One of the chief complaints about the YA genre - especially the books being targeted and marketed toward young women - is that they are becoming increasingly derivative, and seem to focus only on the romance. BLACK CITY is a perfect example of that: it's a book that can be neatly summed up by asking "what happens when you smush together DIVERGENT and TWILIGHT?"
I haven't given a one-star rating in a while, and to be honest - it feels weird. It's been so long since I read a book that I thought was bad, that I forgot what the actual experience was like. The incredulity. The frustration. The boredom. What really annoyed me was how much I wanted to like BLACK CITY in the first place, because vampires are awesome, and a dystopian society involving vampires should also be awesome, because vampires and oppression. Plus, that cover. That's a cover to take home to mama.
The problem starts with the world-building. The author employs a lot of really clunky terminology, like "Darklings" for vampires, "twin-bloods" for half-breeds, "Sight" for vampiric thralls, and "the v-gene" for...a special gene that lets you 'sense' vampires, I guess. There's also different classes of vampires, with different colored hair and eyes, and some have wings, and then there's this degenerative necrosis-inducing disease that only affects vampires that's called Wrath, which makes their skin rot away. Got all that? But wait, there's more -
They call the trance-like state humans go into "Haze", which is confusing because Haze can also be sold in a bottle in drug form, and sometimes it is especially potent, which is called Golden Haze. And then there's these creatures called "Bastets" which appear to be shape-shifter leopards who have venom in their teeth. Trackers hunt the Darklings after curfew, protecting the Sentry, or the ruling government class, from Workboots (the poor) and the Legion (vampire revolutionaries). Violating the various laws that are in place to fraternize with a Darkling makes you a "race traitor."
The world all of this terms are used in isn't much clearer. I think it's supposed to be an alternate version of our world, except for some reason all of the states in the U.S. have been split into nine megastates with lame names like "Emerald State", but it's never really explained. Also, why are we a fascist, cultish dictatorship with a fascist, cultish leader? What happened? I never voted for this guy!
By the end of the book, I mostly had a handle on all the terminology, although I was still eying the world skeptically (what happened to the rest of the world? This is exactly what happened in DIVERGENT - Future Chicago went to heck in a hand basket, but was that an isolated incident? A reality TV show that the rest of the world just watched in amusement while shaking their head and going, "Oh, Chicago, you silly little cinnamon rolls, what will you think of next?") Also, why are the vampires allowing this to happen in the first place? They have literal "opium dens" for the Haze users. If their strength and their wings failed them, it wouldn't take much effort to just get all the humans hooked on Haze for a hostile takeover. But I might still have been able to enjoy the book in spite of all these plot holes and vocabulary words if it weren't for the two main characters - Ash and Natalie. Ash is a twin-blood (half-breed) and Natalie is a Sentry (ruling class). Twin-bloods don't have beating hearts for some reason (they're vestigial, I guess), but when Natalie touches him on accident - his heart actually starts beating because, and I kid you not, she's his soul mate, and your heart only beats as a twin-blood once you find the One.
They talk about how special and unique their love is before they've even really exchanged much more than a few paragraphs of conversation and by the time that they agree to go out with each other, before they've even gone on a single date, they're already ready to sacrifice all of their friendships and family ties and even their lives for each other. Even Romeo and Juliet would be side-eying these two. They're also just not very nice characters. Natalie is especially helpless, biting her lip, blushing, and staring in horror whenever something unpleasant happens. She tries to brush all of the bad things under the carpet, including the horrible acts that her mother and father have done to the vampires. Ash isn't much better. He helps get his "best friend" hooked on drugs and does some pretty sketchy things to women who aren't Natalie. It's hard to root for characters you don't like - particularly when you know that you are supposed to like those characters, and relate to them, and see yourself in them.
I do own the sequel to this book, BLACK PHOENIX, which I will be reading soon. I'd like to see if the author improves over time, and is capable of doing that lovely, lovely cover justice. There were some things in this book I didn't expect, but they were minor plot twists and overshadowed by the epically unconvincing love story. I can understand why so many reviewers were disappointed by BLACK CITY. I was, too.
I went through this period where if a book looked even remotely interesting, I'd buy it/request it from Netgalley/borrow it from the library. As you can imagine, this was problematic for several reasons - book clutter, for one. It also resulted in some very serious buyer's remorse. Take JACK KNIFE.Two government agents go into Victorian England to collect a rogue scientist who is hell-bent on reenacting the plot of Tomorrow Never Dies? Please.
I brought this book along with me to read while on a very long bus ride, so maybe it's the fact that I was essentially a captive audience, but I didn't dislike this book merely enough as I felt I ought to have. The writing quality was on the poor side - pulpy - and the characters of Sara and David, the government agents, were two-dimensional. David is your typical tough army guy with the heart of gold and Sara is the ball-busting feminist who everyone is attracted to, in spite of (because of?) the fact that she can kick their butts.
Sara and David find out that Jack the Ripper is running rampant, but for whatever reason, he's killing way more and far more bloodily than he ever did in their time. On the case is detective Jonas Robb, who is the son of a duke when he's not a cop, and who is also very attracted to Sara. He's suspicious of them, though, and he knows enough to know that something about their alibis doesn't match up.
I found JACK KNIFE entertaining, but it's a throwaway read. Not something I'd ever pick up again, unless I were marooned on a long bus ride and had no other reading materials present. There were a lot of plot holes and things left unexplained at the end, and I didn't really care for the characterization of any of the people in here. Or the use of science. Honestly, it seems like the more the characters stress how essential it is to preserve the timeline, the more they do their best to f*ck it up.
I'm a die-hard Labyrinth fan-girl, okay? I grew up with that movie, and fell in love with the cheap, glitter-spackled set, with David Bowie with his hair metal mullet and Seinfeld-esque puffy shirt - creepy puppets and ambiguous target audience, and all. So you can imagine the double-take I did, then, when I was perusing the titles across Netgalley and saw the title & cover of this book.
"That looks like...no way, it can't be...what is that?"
Ladies and gentle-goblins, I give you...Labyrinth - in sonnet form. You know, in case you're a die-hard fan-girl like me, and have been dying to hear your favorite movie summarized in iambic-pentameter. No, wait, come back - it's actually...decent.
I admit, I sneered a little at the idea of hearing a movie recounted to me in poetry format. It sounds like something out of a gong show or a high school curriculum. Look, I can come up with something right now. See - "And then, poor Frodo into the lava / did cast the One Ring back from whence it came / but found its power over him was great/ and to resist the Ring might be in vain."
But the writing was actually really great. I loved the words the author chose, and I swear she borrowed a few phrases from Shakespeare to sound extra authentic. The Star Wars sonnets that Quirk did a while ago didn't really work for me, but LABYRINTH actually left me smiling and feeling fondly nostalgic.
Here's one of my favorite bits:
His pallor was reflected in his clothes.
His cloak of night had changed to feathers pale,
and shades of grey were now his shirt, gloves hose -