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)
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)
Gwendolyn Golden lives with her mum and her much younger siblings, twins Christopher and Christine - or as she...moreThis morning I wake up on the ceiling.
Gwendolyn Golden lives with her mum and her much younger siblings, twins Christopher and Christine - or as she calls them, "the Chrissies" - and her fat beagle, Cassie. Gwendolyn is already going through a rough patch: now in grade eight, she's experienced changes brought on by puberty and is still dealing with the ongoing anger management problem that she's had since her dad disappeared during a storm before the twins were born. And now, on this fateful morning, she wakes up floating on the ceiling. Several mornings in a row, Gwen wakes up bumping gently against the ceiling and then against the screen window in her bedroom.
At first, Gwen has no control over it and her body threatens to float away during class - she worries about what might happen if she floated off into the sky while walking down the street. But soon, oblique comments made to her by two unlikely adults in her small town make her realise that she's not alone; and that, in fact, her ability to fly is something she inherited. Gwendolyn's coming-of-age journey will bring her up close to the truth of her new-found skill, and the decision of a lifetime.
It's a rough age, being thirteen, fourteen years old and in the thick of all the changes that come with adolescence. Gwen has the added issue of losing her father years ago under mysterious circumstances. This detail is initially provided more as insight into understanding her anger issues, than a plot point, but as you can guess it does turn out to be very pertinent to the plot. Yet despite Gwen's habit of blowing up at small provocations at school, she narrates her story with intelligent wit and more than a dash of irony. Like many teens, the character of Gwen is a precarious and sometimes volatile balance of childlike immaturity and wisdom, naïveté and insight, adolescent foolishness and glib artfulness. Gwen is on the cusp, and this is her coming-of-age story.
What I really admired, alongside the writing itself, was Dowding's ability to maintain this fine balance. She put Gwendolyn in situations that forced her to confront her issues, thus putting her on the path to maturity, without making her grow up too fast. Gwen was able to keep hold of her childhood; it just became richer. I'm reminded of one of my favourite characters who similarly embodies this fine line between childhood and maturity: Danny from Roald Dahl's Danny the Champion of the World.
There are times when Gwen's obstinateness and suspicious nature hold her back, but that too is something she must learn: trusting her instincts, but also how to turn to others and let herself be a child in the protection of adults. Another tricky line to straddle, in life as well as fiction. And it's not helped, in Gwen's case, by the fact that her body has taken on a life of her own. In the beginning I read Gwen's sense of alienation with her body as a figurative representation of puberty; later, I came to read it as fantasy enriched with that layer of organic human matter that makes fantasy, as a genre, so appealing to us.
As soon as my body is free, it floats lazily toward the ceiling, where it bounces around for a few minutes, then settles gently, bumping up and down against the ceiling tiles.
I realize that I'm now talking about my body like an "it," like it's no longer connected to the rest of me. But that's what it feels like. As if my body is totally in charge, and I'm just going along for the ride.
Which I guess I am.
This is very much Gwen's story, and while there are sub-plots and supporting characters who are relevant and interesting, they're not as vividly rendered as Gwen. Rather, because we see Gwen's world through her eyes, her understanding, her adolescent perspective, we get a true-to-type view of the people in her life. Gwen is fairly self-absorbed, at times judgemental, quick to react and not very curious about other people or how they're feeling. Not every teen is like that, or like that in the same way as Gwen, but it is part of Gwen's coming-of-age narration that her world view enlarges and she becomes more sympathetic and even empathetic of others. She still has a way to go, but it's a process that takes people years if not decades to learn.
I read this as a standalone novel, and while I'm not sure if it is one or not (I have since read that it's the first in a series but I don't know if that's true or not; I should just ask the author eh?), I loved it as a standalone book. It's kind of old-school, in that way, and maybe I'm traditional, but I loved the open-endedness to this story, and how Dowding created a fascinating layer to our world without removing the mystery and magic of it by explaining too much, thereby leaving plenty up to your own imagination. Dowding successfully balances humour and a touch of silliness with a dark menace that adds a macabre atmosphere to the story.
The decision that Gwen ultimately has to make can again be read metaphorically: in this pivotal time in a person's life, many decisions we make are there to stay with us the rest of our lives. To some extent, we are shaped during our adolescence. Gwen's decision is not merely about flying, but about how she will live her life. The ending can be viewed in several lights. It touches on genetics, and how these affect our lives, especially our future health and well-being. And it touches on the self: self-esteem, the creation of a personal identity, the need to be true to yourself, and the understanding that while the way others see you can deeply hurt you, you shouldn't let it shape you.
The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden is the kind of coming-of-age story that resonates. Combining teen angst with magic and a dash of mystery creates a richly layered story, and Dowding presents a heroine that readers of all ages will surely be able to relate to. Humorous and touching, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden is like a finely-tuned musical instrument that, when thrummed, you feel in your very bones.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via Netgalley. (less)