I used to review fantasy books for a website, and one of the basic rules was you wrote a review for each book you read. Makes sense, right? But what w...moreI used to review fantasy books for a website, and one of the basic rules was you wrote a review for each book you read. Makes sense, right? But what would you do in a case like this? The first book in this series is more of a short story. I don't even think it hits novella length. It's just a good sized chapter in some epic brick. And so what do you do at the end of a particularly good chapter? You just turn the page and keep reading.
That's something to keep in mind for anyone who plans on reading these books. Just buy the omnibus edition, because you will want to keep reading when you get to the end of the first story. And then you will yell at the book and want to keep reading at the end of the third. And by the time you get to the fourth, you will just think, "I can ignore my family for a few more hours because I really need to keep reading this right now because I am freaking going to kill someone if they keep me from finding out what happens next." I will admit, I was reading this while proctoring exams on my kindle, and gave at least one student the stink-eye for interrupting me to ask a question. And so I am reviewing them all together, because I tend to think of this as one story, serialized in release like novels from 50 years ago. Amazon puts the print edition at 548 pages, which honestly, would just make Robert Jordan fart in the general direction of this tome.
So, back to the story. What has got me all lathered up?
These are the books that The Hunger Games wishes they could be when they grow up. Set in a dystopian future, humanity has retreated to a silo buried underground, their only connection to the world a series of cameras that show the brown dessicated surface and the crumbling remnants of skyscrapers in the distance. Under strict controls governing every aspect of their lives - where they work, when they reproduce, where they live - people are kept underground, forbidden to even talk about going outside. If you do talk about outside, the punishment is simple. They make you go outside. And there you will die within seconds, killed by the toxic atmosphere that shreds any sort of protection. But what happens when one woman thinks she has learned the truth about outside? Is it all really a lie? Are they being kept here against their will, without even the knowledge to have a will?
I don't want to go into the plot too much, because Howey manages to throw a couple of loops that I don't want to spoil for anyone else, but these books mirror the same level of dystopian ingenuity as Huxley or Orwell, combined with a Martinian flair for killing off main characters. Anyone with a name has the possibility of being killed, and lots of the people without names too. But this isn't violence for the sake of noble sacrifice or villainish emphasis. This is political violence, and Howey makes an argument about the idiocy and simultaneous logic of the use of political violence, totalitarianism and rhetorical manipulation that places this work among those that grace many a college literature class. I think Wool is destined to become a classic of science fiction that is equally thought provoking and entertaining.
While this is not what I would consider a Young Adult novel, I think it will have broad appeal to younger readers as well, especially those who got turned on to dystopian novels by the Hunger Games books. There are a few swear words, but the level of graphic content it contains pales in comparison to other young adult novels. While there may be a few minor flaws - a moment or two where the pacing drags or the characters pontificate a moment too long - this is the book that I will be foisting upon all my friends telling them, "You need to read this." And I mean all my friends, not just the ones who typically read genre fiction.
Also, the book is an elaborate knitting metaphor. That's just awesome.(less)
Imagine a zombie. An image springs instantly to mind. A rotting corpse, shuffling along, arms held out clumsily, grunting and groaning as it makes its way inexorably forward. Now imagine you, yourself, your ego, inside that zombie. You are that zombie, your consciousness trapped inside a brain that no longer has control over your body, your life, your insatiable hunger. You watch yourself feast on the flesh of those who are no longer survivors of the plague that has infested New York City, revolted by the feel and taste of human waste in your mouth as you gorge yourself on intestines and flesh. You pray for release from this un-life, but you are trapped, a passenger along for the ride on a body you no longer control.
In I, Zombie, Hugh Howey has created a top-notch horror novel and a metaphorically resonant examination of the human condition. I don’t normally read horror novels because I have an overactive imagination and tend to have nightmares from simple ghost stories told around a campfire. But I trusted in the skilled hands of Howey to make this zombie story more than a simple horror tale and I was not disappointed. I devoured I, Zombie in a single day, staying up late to finish the last chapters. As I laid in bed, trying to fall asleep (with the lights left on so the zombies wouldn’t get me) my mind turned from the horror of zombies mindlessly seeking the living to satiate uncontrollable desires to the people trapped in those flesh coffins.
Howey aptly titled the book I, Zombie, because this vividly told tale will force the reader to see the zombie in themselves. Told as a series of first person narratives, the people confined in the shambling hulks examine how they have lived as zombies in their own lives. Addiction, coercion, fear, mindless routines, failing to make a choice as an illusion of choosing, hunger for someone else to fill them with meaning, the slow decay of relationships as distance — emotional and physical — separates the human from the animal.
There is a lot of symbolism in I, Zombie, but it is easily done, placed into a background that informs and illustrates without being heavy-handed. Some books are easily spotted as being “serious fiction” but this book is a quality piece of storytelling that just so happens to be capable of being read at multiple levels. I can easily see this being assigned in classrooms at the college level (or older high school students because of the gross factor) as a study of what it means to be human and alive, rather than just another animal that is living.
There were a few hitches for me. There are some grammatical errors that should have been caught in editing (I read the Kindle edition.) And while Howey is writing over a dozen first person narratives, and manages to give each person their own distinctive voice, some of the vocabulary and idioms used for each character repeated enough that I wasn’t sure if it was intentional, a linguistic circling that illustrates the confines of each person’s lexicon and therefore experience and understanding of the world, or just careless writing that should have been refined in the revision process.
I, Zombie is revolting. And yet, I highly recommend it. I know there’s a joke waiting to be made about this being the thinking woman’s zombie story and BRAAAAIIIINNNNSSSS!!! but I can’t quite figure out how to make it work. There were times reading I, Zombie that I had an actual physical reaction, typically a dry heave, to what was going on in the book. And yet, even in a series of disconnected narratives, the plot advances so deftly that I was never bored (and was frequently holding my breath wondering how it was going to play out), and while the grossness factor remains in the background, the confrontation between the physical and the mental, the soul and the flesh, the instinct and the will, is what remains at the forefront after finishing the story.
I was first introduced to this book by students in my Ancient Political Theory class while discussing Plato’s Republic. “This is like The Giver!” I had never read the book, so I picked it up and found that, indeed, there are many similarities. The Giver by Lois Lowry is set in a utopian future society where all individuality has been suppressed and people live lives planned by a central council of Elders who dictate who will marry, who has children, what jobs people have, and every aspect of life, from clothing and hair styles to food eaten and recreational activities allowed. The central character of the story is Jonas, a young boy about to become a Twelve, at which point he will be given the assignment of his career for the rest of his life. At that ceremony, when the rest of his classmates are assigned to be doctors or engineers or fish hatchery assistants, Jonas is selected to be The Receiver. All Jonas knows is what he is told: that this will require significant amounts of pain and courage, and that it is a position of the highest honor. In his training, he learns that the sameness and equality is built on a foundation of suppression of individual choice and forced equality based on genetically engineering out the ability to perceive difference — in color, in emotion, in life. Jonas has to decide what is more important — the stability of the community or the freedom of the individual.
The Giver won a Newbery Medal and has become a classic in elementary and junior high school curriculums. It has had its fair share of controversy, especially around the role that euthanasia plays in the society and the death of children, but I feel that this is an age-appropriate introduction to one of the central issues of political philosophy in an engaging story that forces Jonas to deal with the conflicting demands of his new awakening and the supposed happiness of everyone he has ever known.
It’s not just a philosophical treatise, however. This story expertly builds tension as Jonas awakens from his enforced peacefulness to a new reality. The flow of the prose builds like a stream slowly turning into a surging river. I have two main problems with this story. First, there is no explanation of how the ability of the Giver to transmit memories by touch works. This bit of mental telepathy seems out of place in a world in which everything else is so prosaically regulated. By second problem with the book is the ending. The first time I read The Giver I didn’t realize it was part of a series, so I was really mad at the cliffhanger type ending. Even now, as I reread it with the second book sitting on my nightstand to read next, the ending still bothered me. The story doesn’t have a resolution, but rather just ends.
I would recommend that parents read The Giver if their children are going to read it so that they can be aware of the emotionally upsetting content of the story and be able to discuss it with their children. I do think it is a valuable book for students to read, and has the rare ability to mix a good story with important questions. I plan on making sure my son reads this book when he is older, because of its value. I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, which I have not previously read, in preparation for the last book in the quartet to be released in September.(less)
Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry is the loosely linked sequel to The Giver. Set in the same world, this story is set in another village that has survived post-apocalyptic collapse of larger society. Instead of the peaceful, well-ordered, cooperative world that characterized the first book, Gathering Blue is set in a dirty, hardscrabble village, where violence and betrayal are commonplace.
The story centers on Kira, a young woman with a deformed leg. Normally, she would have been left to die at birth because of the deformity, but her widowed mother fought for her, and so she was allowed to live. Now, with her mother dead from disease, and her cottage burned to prevent the spread of the illness, she is alone with no one to protect her or help her survive the harsh future she faces except for a little dirty boy from the Fen, named Matty. Luckily, she has a Gift. She can embroider beautifully. What she doesn’t know is that her Gift is going to be her way out of the harsh violence of her childhood, and into the much more controlled, hidden violence of the political elites. The main part of the story focuses on Kira’s adventures in the palace, and her growing friendship with Thomas, a young man who also has a Gift. Both of them are isolated and forced to work for the Council of Elders. As they discover some of the darker secrets hidden behind the polite façade, Kira and Thomas have to decide where their allegiances lie and how they can save the society they live in.
Gathering Blue does a wonderful job of creating interesting characters, and placing them in a setting that is ripe for conflict. The problem with this book for me is that the story ends just as the conflict is fully set up. There is no resolution to the plot at all. Instead, we see Kira make a decision that something has to be done to remedy the injustices that are the foundation of their village. And then the book ends. This is a problem typical of middle books in series, but this volume faces an additional challenge in that it is so loosely linked to the first volume that it doesn’t feel like it is advancing the overall story at all. Also, I am wondering what services the political system is providing to the villagers that the villagers uphold a class of elites that seem to be doing absolutely nothing for them.
I enjoyed reading Gathering Blue. Lowry does a wonderful job of creating characters you can root for (and against) and creating interesting settings. The problem is that there is no meaningful resolution to any part of the action. This lack of resolution, similar to the ending in The Giver, left me feeling irritated, however. I hope the action advances meaningfully in the next book.(less)
The book flap describes Messenger by Lois Lowry thusly: “For the past six years, Matty has lived in Village and flourished under the guidance of Seer, a blind man, known for his special sight. Village was a place that welcomed newcomers, but something sinister has seeped into Village and the people have voted to close it to outsiders. Matty has been invaluable as a messenger. Now he must make one last journey through the treacherous forest with his only weapon, a power he unexpectedly discovers within himself.” Do you want to know why I used the book flap description for the first time ever? Because I don’t trust myself not to get all snarktastic just describing the book.
Warning: Review is going to be snarktastic.
Okay, I freely admit I am getting more and more irritated by this series as I go further along. You want to know why? Because it makes absolutely no sense at all. This book centers around Matty from book two and Jonas from book one. They are now in village number three in the series. Apparently it’s a village a book. And bad stuff is happening in village three, known oh, so creatively as Village. What kind of bad stuff? Well, people are being selfish. And there’s some whisperings about a Trade Market where people are trading… stuff. And then the forest is coming alive and killing people. Whaaaa?
So, apparently, either Forest (not the forest, just Forest, like Village and Mentor) is feeding off the bad feelings of the villagers and becoming sentient and evil. Or it’s the other way around and the villagers are absorbing the malevolent intent of the Forest and becoming selfish, but either way, how in the heck is Forest sentient? If Forest is absorbing the bad feelings of the villagers, then the village in the second book, which also borders on the forest, should have made it become evil long ago. And because conditions have improved in the second village, we should expect to see a decrease in evilness in the forest, but we are seeing the opposite. That would mean that Forest is not responding to the intentions of the villagers. But apparently Forest has been killing villagers for years, but not before giving them Warnings. (Yes, there are lots of capitalized things in this book.) Which would argue for a certain level of benevolence to Forest, but still, Forest is alive and killing people and the villagers accept this as normal. At least the villagers in Village do, but apparently, this wasn’t a topic of concern in the second village, and yet, it is the same forest/Forest. Continuity is hard, y’all.
Also, we have learned that things have gotten better in the first two villages. Do we know how? NO! Do we know how the main characters get their Gifts? NOPE! Does anyone explain why the nature of Jonas’ gift has shifted from seeing the true nature of things to farseeing? NEIN! Do we know how Forest has become sentient after all these hundreds or thousands of years? OF COURSE NOT!
I don’t have a problem with evil sentient forests. I do have a problem with forests on earth becoming evil and sentient with little to no warning and there being no discernible causal mechanism. I’m okay with mutant trees caused by ionizing radiation from the nuclear war that destroyed the world. But you need to mention that there was a nuclear war and other things needs to be affected besides just Forest. Also, I have a bit of a problem with the idea that Jonas, who runs away from a village dominated by central planning and lack of individual choice, is now the leader – in fact, he is Leader – of a village where he is responsible for giving everyone names that replace their individual name and define them in a role for the rest of their life. That’s right, you lose your given name when you hit puberty, right about the time you get assigned your life career in the first book, and get a Title to replace it. It as if he has gone from one not-so-utopia to another. And that’s not even getting into the heavy handed, “We don’t like foreigners ‘cause they’re dirty and talk funny” rhetoric that is given to the villagers who fall under the influence of the… evil influence. I mean seriously, I don’t even know why the bad people are being bad. But it was a big strong evil influence, because that’s what the heroes have to fight in this book.
Lowry does manage to write characters that the reader cares about, and even though this installment lacks the detailed world building of the previous two books, she still does a good job of turning Forest into a main character (even though it is one with no backstory and confusing motivation.) Messenger was originally supposed to be the final book in the trilogy, but Lowry has a fourth book planned to come out in October, which is good, because if this had been the end of the series, I would have been severely irritated. I am holding the severe irritation in abeyance until after I have a chance to read the conclusion which had better answer some serious questions or I am going to throw the book across the room and break its spine.(less)
**spoiler alert** Son by Lois Lowry is the fourth and final book in THE GIVER series. I’ve had serious problems with previous installments in this ser...more**spoiler alert** Son by Lois Lowry is the fourth and final book in THE GIVER series. I’ve had serious problems with previous installments in this series, and unfortunately this book does little to nothing to resolve those problems. My main issues have been that there is no source or explanation given for the mystical gifts that very few of the people possess, and that there is no explanation for the evil force that pervaded Forest in the last book.
Son starts back in the first community in the series. Clare has been chosen to be a Vessel, or a birthmother as they were called in the first book. When her first delivery goes wrong, she is reassigned to work in the fish hatchery. However, she can’t forget her baby. She starts volunteering in the nursery, and eventually discovers which child is hers. When the baby is transferred to another community, she swears she is going to track him down and runs away on one of the delivery boats.
And then there’s a middle section of the book where she lives in a fishing village for several years. I’m really not even sure what the point of this section was. That she’s never seen a chipmunk? That they aren’t taught the names for colors back in the original village (which is presented differently than it was in the first book, where it seemed as if people all saw in greyscale, which made Jonas actually seeing red so revolutionary, but now it just seems they aren’t given words for them)? She does fall in love with Einar in this section, but he teaches her how to be strong enough to climb the cliffs surrounding the village, so she does, and leaves him. Also, I think we would be seeing serious inbreeding problems in a village this isolated that is this small and has apparently been here for hundreds of years, but there is no evidence of that. The only reason I can see for the second section is to make Clare’s overwhelming dedication to finding her son even more obvious, and to have her be so physically fit that the contrast between who she is at the end of the second section and who she is in the third section is more stark.
And then we get to the third section. I'm going to talk about the third section later so you can avoid spoilers.
My suggestion is to read the first and possibly second book in the GIVER series. Really though, just read the first, The Giver. Lowry writes really interesting worlds and charismatic characters, which only slightly makes up for the fact that the plot really doesn’t make any sense at all.
Okay, seriously, you have personified Evil as the bad guy? Doesn’t that seem a little… simplistic? How does Evil become a person with whom you can interact? And if Evil is a person, are there other attributes walking around as well? And how does Evil have magical powers? And then we beat the personification of evil by telling him that some of his evil plans didn’t come to fruition. If he’s been watching the village for so long, wouldn’t he have known that? I mean, Matty died in the last book defeating all of the evil, but apparently not this Evil, and I just give up. You think he would have noticed by now that there was a huge setback to his evil plans. I mean seriously, I read the last chapter, and literally was shaking my head in disbelief that this was how she was going to end the series. And again, no explanation for the gifts – they just show up around puberty it seems, and then fade away when you get middle aged. [END SPOILERS](less)