Mark Duff’s This Ruler is a fictional tale centered around a Colorado high school and the greed of the educational system.
The main story takes place at Elysium High School, headed by Principal Stufa, a man who places his own career advancement and monetary gain above his students’ needs. Conspiring with educational consultants from a publishing and testing company, he promotes continuous student testing and curriculum changes to receive kickbacks from the sale of the educational programs.
The school’s students are a mixture of Anglos, Latinos, Mexicans and Salvadorans, each carved from their own set of circumstances. James, a wild and turbulent type, is creatively counterbalanced by Sialia, a smart, vocal Mexican immigrant who studies masterwork paintings.
A parallel story set in the 16th century simultaneously unfolds around Cortez and his Spanish conquistadors, who are looking to fill their own coffers at the expense of the natives.
While this doesn’t read as a young adult novel overall, Duff includes antics of the genre that add levity: exploding bottle-rockets, classmates duct-taped to chairs, an escaped muskrat who wreaks havoc in the library. Generally, conversations are natural and realistic. Intermittent expletives speak to the language of youth.
As the story unfolds, the novel delivers lovely lyrical writing, infused with magic realism: Monstrous images of rabbit-like creatures dropping into a serpent’s pit suddenly appear during a curriculum meeting; a student’s Mexico vacation inexplicably morphs into a Cortez battle, and so on. Unfortunately, the story’s gauzy transitions in and out of these moments are often disorienting and confusing. While the ideas and images can be intriguing, the constant interplay of present-day reality, memory, history, and fantasy jumbles the storyline, making it hard to follow.
Ultimately this unusual mix of elements is more confounding than illuminating. Still, the story might interest those who enjoy a high school drama marked by student/teacher dynamics, xenophobia, coming-of age angst, and creative life lessons, all wrapped in a package of magic realism.