The Tribe trilogy has to be one of the best Young Adult fantasy series I've read in a long time - beginning with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf anThe Tribe trilogy has to be one of the best Young Adult fantasy series I've read in a long time - beginning with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf and then The Disappearance of Ember Crow, the trilogy is fresh and original, very well-written and peopled with characters I quickly came to love and care for. Not only that, but it interweaves Aboriginal culture and philosophy to present a less westernised view of the world, and as flawed and tragic as this post-apocalyptic world is, I actually want to live there, in this place where the trees and the spiders are just as valued as human life.
In The Foretelling of Georgie Spider the story comes to a satisfying conclusion. Georgie is Ashala's friend from her old life; the two fled rather than be captured and held forever in a detention centre. Yes, this series goes straight to the heart of a cruel and inhumane government policy of Australia's: holding refugees and asylum seekers in awful detention centres both on-shore and off-shore, where they are subjected to abuse and fall into severe depression. Here, the "mutated" children of this world are treated in this way, because they are different and declared "unlawful", again speaking so clearly to the ease with which white people decide who is worthy and who is not (I say "white people" deliberately, because this is an Australian series and speaks so empathetically to this cultural practice, and because the Aboriginal author, Ambelin Kwaymullina, is also directly addressing past government policy in which Aboriginal peoples were classed among the flora and fauna, not as human beings).
As political and philosophical as the story truly is, it is also the compelling story of human determinism, love and courage, trust and an appreciation for life in all its forms. Having finished the trilogy, I feel both bereft and impatient to re-read it (Which, sadly, will have to wait). If I could endlessly recommend any book or series to you, it would be this one. It has all the things I love in fiction, and the only negative is that Kwaymullina took it down from an original four-book series to a trilogy. But it was a good call; no drawn-out, padded and over-bloated story here! I'm eager for what she writes next, though, that's for sure!...more
Well, it's done. It's over. Finito. I think, after all this time, there was a part of me that never expected this series to actually end, and a part oWell, it's done. It's over. Finito. I think, after all this time, there was a part of me that never expected this series to actually end, and a part of me is in shock that it finally has. This is, after all, my absolute favourite series, a series that I have been reading since I was in primary school (the first book came out in 1988, and I read it two or three years later). Each book has required a lengthy, patient wait (George R R Martin fans think they have to wait a long time - he's got nothing on Carmody!!), and each time I have been well-rewarded for it. Because I began this series as a story-hungry, imaginative child, Carmody's words and ideas have had a long-lasting impact on me. Such is the way with childhood favourites, against which nothing negative can be said. Others I have talked to have Tolkien, To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women or some other novel that they read as a child and absorbed into their soul. For me, it was Obernewtyn and Jane Eyre. Such stories stay with you as formative parts of your childhood, woven into your DNA, there to stay.
I don't know that it's possible to write a summary of this book or discuss it without spoilers, so I will simply say that I won't give out any spoilers for this final volume, but if you haven't read the first six books, there may be spoilers.
The sixth book, The Sending, ended with Elspeth Gordie and her companions finding the Beforetime city in the desert, and being rendered unconscious by a man in a silver suit. The Red Queen begins with Elspeth rising to consciousness, and discovering that someone - the man - is trying to put her into a cryopod, for a frozen sleep. Her Talent enables her to resist it, as she is deemed an anomaly. When next she wakes, it is to find herself reunited with four of her companions inside a place called Habitat, a strange, inescapable place inhabited by a passive, highly-regulated population of people who believe everything beyond its walls is gone. They speak to God, who grants wishes, and have a unique punishment for transgressions, of which there are few.
What seems at first to be a dangerous delay in the fulfilment of Elspeth's quest, turns out to be an important step: Habitat was begun by Hannah Seraphim, one of the two women from the Beforetime who left messages, clues and artefacts that Elspeth needs in order to find and destroy Sentinel, the computermachine that controls the Balance of Terror weaponmachines that caused the first Cataclysm - or Great White as it's known. A second one, triggered by Sentinel, would destroy absolutely everything and everyone, with no chance of recovery. Elspeth was tasked with this quest at the end of the second book, The Farseekers, by the giant Agyllian birds that saved her and healed her, and have since been watching over her. Her nemesis is Ariel, a mad boy from she knew when she first arrived at Obernewtyn, now a man hungry for power working closely with anyone who can further it.
While Elspeth's quest as the Seeker is the ultimate goal, she has been closely involved in other plots along the way; in The Red Queen, it is the return of the rightful queen of the Redport, a city far from Elspeth's Land which has long been ruled by Gadfian slavetraders. As with Habitat, Elspeth isn't sure if getting involved in an uprising in Redport is a distraction, a delay or a necessary part of her quest, but as everything seems to converge there - Ariel's presence, the location of Sentinel, the final message or clue left for her by the other Beforetime woman, Cassandra - helping her friend Dragon reclaim her throne is yet another piece of the puzzle.
I was worried about the gap between this book and the previous one which, while not as lengthy as such gaps usually are in this series, was still long enough for me to feel like I'd forgotten too many details. But even though I couldn't recall every character mentioned in The Red Queen, or every plot detail in full, Elspeth provides her usual introspection and exposition, as she strives to piece things together and come to understand all the new things she's learned about her world and its past, so that I was soon refreshed and caught up. The story might be slow for some, but I find the discussion and mulling necessary - it contributes to the solid and deep world-building and adds realism, for Elspeth is truly from a place and time in which everything from Before is gone, especially knowledge, yet she is dealing with things from the past which require understanding. The divide between her and the time of the Great White is so vast, she would never be able to succeed as the Seeker without puzzling everything out. And she is the Seeker, after all. It makes the story feel less like a fast-paced action film and more like a true story, putting you right there in her head, figuring things out with her - because her Beforetime is our future, or a possible one, and certainly a plausible one.
One of the things I absolutely love about Carmody's writing is her skilful way of incorporating philosophical insights regarding humanity, our place in the world, and human interactions. In The Red Queen, the slow buildup and intensely vivid world-building takes its next and final stage in some philosophical musings on the nature of humanity's dependence on technology, and the concept of intelligent, and even feeling, technology. For the most part, Elspeth is wary of the Beforetime technology they encounter, such as God, the impressive computermachine that runs Habitat, and its two 'andrones', the silver men. (Maybe that's a slight spoiler, but this is where the reader is a step ahead of the Misfits in figuring things out - it was an easy guess that God and the 'tumen' were artificial lifeforms from the Beforetime.) With their post-apocalyptic perspective, Elspeth and her companions discuss and raise questions around the seemingly infallible nature of computer programs - never more relevant than now, it seems, as computers become such an intrinsic part of our everyday lives. As Elspeth cynically but rightly points out (and I've lost the quote, sorry), computer programs are only as good as the humans that write them - mistakes and flaws can be written in, and since humans are inherently flawed, it's to be expected. The naming of the computer 'God' at Midland seems deeply ironic. The story is not a treatise against technology, but a cautionary one reminding us that the true nature of humanity is one rich in flaws.
Another element of this story that I love is the embracing of other and diverse life forms, from the Misfits strange and wonderful Talents - including empathy, farseeking (telepathy), coercion, beastspeeking, futuretelling and healing - to the range of intelligent and feeling beasts they work alongside. Animals are drawn to Elspeth not because she's also a beastspeaker, but because she is the Elspeth Innle of a beastlegend in which she leads them to freedom from humans. A deep sense of compassion and respect for animals and the land pervades the Obernewtyn Chronicles, weaving in animal characters into the story who become just as important as the human ones.
And really, ultimately, nothing beats the sheer pleasure of watching it all come together. It's an impressive weave of story threads, as small details, foretellings, dreams, characters, chance comments and all come together and are woven in. It rather boggles my mind, the amount of planning that must go into it! It's an exciting adventure, at its heart, and an utter joy to discover how it plays out. Especially with a heroine like Elspeth, who doesn't recognise her own charisma or charm, but comes across as quite serious and blind to the deeper emotions of those around her. She is without affectation or pretension, and has the right characteristics to be able to put her own desires aside in order to save the world. She's a lonely girl/woman, and I think that's another quality that drew me to her from a young age, as an introvert myself. For the longest time, Elspeth has been like a larger-than-life figure for me, a mythological heroine, a close relative about whose exploits you hear, wide-eyed and in awe. Reaching the end of this series is harder than finishing Harry Potter, say, because of how young I was when I began, and how long it's taken to write the series. But the best thing? I can keep re-reading. I've re-read earlier books in the series several times, and they never grow old. There's so much detail in them, and the writing is so riveting, for me, that it's always like reading them fresh, even when my mind can picture where it's going next. The tension is still there, the revelations, the excitement, the joy.
If there's one series you should start that you have yet to, it's this one. It might technically be a Young Adult series, but it's only a marketing technicality. There's plenty here for all ages. Read, enjoy, and tell me what you think. Mostly I just sharing the stories I love!...more
The Tribe is my new favourite series, and I am eagerly, impatiently awaiting the next two instalments. Having devoured the first, The Interrogation oThe Tribe is my new favourite series, and I am eagerly, impatiently awaiting the next two instalments. Having devoured the first, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, in January this year, I quickly went out to get a copy of the second book, which did not disappoint in the slightest.
Following on from the events of the first book, the Tribe is somewhat more structured, involved and purposeful - maybe it's because I'm currently reading the final Obernewtyn book, but there are similarities between the two series, which only makes me cleave to this one all the more. They are young, they have unique abilities, and they have a deep and profound love and respect for the natural world - and this is a strong component of both the world-building and the Indigenous culture from which Kwaymullina comes.
Ember Crow is Ashala Wolf's best friend and, in effect, second in command of the Tribe. Now, suddenly, she is missing, and as Ashala and the Tribe track her down they learn incredible secrets about Ember and the 'family' she comes from, secrets that open up a whole new dimension to this post-apocalyptic world still in recovery, and reveal a threat they hadn't known existed.
I honestly couldn't recommend this series highly enough. It is riveting, engrossing, exciting, surprising, imaginative, intelligent and captivating. Can I squeeze any more adjectives into that sentence? I love the concept, I love the Aboriginal aspects and I love the world-building, but I especially love the characters, who are becoming as dear to me as the Obernewtyn cast is. Speaking of, it is a relief to have another excellent post-apocalyptic fantasy series like this one to go one with, now that the Obernewtyn Chronicles is finally complete. The Tribe books are already on my "I need to re-read ASAP" list, and I'm on tenterhooks waiting for the next two....more
The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted tThe third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it's a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she's been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can't say I'm at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I'd like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March - over three months ago - and it's not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance - like, really really love - and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn't a soldier in the regime - and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette's limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she's not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes - which I won't spell out because it's a spoiler.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, though with less heat than before: There's no reason why a Young Adult title can't be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There's smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that's a huge shame. I'm not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
"You think you've had it hard," [Adam's] saying to me. "Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail - you think that was difficult. But what you don't realise is that you've always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis." His hands are clenching, unclenching. "And that's more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it's really like to live out here - no idea what it's like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea," he says to me, "what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism - but it doesn't work that way out here. In this world you're either alive, about to die, or dead. There's no romance in it. No illusion. So don't try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don't."
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they're raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters' very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that's because I'm an adult reader and not the intended audience. I'm slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints - because I didn't have them when I was younger, that's for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi's determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that's all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner's room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I'm still recovering from. I can't deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He's like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he's been given all the tools to kill a person, he's too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father - the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it's not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody - in general, Juliette isn't the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the "grey" in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she's still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It's a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn't mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief - they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit ... truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place - the goal of such stories as this - is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don't know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don't feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn't need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey....more
**spoiler alert** Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows.**spoiler alert** Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows. In the morning, they come into her cell and strap her into a wheelchair while aiming guns at her; they even strap her head in place. Then she is wheeled into a windowless classroom along with over twenty other children, all strapped into wheelchairs. They have several teachers, but Melanie's favourite is Miss Justineau, who tells them stories from Greek mythology. The only difference is on Sundays, when they are wheeled into the shower room and given a chemical bath, and then a plate of grubs to eat.
Melanie, like all the other children in the underground military base, is special. She's a fully cognisant zombie - or "hungry", as they're called. Infected with the fungas just as much as any other hungry, she has retained her intellect - and her emotions, not that the lead scientist on base, Dr Caldwell, believes she possesses any. Melanie is special: she's brighter than any of the other children, and as she discovers, she's able to control her hunger.
While Helen Justineau humanises the children and reports her observations, Sergeant Parks collects them from the hungry-infested deserted urban centres, and Dr Caroline Caldwell dissects them, hoping to understand the fungus and find a way to beat it. Twenty years is all it's been since the Breakdown - there are men on Parks' team who are too young to know about life before then. Now there are those living in the city of Beacon, south of London, and those who take their chances in hungry territory: Junkers.
When an attack on the base catches them all by surprise and forces them to flee, Melanie finds herself with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks, the dreaded Dr Caldwell, and a young private, Gallagher, as they try to make their way back to Beacon. Along the way trust and loyalty will be sorely tested, and motivations questioned. Above all, though, little Melanie must re-learn her understanding of the world and her place in it, and what it means to be human in this new world.
The Girl with all the Gifts began as a short story called "Iphigenia in Aulis" which he wrote for an anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner, and is already in the works as a screenplay (it has a very clear and definite movie feel to it - you can really see it as a film). MR Carey - who usually writes as Mike Carey - writes for DC and Marvel (he's the current writer of X-Men and the Ultimate Fantastic Four, and wrote Hellblazer and Lucifer, as well as a comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Speculative Fiction of various genres is clearly something he's good at, and in his new novel those strengths - of being able to paint a scene quickly and succinctly, of being able to create tension and develop characters without losing (or giving in to) genre tropes - really shines through. Granted, the use of present tense doesn't add anything to the narrative, but it wasn't too distracting.
On the back cover, author Jenny Colgan drew a connection between this book and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and - especially in the first part - that parallel is very apt (and one of the reasons that prompted me to get this). As in Ishiguro's creepy and intense novel, Melanie and her unusual peers are considered less than human, with the adults refusing to notice any signs that might undermine their belief - their need to believe - that they have anything in common. To believe in an inherent humanity in these children would mean they couldn't do what they do to them - not without feeling guilty or less than human, themselves. This is akin to the colonising attitudes of Europeans in the Americas, Australia and Africa, but we certainly do it already towards, say, the disabled or mentally ill, and homeless people, to name a few.
I've said before that I'm not a fan of zombie stories; I've read a few and seen a few movies and two things always put me off or make me feel downright depressed: that zombies are inherently uninteresting because they are mindless and have only one goal; and that you can't win against zombies. If you survive, it's only temporary. Bleak, very bleak stuff. Even the comedies are bleak, at heart. MR Carey has created a distinctly fresh zombie story, and in the process animated some interest in them for me. He has skilfully retained the elements of gory horror and apocalyptic survival, created some interesting and diverse characters to traverse the landscape, and provided a very satisfying yet chilling ending to this standalone novel. More importantly, though, is that you quickly get the sense this isn't your run-of-the-mill zombie story. Zombies are a way of telling a more important story, one that delves deep into human nature in all its variants, and looks sharply at the things we hold dear and what we're willing to do to avoid change, destruction or ultimate death.
We get to know Melanie well in The Girl with all the Gifts, and quickly come to sympathise with her and feel a need to love and protect her - things she yearns for without really understanding it. Miss Justineau feels it too, though she's also repulsed by it; at least at first. It isn't hard to see where the genius of Carey's creation lies: I can't think of any other zombie story where zombie children play such a huge part. Certainly, I don't think we could bare to watch a zombie movie where a rotting child gets their head smashed in. Zombie or not, that's just too repellent. At first I thought this might bear a few too many similarities with Justin Cronin's The Passage (I've read that Carey hadn't read Cronin's books until after The Girl was published), but thankfully the only things they have in common is a little girl being a central character in an apocalyptic world.
The atmosphere is just right, neither overdone nor lacking in tension. Twenty years isn't a very long time, but it's long enough for desolation to set in, long enough for the people who knew what it was like before to be turning philosophical, and short enough that they're still letting themselves belief they can change it, fix it, get back the way of life they once took for granted. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. There's a nice tone of bleakness, especially from Sergeant Parks, while Dr Caldwell is so driven and single-minded that she's become the Mad Scientist character.
So that old stuff is literally priceless. Parks gets that. They're trying to find a way to remake the world twenty years after it fell apart, and the goodies that the grab-bag patrols bring home are ... well, they're a rope bridge over a bottomless canyon. They're the only way of getting from this besieged here to a there where everything is back in good order.
But he feels like they lost their way somewhere. When they found the first of the weird kids, and some grunt who'd obviously never heard about curiosity and the cat called in a fucking observation report.
Nice going, soldier. Because you couldn't keep from observing, the grab-baggers suddenly got a whole slew of new orders. Bring us one of those kids. Let's take a good long look at him/her/it.
And the techies looked, and then the scientists looked, and they got the itch to kill a few cats, too. Hungries with human reactions? Human behaviours? Human-level brain functions? Hungries who can do something besides run and feed? And they're running naked and feral through the streets of the inner cities, right alongside the regular variety? What's the deal? [pp.70-71]
Visually, it's very arresting, especially with that element of nature taking over running through it. It's not quite Day of the Triffids, but when you see fungal trees growing out of hungries' (dead-dead) bodies, it definitely feels very alien and wrong. And horrific. That after everything, and despite our insistence in our own superiority, humans - and only humans - have been felled by a fungus. It almost makes you want to giggle. One thing that does always bother me, about this and other zombie stories, but especially this one (because of the ending), is what zombies are supposed to live on, long-term. Without the surviving population of non-zombie humans, they've got no food source. It goes against all we know of life, nature, survival, the food chain, etc. It's just something that bugs me while I'm reading zombie stories, like having some lump digging into your thigh when you sit on the ground.
I found The Girl with all the Gifts to be riveting, disturbing and, overall, entertaining while still being provocative and insightful....more
The day begins like any other day for seventeen-year-old Findlay. Breakfast with his younger brother, Max, and stepmother Kara; catching the bus to scThe day begins like any other day for seventeen-year-old Findlay. Breakfast with his younger brother, Max, and stepmother Kara; catching the bus to school with Lucy Tenningworth; a lecture on social responsibility from his English teacher, Mr Effrez, who encourages the class to skip school the next day to attend a protest against nuclear tests; and studying with Lucy in the library after school.
But the day ends anything but normally. His mother, who works for the government consulting on disaster response management, calls and tells him to go to the supermarket and get as much non-perishable food and bottled water as he can carry and get home. The nuclear tests in Asia have gone ahead and all they know is that the north and Gobi Desert have been hit. Entire countries have been wiped out. There's no video feed from the area, no survivors to say what's happened, but it won't be long before the fallout covers the globe.
At home, Fin's uptight, alpha father is unconvinced of any real danger, and conversation quickly degenerates into an argument which sees Kara leaving for her mother's place and their father following without a thought for his kids. They never return. Fin and Max are on their own as dirty grey snow begins to fall, the power is off and the roads are icy. The phones aren't working, there's no communication from the government, but Fin isn't taking any chances and warns his neighbour not to let her kids play in the snow.
Fin's only idea is to find his mum. After months of living on canned beans and rice and sleeping in front of the fire, the food is running out, they're burning the furniture and then books to stay warm, and it's clear they've been abandoned by the government. If he's going to go out into that now-dangerous, unknown world, it has to be now, before things get worse. With his brother and two friends, Fin embarks on a trip from the Blue Mountains to Sydney in the hope of finding his mother at the heart of whatever command is left, helping to plan the country's response to this disaster.
Leaving town opens their eyes to the full reality of what has happened, and what is being done - or not. Getting into the heart of Sydney is no easy feat, but Fin is determined, if not for himself than for his little brother. Nothing about his world is the same, new rules apply, and death is always just a step around the corner.
I love Apocalyptic stories like this and have read a fair few. This is easily one of my favourites. It's not that it's terribly original - apocalyptic novels usually follow one of a bare few plot structures, since you need to stick to a realistic scenario to make it work. And it's not that it's free of clichés, either: there are plenty of those. But the writing just flows so naturally; Fin is a great character and carries the narration and the story so well; the story has excitement and danger and unpredictability while maintaining realism, making the tension far stronger because of it; and it doesn't become bogged down in trite teenage drama or romance. There's a romantic angle, between Fin and Lucy, but it doesn't take over the story like to many YA novels these days.
In fact, this was easily one of the best YA Speculative Fiction-Apocalyptic novels I've read, right up there with Tomorrow When the War Began, for instance. It's miles above and beyond the interminably dull Life as We Knew It, and spoke to me much more strongly even than some adult apocalyptic novels, like The Age of Miracles. It's not comparable to McCormac's The Road in terms of writing or story, it doesn't have that quality of utter bleakness, but as far as great apocalyptic stories go, it's the details that make both The Road and The Sky So Heavy work - the details and the grittiness. The Sky So Heavy has such a strong sense of realism and tension and Zorn's writing brings Fin's story so vividly to life, that while reading it I had to look out the window from time to time to remind - and reassure - myself that it hadn't actually happened. It was confronting, even nail-bitingly tense at times, and while you know Fin survives, you don't know what he'll lose in the process - or whether he'll survive in the long run.
This is more than just an end-of-the-world Young Adult novel, though. It also raises some interesting and highly relevant political themes. The nuclear testing scenario seems, at first, almost old-fashioned - the Cold War has ended, after all. But thanks to North Korea, it's been very much in the spotlight again in recent years. Zorn doesn't say what country in Asia set off bombs, but it's implied that it's North Korea. Closer to home, the disaster raises an ugly truth: an internal Us versus Them prejudice - not along race lines, as you might imagine with Australia's high Asian population, but along class lines. Who is dispensable, who is worth saving? Not only the country and rural towns are left for dead, but the outer suburbs of the major cities as well. There is only so much food, and anyone considered valuable is brought to the city centre by the army. Everyone else is left to slowly die.
Fin comes face-to-face with this new, heartless reality, and how people justify it to themselves. Fin himself has to face his decision to steal food from another person, and putting the hero of the story into that position adds depth to the realism of the story. The good guy isn't perfect, he's just human. It makes it harder to condemn the people in the city centres who are still receiving handouts of food from the army, who turn on people from outside the fence for stealing their food. Living and surviving is far from black-and-white, and Zorn's strength lies in her ability to present different perspectives and no clear answer with understated clarity.
I did mention that this isn't an original story or plot: an end-of-the-world situation, a survivor who bands together with other survivors, embarking on a journey in the hope of a positive outcome, having to make life-or-death decisions of the kind that affect others, and, of course, there's no real end in sight. An apocalyptic disaster doesn't just resolve itself or go away in a few weeks, like Fin's dad arrogantly declares it will. As for the clichés, the main one is the character of Noll, or Arnold Wang, the lone Asian misfit at school who is taunted but almost never reacts, who turns out to be a solid companion as well as a prosaic, thoughtful young man who makes them face their own consciences. It is the school-outcast-turned-friend that will be familiar to readers, but I love what Zorn did with Noll's character. She doesn't change him, but gives Fin a chance to realise how petty and mean they'd been at school. It's a nice subtle way of reminding teens that bullying others is, well, stupid. The person you bully today may be in the position to save your life tomorrow, and are you worth saving? (We're not talking apocalypses here, but any situation in which you'd need help.)
In a way, the genre itself will always shape the general plot of an apocalyptic story, because it will always have to follow a certain pattern. It's what you do with that structure, those clichés, that make each story different from the others. Zorn's debut novel is an excellent addition to the canon, a great, exciting and nicely thought-provoking story for teens and equally engaging to adult readers. I read this as a stand-alone novel, and I hope it remains so: while there's room for a sequel, I love the open-endedness of the ending, and letting a sense of hope linger in the air like the echo of a dying song. My interest in apocalyptic stories tends to wane if they're drawn out too long, because it just becomes about death and more death, and it's hard to make room for growth and hope in that. I'm happy with this as a standalone novel - I'm not even going to complain about the use of present tense - and I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy survival adventure stories, stories about the heart of humanity and the lengths we are willing to go to preserve human life on this planet. Truly an excellent achievement in the genre. ...more
This review contains quite a lot of plot description, which you may want to avoid. Skip down to read my spoiler-free review.
Juliette is safe in OmegaThis review contains quite a lot of plot description, which you may want to avoid. Skip down to read my spoiler-free review.
Juliette is safe in Omega Point, an extensive underground bunker for people like her, people with unusual gifts. She's safe from the Reestablishment and safe from Warner who wants to use her - or encourage her - to use her power for her own gain. But her demons follow her even here. Convinced that the people of Omega Point avoid her, warn their children away from her, are afraid of her or see her as the monster she sees herself as, she hides away in her training room, achieving nothing. With pain and death coming from any touch with her bare skin, only Adam, the Reestablishment soldier who helped her escape from Warner's sector, can touch her. But something's not right there, either.
When Juliette learns that Adam has been having himself tested for evidence of his own ability, she's concerned. When she sees what he's going through, the pain it causes him, she goes into an enflamed rage and causes severe damage with her gift. And when she learns that Adam's gift is essentially to disable other people's gifts, that he has been doing it instinctively but that Juliette's touch has been causing him pain because he's so open to her, the pain and sorrow are all hers. Knowing she can't take the risk of killing the man she loves, she makes the decision to separate from Adam.
It takes the harsh words of Kenji, their friend and the second-in-command at Omega Point, to shake Juliette out of her pity-fest, her wallowing, her misery, and motivate her to learn how to control her gift and focus on the bigger picture. When several of their team are kidnapped and held hostage by the Reestablishment, it is Juliette who is called upon to make a prisoner swap. But it is not Warner behind this ploy, it is his father, Supreme Commander Anderson.
The leader of the Reestablishment within North America, Anderson makes his twisted son sound like a kitten. His aim is perfectly simple: in order to break his weak son Warner out of his attachment to Juliette, he arranges for her to come to them so that Warner can kill her. But Anderson is so accustomed to everyone doing his bidding and behaving like petrified, useless idiots in his presence, that he has met his match and is about to learn a new - and painful lesson.
Now Juliette and her friends have an enemy in their midst: Warner. Hoping to exchange him for their imprisoned friends, they place far too high a value on Anderson's love for his son and Warner's worth. And Warner causes trouble until Juliette is brought to him, where she will learn new truths that will shake her fledgling understanding of the world and her self.
While I enjoyed Shatter Me, the first book in the series, and indeed found much to love, certain things held me back from fully loving it. I went on to read the e-novella, Destroy Me, which is told from Warner's perspective and fills the gap from the last time he saw Juliette to the next time he thinks he sees her, and reading that really got me excited for Unravel Me. But I could never have imagined how much I would love this book. I haven't been this engrossed and completely addicted and totally caught up in a YA fantasy novel since Eclipse and its predecessors. I can't express how all-consuming this volume was, how quickly I tore through it and how much I hated tearing myself away so I could get some sleep (or how long I stayed awake that night, thinking about it).
Again told in Juliette's distinctive and highly original voice, I found it easier to enjoy the poetry and symbolism in it than before, because while she does become as self-indulgent as in Shatter Me, each time she pulled back just before annoying me beyond salvage. And Mafi's prose really is something special, at times. Her writing is strong and confident here, well-practiced and smooth. Mafi is fully in control and no longer just experimenting (or building on an experiment). The style has become Juliette's voice and captures her character, her anxieties and even her slight split personality, extremely well. I couldn't imagine this series written in any other way. The prose is not just poetic, it's beautiful, and captures Juliette's consciousness and feelings in a way that regular prose could never do, adding an extra dimension to the story. Here's a sample from early on:
Now my mind is a traitor because my thoughts crawl out of bed every morning with darting eyes and sweating palms and nervous giggles that sit in my chest, build in my chest, threaten to burst through my chest, and the pressure is tightening and tightening and tightening Life around here isn't what I expected it to be. My new world is etched in gunmetal, sealed in silver, drowning in the scents of stone and steel. The air is icy, the mats are orange; the lights and switches beep and flicker, electronic and electric, neon bright. It's busy here, busy with bodies, busy with halls stuffed full of whispers and shouts, pounding feet and thoughtful footsteps. If I listen closely I can hear the sounds of brains working and foreheads pinching and fingers tap tapping at chins and lips and furrowed brows. Ideas are carried in pockets, thoughts propped up on the tips of every tongue; eyes are narrowed in concentration, in careful planning I should want to know about. But nothing is working and all my parts are broken. [p.2]
In the first book, I found myself torn between loving how the prose captured so perfectly Juliette's inner demons, her self-hate, her despair and victimisation, her loneliness and isolation, and finding that it went a bit too far, or that Juliette's extremely dismal self-esteem and sense of self-worth got tiring. I still think that Mafi didn't quite achieve a balance that time, but in Unravel Me the balance is just right. This is the story where Juliette grows, grows strong and confident and learns that she's more than a deathly touch, that she's not a monster, that she's worthy of love and loyalty. But it's also the novel where she questions herself even more, just along different lines than before. Warner makes her question so many things about herself, especially as owns up to her attraction to him. Every time she started turning into a character that I shook my head at and lost respect for, Mafi pulled back and turned the scene, the conversation, the theme, in another direction and not only kept Juliette the kind of person I grew to really like and admire, but she often threw interesting spanners into the works and took you, the reader, in whole new directions.
Our favourite characters - Adam and Warner - are of course back, and new layers to them are revealed. I could feel Juliette's love for Adam and his for her, as well as their pain at discovering that Adam isn't after all safe from her touch. And Warner, ah Warner. I am a complete and utter sucker for this kind of character, the bad guy in love with the heroine - it's such a perfect recipe for the best kind of emotional intensity and mental anguish! He is becoming increasingly complex and so interesting that he's starting to overshadow Adam - and as much as I love Adam, I'm not sorry for this new development. They each speak to the different sides of Juliette: the side of her that wants to feel love and protection, tenderness and compassion, and the side of her that is darker, grittier and capable of so much.
And then there's Kenji. In Shatter Me he was the mildly annoying soldier friend of Adam who I didn't quite trust: he was too perky, too silly, too much, and the way he turned up like that, well, I didn't trust him. And he annoyed me a bit. But oh does he come into his own here!! Kenji becomes one of the strongest and most interesting characters in the book. We learn that he has the power of invisibility, that he put on the goofiness as a tactic in Warner's sector because of Warner's "knack" (i.e., gift of empathy) for detecting traitors and liars. We learn that he is looked up to by everyone at Omega Point, that he was informally adopted by Castle, their leader, as a boy, and we learn that behind the smile is a very intelligent, very determined, very brave and loyal young man. He is the only one who tells Juliette to snap out of it, grow up and think of others, to stop wallowing and join them. I don't think he is or will ever be a romantic interest - Juliette's already got two, she doesn't need more, she needs a friend who will tell her like it is; besides, I don't like a heroine whom everyone loves, that's way too much and just not believable. But he, too, started to overshadow Adam. Makes me wonder how things with Adam will play out.
In fact, I have no idea where the story will go from here, and I love not knowing. The ending isn't quite a cliffhanger, though Mafi could have done that, but it does leave a really open ending, with a lot of key players and events sort of up-in-the-air. Things beyond Juliette's personal life are heating up and getting serious - and dangerous - and with this background context for the private war Juliette's going through as a character, it makes for one very high-adrenaline story. Waiting for the next book is going to be really, really hard.
There are plenty of surprises here, and lots of excitement. It's hugely gripping and deeply absorbing and will definitely keep you on your toes. I've always been a big fan of stories featuring people with special abilities, powers, gifts - my first foray into real fantasy was, after all, the Obernewtyn series. This satisfies the X-Men fan in me. I'm floored by how intense this book was, how emotionally engaging, how hard it was to put down. Mafi took all the things readers loved about book one and stacked more and more love on top of them. This is a sequel that more than holds up; in a way it supplants the first book entirely - yet this is an illusion, for without the depth and detail of the first book, this one would have much less meaning....more
I was looking forward to reading this novel, described as "A tale of love, loss and robots", and wasn't really sure, when I started, just what kind ofI was looking forward to reading this novel, described as "A tale of love, loss and robots", and wasn't really sure, when I started, just what kind of book it is. If we want to pick neat categories, it's more Speculative Fiction than Science Fiction (the sci-fi aspects, such as they are, are very much in the background, except for the android called Finn), a coming-of-age novel in which the main character doesn't really grow up and mature all that much. It has a strong start but very quickly makes you aware that the story just isn't really going anywhere. It's slow. It gets tedious. But worse: it oozes a depressing, fatalistic vibe (i.e. atmosphere) that meant it took me months to finish this, as it was so hard to get into it.
When Cat was just a child, living alone with her parents outside a small town somewhere in America in the not-too-distant future, an android came to live with her family. Looking like a young man and called Finn, Cat thinks at first that he's a ghost. Finn becomes her tutor and her friend, despite her mother's protests, and helps her father, a scientist, in his laboratory in the basement. People, mainly scientists, come from all over to check him out, as he's the first - and last - lifelike android anyone's ever seen.
As Cat grows up, she slowly falls in love with Finn. Even after going off to the city for university (as an Arts major), working as a "Vice Girl" (selling cigarettes at "Vice stands" by the highway) and then meeting - and agreeing to marry - a businessman called Richard, Cat remains in love with Finn. And not only does she love him, she acts on it too, and the pair begin a sexual affair they keep secret.
But as Cat settles into her marriage with Richard, she finds her life is no more full than before, and perhaps less so. But Finn has sold himself off to a company working on the moon, and what kind of future can they have, anyway, even with new laws being proposed to give androids like him the rights of a human? Cat has done everything society expects of her, but only Finn makes her feel alive. What is she prepared to sacrifice to achieve peace, and happiness?
As the main character, Cat is flawed, unlikeable and impossible to connect with. I've read other books where I've greatly enjoyed reading the stories of such characters; this definitely wasn't one of them. Part of the problem is that Cat is one cold fish. Towards the end of the novel, she recognises this in herself and wonders about it, but in the same numb bubble as the whole of the book is written. There's only so much of a character like Cat that you can read, and at nearly four hundred pages, this is way too long, and reads like an aimless, robotic narration. I kept wondering: Why? What is the author intending with this character? What is Clarke trying to say? Is she trying to say that Cat is android-like? Yet she's not. She's deeply selfish, another flaw that it takes her a long time to realise. Is she trying to say that Cat is flawed, human? Okay, but it doesn't go anywhere. Just what kind of novel is this, really? Bottom line is: a deeply unsatisfying one.
So much of this story bothered me. Cat goes through life in such a fugue, you wonder why she bothers to get up in the morning. Her relationship with Finn never really progressed beyond plain weird for me as the reader - it just wasn't written or handled well enough to provoke a thoughtful reaction or promote any particular ideas. I was left feeling largely untouched, when all I want from a novel, at the most basic, elemental level, is to connect emotionally with a character. The way Cat was written left no room to connect with her at all, or understand her. You don't have to like a main character, but part of the joy of reading a flawed or unlikeable character is the chance to see the world in new ways, to understand someone different from you, and realise just how universal and human some things are. Not liking Cat isn't the real issue, it's about her being written in such a way that you are repelled. She cast a fog of depression over me and I had to wonder how none of her friends ever noticed.
Finn is the only truly interesting part of the story, but he's not in it much, and the whole "I have my own personal sex toy who does what I ask and can go all night" thing is pretty off-putting. True, Cat does realise how selfish she is and - in a way - how much she was taking advantage of him, but only in an abstract way. We never really learn anything about robots or androids, or what's going on in this world. In terms of world-building, it's distinctly lacking. Likewise, in terms of human relationships, it's confusing at best. Take Cat's mother, for example. In the early chapters, before she dies relatively young, the mother is depicted in mostly negative terms. She never seems to get along with her daughter, they never have any poignant mother-daughter moments, she's anti-Finn (or anti having a robot in the house) and only ever appears to criticise, grumble or glower in the background. Yet when she dies, Cat goes into mourning overdrive. It didn't really make much sense, that Cat would be so full of grief for a woman who was only ever on the periphery of her life before, for whom she never demonstrated any love nor received any. But it is because of her mother - and what she knew her mother wanted her to do with her life - that she marries Richard. Basically, the establishment and development of Cat's character, for all that it's what the story is about, was thinly done in the early chapters. Those early chapters are a poor foundation for the rest of the book mostly because they don't do much in establishing this futuristic world, or Cat's character.
It makes you wonder just how much the whole thing is a weak premise for human-android sex. I enjoy romances and reading sex scenes, but not these. There was just something intrinsically, inherently (and ethically) wrong about them, that you didn't know where to look or what to think. The fact that I felt she was taking advantage speaks to the idea that the novel does present Finn as almost human, but to be honest I couldn't get past the basics of this novel to really understand or see any bigger ideas or issues the author intended to get at. Between the slow pace, the mechanical-like droning narration, and a main character who failed to come to life for me, there was little to enjoy and plenty to annoy. ...more
When Karou regained her memories of her previous life as Madrigal, a chimaera soldier who fell in love with the enemy anThis review contains spoilers.
When Karou regained her memories of her previous life as Madrigal, a chimaera soldier who fell in love with the enemy and was executed as a traitor, she also learned what her lover, the seraphim Akiva, did in retaliation: Loramendi is a smoking ruin, her beloved family, the chimaera who raised her from a (human) baby, are dead - Brimstone, the resurrectionist, is gone. Her people are dead, the survivors enslaved. When she travels through the portal to the world of Eretz, the new reality leaves her shattered and harbouring a new, heavy guilt.
Desperate to make amends and to save her people from the seraphim, she takes on Brimstone's role and works with Thiago, the White Wolf, leader of the revenant army - the man who she was meant to wed before she met Akiva, who makes her flesh crawl, who tortured Akiva and had Madrigal beheaded. It's soon apparent that Thiago not only doesn't trust her, but has made sure she's isolated from everyone else at their stronghold, even young, handsome Ziri, the only one left of her race, who used to idolise her as a boy.
Meanwhile, Akiva delicately balances his immense guilt, his grief over losing Karou, and his complete disillusionment with the endless war between the seraphim Empire and the chimaera, with the ruthless reputation he's garnered for himself - the other seraphim call him Beast's Bane now, after the fall of Loramend - in order to avoid suspicion. Gradually his two lifelong friends and siblings, Hazael and Liraz, join him in his silent, subtle rebellion, and together they plot a way to end it all.
The last lines of Laini Taylor's acknowledgements read: "And thanks, lastly, to the readers of Daughter of Smoke & Bone for such marvelous enthusiasm and support. There is no motivation quite like the excitement of readers, and it has been a truly amazing year. From the depths of my heart, I hope you like this one, too." Well Laini (may I call you Laini?), I do. I really really do. Not "like", that's too casual a word. Try, hm, how about "love"? I don't think we have a stronger word in this context in the English language, but it's seems like such a short, paltry little word for the awesomeness that is this series, this book. Daughter of Smoke & Bone speaks right to my Fantasy-loving, Fantasy-craving soul, it fires up my imagination and all my emotions, and makes my brain tick over in that way that makes me feel justified for having one.
Days of Blood & Starlight was immensely satisfying, highly surprising and unpredictable, and utterly compelling. It is slightly a filler novel, but if you're a fan of epic fantasy like I am, you'll know that there's really no such thing as a filler novel, only another step forward in a much bigger story. It is not really filler because there are so many new and important developments, lots of small ones that add up to a complete change in landscape by the end. The main characters, Karou and Akiva, as well as many supporting characters, undergo some important character development and growth. But it could be called a filler book because it is about moving the characters into certain positions for what I expect is to be a final battle, a final book. But Fantasy isn't about the big battles, not really, it's about how you get there, the finer, more complex and sometimes even subtle manoeuvres, and, most importantly, the characters.
Karou is not the same Karou we met in the first book, and at some point in the story, she realises it too. She's lost her confidence, her ability to nag and pester and question (something she used to do with Brimstone quite a bit). She seems to have lost her sense of adventure and become more circumspect and cautious, too. She's more easily afraid - and with good reason. The dynamics of the chimaera soldiers under Thiago living under the same roof as Karou, who they've been taught is a traitor, albeit one they need for her ability to resurrect them, is like a tense, dangerous dance, the atmosphere always balancing on the knife edge of something truly awful happening.
When Karou's best friend Zuzana and her boyfriend Mik turn up unexpectedly, it's amazing the new feelings that wrestle with the sense of looming danger. They bring with them life in its best forms, and remind the revenant soldiers about love, laughter and music.
They're not the only ones who arrive unexpectedly: Akiva finds Karou, and their meeting - the first time after Karou got her memories back and Akiva told her what he'd done - is so, so tragic and painful. Their romance might take a back seat to other elements of the plot and character development in this instalment, but the chemistry and unresolved tension between them is pervasive and scents every page, each scene. But they both need time and space to figure things out, Akiva to somehow atone for what he did, and Karou to learn that he did what he did out of love for her, devastated, heartbreaking love. It doesn't excuse it, but it should go a little way to helping Karou come to terms with it and understand what Akiva did, from his perspective. Because if they can't work things out, their races will never have a chance.
The story, or world-building, is based in part on a never-ending war between the seraphim (angels) and the chimaera (beasts) of Eretz. In the previous book, we learnt that the war began because the seraphim invaded with the intent to colonise and "civilise". They met with fierce resistance and, thanks to Brimstone's resurrectionist magic, the fight between them has been going on for centuries. The over-arching plot, or theme, is how fights like this one go for so long that people on both sides lose sight of what they're fighting about, who's right or wrong (not that it's ever that simple, usually), and not only scrap any attempts at negotiating peace, but are outright against it. It's like a battle royale of countries or nations or ethnicities. Genocide on all sides until there's only one superior race left. It does, of course - and this is the beauty and power of Fantasy fiction - speak to (or reflect) several ongoing conflicts in our own world, in our own lifetime. I was especially reminded of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, which is a touchy subject at the best of times. Both sides have done horrible things, and both sides are fighting for the right to exist in peace. But both sides no longer see a way of doing so as long as the other exists. It's so tragic, and of course it's the innocents who pay the price for it. I confess I'm anxious to see whether the seraphim and chimaera manage what we have not, and how they do it.
The writing is just as lovely and vivid and skilful as I remember it from Daughter of Smoke & Bone, and while some themes are a bit overdone - the recurring theme of hope, especially - there are some really wonderful, insightful messages and lines. Several tropes are explored, and one I find most fascinating is the coexistence of Karou and Madrigal, which reminds me of Eric van Lustbader's awesome Pearl saga (in which an alien prince is put inside a girl's body, becoming a whole new person and, even, a new gender).
She experienced a queer collision of reactions these days. Karou's were foremost, and most immediate, but Madrigal's were hers, too: her two selves, coming together with a strange kind of vibration. It wasn't disharmony, exactly. Karou was Madrigal, but her reactions were informed by her human life and all the luxuries of peace, and things that might have been commonplace to Madrigal could still jar her at first. Burnt heads strung from a sweet arza tree? If Madrigal hadn't seen exactly that, she had witnessed enough horror that it had no power to shock her. [p.105]
It's not an element of the story that gets much focus, but such is Taylor's skill that you can notice the two personalities blending together in this story. Karou and Madrigal might be the same person, but it's not just their bodies or species that are different: their personalities weren't really the same, either. With the memories of being Madrigal back, Karou is still Karou but she's also Madrigal: the two halves have come together to form a new Karou, a slightly different Karou. Interestingly, Akiva loves both, or rather, he loves her, which raises whole new questions about the resurrection magic and what exactly makes us who we are - questions about the soul, and whether our personality is inseparable from it. Oh you could really get into something here!
Ultimately, though, it's the story as a whole that I love, with all its component pieces. Each piece is a gem, but put them together and you have a crown. Oh wow that's corny! But apt. But so corny it hurts my eyes! Oh you get the picture, anyway. I'm writing this quickly and have run out of time to find a better way of describing the magical storytelling Laini Taylor is capable of. It's now going to be a painful wait for the third book, which I hope will be out next year....more
Evangeline Greene lives with her mother in a grand old Southern mansion called Haven in Louisiana. She's beautiful and popular and has a great boyfrieEvangeline Greene lives with her mother in a grand old Southern mansion called Haven in Louisiana. She's beautiful and popular and has a great boyfriend, Brandon Radcliffe, "the most enviable catch" in the area. But things aren't as rosy and perfect for Evie as they seem. She's just spent the entire summer locked up at the Children's Learning Centre, a nice name for an institutional behavioural clinic full of kids with a wide range of problems, where the doctors tried to cure her of her hallucinations - and her grandmother's teachings.
For a while now, Evie's been seeing things: death, destruction, absolute annihilation of everything around her. Thankfully, she's supposed to be cured now, is taking her medication, and is back at posh Sterling High with her handsome, nice boyfriend and her best friend, Melissa Warren. Only, things are different this time. She's still having hallucinations, ones that can make her nose bleed, and she's started seeing other kids too - one in particular, Matthew, talks to her, though nothing he says makes any sense. And there are five new kids at her school: poor Cajun kids from the Bayou, reassigned to Sterling since the new bridge made it the closer school. And one of them, Jackson Deveaux, seems to spend an awful lot of time staring at her.
Jackson is the ultimate bad boy, who drinks whiskey from a flask between classes and rides a motorbike. Evie puzzles him, and as he tells her, he doesn't like unsolved riddles. When Evie's hallucinations prove to be visions of the future rather than insane delusions, and the Flash destroys the land, Evie and her mother are some of the few survivors. The land has changed utterly: water evaporated, all living life - trees, crops, plants, many animals - gone. The survivors have become desperate: militias have formed; slavers lay traps for people and take them away to spend the rest of their short lives down mines, looking for water; some have turned cannibal; and then there are the Bagmen, people who were watched the Flash but survived, only now they're more like zombies, desperate for water, turning to drinking blood to sate their cravings.
After an attack by Bagmen leaves Evie's mother with an internal injury, Evie discovers something new about herself: she can grow food from seed using her own blood. With a secret crop of vegetables growing in the barn, she's able to keep them going, but the future looks bleak. And then, Jackson arrives. He comes ahead of a militia that's taking girls and women for breeding, and forcefully recruiting able-bodied men and boy as they make their way across the land. Jackson's deserted, and come to warn them, but it takes some convincing to get Evie to trust him enough to leave with him. She makes him promise to take her to her grandmother in another state, but the road there is perilous and their chances of survival, slim.
But if Evie can embrace the powers she now has, and stop fighting her Tarot moniker, The Empress, there might be hope for the future. But that way lies a meeting with Death, and all the other Tarot Arcana: characters from the Tarot now alive and at play on Earth, in a battle royale from which there can be only survivor. It's war, and Evie has to decide to join, or die sooner rather than later.
I'm a major fan of Kresley Cole, and was thrilled to hear she'd started a series for Young Adults, and Fantasy, no less. Her Immortals After Dark series proved that she's just as amazing at writing Fantasy as she is at Romance, so I knew I was going to get something special. Cole is a master at clever plotting and coming up with scenarios that seem impossible to survive with a happy ending, and yet she always manages to come up with the unexpected. And by and large, I did. It also has one of the most chilling prologues I've ever read.
This is a very believable apocalypse - not particularly original, but it provides the perfect backdrop and context for a much bigger story: the Arcana. Turning the world into a wasteland increases the stakes at play, and Evie, whose gift is life, needs to win if the there can be any hope for the future. Plagued by nightmares of the Red Witch, an incarnation of a previous Empress from centuries ago, Evie's seen the power she's capable of, and the evil if she lets it go that way, and is terrified by it.
Evie, who narrates, is a solid character, likeable and familiar, but with a steep learning curve. Going from sheltered, expensively-clothed cheerleader to holocaust survivor, and then having to come to terms with her role in a cataclysmic war that could mean her death - well, I don't think you could get steeper than that. She was troubled before the Flash, and it's a pretty natural thing for humans to want to cling onto things they can control in the wake of disaster. Still, Evie's desperate attempts to ignore or deny the truth, does make her a difficult character to sympathise with, at times. She truly is a "good" girl, but judgemental too, but it was her stubbornness that irritated me, especially when it came to Jack. I sometimes wanted to shake her, but like I said, steep learning curve for Evie. It may have been a bit irritating, but it was understandable.
I'm not at all familiar with the Tarot cards or the Arcana, but we get a nice slow introduction to them, one card at a time - by the end of the book, we've only met a few, and they're far from black-or-white characters. Like the Tarot cards themselves, these kids - they're all around Evie's age - represent certain things but are not necessarily good or bad in and of themselves. This first volume in the series is very much an establishing story, setting the scene, establishing the quest, getting the characters in the right place for what's to come. It has a slow start, and even after the Flash, it reads fairly slowly - good for developing character and atmosphere, not so good for the pacing. But I have learnt some patience over the years, and if there's one thing that'll keep you reading, it's that prologue.
It begins on day 246 after the Flash (AF), in Tennessee, where Evie is on her own, starving and vulnerable. The sight of a girl is a rare thing, and she's without a protector (where's Jackson?). But there's another survivor in this town called Requiem, someone her age called Arthur who takes her in and feeds her in exchange for her story. But Arthur was a sick kid even before the Flash; now, he doesn't have to worry about the police or anyone else, interrupting his science experiments. He drugs girls like Evie, locks them in the basement - the dungeon - and uses them to test out his potions. So even while Evie is telling us her story, there is this constant layer of tension for what's happening - and going to happen - to her in the present. Combine that with all the dangers Evie and Jack must face on the road, and you've got one very pulse-thumping read. Even when the story slows right down, there's threat beyond every turn of the page.
And what goes well with danger, and the excitement of adventure? Romance, of course - or in this case, incredible sexual chemistry and tension. Jackson is not a good boy hiding behind a misunderstood facade, he's not sweet on the inside. He's violent - has many scars for all the fights he's had with the men who've slept with and then abused his mother; and he's shown time and again that he thinks Evie is pretty useless, especially in this new-made world. She can't hunt, fight, defend herself, cook - though she is learning to do some things. When in close quarters, Jackson makes her toes curl and her heart pound, but they have very different ideas of what they want from each other. They speak different languages, literally and figuratively (Jackson speaks Cajun, Creole French, which Evie understands). The biggest obstacle between them is Evie's role as the Empress, a secret she's not allowed to share with humans.
Between the richly drawn world and the vivid atmosphere, the near-constant threat of imminent danger and some scary near-misses, the steamy snatches of frustrated romance and the gripping take on the classic Fantasy quest trope, Poison Princess succeeds where other YA fantasy novels other lacklustre by comparison. It's only the start of what feels to be a very big adventure, and carries on its shoulders themes of humanity and what it means to be human, those qualities of life that we would choose to take to a desert island. In true, classic Cole style, nothing is straight-forward, and I get the feeling it's only going to get more complex from here on - just the way I like it....more