Of friendship and manipulation

Aquarius, by Jan Mark. New York: Atheneum. 224 pp. $12.95. Ages 14 and up. The intentional manipulation of other people to attain, or retain, social status is the underlying theme of ``Aquarius,'' by Jan Mark. ``Aquarius'' is a mixture of fantasy and reality; the land where the story takes place is recognizable, yet it is not a realistic country. It is set in a time before the Industrial Revolution, but the customs are not recognizable.

Viner -- a young water diviner -- lives in a village plagued by rain and floods. He is ridiculed and scorned by other villagers, and even his mother doesn't want to have anything to do with him. His own sense of worth prompts him, at age 16, to leave his village and search for a home where his powers as a dowser will be appreciated.

While searching for an appreciative village, Viner is captured by four men. To save his life, Viner boasts of his powers to find water, and Cleaver, the leader of the men, realizes he can use Viner to help maintain his status and friendship with the Morning Light, the rain-king.

At the new drought-stricken settlement, where a citizen's status is denoted by sleeping quarters and water allotment, Viner is initially given a mat to sleep on that is at the end of what used to be a hallway. Later, after the demonstration of his dowsing skills, his hallway is replaced with a bedroom and his mat replaced with a large, soft, comfortable bed.

Viner enjoys his new, exalted status. But when Viner's friendship with Morning Light is threatened, he decides to leave the settlement. Viner wants the king to leave with him, and when Morning Light refuses to go, the young dowser abducts him. Ironically, the abduction destroys the friendship between the two.

Viner has guessed -- correctly -- that Morning Light causes drought, not rain. When they return to Viner's village, with Morning Light as prisoner, and Morning Light does a ``drought'' dance, Viner's status among the villagers skyrockets when the clouds begin to clear and the sun shines for the first time in living memory.

But Viner, a little wiser from his ventures into the world, realizes that ``one day [Morning Light] would run again, as Viner had run, scrambling up the hillside Over the Top . . . ; but until thenthe water was tame, the village was secure, the people content, and Viner their savior.''

``Aquarius'' has a well-constructed, absorbing narrative. The characters' manipulation of each other is so mutually accepted that it seems virtually a way of life. Even Viner, who desperately values the king's friendship, eventually manipulates his friends to further his own status.

The transition from a soggy, soaking wet village to a dry, hot, desertlike settlement is also very well handled. In fact, the reader is so mired in mud and water at the beginning of the book, there is a need to get away from the wringing-wet village:

``Everything was green. Grass grew on the thatch, moss on the windowsills, and a lush, indeterminate silkiness on the walls, under the blebs and running welts of water. Even the sheep, grazing aimlessly by the bridge, had vegetation on their backs, for as it flourished on the roofs so the grass grew abundantly in their waterlogged fleece.''

Jan Mark's book is demanding: the prose tightly written, the sentences complex, the imagery exact and succinct. It does not condescend to its reader. Young readers will sympathize with Viner's alienation against his village and recognize his moral decline, but will probably cheer him on because he is taking charge of his own actions.

Lisa Lane is on the Monitor's book staff.

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