The third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted t...moreThe third and final full-length novel in the Shatter Me series (which includes two e-novellas) decides firmly, once and for all, whether Mafi wanted to write a science fiction/speculative fiction story, or a romance. The answer? Romance, in a sci-fi world. More than that, it's a coming-of-age story for its young protagonist-narrator, Juliette. Everything she's been through culminates in a triumphant ending in Ignite Me, and I can't say I'm at all disappointed.
Trouble is, how do you review the third and final book in a trilogy (or the fifth part in a series, whichever way you look at it) without giving away what came before? How do you review it in such a way that you are actually reviewing the final book while also, possibly, encouraging new readers to start from the beginning? That is, essentially, what I'd like to do here, but the truth is I read this in March - over three months ago - and it's not all that fresh in my head anymore.
For as much as I love a good romance - like, really really love - and for as much as Mafi delivers on that front, I am still disappointed by the thinly-sketched out world-building. This is a place of climatic catastrophe in our near future, a place that suffered a vacuum of power into which stepped a totalitarian regime (the Reestablishment) seeking to completely oppress the working people (which is almost everyone who isn't a soldier in the regime - and they, too, come from those families and are supporting them even while the repress them). Of course, the limited world-building comes from Juliette's limited worldview: not only is she ignorant of this world, as are we, but unlike us, she's not particularly curious about it. And that spells problems for the very ending, and the new step Juliette takes - which I won't spell out because it's a spoiler.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, though with less heat than before: There's no reason why a Young Adult title can't be intelligent, sophisticated, meaningful, and above all, well fleshed out. There's smarts here, and some really powerful imagery and insights, but as with so many other YA speculative fiction books, the world-building is thin on the ground. And that's a huge shame. I'm not asking for pages of exposition, endless descriptions of boring details. Just a few well-placed details, a timely explanation here and there where appropriate, would go far. There are hints, but they often get derailed because of how Juliette internalises everything and makes it personal.
"You think you've had it hard," [Adam's] saying to me. "Living in psych wards and being thrown in jail - you think that was difficult. But what you don't realise is that you've always had a roof over your head, and food delivered to you on a regular basis." His hands are clenching, unclenching. "And that's more than most people will ever have. You have no idea what it's really like to live out here - no idea what it's like to starve and watch your family die in front of you. You have no idea," he says to me, "what it means to truly suffer. Sometimes I think you live in some fantasy land where everyone survives on optimism - but it doesn't work that way out here. In this world you're either alive, about to die, or dead. There's no romance in it. No illusion. So don't try to pretend you have any idea what it means to be alive today. Right now. Because you don't."
Words, I think, are such unpredictable creatures.
No gun, no sword, no army or king will ever be more powerful than a sentence. Swords may cut and kill, but words will stab and stay, burying themselves in our bones to become corpses we carry into the future, all the time digging and failing to rip their skeletons from our flesh. [pp.120-1]
I love these powerful insights, I do; they're raw and honest and powerful and poetic. But I also need context for the characters' very existence. For the plot to make sense. And in a story like this, context is in world-building. Hints are fine. Using my imagination to fill in the gaps is great. But you need limits first, a border, an outline. Shatter Me has always been a bit sketchy on that front; or maybe that's because I'm an adult reader and not the intended audience. I'm slightly terrified of re-reading, as an adult, a science fiction-romance novel I read over and over again as a teenager, and finding I have the same complaints - because I didn't have them when I was younger, that's for sure. So how much of this is a real criticism and how much of it is a jaded adult griping, I can never really know for sure.
What undoubtedly saves this book, and the series, is Mafi's determined, unapologetic focus on the troubled relationship between Juliette and Warner, that seemingly psychotic, amoral, evil young man with the angelic face and hot body. The perfect villain-slash-hero. A complete fantasy, and yet Mafi succeeds in bringing the humanity out of Warner and rendering him believable. Ignite Me is really about Juliette moving past her earlier impression of Warner and learning about the person within, and coming to terms with her own feelings for him. Forgiving him, and herself. Letting go of her own black-and-white worldview to see the grey that's all around her. What we get is a rather tragic unearthing of Warner that just makes him all the more loveable.
This is Warner's room. And Warner, to me, is no longer something to be afraid of.
These past few months have transformed him in my eyes, and these past two days have been full of revelations that I'm still recovering from. I can't deny that he seems different to me now.
I feel like I understand him in a way I never did before.
He's like a terrified, tortured animal. A creature who spent his whole life being beaten, abused, and caged away. He was forced into a life he never asked for, and was never given an opportunity to choose anything else. And though he's been given all the tools to kill a person, he's too emotionally tortured to be able to use those skills against his own father - the very man who taught him to be a murderer. Because somehow, in some strange, inexplicable way, he still wants his father to love him.
And I understand that.
I really, really do. [pp.186-7]
Other readers have noted this, and I have to agree with them, that it's not necessary to demonise one character (in this case, Adam) in order to make another (in this case, Warner), seem like a better love interest. That said, people change, grow, go through crap and get moody - in general, Juliette isn't the only one figuring stuff out and acting like a cow at times. But while Juliette is discovering the "grey" in Warner, she seems to be cementing Adam in a narrow, black-and-white world, which just goes to show that she's still got a long way to go, in terms of growing up and growing wiser. As self-indulgent as she is, she seems incapable of truly thinking and caring about someone other than herself, at the rate of more than one person at a time. Then again, she is an adolescent. It's a hard, rocky road to self-realisation.
The climax, when it finally comes, seems rushed and brief compared to the long, drawn-out set-up that takes up the bulk of the novel. Yet I didn't mind it. I think I preferred it to a long, drawn-out climax. Climaxes should be brief - they should be climactic. But I did find the resolution at the very end to be a bit ... truncated. It works, and yet I wanted more. On the other hand, had I got more, it might have seemed unnecessary, indulgent, and taken away from the oomph of the ending. Thing is, overturning the entrenched, abusive dystopian power in place - the goal of such stories as this - is only the beginning. Rebuilding is a whole other story, and I would love to read that. The ending is the birth of a whole new world; a world that has a long way to go and will suffer greatly along the way; a world peopled by X-Men like characters (love it!). I don't know what Mafi is planning on writing next, but I don't feel ready to say goodbye to these characters or this world. Juliette doesn't need us anymore, it would be time for a new protagonist to step forward, into this equally-dangerous and unknown new world. I would love to be there for that journey.(less)
**spoiler alert** Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows....more**spoiler alert** Ten year old Melanie is a very special girl. Her life follows a specific and unchanging routine, and it is the only world she knows. In the morning, they come into her cell and strap her into a wheelchair while aiming guns at her; they even strap her head in place. Then she is wheeled into a windowless classroom along with over twenty other children, all strapped into wheelchairs. They have several teachers, but Melanie's favourite is Miss Justineau, who tells them stories from Greek mythology. The only difference is on Sundays, when they are wheeled into the shower room and given a chemical bath, and then a plate of grubs to eat.
Melanie, like all the other children in the underground military base, is special. She's a fully cognisant zombie - or "hungry", as they're called. Infected with the fungas just as much as any other hungry, she has retained her intellect - and her emotions, not that the lead scientist on base, Dr Caldwell, believes she possesses any. Melanie is special: she's brighter than any of the other children, and as she discovers, she's able to control her hunger.
While Helen Justineau humanises the children and reports her observations, Sergeant Parks collects them from the hungry-infested deserted urban centres, and Dr Caroline Caldwell dissects them, hoping to understand the fungus and find a way to beat it. Twenty years is all it's been since the Breakdown - there are men on Parks' team who are too young to know about life before then. Now there are those living in the city of Beacon, south of London, and those who take their chances in hungry territory: Junkers.
When an attack on the base catches them all by surprise and forces them to flee, Melanie finds herself with Miss Justineau, Sergeant Parks, the dreaded Dr Caldwell, and a young private, Gallagher, as they try to make their way back to Beacon. Along the way trust and loyalty will be sorely tested, and motivations questioned. Above all, though, little Melanie must re-learn her understanding of the world and her place in it, and what it means to be human in this new world.
The Girl with all the Gifts began as a short story called "Iphigenia in Aulis" which he wrote for an anthology edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni Kelner, and is already in the works as a screenplay (it has a very clear and definite movie feel to it - you can really see it as a film). MR Carey - who usually writes as Mike Carey - writes for DC and Marvel (he's the current writer of X-Men and the Ultimate Fantastic Four, and wrote Hellblazer and Lucifer, as well as a comic adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. Speculative Fiction of various genres is clearly something he's good at, and in his new novel those strengths - of being able to paint a scene quickly and succinctly, of being able to create tension and develop characters without losing (or giving in to) genre tropes - really shines through. Granted, the use of present tense doesn't add anything to the narrative, but it wasn't too distracting.
On the back cover, author Jenny Colgan drew a connection between this book and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and - especially in the first part - that parallel is very apt (and one of the reasons that prompted me to get this). As in Ishiguro's creepy and intense novel, Melanie and her unusual peers are considered less than human, with the adults refusing to notice any signs that might undermine their belief - their need to believe - that they have anything in common. To believe in an inherent humanity in these children would mean they couldn't do what they do to them - not without feeling guilty or less than human, themselves. This is akin to the colonising attitudes of Europeans in the Americas, Australia and Africa, but we certainly do it already towards, say, the disabled or mentally ill, and homeless people, to name a few.
I've said before that I'm not a fan of zombie stories; I've read a few and seen a few movies and two things always put me off or make me feel downright depressed: that zombies are inherently uninteresting because they are mindless and have only one goal; and that you can't win against zombies. If you survive, it's only temporary. Bleak, very bleak stuff. Even the comedies are bleak, at heart. MR Carey has created a distinctly fresh zombie story, and in the process animated some interest in them for me. He has skilfully retained the elements of gory horror and apocalyptic survival, created some interesting and diverse characters to traverse the landscape, and provided a very satisfying yet chilling ending to this standalone novel. More importantly, though, is that you quickly get the sense this isn't your run-of-the-mill zombie story. Zombies are a way of telling a more important story, one that delves deep into human nature in all its variants, and looks sharply at the things we hold dear and what we're willing to do to avoid change, destruction or ultimate death.
We get to know Melanie well in The Girl with all the Gifts, and quickly come to sympathise with her and feel a need to love and protect her - things she yearns for without really understanding it. Miss Justineau feels it too, though she's also repulsed by it; at least at first. It isn't hard to see where the genius of Carey's creation lies: I can't think of any other zombie story where zombie children play such a huge part. Certainly, I don't think we could bare to watch a zombie movie where a rotting child gets their head smashed in. Zombie or not, that's just too repellent. At first I thought this might bear a few too many similarities with Justin Cronin's The Passage (I've read that Carey hadn't read Cronin's books until after The Girl was published), but thankfully the only things they have in common is a little girl being a central character in an apocalyptic world.
The atmosphere is just right, neither overdone nor lacking in tension. Twenty years isn't a very long time, but it's long enough for desolation to set in, long enough for the people who knew what it was like before to be turning philosophical, and short enough that they're still letting themselves belief they can change it, fix it, get back the way of life they once took for granted. Which makes the ending all the more poignant. There's a nice tone of bleakness, especially from Sergeant Parks, while Dr Caldwell is so driven and single-minded that she's become the Mad Scientist character.
So that old stuff is literally priceless. Parks gets that. They're trying to find a way to remake the world twenty years after it fell apart, and the goodies that the grab-bag patrols bring home are ... well, they're a rope bridge over a bottomless canyon. They're the only way of getting from this besieged here to a there where everything is back in good order.
But he feels like they lost their way somewhere. When they found the first of the weird kids, and some grunt who'd obviously never heard about curiosity and the cat called in a fucking observation report.
Nice going, soldier. Because you couldn't keep from observing, the grab-baggers suddenly got a whole slew of new orders. Bring us one of those kids. Let's take a good long look at him/her/it.
And the techies looked, and then the scientists looked, and they got the itch to kill a few cats, too. Hungries with human reactions? Human behaviours? Human-level brain functions? Hungries who can do something besides run and feed? And they're running naked and feral through the streets of the inner cities, right alongside the regular variety? What's the deal? [pp.70-71]
Visually, it's very arresting, especially with that element of nature taking over running through it. It's not quite Day of the Triffids, but when you see fungal trees growing out of hungries' (dead-dead) bodies, it definitely feels very alien and wrong. And horrific. That after everything, and despite our insistence in our own superiority, humans - and only humans - have been felled by a fungus. It almost makes you want to giggle. One thing that does always bother me, about this and other zombie stories, but especially this one (because of the ending), is what zombies are supposed to live on, long-term. Without the surviving population of non-zombie humans, they've got no food source. It goes against all we know of life, nature, survival, the food chain, etc. It's just something that bugs me while I'm reading zombie stories, like having some lump digging into your thigh when you sit on the ground.
I found The Girl with all the Gifts to be riveting, disturbing and, overall, entertaining while still being provocative and insightful.(less)
Cara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpe...moreCara Sweeney is at the top of the academic ladder at Midtown High and is all set for a final year of excellence when the principal hands her an unexpected - and not entirely welcome - assignment. As part of the fledgling treaty with an alien race two years after the L'eihrs first made contact, three top students from across the world have been picked by the aliens to host three of theirs, ambassadors on an exchange program of good will and mutual education. After which, the human hosts will travel to the L'eihr homeworld, a much smaller and tightly controlled planet, on exchange for the same reasons.
The student ambassador who Cara and her family will play host to is an eighteen year old boy called Aelyx. The other two ambassadors will stay with host families in China and France. Cara's parents are overjoyed - ever since her mother's life was saved when the L'eihrs gifted humans with the cure for cancer, they've been pro-alien (and on their humble income, the stipend for hosting helps, too). Not so many others in Cara's town and across America. Anti-alien sentiment continues to grow as the school year starts, and unbeknownst to Cara, it's mutual.
Aelyx and his friends, Syrine and Eron, have their own reasons and plans for destroying the alliance and severing the newly-forged ties between their people and the puny, barely civilised humans. Over the weeks, though, Aelyx finds himself drawn to his friendly host, and even appreciative of her efforts to cook him something he can actually eat. He's not concerned by the growing group calling itself HALO: Humans Against L'eihr Occupation - if anything, it plays perfectly into their plans of sabotage.
With her older brother, Troy, a Marine, on the L'eihr home planet, her boyfriend, Eric, joining HALO, and her best friend, Tori, caving under pressure and ditching her, Cara finds that soon her only friend in the whole town is Aelyx himself. Being in each other's company so much, they're learning more from and about each other than they could have dreamed - and discovering that there's more to their friendship, and more to the treaty, than they had expected or understood. But is it too late to fix things, repair the damage - and stay together?
I'll admit that, going into this, I didn't expect a whole lot. Another American teen drama featuring young love, obstacles and misunderstandings, nothing fancy but hopefully entertaining. I wasn't sure I should expect realism or believability as well. But actually, or maybe because of those expectations, Alienated proved itself to be more than just entertainment and teen drama - though it has plenty of that. Grounded in familiar sci-fi tropes, Landers has nevertheless managed to make it feel and sound fresh and not all that predictable. Cara is a strong, likeable heroine for whom it's not surprising that Aelyx would develop deeper feelings for - or that her ex-boyfriend and her best friend would remain loyal to her, albeit secretly.
By keeping the sci-fi elements simple and relatively straight-forward, Landers avoided many common pitfalls and plot-holes. You might find a few minor ones, but nothing that's going to aggravate you and distract you from the story. You learn enough about the aliens for it all to make sense, which provides a well-grounded context. And of course the human side and its varied reactions rings true as well, with the xenophobia, suspicion of (literally, in this case) the "alien Other" and fear-mongering: you can clearly see that a group like HALO would form and build steam, paranoid about alien weaponry and ulterior motives, and would quickly lose control. Threaded through the story is a pleasing sense of humour that adds the right - and realistic - edge to the novel's tone; humour both lightens and darkens a scene, all in one go.
Dad hooked his thumb toward the back door. "You two go for a walk or something." In other words, he didn't want their guest to witness the fury he was about to unleash. Cara grabbed Aelyx's sleeve and tugged him into the kitchen. "Hurry," she whispered. "You don't wanna be here when he explodes, trust me." As they hurried outside, she heard Ron's hysterical voice calling, "He has a weapon! I saw him hide it in his sweater!" What a lunatic. No wonder [his son] Marcus was so screwed up. Her dad's voice boomed from inside the house. "I've got a Glock, a shovel, and five acres of woods, Johnson!"
Naturally, a story about aliens allows us to take a closer look at ourselves, from another's perspective. Aelyx's views and perspective are a consistent blend of alien and familiar, and his judgements of human behaviour and how we've treated our planet ring true, to our deep sense of shame. But even more than that, it is watching Aelyx grow, develop and mature as a character that really helps flesh out this story. He begins as a stiff, rather uptight kind of person, hard to figure out without understanding his culture and history, but intriguing. His people, the L'eihr, have spent centuries creating a harmonious society, breeding out unwanted genes and breeding in the best ones, creating an intelligent, strong and attractive race. But they've lost a lot in the process, and their wise elders understand what an alliance with untempered humans can give them, aside with strengthening their weakened gene pool. Humans might seem like children indulging in one selfish tantrum after another, but the L'eihrs - for all their sophistication and mind speech - are yet another kind of child, a sheltered, arrogant, inexperienced kind that has sacrificed the headier, impassioned emotions without realising - or appreciating - all the things they have lost alongside them.
Aelyx had once heard [Cara's father] Bill Sweeney say, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. As he sat beside Cara on the sofa, watching her face tipped toward the makeup artist, her full lips parted to receive a coat of lipstick, he began to understand why. Ever since his research into kissing and other human mating rituals, his mind had relentlessly fixated on Cara, flashing manufactured sensations of how her soft, wet mouth might feel against his own. He could almost taste her on his tongue, and when his traitorous body responded to the fantasy, he had to pull an accent pillow onto his lap and force himself to recite Earth's periodic table of elements. Gods, what had he unleashed? How would he survive the remainder of the exchange like this?
As much as both Cara and Aelyx grow and change, by the end they still remain true to themselves, their culture and their people. Landers successfully and realistically matured them, making them much more interesting characters, strengthened by their exposure to each other. Not only that, but they actually have chemistry! Yes I know, you'd think that would be a necessary given in a sci-fi romance wouldn't you? But it's not always there. Another reviewer described the romance as a "beautiful mixture of sweetness and steamy", and I find this a very apt description. It's not overdone, it develops nicely, and there's a real depth of feeling to it.
The supporting characters are never much more than simply that, supporting. You never really get to know any of them very well, which was a bit of a shame. Of them all, though, it was Tina, Cara's best friend, who was the most disappointing. She's a short, petite Latina (I'm never sure what that means, specifically - of Mexican heritage? South American? Spanish-speaking, anyway) with the same characteristics that I've come across in other American YA novels. I can't remember which books, but I know I've come across Tina before, pretty much exactly. (The House of Night books come to mind, and another that's eluding me.) The cultural, or racial, stereotyping is lazy and disappointing.
Overall, though, this was an interesting story featuring two strong main characters who I really came to like and enjoy. I didn't find the ending predictable - it seemed like the story could go in various directions, and I was happy to go along and stay in the moment - but it has certainly added a whole new layer of tension and intrigue to the overall story arc. The first book may have ended, but the story as a whole has a whole universe to explore - and I'm definitely interested in seeing where it takes us. Cara and Aelyx's story has really only just begun in this well-written debut novel, and I think it's only going to get better from here.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. Please note that quotes in this review come from the uncorrected proof and may appear differently in the finished book.(less)
This companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, which f...moreThis companion novella takes place after book two, Unravel Me, and before book three, Ignite Me. The previous companion novella, Destroy Me, which follows from book one, Shatter Me, was told from Warner's perspective and was extremely intense and absorbing, and perfectly set up my high expectations for Unravel Me, which weren't just met, they were exceeded. Unfortunately, this was not the case with Fracture Me.
Told from Adam's perspective, it doesn't add a whole lot to the story and didn't flesh out Adam's character in the way that Destroy Me did for Warner. As if all Mafi's creative power went into creating Warner and there was nothing left for Adam. I liked Adam in Shatter Me, I liked him a lot, and things got a tad messy in Unravel Me which really upped the ante, but in Fracture Me, Adam backs off entirely as he puts his brother first, and seems to lose all interest in Juliette.
Is this Mafi neatly getting rid of the love triangle that dogged the first two books? If so, it works, and I'm all for tying up that loose thread. But what really disappointed me was that Fracture Me felt inorganic, constrained by its need to fill in a bit of background that Juliette's unable to witness, and overall, a bit pat.
Where were the feelings that had seemed so strong, before? Where was his passion (other than that for his brother)? Where were his ideals, even? This novella not only failed to flesh out Adam, it added nothing to my understanding of this post-apocalyptic, dystopian world, either. If Warner was able to give us a bit of insight into the Reestablishment, Adam should have been able to give us insight into either the rebel organisation, or what life was like for regular people. I've been getting increasingly absorbed by this world and the players in it, but reading Fracture Me was decidedly anti-climactic. (It didn't help that I got my memory of the ending of Unravel Me mixed up - now I'm not sure what I was remembering, exactly, and I don't have the books on hand to check, but I kept expecting Adam and Kenji to break into the house and rescue Juliette; it wasn't until I started reading the teaser chapter one for Ignite Me that I remembered what had happened.)
I also find it disturbing that, in the machinations of the plot, so many people are killed and then forgotten. If you've read this far in the series, you know what I'm referring to. I should hope that they had an evacuation plan, an escape route, since Castle's so smart, but considering how he fell apart, it doesn't look like it. Juliette, in her self-absorbed, self-indulgent way, would probably care more than the more "human" Adam, whose only thought was for his brother. Understandable, but what about after finding him safe? Adam always struck me, before, as a young man of integrity, feeling, compassion, morals, generosity of spirit - all good things. Such is my disappointment with this novella, that not only did I not get to know Adam better than before, but that my impression and understanding of him was so greatly diminished. (Likewise, he didn't offer much of a perspective on Juliette.) Though I did like this bit:
A shot rings out. [...] A guy on the far left falls to the ground and I'm shaking with anger. These people need our help. We can't just hang back and watch thirty unarmed, innocent people get killed when we could find a way to save them. We're supposed to be doing something, but we're standing here for some bullshit reason I can't understand because Juliette is scared or Kenji is sick and I guess the truth is we're just a bunch of crappy teenagers, two of who can barely stand up straight or fire a weapon, and it's unacceptable.
Still, despite all these complaints, I am still just as enthused for Ignite Me as before. With a series like this one, it's clear that Mafi can achieve great heights, and great lows. I will shelve my expectations, then, and try not to hope too much for a book to match Unravel Me. If you're reading the series - and, again, despite my complaints - it is worth reading the novellas, including this one, as they do help flesh out the plot and fill in some gaps between books, things Juliette's not privy to.
And in the meantime, I am rolling my eyes at any and all projected hypotheses regarding Kenji. If Mafi turns him into a new love interest for Juliette, I will be utterly disgusted and will lose all respect. I'm certainly not convinced Juliette's got that much going for her that she attracts so many, very different, men, but more than that, doesn't Kenji deserve his own story? His own love life? It's the way everything revolves around Juliette that starts to annoy me. Can't she just be friends with him and leave it at that?(less)
It's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in spa...moreIt's the year 6036, and thirty-three year old Fran is regretting leaving her comfortable, if dull, life in Adelaide for a colonising expedition in space. Her ship has been captured, she's separated from almost all of her fellow space-settlers, and the future looks dire. Locked up in a bare cell with a number of other females from different species on the planet of Olman, Fran can only keep young Margaret company as they listen to the sounds of alien warriors being tortured in a nearby cell.
Fran isn't one for sitting down and taking it, though, and she riles up the others to think of escape and freedom. One of her cellmates has an idea, but it requires Fran's willing participation. The warriors are Darkons, and while at the moment they're barely surviving, if they are awakened, sexually, then they become almost invincible. They would certainly be their best bet at escape.
There aren't many options available, and as one of the only human females there, it's up to Fran to awaken the warriors. At the time, she's thinking mostly of escaping this hell-hole, but all too soon the reality of what she's unwittingly committed herself to becomes clear.
I have to be clear: I haven't read Legend Beyond the Stars, the full-length story that begins this series and establishes the whole premise, and I think my reading of this novella suffered for it. The problem was that this was too short a story - too short to explain things, establish anything, create a clear context or even develop the characters. I feel a bit unfair, but all I can do is speak of my experience reading this novella.
While Fran's situation is explained, albeit in short detail, the broader context is missing. There's no explanation for why her ship was captured and all the colonisers imprisoned, or why any of the other females were locked up either. I don't think this would be explained in the first book. There're hints that there is a major inter-galactic war going on, when one of the aliens mentions that the Darkons are resisting and the Elite Guards of Olman are planning a major strike against the Darkon home world. But nothing is explained, and without the right context the scenario of Awakening the Warriors didn't quite hold up. I would hope that the first book fills in these gaps.
But let's take this as the erotic space-opera novella it is. It has a conventional, simple plot structure divided into three short sections: the prison, where Fran sexually awakens the warriors, and from which they flee amid much gunfire; on board the ship they escape on; and the last stage on the space station where Fran and Margaret are nearly captured again. There's not a whole lot to it, which made me think that I prefer longer stories to novellas. But mostly I was disappointed by how formulaic it was. I've read quite a few stories generally classified as Paranormal Romance, and this shared many of the same tropes. The Darkon Warriors could have been alpha vampires, or werewolves. The two Darkon who survive and are awakened by Fran are called Jarrell and Quain. Jarrell is younger, sweeter; Quain is older and very alpha - macho, even.
Since this is a novella, there isn't all that much sex in it - two scenes only, though with two men involved it feels like more. Again, the condensed nature of the novella format made the lusty writing come across as a wee bit silly. I often had to stop myself from rolling my eyes and work at going along with it. Again, the problem with a novella is how squished it feels, how rushed the sexual attraction and progression becomes, and how dependent the story is on romance conventions and familiar language. If you had enjoyed the first book and got into the world-building and set-up, it would be easier to enjoy this for its own sake and not worry about any of these quibbles. I didn't realise it was a sequel or a novella until I started reading it, but for all my criticisms, there were enjoyable elements to this story.
Fran is likeable, she rises to the occasion and becomes a strong heroine. She's got a sense of humour, and she doesn't over-think things or get self-indulgent in her thoughts and reflections. The writing is capable and flows well, and regardless of how corny you might find some of the lines, they are fun and Gilchrist made an effort to add a dash of originality. I found myself more curious about the world and its politics then this short story allowed, and rather wish there was a more serious, lengthy story available that really developed it. It makes me both interested in reading Legend Beyond the Stars but also wary, afraid that my questions won't be explained and I'll come out of it even more confused and frustrated.
Aside from anything else, this is a snappy and exciting story. The fast pace and novella format don't allow for dull moments, and the sex is quite steamy. Unfortunately, the Darkon warriors are under-developed as characters, and come across as mere muscle-men-with-demanding-cocks. Like any other intelligent woman, I find that sexy men are only sexy when they have personality and some brains, too. So overall, this was a frustrating mix of good and unsatisfying, exciting and disappointing.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
**spoiler alert** This review contains major spoilers.
The third and final instalment in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately after the ending of...more**spoiler alert** This review contains major spoilers.
The third and final instalment in the Divergent trilogy picks up immediately after the ending of book 2, Insurgent, which culminated in a rather anti-climactic revelation. If you remember, the revelation was the climax of the novel, but didn't actually tell us anything much. The main problem with it is that, throughout this whole trilogy - and this is something that didn't solidify for me until I finished Allegiant - Roth failed to create the society of her post-apocalyptic, dystopic world convincingly. It isn't until you have the truth, as it is revealed in book 3, that you can even judge this. The problem is, in a way, similar to what you experience reading Lois Lowry's The Giver: these people are aliens - alien to us, the readers, anyway. They are "Other" but this distinction is never clear and so we can never really see their world from their perspective; thus, it never quite seemed realistic (to human nature) and I'm still not convinced Roth managed to pull it together in the final book.
The truth of Tris Prior's community, her fenced-in, half-ruined Chicago, is that she and all the other people's grandparents were put there because of a genetic flaw. Genetic manipulation conducted sometime in the past (i.e, our future), intended to solve our worst personality flaws, had unexpected negative consequences. As it is explained to Tris when she and her companions reach the military-science base not far outside the fence, the attempt to correct our genes resulted in damaging them.
"Take away someone's fear, or low intelligence, or dishonesty ... and you take away their compassion. Take away someone's aggression and you take away their motivation, or their ability to assert themselves. Take away their selfishness and you take away their sense of self-preservation. If you think about it, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean."
I tick off each quality in my mind as he says it - fear, low intelligence, dishonesty, aggression, selfishness. He is talking about the factions. And he's right to say that every faction loses something when it gains a virtue: the Dauntless, brave but cruel; the Erudite, intelligent but vain; the Amity, peaceful but passive; the Candor, honest but inconsiderate; the Abnegation, selfless but stifling. [pp.122-3]
Ah, good old genetic manipulation. It's irrelevant how original or not it is as a trope, because it's something we'll never get tired of talking about and exploring: what it means to be human, and whether we should deliberately alter our state of being - whether we should force evolution on ourselves. It's an obvious consequence of being philosophical, curious and thinking ourselves superior. Stories like this one play it out and you know, I can't think of a single example that doesn't deal with negative consequences. But such is the wonderful nature of speculative fiction: to explore and experiment and see. To play out a hypothesis without actually harming anyone. Because a lot of these moral and ethical dilemmas are ones we have to think our way through, not act upon in the real world.
Trouble is, in the case of Veronica Roth's Divergent trilogy, it's never really explained quite well enough, or convincingly. The bits of information don't quite add up to the whole. It seems to contradict itself, or simply not take the time to really give readers a good enough grasp of the situation for it to make sense. As a result, many of the new scenarios Tris and Four find themselves in don't quite make sense. Well, they do and they don't. For instance, after the genetic tampering made its way down through the generations and finally manifested, not in friendly, compassionate, intelligent, funny, easy-going and talented people (as I'm sure they were aiming for) but in a range of people who were all lacking particular key personality traits that you need in order to be "well-rounded", a civil war occurred.
The civil war became known as the "Purity War": those with missing genes versus those considered "pure", the people whose grandparents or great-grandparents hadn't undergone genetic tampering. Thus the half-destroyed condition of the United States and its decimated population (the Purity War, in other words, is the "apocalypse"). Afterwards, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare was established and a permanent solution to the "problem" of the genetically damaged people was found: to round them up and put them inside fenced-in communities, like Tris's home in Chicago, there to sort themselves out in their own way. Tris's ancestors established the factions, and the Bureau, seeing how well it worked (it restored a sense of order and calm), instigated it in the other secure environments. It was found that the genetic damage would correct itself with time, so they needed to give those people time. Tris is one of the "corrected" people: she is divergent, which means she never fit neatly into any of the factions. The aim was to have everyone become "divergent" - or healed - and re-enter society. The Bureau didn't expect the factions to try and kill the divergent.
That's it in a nutshell, but the explanations don't always gel with what we've seen. It's not that it can't make sense, but that we feel a bit cheated. Because we've been inside Tris's head all this time, seeing everything from her perspective, listening to only her thoughts, we're getting the perspective of someone who's just like us - a person like us who is in the middle of a very strange world. She's like a human surrounded by aliens, but aliens in disguise. We always knew there was something seriously wrong with Tris's world, but because Roth couldn't share many world-building explanations without giving everything away (and she couldn't, being stuck with Tris's perspective), there was no way to know that the problem wasn't so much environmental as medical.
While I was reading this, I got hung up on a few things like this. If, knowing the whole story, you were to go back and re-read all three books together, I'm sure it would work a lot better, because you'd have explanations for the way people behave. The danger, of course, with this kind of premise, is making it too black-and-white. As a person whose genes haven't been tampered with, I always found it hard to understand how Tris's people could have formed such neat factions (or, indeed, how anyone could say "I am THIS faction" and that completely sums them up). The explanation does make sense, it's the only way to explain it, because the people weren't - according to the story - properly human.
Always ironic, isn't it, the way these stories play out: try to make people into better humans, and you end up making them worse; not only that, but the unmodified people then set themselves up as "superior" - in this case, "pure" - and fail to see that by dividing people and establishing such drastic social and psychological barriers, they are becoming inhuman themselves.
This was something that I struggled with, in this book. My slight disappointment comes not because the explanations annoyed me, but that they were so ripe for exploring. It comes not from Roth having to hold back on the world-building out of necessity and plot, but that, when those considerations were no longer a problem, she still held back. She held back in so many ways, when it wouldn't have taken much for her to take a step closer to the kernel of truth at the core of the entire premise. I would have liked her to follow through, not hold back - not as much as she did, anyway. It seemed like such a perfect opportunity to delve into these thorny issues, but instead Roth remained firmly, stubbornly subtle. It wouldn't have taken that much to really make this a powerful story, to crystalise the issues and make readers really think. There's no need to dumb it down or hold back just because your target audience is adolescent; the opposite is true, in fact. Teenagers are smart, their brains are going through some major renovations and development, and they're thirsty for some mental exercise - even if they pretend otherwise. I wouldn't have liked this watered-down speculative fiction as a teen, and I don't care for it as an adult, either.
I've come all this way and I haven't even mentioned the plot, or the characters, or the ending - an ending which, I'm sure, surprised or shocked or even upset more than a few readers. Truth is, for as much I was disappointed at the way the revelations and world-building were handled, I still enjoyed this book for all the things it did well. Tris's character continued to develop and become more assertive, to the point where I actually started to like her.
Four faces his first real dilemma in Allegiant and has much to overcome within this one volume - he learns that he isn't in fact divergent, that he hasn't been "healed", and he starts to fall in with genetically damaged people who object to the way they're treated at the hands of the "purists" (another really interesting concept and consequence that fell short of thought-provoking brilliance). He goes through a lot and comes out of it a stronger person, which was really good to see as his character was always a bit static before. I still don't find him to be a particularly strong character, though - if anything, he got weaker the more we got to know him, as if all his charisma was purely on the surface and his character wasn't half as interesting (or maybe it's because he has "damaged" genes, hmm??) We also get to know him better because he narrates his own chapters. Disappointingly, his voice isn't dissimilar enough from Tris's that it's always apparent who's speaking - there were times when I actually forgot, and had to look for Tris or Four's name to know.
The plot is interesting, but for the sake of a fairly fast pace, it skims past things that would have helped flesh it out more, like the shanty camp Tris visits with the soldiers. There's some real social-justice-commentary going on in Allegiant, but it only ever brushes the surface and I thought that a shame.
...I start walking down one of the aisles, as most people take off or shut themselves inside their lean-tos with cardboard or more tarp. I seem them through the cracks between the walls, their houses not much more than a pile of food and supplies on one side and sleeping mats on the other. I wonder what they do in the winter. Or what they do for a toilet.
I think of the flowers inside the compound, and the wood floors, and all the beds in the hotel that are unoccupied, and say, "Do you ever help them?"
"We believe that the best way to help our world is to fix its genetic deficiencies," Amar says, like he's reciting it from memory. "Feeding people is just putting a tiny bandage on a gaping wound. It might stop the bleeding for a while, but ultimately the wound will still be there."
I can't respond. All I do is shake my head a little and keep walking. I am beginning to understand why my mother joined Abnegation when she was supposed to join Erudite. If she had really craved safety from Erudite's growing corruption, she could have gone to Amity or Candor. But she chose the faction where she could help the helpless, and dedicated most of her life to making sure the factionless were provided for. [pp.347-8]
Yes, all very valid, Tris, but what else? Aside from understanding your mother better, what else is going on here? It's a key and highly relevant social justice comment in this scene, and you've turned it into a small but sweet reflection on how great your mum was. Understandable, but does that have to be all?
But the ending, oh the ending! I really liked it. And it wasn't completely unexpected, because it's the main purpose behind using first person present tense - a tense that has become hideously over-used recently, like a ghastly new fad that everyone copies without knowing why. Want to know what the point of using first person present tense is? It's so you can kill off your narrator. You can't, technically (though you can because we're all about breaking the rules in English), kill off a first person past tense voice, because technically they're relating, or retelling the story. Though that's not really true either.
But let's stay on track: Tris dies at the end of Allegiant, and while she didn't have to die for the sake of the character, she did for the plot. It was the right move, and it made for a much stronger ending than the previous two books - and a very strong ending for the trilogy. Our engagement with the story becomes more emotional as well as intellectual. There's always that moment of utter disbelief, that faint hope that some miracle will occur a la The Matrix and the character will come back to life. From a craftsmanship, writing perspective, it was a great ending. From a plot perspective, it was a strong ending. But it does make me glad I wasn't more attached to Tris, or I would have been extremely upset.
All of that said, it could just be me. Maybe other readers found the world-building enough, the social commentary thought-provoking, the explanations sound. In which case, Roth did well. I can only speak to my own reading experience, which is a mixed one. I really enjoyed this book - didn't love it, but it was actually quite riveting at times. I wish it hadn't softened its punches so much and connected the dots more, and I wish that the characters had been more interesting, overall.(less)
Sixteen-year-old Kira Jordan has been living on the desolate streets for two years after her family is brutally murdered one night and she rejected th...moreSixteen-year-old Kira Jordan has been living on the desolate streets for two years after her family is brutally murdered one night and she rejected the foster care system. She's become an adept shop-lifter and pick-pocket, a petty thief who survives by her wits and has, like almost everyone else, the unlikely dream of one day making it to the Colony, a domed city where people are safe and comfortable and she could go to school again. Those fanciful dreams are even more unlikely when she wakes up one day in pitch blackness, chained to a metal wall by the wrist, and then realises she's sharing the metal box with Rogan Ellis, a teenaged mass murderer.
Unlike Kira, Rogan knows exactly what's going on, because unlike Kira, he signed up for it. Countdown, an underground television reality game show privately subscribed to by viewers who have it beamed right into their heads via the computer chip in the back of their heads. Two contestants are given a set of six tasks, or levels, each progressively worse, and a tight time limit to complete them. There can only be one winner. Rogan was in St Augustine's, a juvenile detention centre, just days away from turning eighteen and being sent to Saradone, a brutal adult prison, when he was offered the alternative choice of being in Countdown. He has little to lose, as either way means likely death, but at least the game show gives him a chance at wiping clean his criminal record as a reward if he wins.
Kira is the first female ever to be on the show, and the first contestant to be press-ganged into it. As such, she's less than willing, but she has to stay within 90 feet of Rogan if she doesn't want her head to blow up. She doesn't know who she can trust but as she learns more about Rogan - and he, her - they come to trust each other as a matter of survival.
But Rogan knows a lot more about this sadistic, murderous game than Kira had reckoned on. In fact, the game - and its creator - are a lot closer to home than she could have guessed. And as the game tries to force them into betraying each other, they instead turn their gazes on the man behind the game itself, and what's really going on.
Countdown was originally published by Shomi in 2008 as an adult novel under the pseudonym of Michelle Maddox. The idea to tweak it a bit for a Young Adult audience worked very well, and the result is a high-adrenaline, fast-paced adventure story with a bit of romance, more than a bit of sexual tension, and a satisfying climax (ha ha). Needless to say, they complete the levels with barely seconds to spare, which makes for some terrific tension.
Even before I started reading Countdown, when I just read the blurb, I was immediately reminded of The Running Man - the old Arnold Schwarzenegger film, not the book which I haven't read yet. And interestingly enough, the story reads very much like you're watching a movie. It has a rather formulaic structure to it, the kind of structure that works very well on screen, and the fast pace, powerful bad guy, slightly conventional plot twists and cinematic-like visuals make for the strong feeling of having just watched an exciting movie.
There is some tidy backstory given on the state of Kira's world, a post-apocalyptic world decimated by the ravages of a plague that wiped out large portions of the population. Her city is mostly derelict, and empty, and it seems like the middle class has mostly been wiped out. The world-building is nicely sketched but doesn't figure prominently, merely supplying the setting for the reality game show: a world where this could be possible.
The characters are few but were nicely developed with plenty of mystery left over to make it hard to know whether to trust any of them. Kira narrates, and while she has her moments, in the beginning, of denial, she soon rises to the challenge and whining is minimal. She becomes a strong-willed heroine, resourceful and intelligent, and between them Kira and Rogan have solid chemistry and plenty of tension. There wasn't anything especially unique or particularly memorable about them, but they were well-written and they hold your attention - and your sympathies.
This is all fun: solid, exciting, dependable fun. If there are "popcorn movies", then this is a "popcorn novel". It is a bit conventional and formulaic, but it's done well and it works, and it's never boring. It achieves its aims admirably and Rowen has delivered a thrilling, compelling story.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley.(less)
Based on the character of the 11th Doctor as played by Matt Smith, Jenny T Colgan has brought the Time Lord to life in this well-written, authentic an...moreBased on the character of the 11th Doctor as played by Matt Smith, Jenny T Colgan has brought the Time Lord to life in this well-written, authentic and tightly-paced historical science fiction story.
On a Viking ship headed to Iceland, Henrik - a farm boy given the chance to fulfil his dream of being a Viking warrior - helps guard their most precious cargo: Freydis, daughter of the Duke of Trondheim, who has sent her off to marry the King of Iceland, Gissar Polvaderson. Gissar is old, fat and extremely ugly, and Freydis is not going quietly. But suddenly, she is the least of any Viking's worries: when within sight of land - a weather-exposed Scottish island - a great tentacle of fire bursts from the sea and sets the ship alight. Men fall overboard and are quickly caught by the flames before they hit the water. Utter destruction seems imminent, and only Henrik remembers to release Freydis from her locked storage closet.
On the island, the Doctor has arrived by TARDIS and made his way to the small village near the coast, which is deserted. Everyone has rushed down to the beach to watch the Viking ship approach, bringing their deadliest enemies with it. When the inexplicable fire reaches out like an arm to the ship, no one is moved to help - except the Doctor.
Bringing the poor singed survivors to the hostile islanders, the Doctor encourages everyone to get along while he promises to help them solve the mystery and get rid of the threat. But this is no ordinary fire, and it has a purpose, a desperate, desperate purpose. Can the Doctor figure it out and solve it before more lives are lost?
While I grew up watching Doctor Who on the telly - the ABC used to show it every weekday at 6pm during the season, back in the day when a single storyline took 6 half-hour episodes to tell - this is the first time I've read any Doctor Who fanfiction. (I'm not, in fact, a reader of fanfiction in general, and don't seek it out.) Nevertheless, I was excited to have the chance to try it, and while it was both better than I'd expected and also not quite as good as I would have liked, it was certainly hugely entertaining.
Fans of the contemporary Doctor Who series will surely recognise the eleventh Doctor; Colgan has done a superb job of capturing the nuances and body language, the quiet loneliness tinged with hopeful sadness, the vague dithering punctuated by moments of piercing clarity, the classic eccentricities that mark all the incarnations of the Doctor: fripperies of attire, for example, and a preference for hot tea or some similar foodstuff. The character of the Doctor comes across at once as approachable and knowable, and yet also utterly alien. She was able to bring the reader as close to him as you possibly can, while still retaining that sense of mystery and higher thought, of the gulf of utter loneliness - all of which is made more tangible if you come with some prior understanding of the Doctor's character. Colgan does not expound on a lot of backstory. Alongside his more melancholy side is his trademark humour, which Colgan captures perfectly:
Two men brought forward Corc's boat. It was incredibly small, made of tightly stitched animal skins stretched taut over a frame of bowed wood, with two light paddles. It didn't look seaworthy for a Sunday duck pond, never mind the wild North Atlantic. The Doctor coughed politely. 'Well! Isn't she just lovely! Great!' He took the boat from the men with thanks. It hardly weighed anything. 'OK, let me just go... with this boat... and sort everything out... Who needs a TARDIS, I am perfectly happy not bothering the local ecosystem and causing mass panic... perfectly.' He reached the water's edge, took off his shoes and dipped in a toe. 'It is rather parky, isn't it? I remember this from yesterday.' He put the boat down on the bobbing waves. It immediately capsized. 'Ha! So funny when they do that, isn't it.' [p.79]
True also to the formula, while the Doctor arrives on the island alone, he manages to acquire a couple of temporary assistants: Henrik and Freydis. These two have their own side story going, with a backstory about Henrik surviving a plunge under the ice as a boy and becoming the Miracle Boy who came back to life. Freydis is arrogant and superior with a firm belief in the Gods' plans for her; she matures considerably over the course of the book, and a romance - of the tender, innocent variety Doctor Who is known for - blossoms between them.
The actual plot is interesting and with such high stakes - people die in this story - there's considerable tension. The truth of the fire is intriguing and a problem not easily solved, and you're never really sure what the Doctor is doing or thinking until the last moment.
While Colgan shows an ability to write good, well-researched historical fiction and brings to life the community, culture and individuals of the period and setting, the pace did at times become a little slow - little lulls before the storm, so to speak. I didn't mind except that when the pace drops, so does the momentum. There were several facets to the story: Vikings, more Vikings, Henrik's story, Freydis' coming-of-age, the chief's son Eoric, villagers Brogan and her partner, Braan, the fire, and little Luag, the chief's other son, who is adorably sweet. There's plenty going on here, and yet it did lose some oomph somewhere around the halfway-to-three-quarters mark. I was surprised at the number of typos and other glitches in the text - including a sentence that abruptly ends before it's finished - but these don't detract from the strength of the story. The ending was good, and overall Dark Horizons was an entertaining, thoughtful, satisfying and mostly exciting novel that successfully brought to life the eleventh Doctor.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)