately thrilling.
Unfortunately the novel unravels a bit as it concludes. For one thing, the mechanics of Ephraim’s wishing–the very mechanics which felt to me to be all-too-simple at the novel’s start–grew increasingly convoluted, to the point where they lacked clarity for me despite my familiarity with the same general concept in other works of fiction. For another, Myers allowed a very blatant plot hole to creep in near the novel’s climax6. This left me torn. The way the novel wrapped up was plenty emotionally resonant, allowing Ephraim the growth and healing he so dearly needed throughout the book. But the reasoning behind it felt forced and awkward, at the very time when I wanted to be swept up by the story and characters who I’d already grown to love.
But I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Fair Coin despite these flaws. The genuine depth behind these characters, and the way that the SF conceits are used to explore their emotional states (rather than their emotional states used as an excuse to explore the conceits of SF) make it a stand-out in the genre–an authentic adolescent story in a gripping SF package.
Warning: Spoilers in the footnotes!
- Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris and Planesrunner by Ian McDonald ↩
- Fringe and Sliders ↩
- The Butterfly Effect ↩
- Nathan’s doppelganger ↩
- It sends Ephraim to new universes, rather than correcting our own ↩
- Older Nathaniel never needed to give the controller to his analog at all; he only needed Ephraim to operate the coin. This means that the inciting incident (which happens before the novel begins) was never necessary at all. Mega fridge logic moment for me. ↩