Disappointing ending, but the rest is pretty great. For once, I find myself wishing that a horror author had gone into more detail about the supernatu...moreDisappointing ending, but the rest is pretty great. For once, I find myself wishing that a horror author had gone into more detail about the supernatural elements in a book*. It would have been fascinating to learn more about the magician (or was he?) guy and his weird occult dolls.
*For more information on why this is usually a bad thing, see: most Stephen King short stories, Dean Koontz, or most horror films released in the past ten years.(less)
DNF, and I'm still not entirely sure why. Something about the writing is just massively off-putting to me. The fact that I can't say what it is bother...moreDNF, and I'm still not entirely sure why. Something about the writing is just massively off-putting to me. The fact that I can't say what it is bothers me enough that I'm going to go back and re-read some of it when I have more time. It's not BAD, even, so don't take this as a recommendation against trying it out if you think it looks interesting.(less)
I reviewed Stray, one of Höst’s earlier books, about nine months ago. I remember wondering at the time whether Höst would pursue a book deal with a publisher, since she clearly had the skill to do so if she felt like it. Now, having read And All The Stars, I suspect she has a loftier goal in mind: to become one of the first self-published YA authors who can justify self-publishing not by the number of books she’s sold, but by the quality of her writing. Or maybe she just doesn’t feel like being bound to the terms of a contract. In the end, who cares? And All The Stars is one of the most unusual YA books I’ve read all year – and one of the best.
The book opens with the main character, Madeleine Cost, trapped under the rubble of a collapsed train station in Sydney. She escapes into a world utterly transformed: massive ‘Spires’ have appeared in major urban areas across the world, transforming those around them into either Blue or Green-skinned creatures with strange abilities. Madeleine is among those who survive the change. She befriends a group of similarly-transformed Blues, as they begin to call themselves, and sets out to understand why Earth has been invaded and whether any of the survivors can do anything to reclaim it.
I’d really like to say more about the alien invaders at the heart of And All The Stars, but finding out what they are is half the fun. They reminded me most of a more serious version of the aliens in The Hitchhiker’s Guie to the Galaxy – not evil, exactly, just profoundly indifferent to how their actions affect humanity.
Luckily, there’s plenty more to talk about. The cast of characters that makes an appearance in And All The Stars is huge – too huge, maybe, given that some of them appear once or twice and then are never heard from again. But the core group, consisting of Madeleine, Noi, and a group of boys from a private secondary school, are all fleshed out brilliantly over the course of the book. Their relationships are also incredibly diverse, as much as I hate using that word sometimes. Is Madeleine physically attracted to Noi, her closest friend among the group of survivors? She might be, or she may just see the other girl as an ideal subject for her paintings. Are Nash and Pan a couple? Not really, but also kind of, even though only one of them is gay. Whether intentionally or not, Höst depicts a group of young people who were almost entirely unconcerned with classifying themselves according to the usual rules even before an alien invasion turned society on its head.
Whether because of that or because they’re so well-written, I found myself genuinely worrying about what might happen to certain characters as the story progressed and the stakes grew ever higher. The invaders eventually put their ultimate plan into motion, and it doesn’t end well for any transformed humans caught in the middle. There’s a long (probably too long) section in the middle of the book where the characters are holed up in an apartment while they make plans to eventually leave the city. Inevitably, some of them aren’t going to make it out unscathed. But unlike in any number of zombie or disaster stories I could name, nobody has a target painted on their back; there’s no designated asshole who is destined from their first appearance to be thrown to the aliens when it’s time for someone to die.
Now for the inevitable criticism. (What, you thought it wasn’t coming?) My biggest complaint is that the book’s tone can be fluctuate pretty severely even in the middle of a scene. There were one or two moments when everyone seemed just a bit too jovial given the grimness of their situation and the amount of dead bodies they’ve all had to deal with since the initial appearance of the Spires. There are also one or two emotional moments that don’t entirely work, like the scene where a character reacts to the death of a friend by angrily quoting from a Shakespeare play. At some length. It’s a little bit difficult to take seriously.
I also can’t help but feel that the book is missing something, although I couldn’t tell you what that might be. (This is some grade-A reviewing, I know.) A slightly stronger emotional punch, maybe? Just a bit more direction in the plot? The fact that I can’t put my finger on what it is means that the book must not suffer too much for its absence, but the absence is definitely there.
These are fairly minor complaints, though. Any reader is, I think, justified in being slightly fed up with a lot of what comes out of the major publishers these days. I know I am, and not just because I review a fairly decent percentage of everything that comes out. And All The Stars is genuinely unlike anything I’ve review here on the Academy, ever, and for that alone I’d be willing to recommend it without reservation. The fact that it tells a good story, is great science fiction and has some of the best characters I’ve seen for a while means that it isn’t just a curio for adventurous readers. If you like YA science fiction, you should read this. It’s that simple.(less)
A book that's actually scary? I genuinely can't remember the last time that happened. I'm also a sucker for the whole 'character slowly disassociating...moreA book that's actually scary? I genuinely can't remember the last time that happened. I'm also a sucker for the whole 'character slowly disassociating from reality' thing. (less)
Midnight City reminded me, in a strange way, of Ashen Winter. Both books involve small groups of post-di...moreFull review over on the Intergalactic Academy.
Midnight City reminded me, in a strange way, of Ashen Winter. Both books involve small groups of post-disaster survivors trying to traverse a treacherous landscape in search of safety and a way to escape the people (or aliens) coming after them, and both are heavy on action. Where they differ is that Ashen Winter takes a fairly realistic approach to its action and characters, whereas Midnight City is heavy on Hollywood-style fight scenes and one-liners. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing will likely depend on how you feel about Hollywood.
But Midnight City has more going for it than just its quick pacing. I’ll admit that I was a bit leery of it at first. The setup involves Holt, a young bounty hunter, trying to capture Mira, a ‘freebooter’ in search of a valuable item hidden in the wreckage of a world devastated by an alien invasion. Holt is one of the few people who are resistant to the alien’s Tone, a mind-controlling signal that begins to affect people in their adolescence and, by the time they reach the age of twenty or so, turns them into mindless zombies who walk obediently to the nearest alien stronghold. I assumed the plot would involve Holt capturing Mira, slowly realising his feelings for her and then deciding to protect her from the people who put a bounty on her head.
I was right, more or less, except that the book really starts to pile on the inventive touches from the halfway mark onwards. It really hits its stride when the characters arrive at the titular Midnight City itself, a bizarre outpost of human civilization that governs itself according to a complex ‘game’ in which clans of teenagers (as yet unaffected by the Tone) fight for the ‘points’ (think a bizarre version of a stock market) which indicate their relative stature within the city’s hierarchy. The whole thing is unabashedly comic book-ish in the best way possible, and I found myself more than willing to go along with the sometimes-tiresome action because of it.
The Strange Lands and their associated ‘artifacts’ are equally cool on paper, although in execution they end up feeling a bit cheap. Mira keeps a stockpile of so-called ‘major artifacts’ that seem to run on a special brand of entropy that simplifies plotlines. Particularly in the opening chapters of the book, Mira whips out an artifact as the plot demands. I suspect these scenes were supposed to make Mira seem resourceful, but all I could think of was Adam West and his shark repellant. The way Mira crafts artifacts feels jarringly like something out of a video game, with weirdly specific rules governing which artifact components can be combined in what ways.
Actually, the videogame comparisons don’t end there. The alien invaders, known as the Assembly, bear a striking resemblance to the Combine from the Half-Life series. I’m not saying this is a bad thing – the Combine are pretty neat, as alien invaders go. It’s just that the action-movie pacing and video game aesthetics can sometimes make the whole book feel a touch more shallow than it really is.
This might be why the world of Midnight City can feel so unreal at times. Or it could be the fact that Mitchell seems intent on depicting his post-invasion Earth as one completely disconnected from its past; just eight years after the invasion, most people have adopted completely new (and strange) names for many former towns and cities. If you dropped most readers into the middle of the book, they would probably assume that the story takes place in another universe entirely from our own. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem in itself, but there are a few flashbacks to Holt’s life before the invasion that end up being fairly incongruous because of it.
In the end, Midnight City’s more interesting aspects won out for me. I don’t particularly care if I ever get to read about Holt again, but you can bet I’m looking forward to finding out exactly what’s up with the Strange Lands and the Severed Tower.(less)
Ashen Winter is a standard post-apocalyptic story told extremely well.
The setup isn’t likely to surprise anyone familiar with the genre: it’s six months after the events of the previous book, and the world (or at least the United States) is in the grip of a seemingly never-ending volcanic winter. The sun barely shines in a sky choked with ash and dust, a permanent layer of snow and ice makes it impossible to grow crops, and the remaining human population is on the brink of starvation. It’s what The Road might have been like if Cormac McCarthy had been feeling slightly less nihilistic when he wrote it.
Alex and Darla have spent the six months living on his uncle’s farm. Their long-term plans involve trying to eke out a living over the coming years and possibly getting married, but all of that changes when the farm is attacked by bandits. One of the men is armed with the shotgun that Alex’s parents took when they went in search of him shortly after the eruption. Spurred on by the thought that they might still be alive, or at least the desire to know for sure that they aren’t, Alex sets out across the frozen countryside to find them.
Needless to say, it doesn’t go well.
If the theme of Ashfall was, well, the ashfall, then the theme of Ashen Winter is ‘cold’. Alex and Darla are in constant danger of freezing to death, and one of the primary concerns facing the survivors is trying to grow enough food to survive. The cannibals from the first book return, except now they’re more numerous and better-armed than before. Alex’s journey is a constant battle against the cold and against the many, many people who will happily shoot him on sight, particularly after he’s separated from the ever-resourceful Darla. The degree to which he relies on her to bail him out of bad situations is thrown into sharp relief as soon as he has to fend for himself, which is a inversion of the way these things usually go. He gains a few different allies while trying to rescue Darla, but none of them are anywhere near as interesting as her.
About a third of the way through the book, I realised that Mike Mullin is one of the few authors who writes action scenes that I actually enjoy. Multi-chapter scenes of characters fighting or running for their lives usually have me skimming after a few pages unless I’m pretty sure someone is going to die, but I was never bored with Ashen Winter. Alex has to constantly outshoot, outfight and outdrive members of a vicious band of cannibals, which somehow never gets old. It helps that the action scenes feel realistic, and the characters’ victories hard-won, even when they’re depicting something straight out of a Hollywood movie. For example, there’s a scene where Alex spends quite a long time clinging to the underside of a moving truck that should be ridiculous but isn’t, largely because he ends up badly injured afterwards.
Mullin wisely decides to keep the focus squarely on the characters and their immediate predicaments. Alex and Darla hear rumors of the wider world, some of which suggest that not every nation has collapsed as thoroughly as the United States, but they never confirm any of them for sure. Not that it really matters – the characters are completely on their own, and they know it. There is never any suggestion that a regrouped government is going to swoop in to save everybody and rebuild society.
If I have any complaints about Ashen Winter, it’s that it suffers from the inevitable problems that plague almost all middle-of-a-trilogy books. Mullin thankfully doesn’t have Alex and Darla break up so he can repeat their romantic subplot from the first book, but it does feel as if that particular subplot is in stasis until the inevitable third volume. Their relationship is entirely believable despite its intensity, an area that YA has problems with in general, but I didn’t feel as if it had moved on in any real way by the end of the book despite their enforced separation. The overall arc of the characters trying to rebuild society also doesn’t advance in any appreciable way over the course of the plot. The book ends with everyone on the brink of what looks to be a dramatic step forward in that regard, though, so time will tell whether Ashen Winter ends up defying the odds by feeling entirely relevant in the context of a trilogy.
Right now, though, Ashen Winter is a no-brainer for fans of the first book. If you read Ashfall and enjoyed it, you have absolutely no reason not to get this. If you missed Ashfall but are in the mood for a smart, action-packed story of post-apocalyptic survival, you could do a lot worse than picking up both books at once and marathoning them. I seriously doubt you’ll be disappointed.(less)
When I started Through To You, I was hoping for something like Imaginary Girls or Liar – a slow-burning novel...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
When I started Through To You, I was hoping for something like Imaginary Girls or Liar – a slow-burning novel that waits until you think you know what kind of book you’re dealing with before suddenly bringing out the speculative twist. But where those books go for subtlety and a slow build up, Through To You unwisely shows its hand within the first 20 pages and remains predictable for the next 250.
The setup is promising: Camden Pike loses his girlfriend Viv in a car accident, and two months later sees an apparition of a mysterious girl near the site of the crash. Thankfully, the girl turns out to not be Viv, although she does seem to know him. Cam eventually works out that she’s from a parallel world where Viv never died and begins going back and forth regularly.
I’d explain a bit more of the plot, but I’m afraid of giving away the entire thing. From that paragraph alone (or indeed, from the book’s blurb), you’ll likely be able to work out 90% of what happens. Through To You ends up feeling like a short novella stretched into a short novel. There just isn’t enough content here to justify the pagecount, and it doesn’t help that the plot is so predictable. I guessed every twist in the book long before any of them happened, and was sorely disappointed to find that it had nothing else up its sleeve.
The entire plot comes down to a protracted setup for a certain kind of love triangle, one that should be painfully familiar to readers of YA fiction. As always with this kind of thing, one corner of the triangle is so sparsely-written and unlikable that it becomes difficult to see how anyone could ever see them as a viable option. In this case, it’s Viv, which is a problem when Camden spends so long pining over her and declaring, in blatantly co-dependent fashion, that his entire life revolved around her. That the co-dependence is plot-relevant doesn’t necessarily make it any more interesting to read about, either.
But for all its faults, Through To You is built on a fascinating premise. The idea of stumbling into a slightly different version of the real world is eternally compelling when handled correctly, and Hainsworth does handle it about as well as anyone else I’ve read. This is not a case of one world being ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’. Both are complex and messy, and at no point did I wonder why Cam didn’t just stay permanently in one over the other.
Speaking of things being messy, Cam is also believably traumatized over the abrupt end of his high school football career from a bad leg injury, Viv’s death, and his parents’ break-up. He goes to see a therapist, he has mood swings, and he is implied to have been borderline suicidal at some point before the events of the book’s plot. He and Nina both feel as though they’ve lived genuine lives rather than existing in a void while they waited for the novel to begin.
Ultimately, Through To You is a quick and easy read that probably won’t leave you as satisfied as you thought it would based on the premise.(less)