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, t...moreTen 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)
On the 6th of October, the earth slows its rotation. Or rather, that's when the scientists share the news with everyone that it had slowed down. It's...moreOn the 6th of October, the earth slows its rotation. Or rather, that's when the scientists share the news with everyone that it had slowed down. It's a Saturday. Julia, an only child, is eleven and at home with her parents and her best friend, Hanna. They have soccer practice later in the day, but everything is abandoned, practice is cancelled, when the news hits. At first, there is panic. Supermarkets are cleaned out of tinned food, bottle water, toilet paper and candles. People pack up and leave, heading for who-knows-where, since it's not like you can hide or outrun it. Hanna's family are Mormons and head off to Utah to await Jesus, leaving Julia virtually friendless.
It takes a while for things to settle down, for people to get into a new rhythm and to adjust, and really it's an on-going adjustment. At first they still try to sleep when it's dark and go about their business when it's day, but as the days and nights lengthen and lengthen, this causes immense problems for the financial sector and the general, ordinary running of the country. So the government decides that they will stick with the 24-hour clock, and ask that everyone follow. Most people do. It is, after all, the structure that they're familiar with, and structure is comforting. But there are others, "real timers", who find this unnatural and decide to go with the sun's new schedule.
Julia continues to go to school, detailing the impact of the slowing on her small corner of California as things impact her day-to-day life, especially her family and her growing friendship, then relationship, with a boy from school, Seth. At its heart, this is a coming-of-age story, and the slowing is an impressive backdrop to the changes Julia goes through in her grade 6 year. It is also a story of human endurance, a will to survive, and a quiet documentary on ordinary people in the face of an unexpected and alien trial. Hanging over Julia's story is the understanding that things won't go back to the way they used to, ever. With such a "sword of damocles" hanging over the story, it does add a certain kind of bleakness to the drama.
A lot of people loved this book, and while there are some things I definitely liked about it, I am not one of those people. In fact, I very nearly gave it 2/5 instead of 3/5, until I remembered that I liked it a bit more than a mere "it's okay." The biggest disappointment for me is that this is exactly my kind of book. I love speculative fiction, I love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. I prefer these stories of ordinary people surviving in extraordinary circumstances, over blockbuster action films like Independence Day and Armageddon, though they have their fun moments (they're also horribly formulaic and huge on the propaganda). I kept my expectations reasonable, going into this - it is a debut novel, after all - but the story failed to lift itself from its initial premise into something that could really resonate with me.
The problems I had with it were small, but small doesn't mean they didn't have an impact on my reading of the novel. The main one was how anti-climactic it was. Julia, our narrator, is writing this story as a young woman in her twenties, looking back on her life at this pivotal time, and so she has hindsight, and foreknowledge, and more answers than we have. She continually makes rather melodramatic statements, sometimes in a fun way, like "How could we have known that the workings of the universe had finally made appropriate the fire of my mother's words?" in reference to her mother's penchant for calling things "hellacious" and "truly God-awful"; but most of the time Walker-as-Julia built up expectations and then failed to deliver on them. I would rather not have the expectations built up in the first place. Julia kept adding a doomsday-voice to events that didn't really fit the outcome; events, scenes would have had more power and oomph and meaning if they had come at us unawares, without an advertisement, and leaving us to discover and understand them on our own. I've never liked having my hand held, while reading a story. It was either the repetition that annoyed me, or the fact that it wasn't as interesting as Julia had let on.
Take her piano lessons at Sylvia's house. Julia says, "Maybe if I had known that this was one of the last times I would ever sit on that bench, I would have tried a little harder." [p.72] Then a few pages later, at the same piano lesson, she says "I gathered up my books and left the house, not knowing then that I would cross that threshold only a few more times in my life." [p. 79] From such dramatic pronouncements, you'd expect something equally dramatic to happen to Sylvia. But no, nothing happened at all. I think there is a term or expression for this but I can't think of it right now. All I know is that it left me feeling played. Walker was clearly trying to show how the everyday, mundane, and trivial things in our lives suddenly mean so much more to us when we are robbed of them - Julia, as an adult, seems to be filled with regret, or nostalgia. But it's heavy-handed and just feels manipulative.
The same thing occurred in reference to Hanna leaving - "Had I known how much time would pass before we'd see each other again, I would have said a different goodbye." [p.11] - and Julia's parents - "This was the first lie I ever heard my father tell - or the first time I knew that he was lying. But it would not be the last. And not the boldest, either." [p.32] and "Maybe everything that happened to me and to my family had nothing at all to do with the slowing. It's possible, I guess. But I doubt it. I doubt it very much." [p. 34] My first thought, or basic assumption, on reading that was that something pretty dramatic was going to happen to Julia's family. It's misleading, and creates a false sense of drama and made me feel like I was watching one of those boring reality TV shows or equally boring food competition shows: before an ad break, they string together brief shots of someone with a shocked look on their face, with someone yelling something and end with the voice over spelling doom for someone, along with dramatic "music". Only, after the ad break, you find that the shocked expression was related to something else entirely and there was no drama at all, and it's all just edited together like that to keep you watching. It's manipulative, and a weak gimmick. Even the title is reflective of this, if you were to take it literally.
The times when this spoken-with-hindsight (seriously, what's the term for it again? It's not "foreshadowing", because she's looking back on the past ... or maybe it is ... oh this is going to bug me!) device worked was when Julia referred to the bigger picture, the state of the Earth and how people were coping:
Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different - unimagined, unprepared for, unknown. [p.29]
These work really well, and sound profound, though I'm still not keen on the device, which starts to get repetitive pretty quickly.
Where Walker was most successful was with her natural-sounding dialogue, her depiction of children and adults at conflict, and in capturing people's reactions. This is a character-driven story, not a plot-driven one. The circumstances of The Age of Miracles make things happen, but in a passive way: it is the people in Julia's life that we are focused on, and the effect of the slowing on them. And the slowing is fascinating. I don't know how scientifically grounded it is, hypothetically, but Walker manages to include a lot of details in the background: the changes to gravity, the death of birds en masse, whales beaching themselves in the thousands, the slowing sickness, the Slow Time Cure, the difficulty growing crops and livestock, radiation... Though, where on earth does this stereotype that only hippies have solar panels come from?! That was new to me, and at odds with my understanding (hell, even my parents have solar panels and you wouldn't ever call them hippies!); not to mention that said hippies-with-solar-panels were of course growing copious amounts of pot. Really? Not saying it can't happen, just objecting to the blatant, lazy stereotype.
I also didn't really understand why such a strong divide occurred between the clock-timers and the real-timers. I mean, I can and I can't. I think it must be one of those black-and-white American things? In general, we're certainly very good at creating enemies or scapegoats when we can't confront the thing we really fear, and that I'm sure was Walker's point. It just seemed bizarre to me, the way the people on Julia's street ostracised the few households that decided not to follow the 24-hour-clock but the sun instead. They posed no threat, created no disturbance, didn't inconvenience anyone. They were interesting from a social commentary and philosophical perspective, though, in terms of human adaptability, our dislike of change, the ease with which we can delude ourselves in order to stay as comfortable as possible, and how quickly we look for enemies we can recognise when faced with the unknown.
I did like Julia though: in some aspects, she reminded me of myself as a child at that age (though in other respects we're nothing alike), especially in her attempts to fit in and her loneliness. Like Julia, I always preferred to have one best friend over having lots of friends, which makes you more vulnerable to loneliness because kids can be fickle. When Hanna comes back to the school and gives Julia the cold shoulder, that felt familiar. There's lots of these small details and quiet scenes that did resonate with me, and added to the realism.
As a work of imaginative speculative fiction, it's a good read. As a coming-of-age story, it's a good read. Does Walker achieve what she set out to do? Sure. It's her choice of writing style and the writing devices she used that spoilt it for me. I can't help but feel it would have been a more powerful novel if Julia hadn't made such overly dramatic pronouncements all the time, and foreshadowing things unnecessarily. It really did over-shadow the positives for me.(less)
This review contains slight spoilers for Divergent.
The second book in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately where the first book ended: with Tris...moreThis review contains slight spoilers for Divergent.
The second book in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately where the first book ended: with Tris and Tobias fleeing the city on the train, headed to Amity along with Marcus, Tobias' father and the sole survivor of the Abnegation governing body, Tris' brother Caleb, and Peter, a young man from their own faction, Dauntless, who had played an important part in the uprising and betrayal led by Erudite that Dauntless had taken part in.
The only safe place to go is Amity, the faction which resides outside the fence that encircles the city, where food is grown. Many Abnegation are already there, and some from Erudite who have left their faction. But Amity are pacifists, and not likely to protect them for long against Erudite which is hunting down Abnegation and the Dauntless that they can't control - namely, Tris and Tobias, who have already proven that they are Divergent, and can't be controlled by the simulations Erudite have created for that purpose. In fact, Tris soon learns that Erudite are hunting down Divergents, to exterminate and experiment on. Why, she can't fathom, though she suspects that Marcus knows the truth. He knows something important, anyway, something that Abnegation were planning on revealing to the entire population but which the leader of Erudite, Jeanine, wants to keep repressed.
On the run once again, Tris and Tobias find an unlikely alliance with the Factionless, but in this new world where the very fabric of their society is coming undone, it seems like everyone has their own agenda and no one can be trusted. Can Tris and Tobias trust each other in this world, let alone anyone else? With the mistakes of her past weighing on her, Tris finds she can only count on herself and her instincts to lead her down the right path.
I am not entirely sure what to say about Insurgent. I liked it as much as the first book, Divergent, yet I had pretty much exactly the same problems with it. I find the world-building fascinating, with this crumbling Chicago inhabited by people who have been divided along strict lines: everyone falls into one of five groups: Dauntless, the soldiers; Amity, the peaceful farmers; Erudite, the academics and inventors; Candor, the honest judges and merchants; and Abnegation, the selfless leaders. Those who fit in more than one category are called Divergent, something they needs must keep secret and hidden because it is believed they are dangerous to the very fabric of society. And so they are. They don't conform, they're less predictable, they struggle to be happy in one strict way of life. And there are many more of them than anyone realises, especially within the Factionless.
I think part of the reason why I have trouble connecting with this basic foundation is simply because I can't imagine a world where such clearly defined communities exist within a society, where you must choose to be one thing and one thing only. I struggle with this because I come from a world where pretty much everyone is Divergent. We're not black-and-white, we're all grey. So while I enjoy imagining such a world and learning about it, I find it hard to suspend disbelief in order to consider it plausible. Now, there is a revelation at the very end of Insurgent that goes partway to explaining how this all came to be and why, yet it's just the very tip of understanding and does little to render it plausible - yet. I have high hopes for greater understanding in the third book.
That aside, I do enjoy the story and the characters. I would probably enjoy it a great deal were I a teenager - this is the kind of story I loved when I was younger. As an adult, I tend to overthink things and that gets in the way of enjoying YA books more. The plot gets more complex in Insurgent and the developments didn't always link together all that well, in my mind. There were at times what felt like leaps rather than connections. At times the plot seemed to move too fast without firming the ground already tilled, so to speak: leaving behind questions that should have been answered. At times, it's Tris herself that I simply don't get.
I want to like Tris. I'd like to admire her. But I can barely picture her in my head, let alone understand her as a person. I had no problem sympathising with her for what happened to Will, but I had to groan when she sacrifices herself to prevent more deaths - such a cliche! Though I have to say, that the section that followed was definitely the strongest writing of the whole book, and part of me was waiting for a Brazil-like moment when you learn that reality is completely twisted and you don't know what's real anymore. Or to name a more recent movie, like Inception, with the truth inside the truth inside the truth... That would have been interesting, but that's not what this story is about so it was rather a relief when that didn't happen.
I like Tobias - I still prefer his nickname, Four - as much as I like Tris, but like Tris I didn't feel their relationship was as strong as they would have liked, because they failed to communicate and trust in each other. Two key elements to any successful, committed relationship. I felt that Tobias really needed to prove himself, and was relieved that he woke up at the end and put his faith in Tris.
The plot isn't entirely unpredictable but it is fairly eventful, and very violent. Considering how much upheaval and bloody death is present, I couldn't quite understand how Candor and Amity could so easily just stand by - I could but I couldn't. Because as much as I try to view them as confined within the neat borders of their Factions - and Roth does a good job of establishing the Factions and the personality types that go with them, right down to body language - I really struggle to empathise, to put myself in the position of someone from, say, Candor, and see the world the way they do. I tried, but was left feeling puzzled.
Again, it comes back to plausibility, but I do have faith in Roth as a writer and world-builder, and I'm sure she's going somewhere important with all this, and has the answers I so desperately need in order to make sense of this world. I don't know where the story's going to go from here, but I am eager to find out, because if nothing else, Roth is one very fine storyteller who knows how to keep readers engaged and absorbed, and who works hard to create believable, realistic characters. My own personal problem with plausibility is like a challenge to me, one I keep tackling, but I suspect Roth will be lending me a helping hand in future revelations that will make this world all the more believable.(less)
Juliette Ferrars is 17. She's been locked up in isolation in a mental asylum for 264 days. She hasn't spoken to anyone, let along seen anyone, for 264...moreJuliette Ferrars is 17. She's been locked up in isolation in a mental asylum for 264 days. She hasn't spoken to anyone, let along seen anyone, for 264 days. She doesn't know what's going on outside, though she can see the strange colours of the sky from her window, and sometimes some dead leaves, but never a bird. All she has for company are a hidden diary and the memory of what she did three years ago, the accident that finally made her parents hand her over to the authorities after a lifetime of being different, a freak, a monster.
Because Juliette's touch can kill. She doesn't know why or how, but after the accident she can't pretend it doesn't exist. And because of her selfless nature, she feels that it's best to be kept away from everyone else, for their sake. But she has never known touch, never had a mother's hug, never been kissed by a boy. She's lived a life of isolation - what's one more cell but a physical manifestation of everything she's used to?
So when she suddenly gets a cellmate, it's a big, unexplained change. Not only that, but it's a boy - a boy she recognises. She went to school with Adam Kent and has been secretly in love with him for years. He never spoke to her, but he also never tormented her. She's sure he doesn't recognise her, but his presence in her cell and his probing questions are uncomfortable. When the soldiers of the Reestablishment come for her several days later, the truth becomes clear, but that's the least of Juliette's problems. A young, attractive, ruthless and sickly ambitious leader, known only as Warner, has been studying Juliette for years and is determined to mould her into a weapon, one in his control. Since Juliette's touch can kill, Warner wants to harness this skill for his own uses - for the Reestablishment.
While I was looking up this book just now I came across many reviews that spoke of the hype, that this was one of the most-hyped books of 2011. Perhaps the reason why I enjoyed it so much was that I completely missed that hype. I may have seen a cover image here and there, but not so that it registered in my consciousness. Instead, I got this book recently after seeing it on some Top Ten Tuesday lists towards the end of the year, and instead of letting it sit around on my shelf for years, I read it straight away. So, without the hype, I didn't have any expectations and in fact, based on my experiences with YA books, my expectations were pretty low. I was fully prepared to find myself reading another Wither.
A few things made me wary, to start with. Namely, the use of present tense. I don't know if anyone else has noticed it, but present tense in YA books is a current fad, and a hugely over-done one to boot. If I could, I'd like to say to writers: please don't. Present tense is not a tense to be used lightly, and it's very, very hard to use it well. It's designed to bring a sense of immediacy and unpredictability to a story, so you'd think, in theory, that it'd be perfect for the kind of science fiction currently saturating the YA market. But the truth is, past tense usually works better at achieving this, especially because, if you don't change the way you write, present tense reads like a mistake. Too many authors, like Suzanne Collins to name a big one, write in present tense the same way they, you, anyone would write in past tense. And it doesn't work that way.
Therefore, I'm usually put on alert when I encounter present tense, these days. If it takes me a hundred pages to realise the author is using present tense, that's an author who knows how to write in it. If I notice it on the first page, then it's sticking out because it doesn't work.
Another problem, and one that ties into the present tense issue, is the idea, presented at the beginning of Shatter Me, that this is Juliette's diary. First of all, no one writes a diary in present tense. People think in present tense. Also, since she often refers to writing in the little book, or hiding it, and later loses touch with it quite often, it's clear that this isn't a diary at all. But it's not clear, at first, just what exactly this is. But in that case, it's her thoughts that she's self-censoring, and once I got that, I actually really liked it. Juliette's thoughts are oft-times repetitious, but they're also very telling. The way she crosses out lines - the true, honest thoughts that she quickly represses, thoughts that are crossed out but that reveal her insecurities - build a main character who is feeling vulnerable, insecure, bewildered, lost, longing, crying out for human touch but too afraid of herself to do it. More importantly, the way those crossed-out lines start to decrease, until they finally disappear as Juliette finds her inner strength, and the strength of conviction, as well as friendship and love to reaffirm her sense of identity and the understanding that there are people who like her, and love her - that was done very well.
If some of Mafi's poetic lines were a bit much, overall I liked them and found they worked with Juliette's character. Some weren't as effective as others, but I appreciated that Mafi tried to avoid cliched expressions to find a new voice for Juliette. Lines like (pulled at random), "So many thoughts are tangling in my head I can't untie the insanity knotting itself together" work so much better than "my head is bursting with so many thoughts I feel like I'm going insane", which is dull in the extreme. But Juliette's voice won't be for everyone, especially if you can't get past the opening chapters where it's so strong because there's no action.
Once the plot picks up, though, that's where I got really involved and engrossed in the story. This is the set-up: climate change is fully unleashed and the world has changed in just a handful of years. Birds have disappeared, the sky has changed colour, weather is all over the place. Across the world, a regime called the Reestablishment is attempting to take control, ostensibly to reestablish equilibrium with the planet to restore some of its order, but naturally it takes the shape of repression and control of the human population. It is very much modelled on the Soviet Union, especially with the wealth of the land in the hands of a few while everyone else starves, and since you could say that the Soviet Union was a real-life dystopian place, so too is the world of Shatter Me, with one main distinction: in this novel, we have the fascinating premise of a world in the process of becoming dystopian. The Reestablishment has taken control in most places but their control has not yet defeated the population, or been accepted.
And that's where we come to the superhero part. By the end, when Juliette and Adam find themselves in something of a safe place, Shatter Me becomes distinctly X-Men, and since I love the X-Men, it was all win for me. I do find, with these kinds of science fiction stories, that the advanced technology is all a bit too convenient, especially considering it's not that far in our future, but I approached this novel hoping for a good story and I got something much more fun and engaging than I expected. Not a whole lot really happened in terms of plot, but I actually liked that it focused on character development and world building, which in turn made the action and conflict scenes more tense.
But Juliette's insecurities could put a lot of readers off - for me, it's was nicely balanced by a tough interior that came through in her resilience and determination and a sense of quiet pride. When Adam talks about the things he admires in her, you can see how his words bolster her sense of self until she is able to believe in herself more. I liked Adam too, he had an honourable spirit and is protective without being micromanaging: he believes in Juliette's ability to look after herself, appreciates her strong qualities, and so in turn reinforces them in her.
I didn't find Warner to be an original character - I did, after all, recently talk about the angelic-looking, power-hungry Hugh from Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series (Warner is a younger, less clever version of Hugh) - but I did still find the character mesmerising, just like I do with Hugh. I guess I love characters who are obsessive, within the confines of a novel. ;)
Overall, I have to admire Mafi for really thinking about how she would write Shatter Me, and developing the main character through the prose. She took risks, and while I don't think present tense was the best way to go, and I don't think I could read the next book immediately after this one (too much of Juliette's voice all at once could do a Phèdre no Delaunay on me), I was deeply engrossed in the story, thoroughly enjoying the clichés as much as the original touches, and came very, very close to loving it. I also really liked that she ran with the climate change premise rather than some virus or nuclear war etc., because this is a very, very real near future for us, and fiction is the perfect avenue for exploring human nature in a given situation. This is just one version, but it was a gripping story with great potential for delving into some very real social issues and power constructs. I'm interested to see where this story goes in the next instalment. (less)