Book Review: Parallel Visions, by Cheryl Rainfield

Note: I received a copy of this book for review from the author. No other compensation or consideration was provided.

Parallel Visions tells the story of Kate, a girl who can see the future, but at a cost. When her visions start suggesting that the people around her are in danger, she has to weigh the desire to help them against the need to protect herself; all while battling disbelieving people around her who discount her visions. Like Rainfield’s other books, it touches on real-world issues through the elements of fantasy, confronting readers with food for thought in addition to taking them along with the story.

What really intrigued me about Parallel Visions, though, was the exploration of the disability and superpower trope, because Rainfield took it in an interesting direction. I’m used to seeing disability-as-superpower when disabilities come up at all in fiction, or cases where the disability creates the superpower, like magical abilities are supposed to be some sort of compensation. In Parallel Visions, though, the disability is the price the character must pay for the superpower. The two cannot be disentangled from each other, and there’s nothing romantic about it.

Kate has severe asthma, and I have to confess that I have a soft spot for asthmatic characters since I like seeing myself depicted in fiction. Rainfield also really nails the experience of a severe asthma attack, to a degree that can actually be a little bit frightening; sometimes I felt my lungs tightening in sympathy with Kate’s, and felt like we were struggling for breath and flailing for an inhaler together. Whenever she has visions, she has an asthma attack. It’s not possible for her to look into the future without compromising her lungs, and she’s aware of that.

There’s a great scene where this is explained:

She cups my cheek with her warm, paper hand. ‘Your gift is strong; I can feel it. But it is deeply tied to your heart chakra. It affects your lungs, your heart, and your breathing when you see. No?’

This is a superpower with a very immediate, real-world, and potentially fatal cost. It also ties in with Kate’s larger characterisation; she is a character who loves fiercely, and will do anything to protect the people she loves, even if they are complete strangers to her. It seems fitting that her powers would be tied with her heart chakra, because they come from a place of deep love and a determination to help people with love. Likewise, as Nana tells her later in this scene, it makes sense that the way to protect herself is to surround herself in love, to be among people who care for her and will watch out for her in turn.

Kate presents a model of interdependency, rather than the lone ranger superhero model, and I like that about her too. She is not a tough, unstoppable girl; she is in many ways very brittle and fragile both because she loves deeply and because of her asthma, which makes her vulnerable. These are not presented as failings or weaknesses, though, but as part of her strengths, and the need to collaborate with people and establish connections is a good thing for Kate, rather than a bad one. It’s a marked turn away from a lot of contemporary YA where superpowers isolate people, particularly from their parents; Kate’s parents are actually very involved in her life and play a prominent role in the book. As do her friends, and her sister.

Rainfield doesn’t turn Kate’s asthma into something romantic that borders on hurt/comfort fic, as often seems to be the case with the depiction of disability in fiction. It’s blunt, real, and painful. She captures the ugliness and terror of a severe asthma attack, and the feelings of helplessness in the people around her when it progresses to the point that she needs intubation and other intensive medical interventions. And she captures the day-to-day life of being around someone with a disability like severe asthma; a world where your family members carry inhalers just in case, where they all know how to operate a nebuliser in case you need immediate treatment, where they must be familiar with the basics of managing an attack because if you have one, you might not be able to act.

Yet Kate, like a lot of kids, also strives for more independence, and hates how closely everyone around her monitors her. She conceals the frequency and severity of her attacks because she doesn’t want to be kept home from school, and longs to lead a normal life. She fights with her love interest over whether she should keep seeking visions at the cost of more attacks, and ultimately makes her own choices for herself and her body, because she cares about the people she loves and can’t give up an opportunity to help them, even if it hurts her.

In Parallel Visions, disability is not a tragedy, punishment, or subject of idealised meanderings. It’s just a fact, something that happens, and something tied with the character’s abilities. It can be scary, and it can be frustrating, and it can be limiting, but it is not presented in the unusual troped light that seems to dominate with sick kids in fiction. And Kate, as a character, has autonomy over herself, her choices, her body, and her medical treatment; even though her parents are highly involved and she talks to the people around her about her choices, she is respected as an individual, rather than as an abstract object, The Sick Kid, and I like that about her.