A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 29, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Imagine living your life in a city that physically intersects with...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the May 29, 2014 edition of The Monitor
Imagine living your life in a city that physically intersects with another city, sharing the same geographical space but with very different customs, architecture and language. Imagine further that you are not allowed to actually look upon or listen to the sights and sounds of that sister urb, even if they are meters away from you. Nor can you cross into the other city physically, except through one central border crossing.
If you do, you have breached. And the feared organization called Breach will step from the shadows to mete out punishment.
This is the setting of The City & The City by China Miéville. Otherwise the world is much like the one we know. People are drawn to the odd dual metropolis of Besźel and Ul Qoma there at the edge of Eastern Europe, but to get in requires rigorous training in the “unseeing” and “unhearing” that citizens grow up learning. Students of archeology flock to the strange ruins and digs, searching for answers to the Cleaving.
Among these is Mahalia Geary, a Canadian doctoral candidate convinced in the veracity of legends of a third city lodge in the interstices of Besźel and Ul Qoma. When she turns up dead, Inspector Tyador Borlú of Besźel’s Extreme Crime Squad finds himself drawn into a harrowing “international” investigation with Ul Qoman detective Qussim Dhatt.
Together the two cops navigate an even stranger fringe of unification groups and ultranationalists, locked into a struggle to either merge the two cities or destroy one so the other thrives. But the true nature of the growing threat to their way of life and of the Breach itself will shake both men to the roots of their culture and change them forever.
In many ways a departure from his other weird fiction Miéville is known for, The City & The City is a fascinating piece of speculative fiction boasting more stripped-down, nourish prose and Chandleresque plot turns. It may not satisfy fans of his science fiction and fantasy work, but anyone hungry for evocative mystery with a wholly unique setting will enjoy the book.
Most significantly, Besźel and Ul Qoma serve as stand-ins for places around the world where cultures overlap in politically tense ways, such as Cold-War Berlin or Jerusalem. The idea of “unseeing” and “unhearing” one’s immediate yet culturally different neighbors resonates profoundly, and I kept thinking of ethnic and racial groups here in the US that live life as if the others didn’t exist.
Thought-provoking and thrilling. Definitely top-shelf. (less)
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 7, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Middle Grade Dystopia
he nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Yo...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 7, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Middle Grade Dystopia
he nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy were recently announced by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and since I’ve already reviewed two of the titles for this column (Railsea and Summer of the Mariposas), I’ve decided to try to read through as many of the rest as possible. I’ve started with the science fiction book Above World by Jenn Reese, a novel intended for middle grade readers (i.e., from 8-12 years of age).
Centuries from now, genetically altered humans live in the oceans, the deserts, the skies—dependent for their existence on ancient technology intended to provide an alternative to overcrowded cities. When this technology begins to break down in the undersea City of Shifting Tides, the elders meekly accept the situation as their destiny. Outraged, Aluna and Hoku (two young kampii or merfolk who haven’t gotten their tails yet) decide to leave the ocean in search of HydroTek, the legendary company who engineered their ancestors. To reach their destination, they will need to struggle against other hybrid humans (aviars, equines, etc.) and make allies. At the end, they discover they must deal with the frightening, cyborg-like Upgraders whose leader holds the key to the kampii’s destruction or survival.
Reese handles her young characters pretty well. The strong female, Aluna, is driven by heroic notions, and her hunting training gives her the tools to face enemies and lead. Hoku, her young male friend, is tech-savvy but less aggressive, and the two play off each other (and their friends Callie and Dash) quite well. The world-building is clever (if a little simplistic in spots, understandably so for a middle grade book), and Reese can certainly write an action scene. For some reason I struggled to get into the story before the protagonists left the sea; once they were on solid ground, however, the plot rolled along, brisk and entertaining (though a bit predictable). The book reminded me a lot of La estrella, a Spanish YA novel I reviewed last year, and that’s a good thing. It’s the first in a series, and I could see myself reading another volume in order to revisit the characters and their peculiar world. Not as good as Railsea or Summer of the Mariposas, but worth giving to that kid in your life.(less)
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the January 17, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Riding the Rails to the End of the World
Award-winning writer an...moreA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the January 17, 2013 edition of The Monitor
Riding the Rails to the End of the World
Award-winning writer and academic China Miéville has made a career out of what he calls weird fiction, eloquent fantasy that simultaneously harkens back to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft and draws from modern (often Marxist) responses to the tradition. Much of his work is decidedly adult, but in 2007 his first YA novel, Un Lun Dun, hit the shelves, a Neil Gaimanesque tale of a mirror London and an unlikely heroine. 2012 saw the publication of his second book for young adults, Railsea, a powerful post-apocalyptic story that subverts the Moby Dick narrative delightfully.
Ages from now, the seas are dry. The atmosphere at what is presently sea level roils with noxious clouds that obscure the forms of strange alien beasts floating enigmatically. Continents are desolate, dangerous, poisonous places. The ocean floor teems with massive mutant moles, owls, antlions and other creatures, each a predator, all hungry for human flesh. And in place of the currents that once swirled in great blue depths, the railsea spreads in all directions, a vast tangle of railways lain in the distant past by unknown entities and maintained by autonomous locomotive “angels.”
Sham is a teenaged orphan boy apprenticed to the doctor on a moler, a train that plies the railsea in search of giant moles whose fur, meat and oil are very valuable.Its captain is obsessed with her philosophy, the enormous mole named Mocker-Jack that reputedly bit off her arm years earlier and in whom she finds the meaning of her life. And though Sham yearns for a different occupation, he is gradually adapting to the rhythms of the rails.But a brief salvage expedition reveals a deeper mystery and mission to young Sham, and he soon finds himself joining up with two other orphans determined to finish the dangerous exploration that ended their parents’ lives. Their adventures take them quite literally to the edge of their world, and what they discover there will startle and amaze you.
A big fan of Miéville, I was nonetheless astonished at how much I liked this book, which feels written for just the sort of literate, oddball young person that I was 30 years ago. The literate but accessible style is reminiscent of the very best of Stevenson, Cooper and Wells, richly written and never insulting the intelligence of its teenaged readers. The pace is exhilarating, the adventures hair-raising, and the philosophical issues handled with an impressive deftness. Sham’s character arc is great, also: imagine if in Moby Dick Ishmael had the courage to redirect Ahab’s obsession so that his crew wouldn’t perish. A top shelf addition to the YA fantasy milieu.(less)
A novel twice as long as it had any right to be with a hokey, TV-land device (hallucinating your dead loved one...Dexter, much?) and ridiculous plot c...moreA novel twice as long as it had any right to be with a hokey, TV-land device (hallucinating your dead loved one...Dexter, much?) and ridiculous plot contrivances. It really only redeems itself in the final chapters, and the twist, though insane, is a relief, because frankly Shaun Mason is an idiot and another novel narrated from exclusively his POV would have turned me into a zombie.
I'm still going to read the third book, however. The first was great, and hopefully Grant will take the story in a more satisfying direction.(less)
Top Shelf Review: Blogging the Zombie Apocalypse. Originally appeared in the August 9, 2012, edition of The Monitor
The second book in Mira Grant’s New...moreTop Shelf Review: Blogging the Zombie Apocalypse. Originally appeared in the August 9, 2012, edition of The Monitor
The second book in Mira Grant’s Newsflesh series is one of the contenders for this year’s Hugo award, so I decided to dive into the first novel, Feed, and indulge my love of all things undead. I discovered a work that, while not perfect, kept me turning the page (well, clicking the screen) until I had devoured all 600 pages like a reanimated corpse might a bushel of fresh brains.
Feed is set in 2040, 26 years after a virus curing cancer and another curing the common cold came together and infected all humans with a hybrid plague that brings people back to life after they die, sending them rushing hungrily after the living. Society has continued, not tumbling into oblivion as in other zombie tales, though existence is much more hermetic and fraught with constant security measures and blood tests. In this post-apocalyptic world, bloggers have become the primary source of news, and Feed follows Georgia and Shaun Mason, siblings whose blogging team climbs to the top slot in popularity when they are chosen to follow the campaign of a Republican presidential primary candidate, the moderate Senator Peter Ryman.
When Ryman’s team finds itself repeatedly in the midst of deadly outbreaks of “amplification” (the conversion of normal infected living into zombies), it becomes clear to the Masons that someone wants to damage the popular politician and derail his campaign. The bloggers tenaciously follow the story and uncover a sinister conspiracy that reaches into many levels of American society and that piles tragedy after tragedy upon them. A mind-blowing twist at the end left my jaw agape.
Feed was a mesmerizing read. The narrator, Georgia, is a bit too good at times (she has supposed flaws, but they are actually merely quirks: she’s definitely a hero in the old-fashioned sense of the word). The principal villain is painted too broadly for my taste, and his involvement is telegraphed in a rather inelegant way. But the characters and storyline are otherwise very compelling. The action is well written, the tension ratchets up constantly, and by the end I was eager to download the second volume. Highly recommended. (less)
China Miéville’s Hugo-nominated Embassytown is both a thro...moreFrom my TOP SHELF review in The Monitor on May 31, 2012.
Sophisticated Sociolinguistic Sci-Fi
China Miéville’s Hugo-nominated Embassytown is both a throwback to the sort philosophical and political science fiction that underpinned novels like Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (as well as some of the best Star Trek episodes) and also a startlingly innovative work by one of the most literary and intellectual genre writers of this generation.
The Ariekei are a race of beings whose innate language allows them to speak only what is: lying and metaphor are beyond them. In order to speak about new ideas that arise, they have to carefully construct real-world referents that can serve as similes. Because of their physiognomy, they only recognize as words the sounds that emerge simultaneously from two mouths joined to a single mind. The Anglophone nation of Bremen on the planet Dagostin established a sort of colonial outpost on their world generations ago, and specially trained pairs of neurally connected clones have served as ambassadors to the Ariekei so that Bremen can benefit from the advanced bio-engineered technology of the strange species.
The Ariekei are fascinated by the humans’ ability to lie, and a faction of them works very publically to acquire the skill despite the opposition of humans who would preserve their original culture. Then Bremen, in an attempt to undercut Embassytown’s growing independence, sends a new ambassador pair, one whose unique characteristics have a horrifying effect on the aliens: their combined voice is literally addictive, and Ariekei society screeches to a halt as they scrabble to get a fix. Faced with a society of slowly dying junkies and under attack by unreachable zombies who’ve mutilated themselves to resist the addiction, the humans of Embassytown turn to Avice Benner Cho, a living simile (“the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given to her”). In order to heal the damage human contact has done to Ariekei society, Avice must help the natives change themselves forever. Her efforts—made as she mourns the loss of an entire way of being in exchange for a novel, hybridized identity—are the most intense, compelling sections of this rich and challenging novel.
Miéville doesn’t always make reading easy for his audience: neologisms compete with learned diction and deliberate obfuscation of certain plot points. As a student of linguistics, I’ll also say that some of his science is a bit iffy as well. But as a high-concept exploration of the impact of colonialism, the novel succeeds brilliantly, and I was left both satisfied at the book and sad to leave Embassytown. (less)
TOP SHELF Review (Original published in The Monitor on May 3, 2012 in a slightly different form.
Brutal Dystopia for Teens
Paolo Bacigalupi has carved...moreTOP SHELF Review (Original published in The Monitor on May 3, 2012 in a slightly different form.
Brutal Dystopia for Teens
Paolo Bacigalupi has carved a niche in the dystopian sub-genre, writing about a future in which ecological disasters have caused economic and social collapse, paring existence down to mere survival. His novel The Windup Girl, his first YA book Ship Breaker, and much of his collection Pump Six and Other Stories share a common world, devastated by global warming and genetic tampering. His newest Young Adult title, The Drowned Cities, is set in that same compelling fictional universe.
The novel centers around two orphans living in the jungles near what is left of Washington, DC, now called the Drowned Cities. Mahlia is a cast-off daughter of one of the Chinese peacekeepers, who tried to end the civil war that has ripped the former US apart, but finally abandoned it. She was captured by the Army of God, whose teen soldiers cut her right hand off, and rescued by Mouse, a boy whose parents were also victims of the war. The two have been living in a small refugee community, assisting a humanitarian doctor. Their precarious existence is forever altered, however, when the soldiers of the United Patriot Front arrive, chasing down Tool, a genetically enhanced human into whom vicious animal traits have been woven to make the perfect fighting machine.
Though Tool slaughters the underage soldiers, he is badly wounded. Mahlia and Mouse are compelled to help him, bringing the wrath of the UPF upon their community. Soon the children must flee through the jungle with Tool, who agrees to help them escape the Drowned Cities in exchange for vital medicines. Unfortunately, Mouse gets lost, falling into the hands of the UPF. Mahlia knows she has little time to free her friend: the decimated armies recruit boys to fight their battles, and it won’t take long to transform Mouse into the same sort of hollow killing machine that robbed Mahlia of her hand. Tool urges Mahlia to abandon Mouse, but she refuses. Seeing the two children are part of a single pack, Tool agrees to accompany her into the very heart of the Drowned Cities to attempt a daring rescue.
As might be expected, The Drowned Cities contains the DNA of many previous YA dystopias, and fans of books like The Lord of the Flies, Ender’s Game, The Hunger Games, The Long Walk, and Battle Royale will find much to love. This novel is very dark, however, so I recommend it for mature or older teens: the setting is bleak, the characters largely amoral; there is some profanity, drug use and a pair of sexually suggestive scenes/phrases. But despite the brutal vision of the future it depicts, The Drowned Cities is ultimately concerned with the ability of human beings to find redemption and hope in even the bleakest of conditions, and it is a worthwhile read. Beyond its uplifting ending, the book could potentially open the minds of readers who realize similar scenarios are taking place at this moment across the globe. (less)