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 t...moreThe 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.(less)
**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....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. 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.(less)
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 sc...moreThe 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. (less)
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 Omega...moreThis 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.(less)
When Karou regained her memories of her previous life as Madrigal, a chimaera soldier who fell in love with the enemy an...moreThis 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.(less)
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 boyfrie...moreEvangeline 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.(less)
Shatter Me introduced us to an apocalyptic world not far in our future, a world struggling to get by. In what was once the United States, civilians a...moreShatter Me introduced us to an apocalyptic world not far in our future, a world struggling to get by. In what was once the United States, civilians are organised and controlled by the Reestablishment, a military dictatorship that gained power in a time of disorder and uncertainty, an order that proclaims to be making things better.
We also met the heroine of the series, Juliette, who's skin-to-skin touch brings pain and then death. Abandoned by her parents into an asylum, she is there in isolation for nearly a year before being released by the Reestablishment - by a young man who controls her jurisdiction, called Warner. The son of the leader of the Reestablishment, he is a beautiful, young, psychotic megalomaniac who appears to relish torture and who looks upon Juliette as a kindred spirit, someone who must surely want to seize power, wreck revenge and use her gift for death for a greater purpose - his purpose. But Juliette escaped thanks to a young soldier and is on the run, leaving Warner with a bullet in his shoulder.
And that is precisely where the novella, Destroy Me, picks up. Warner was always a charismatic character, a young man seemingly without remorse or the ability to empathise. Because of his beauty, his youth and his obsession with Juliette, we all wanted to get a glimpse inside his head. Mafi gives us that, and more.
The interesting thing is, I was expecting something entirely gratuitous (like Midnight Sun, or the upcoming Walking Disaster, both of which are the same story as their companions, merely told from the male point of view), but actually this novella advances the story, or at least, fleshes it out from Warner's side of the action, showing us his efforts in finding Juliette and Adam, his recuperation and near collapse, and how he feels about his father, who comes Warner's division to "fix things". And we get more than a glimpse into Warner's head - we get a no-holds-barred, dirty laundry exposé into his mind and his heart, and coming closer to understanding - and sympathising - with this would-be megalomaniac than we would otherwise.
Warner is a conflicted boy with a man's responsibilities. He has OCD, is extremely particular and doesn't like to be touched - except by Juliette, whose touch he craves, who he dreams about vividly.
My closet is separated into various sections. Shirts, ties, slacks, blazers and boots. Socks, gloves, scarves, and coats. Everything is arranged according to color, then shades within each color. Every article of clothing it contains is meticulously chosen and custom made to fit the exact measurements of my body. I don't feel like myself until I'm fully dressed; it's part of who I am and how I begin my day.
I've had an obsession with cleanliness for as long as I can remember. I've always been so mired in death and destruction that I think I've overcompensated by keeping myself pristine as much as possible. I take frequent showers. I brush and floss three times a day. I trim my own hair every week. I scrub my hands and nails before I got to bed and just after I wake up. I have an unhealthy preoccupation with wearing only freshly laundered clothes. And whenever I'm experiencing any extreme level of emotion, the only thing that settles my nerves is a long bath.
Everything in Warner's life is ritualised, tightly structured, and image-conscious. He is a product of his father, as we learn, and he is a frightening man. We also learn that what seemed like cruel and cold-hearted actions on Warner's part, weren't always what they seemed - though sometimes they were exactly that. Warner is, in a way, a symbol of the Reestablishment, embodying its need for control and order.
The people are still told that these homes [made from containers] are temporary. That one day they will return to the memories of their old lives, and that things will be bright and beautiful again. But this is all a lie. The Reestablishment has no plans to move them. Civilians are caged on these regulated grounds; these containers have become their prisons. Everything has been numbered. The people, their homes, their level of importance to The Reestablishment. Here, they've become a part of a huge experiment. A world wherein they work to support the needs of a regime that makes them promises it will never fulfill [sic]. This is my life. This sorry world. Most days I feel just as caged as these civilians; and that's likely why I always come here. It's like running from one prison to another; an existence wherein there is no relief, no refuge. Where even my own mind is a traitor. [...] I've developed a reputation as a cold, unfeeling monster who fears nothing and cares for less. But this is all very deceiving. Because the truth is, I am nothing but a coward.
In a way, Destroy Me is one revelation after another regarding Warner's inner mind, his true feelings, his character, and yet, at the end, we're not much closer to really understanding him. I'm still not sure what future he's picturing with a willing Juliette at his side, except perhaps one in which they dethrone his father and take over. But it's not even that important. Truth is, despite the unforgivable things he's done, my sympathy for him grew, and he became even more interesting than before. Stripped of his outer shell, we meet instead a scared little boy desperately trying to live up to his father's expectations lest he be killed and discarded like everyone else who displeases the man. A little boy who never mentions his mother, who perhaps never had one, and who yearns for a human touch, and love.
It's not surprising that in this environment, he's grown up with a warped sense of morality, a twisted idea of what love is.
I do not consider myself a moral man. I do not philosophize about life or bother with the laws and principles that govern most people. I do not pretend to know the difference between right and wrong. But I do live by a certain kind of code. And sometimes, I think, you have to learn how to shoot first.
Warner discovers Juliette's notebook from her time spent in the asylum, and reads about her isolation, her silence, her yearning to be held, and loved. They have that in common. He doesn't seem to want to follow in his father's footsteps - he's afraid of the man, and rightly so. Their interactions are chilling, the atmosphere tense. Of his father, he thinks:
I've come to believe that the most dangerous man in the world is the one who feels no remorse. The one who never apologizes and therefore seeks no forgiveness. Because in the end it is our emotions that make us weak, not our actions.
But does Warner feel remorse, for what he did to her? Not really. He hasn't reached that understanding, yet. He is by no means a black-and-white bad guy, nor is he a bad guy who can easily be redeemed like in Maria V Snyder's Glass trilogy. Before reading this, he was a psychotic, rather scary man with way too much power. Now, he's a psychotic control-freak who thinks he's losing his mind - and who seems genuinely in love with Juliette, even if he has no words for it. I loved the intensity of his feelings, made manifest in his hallucinations and dreams. Where things will go from here should be very interesting indeed.
There are two things that continue to disappoint me somewhat: the world-building, which remains thinly sketched-out, and the use of present tense. Regarding the world-building, there are a great many questions in my mind that would be easily answered by showing me life in this world; but also, I don't quite understand the time line, or how things got this way, or exactly what the world is like now. And Mafi does not quite use present tense accurately; mostly, her characters are too self-aware without being actually self-aware: the contradiction is sloppy. They have too much insight, there is too much reliance on "telling", not inferring. It is a tense designed to create a strong sense of "in the moment", and it does, but unlike other writers who misuse present tense by using it as if they were still writing past tense (e.g. Suzanne Collins), Mafi's characters spend so much time reflecting and ruminating and being in their own heads, that our own perception of them and the story becomes stunted. Also, instead of playing with the concept of either Juliette or Warner being unreliable narrators - which of course they are, we all are, and their thoughts are literally all we get - they are presented as absolute. It would read stronger were the reader able to participate, rather than being forced into a passive observer. My least favourite place.
That said, I am really enjoying this story, and at least Mafi is consistent and writes well, in her distinct style. I loved the chance to hear inside Warner's head, to see things the way he sees them. It in no way solves the riddle of Warner, only makes him even more interesting. More than that, Destroy Me is probably going to be instrumental to understanding what comes next, in Unravel Me. This is an important stepping stone in the overall story, and not to be missed if you plan to read book 2. (less)
Not so far in the future, a global economic meltdown results in devastating and wide-ranging consequences. When sixteen-year-old Alenna Shawcross was...moreNot so far in the future, a global economic meltdown results in devastating and wide-ranging consequences. When sixteen-year-old Alenna Shawcross was only five years old, the three countries of North America - Canada, the USA and Mexico - merged to form the United Northern Alliance, led by self-appointed Prime Minister Roland Harka, a charismatic army general, and set about trying to subjugate the rest of the world with the might of its armies and technology, to secure food supplies among other things. Within the UNA, resistance to the new order is fierce, and anyone found guilty or even suspected of working against the UNA is arrested and disappeared. This is what happens to Alenna's parents when she's just ten years old. She's spent the last six years in a state-run orphanage, along with many other children whose parents have likewise vanished, presumed dead.
Now that Alenna's in grade 11, she has to take the GPPT - Government Personality Profile Test - along with everyone else in her year. The test determines whether they are an "unanchored soul", someone who is predestined to becoming a criminal; the teenagers who fail the test are sent to Prison Island Alpha and left to fend for themselves. The age expectancy is only eighteen years old, and it's clear from the video footage that the teens on the island are at war with each other. Alenna isn't worried, though. She's quiet, bookish, completely unremarkable, and certainly not interested in going against the established order. So when she wakes up after the test to find herself stranded on the island, she's sure it must be a mistake.
Rescued from being forcefully recruited by the "Drones", who wear black robes and face masks and often file their teeth into sharp points, Alenna is taken to one of the villages in the blue sector by an older girl called Gadya. There she learns that the island is called "the wheel" by the inhabitants, and it's divided into six sectors. The Monk - the leader of the drones - controls four, they have one, and the sixth, the grey zone, is out-of-bounds.
Alenna is forced to adapt quickly to life on the wheel, where raids from the Monk's drones happen by day and night, and "feelers" - tentacles that come down from the sky, from something hidden behind the clouds, to snatch people up and take them away somewhere - mean that you can never let your guard down. Alenna also learns that nothing she was told in the UNA was true, and that there's some other reason for them being stranded on this island. When handsome hunter Liam returns from a scouting mission to the grey zone before the access tunnel collapsed, he tells them of the aircrafts he saw leaving from a hanger there. Veidman and his girlfriend, Meira, the unofficial leaders of the village, propose an expedition to the grey zone, an attempt to find a way off the island. Alenna volunteers, she's determined to get into the sector, after learning that her parents left a message for her, carved into a rock.
The expedition is perilous, because it means passing through the Monk's territory, and the group of twenty won't all make it the barrier sealing off the grey zone. The journey offers more than death, though: it offers a chance to understand what it's all about, a shocking truth that will change everything Alenna thought she knew.
Originally, I was going to read this last year after the author contacted me asking if I'd like a review copy - and seriously, how could I resist a premise like this one? But after some back-and-forth with the publisher who had to pass it on to the Canadian publisher, I was sent the wrong book (same title), so in the end I just bought my own copy and took my own time reading it.
It turned out to be a quick read because it's gripping and well-written. The apocalyptic world is clearly described and well set-up, as well as being believable, especially because it feeds off our own current predicament. The authoritarian regime that is established in the UNA is familiar, being common to science fiction, but also because it's reminiscent of Nazi Germany and other authoritarian states. And the purpose of the island and all those stranded teenagers, which is revealed at the end, is chilling not least because it's so believable.
Alenna herself is not a dominating character, especially at the start - she comes across as painfully ordinary, so her expectation of passing the personality test is understandable. Yet if there's one thing the island does, it is to create subversives, rebels, resistance fighters, out of people that wouldn't have turned into one otherwise. The irony is not lost on the inhabitants of the wheel. There, Alenna has to think quick and think smart to stay alive. She trains with Gadya in how to fight and shoot a bow-and-arrow, and pitches in to help from the get-go. She didn't waste time moaning over her fate or stubbornly refusing to acknowledge her situation, or any other annoying trait that other YA heroines have been guilty of. She's someone you come to respect and admire, for she grows and matures a great deal over the course of the novel. She's not a bland little "good girl", she keeps her own counsel and has to make a conscious effort to balance self-preservation and survival with helping others: in moments of danger, her character strengthens.
The plot is nicely structured, with just enough time spent in the UNA to establish what Alenna's life was like there, and just enough time spent in the village in blue sector for her to learn as much as she can and meet certain key characters, before the expedition begins and the action escalates. Even before then, though, there's plenty of action. Even Alenna's testing is a scene of tension and sci-fi horror. In terms of structure, description and action, the writing is great. Where it faltered a bit for me was in the lack of chemistry between Alenna and Liam, and in a few little plot-holes - or world-building holes I should call them - that cropped up and stuck out for me, especially as I kept waiting for explanations.
On the latter point, it was never explained where all their supplies came from; after all, they've been dumped there and abandoned. There's mention that the Drones' impressive fireworks come from a massive container left over from a previous purpose of the island, but that's the only thing that's explained. Where does Veidman get syringes from? Where do their pots and pans come from? They're not from raids on the old prison in the grey sector, because they've never been that far. These are little details, but oh so important in maintaining a firmly-rooted science fiction world. I tried to let it go, but it really did distract me, when an explanation could have been so easily slipped in. Likewise, a lot of Alenna's questions, which are really good questions, are fobbed off at the time with the promise of an explanation later, only to never be revisited. It was frustrating, especially because once Alenna's asks something, of course you start thinking about it.
As for her relationship with Liam, it was very sweet and genuine and endearing, but it was rather sudden, and we never really got to know Liam, so that he was sadly under-developed. It makes it hard to believe in their feelings for each other, or to feel anything between them. While romance isn't the point of the story, if you're going to include it, at least make it solid and tangible. They hardly spent any time together, and while I liked how the connection between them was handled - a shared past thing that somewhat explained their instant connection - it didn't get enough time to breathe and grow.
Those were the only two negatives I had with this book, though, and I don't want to over-inflate them. This is great science fiction, partly inspired, perhaps, by Lord of the Rings rather than The Hunger Games - a comparison that The Forsaken doesn't really deserve. For one thing, it's much better written. Yes, sure, THG was an exciting book and I did enjoy it, but Collins isn't a particularly strong writer and used present tense incorrectly. Stasse also uses present tense - a tense I have come to loathe over recent years because it's become so common and so poorly used - but she actually knows how to use it, for the most part. She doesn't write as you would write in past tense, just changing the verb tense. She stays in the moment as much as possible, and while I firmly believe that it would have been just as strong, if not stronger, were it written in past tense, it didn't ultimately detract from the novel.
If I had one other minor dislike it would be Gadya. She starts out as a strong and potentially interesting character, but later turns out to be mostly volatile and completely lacking in impulse control. She spends her time shouting and getting angry, and I got rather tired of her theatrics. It made me like Alenna more in contrast, and when Gadya calmed down at the end I felt she'd grown up in the process. There is, in these situations, a lot of growing up to do.
Rather than being character- or romance-driven, the focus here is on the world, the plot and the action, all of which are highly entertaining. The other book I was reminded of, was Iain Banks' Consider Phlebus, which I like to mention whenever I can because it was such a good sci-fi novel. I was reminded of it when learning about the Monk, a cult leader who's brainwashed his followers, whom the villagers think is also a cannibal, and is carried around on a stretcher by four drones. There's a section of Banks' novel featuring a morbidly obese cult leader who eats human flesh, while encouraging his emaciated followers to eat their own feces. Delightful image isn't it? He too was carried around on a stretcher, being unable to move - I won't say more because it becomes even more gross, though his end is nigh. Anyway, the Monk brought that to mind, though it is different and the truth behind the Monk is a revelation I wasn't expecting.
I did somewhat guess as to the purpose of the feelers and the "abductions" on the wheel, though I didn't quite come up with the whole truth, and Stasse's version is much better than my half-hearted attempt to figure out what was going on. One of the strengths of the novel is the sense of atmosphere, and it became exceptionally chilly within the grey zone - if you've read it you'll recognise the pun (it's freakishly cold within the grey zone, while beyond the barrier in the rest of the wheel it's almost tropical). All in all the whole thing felt very real, with a palpable sense of danger, tension, fear and anticipation.
The Forsaken is nicely rounded-out with a clean ending, to this stage of the story anyway: it is a nicely contained story that establishes a new and exciting world that digs into some pertinent issues, especially ethical and moral ones, without ever being over-bearing. I haven't gone into that side of things much, I know, but I have to say that this was a very mature novel, which shows a lot of respect for its intended audience while also appealing to adult readers. I'm looking forward to reading the next book, The Uprising, watching Alenna continue to grow, and learning more about this fascinating and deadly world.(less)