War between the Motherlanders and Fatherlanders had thrown up figurative barriers of prejudice and biases, as well as the literal barrier of a vast range of mountains—all of which served to keep the two groups separate. Now that the mountains have crumbled, the two peoples finally have the opportunity to coexist together. Several generations of separation, however, have done little if anything to rectify the figurative divide in their dissimilar values.
One person, however, carries the hope of changing all that: Dell. Born a hermaphrodite to a Motherlander mother and a Fatherlander father, Dell just may represent the ultimate state of being both. That said, per’s life has not been easy. (Per is short for “person” and used as the pronoun to refer to hermaphrodites throughout the book.) Per spent years in the spotlight as a performer, as often in the tabloids for per’s wildly excessive lifestyle as for per’s wildly tumultuous love affairs. After having per’s heart spectacularly and very publicly broken a year ago, Dell has turned introspective. When a group of thugs rough per up with intent to do far worse, Dell calls on per’s power—and catches the eye of another young hermaphrodite and per’s caretaker, Zavvy.
When Zavvy finds Dell beaten and naked in an abandoned factory, it’s not just his sense of decency that compels him to help. He knew of Dell from the splashy, tawdry stories in the news and even then, Zavvy admired Dell for per’s audacity to live life on per’s own terms. The one thing that would keep him from pursing the amazing Dell is actually twenty-five someones…the neglected, abandoned, hermaphrodite children. Being a full-time father means Zavvy feels he has zero time for himself, let alone anything extra to put into an adult relationship. Yet Dell feels this is a role per could accept and even excel at and one that is infinitely more satisfying than being fodder for the tabloids.
As Dell and Zavvy try to navigate their way as some kind of team, tensions rise when the story of Dell’s attack and Zavvy’s role as adopted father to a couple dozen hermaphrodite children are discovered. A poorly timed kiss caught on camera nearly brings the whole thing down on their heads when the misguided youths who attacked Dell pick up the scent and try to finish what they started. Except this time, there’s more at stake than Dell’s safety—there’s Zavvy and his entire brood.
While these events unfold above ground, there is a man named Ledder imprisoned for abusing his spouse below ground. Ledder knows he deserves incarceration, but the subterranean room he’s kept in is the stuff of legend. Controlled by a being of mythic proportions known only as Acorn, Ledder is tasked with rehabilitating himself. He quickly learns that there is more than his drinking at fault for his wretched behavior towards his wife and children. Ledder is initially wary of any help Acorn may offer. Yet the longer he is confined, the more he learns about himself, about how Acorn can help, and the others jailed with him.
So…one big thing to keep in mind as you read this book is that these are basically two separate stories that happen at the same time. It took me a good third of the book to get into this kind of presentation and just as long to figure out that, as dissimilar as these two arcs are, they actually are taking place in a common world. That said, there is precious little that connects Dell’s and Ledder’s story arcs. Acorn is the common factor between them, but Acorn plays doesn’t even get mentioned until about halfway through Dell’s story. Ledder, Dell, and Zavvy were all strangers during the climatic final scenes in the book. It was during these final scenes that a few more connections are strung between the two stories, but at such a late stage in the game, they felt a bit forced to me.
The story has a ton of romance in the form of Dell and Zavvy…and Fogel works damn hard to ensure Dell is presented as an amalgamation of male and female (the foreword explains Dell has a fully function set of both genders’ sex organs) and I can see how per’s personality and mannerism work to paint a picture of someone who is not binary. I loved the scenes where these two characters act on their blindingly hot physical attraction and we see Zavvy unreservedly loving all of Dell. I really enjoyed the angst caused by miscommunications that left Dell and Zavvy both thinking the other was trying to say walk away, when in fact they were each being too self-deprecating. You know, laying on the “I’m no good for you because reasons” a bit too thick so it sounds less like you’re fishing for reassurance and more like you’re trying to “gently” let the other person down. Except they were totally just looking for reassurance. While this gets resolved quickly between these two after they’ve misinterpreted the cues, the story is told from Dell’s POV so we spend many a scene listening to per question whether or not Zavvy really wants Dell, so that totally scratched my angst-queen itch.
As much drama as there is between Zavvy and Dell, there’s plenty of human drama going on in Ledder’s corner as well. We spend a lot of time with him as he goes through a transformation. He starts off scared and confused at being trucked underground to the odd prison run by the even odder Acorn—a being who is able to appear and disappear at will by melting into and out of existence from the walls, floors, ceilings. This, of course, turns to confusion and anger. Yet Acorn never outright indulged Ledder. Before long, Ledder starts to interact with Acorn and so begins Ledder’s healing. Along the way, Ledder is forced to confront a lot about himself—sometimes even vicariously through the experiences and memories of others. Towards the end of it, Ledder must confront a traumatic experience he all but forgot had happened…yet colored the very fabric of his existence.
Root of the Spark is also chock full of symbolism (Acorn as a god, all the fraught nuances of both, dreams as magic/power). There’s a lot going on. It did pull me in once I squared away the idea that these are, for all intents and purposes, two different stories told in alternating chapters. At the very end, the two threads to combine, but I found the culmination of these two threads lacking—again, largely due to how weakly I felt they ended up being connected.
I was also a bit disappointed by the world building. On the one hand, Ledder’s living-tissue-eque underground prison felt well-defined to me. Err, it’s sort of reminiscent of vore (or voraphilia) and that idea plays into Ledder’s reaction to his prison. From the outset, I was primed to accept anything and everything that happened in that setting because Acorn is shown to be sort of a benevolent god-like figure. On the other hand, there was far less clarity about how much of this fantastical-ness extended above ground to the world Dell and Zavvy inhabit. Indeed, it took several chapters for any inkling that their world was anything other than the same as ours or that all of these characters were even in the same universe so to speak. Maybe about halfway through, I understood the reality that Dell and Zavvy also have access to Acorn and his powers (simply put, the issue that makes up prison cells underground has been utilized as washing machines and mattresses and whatnot above ground). What’s more, we eventually learn that dreams are a powerful means of communication and even seeing to the future. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to see the mystic elements prevalent in Ledder’s thread come through in Dell’s…but there was zero indication early on that both worlds coexisted together until the dam breaks and mystical, mythical, fantastical things start happening in spades.
Overall, I really enjoyed the Dell/Zavvy thread, with the exception of the wonky world-building. The portrayal of a hermaphrodite character was interesting and perhaps more telling about my own thought processes than the writing…but for me, I felt like I was reading about a gay man who happened to have breasts and a vagina. Full disclosure: in my estimation, the sex scenes between Dell and Zavvy felt like the focused almost entirely on Dell’s female genitalia, but the persona Dell exhibits otherwise reminds me something of a drag mother. I admire Fogal’s ambition at combining such dissimilar themes into a single book and it’s the kind of story you’d want to reread to pick up on cues that got lost in the fantastical elements the first time around.