I strongly recommend Mel's beautiful and moving review of this book. We both loved it, and tried really hard to explain why without spoilJune 23, 2012
I strongly recommend Mel's beautiful and moving review of this book. We both loved it, and tried really hard to explain why without spoiling the story.
There are many other exceptional reviews from friends and others, and I would never have known about it without their guidance. My thanks to all.
June 19, 2012 (Pre-review) - Thanks so much to all who supported and commented on this (now slightly edited) lead-in! My full review follows this section.
I absolutely loved it. Plopped it straight onto my all-time favorites list. Knew it would be there before I got halfway through.
There is a strong temptation to just say READ THIS BOOK - DON'T READ ANY FULL REVIEWS UNTIL YOU READ THE BOOK. Not just a strong temptation - probably the right thing to do for a lot of reasons.
But then, there is this. Not everyone will love it, and some won't even like it very much. This is a book that dares to be different, and asks you to think really hard while following a lot of action at a distance.
My mission - and I decide to accept it - will be to convey some sense of the incredible thought-passage and events that take place in this slender volume. But not too much - that would be telling. Hopefully, just enough to let you decide whether you want to buckle up and take the ride.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx June 22, 2012 (Full review)
This is a beautifully written book which is intricately layered around classical, quasi-biblical and technical themes. It can be appreciated on several, conceptually independent levels: - as a suspenseful and unpredictable narrative - as an age-old philosophical quest with a major technical twist - as a set of dialogues for exploring the definitions of intelligence, consciousness and ideas - and as a brain-bending, now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t workout for your head. For me, all of these elements were handled brilliantly, seamlessly and with extreme originality. This book is NOT like anything else I have ever read.
I need to discuss certain basic elements of the story, but will try to stay (mostly) within the boundaries of the publisher’s synopsis. To appreciate the sudden and dramatic shifts in the narrative, you really should just read the book. My major focus will be on the big-picture issues which the book explores, with some (hopefully) cryptic hints here and there of how the story goes.
The setting for the book is an all-day examination of the young historian Anaximander (Anax), by a panel that will rule on her application to the Academy - the ruling body for her society (The Republic). This setting may seem mundane and unpromising, but its execution here was anything but droll for me. In my career, I have been both the examined and (mostly) the examiner on many occasions, in roughly analogous situations. The dramatic tension in such exams is palpable for everyone involved, and was beautifully depicted here. Good people can break down in these intensely stressful situations - but they usually rise to the occasion and perform well, with just a few bumps and bruises along the way. It is an intellectual rite of passage.
In the early portion of the exam, Anax is called upon to sketch the history of The Republic in some detail for the committee. From her narrative, we learn that this society was built in the aftermath of worldwide catastrophe, and set up to be both sustainable and in many ways ‘ideal’ - along the lines of Plato’s Republic, but with modern variations.
The examiners and Anax build on that historic framework and move on to subsequent developments, and the role of one person in particular. The story of that person’s life is one key to the puzzle that Anax must analyze - to the committee’s satisfaction - to pass the exam.
Now, all of this may sound very dry and uneventful, and I think it was very daring of the author to choose this format for his electrifying story. I was never bored with it, not even a little bit. But this story-telling vehicle is a checkpoint for readers, and some will not find it as fascinating as I did.
I do want to emphasize this point - there is major dramatic tension and suspense in the narrative of Anax and the world she describes. It isn’t easy to convey that tension in a review. But I certainly was drawn, throughout the book, to keep turning pages and finding out what happened next.
The Republic was designed to maintain order in perilous times.
In this environment it was a simple matter for The Republic to maintain its structure. People did as they were told because they were working together, focused on a common threat, a shared enemy.
But problems arise in this utopian society.
...time passes. Fear becomes a memory. Terror becomes routine; it loses its grip.
The founders of The Republic sought to deny the individual, and in doing so they ignored a simple truth. The only thing binding individuals together is ideas. Ideas mutate, and spread; they change their hosts as much as their hosts change them.
New solutions are sought to maintain order. And one component of the initiative is the development of Artificial Intelligence algorithms. Anax must discuss this sequence in detail, and outline the strategies used to achieve it.
During its infancy, at least until the end of the twentieth century, the Artificial Intelligence industry had faced an imagination deficit. Because researchers wrongly assumed that their early computers were good models for the working of the brain, they persevered in programming thinking machines. It wasn't until the second decade of this century, when the scientists and artists began working together, that they began to understand the nature of what we now call emergent complexity.
Along the way, big decisions are made in pursuit of the goal.
A radical thinker, he pioneered a new model, which he called chaotic emergence. Under this system, the program itself was written by the learning environment using what we now refer to as the cascade heuristic.
And major technical problems are identified.
It is crucial he be exposed to an outside influence before his trimming and redirecting mechanisms shut down, and he becomes like a child deprived of stimulation, his curiosity left to wither.
But as in normal life, decisions have consequences, and a path once chosen may lead in quite unexpected directions.
There is a beautifully written series of exchanges between human and machine. As the discussion proceeds from opposing perspectives, each learns from and is influenced by the other. I was completely mesmerized by these brilliant Platonic dialogues.
“I talk to you, you make a sound. I kick this wall, it makes a sound. What's the difference? Perhaps you're going to tell me the wall is conscious too?" "I don't know if the wall's conscious," Art replied. "Why don't you ask it?"
Yes, these exchanges got some major gear-grinding going on in my head. Especially when I read bits of dialogue like this thrust:
My actions are deliberate. I do them with a purpose in mind. To the outsider there is no difference. The difference is in the intention, not the effect. We call this difference thought. You deal in data. I deal in meaning.
And this counter:
You think you're the end of it, but that's what thinking is best at: deceiving the thinker. Just as clay found carbon life forms hitching a ride, once the brain was up and running, so too carbon found there was another little hitchhiker waiting for its turn to pounce. Do you know what I'm talking about? You must know.
And just one more:
There is a battle happening as we speak, two thoughts fighting to the death inside your head. The old Idea is very strong. It has held its grip upon all of humanity, ever since the time you began telling one another stories. But the new Idea is powerful too, and you are beginning to find how reluctant it is to be dismissed.
Are these conversations tied to events? You Betcha. But you will have to read the book to find out how. I don’t think any reviewer is going to go there, and certainly not this one.
What I do want to say is that the pieces of this book work together as a seamless whole. But they also stand up to close scrutiny as individual units, and each is powerful and thought-provoking in the best sense of those terms. For me, the overall effect of this magnificent book was like a Vulcan mind meld, with Mr. Spock at the controls. Your head is opened and the contents inspected, shifted around and transported. You are left transformed, humbled and energized, all at the same time. Maybe scared too, but definitely in a different place from where you started.
Man, this book is awesome! If I didn’t have 700+ rocks on Mount TBR, I might start reading it again tonight.
"A rough estimate based on geologic records indicates there's a 1-in-10,000 chance of a "supereruption" at Yellowstone during our lifetimes. However, given the erratic nature of volcanoes, that number doesn't mean much. The bulging pocket of magma swishing around beneath Old Faithful might never blow its lid again. Or, it might put on a surprise fireworks show next Independence Day. Scientists just don't know."
And what does that huge caldera look like? First, a science overview.
In the foreground is the Yellowstone River, winding peacefully through the Hayden Valley. From what we see here, this could be any (alluvial) flood plain from any sizable river, formed from sediments that eroded from the mountains in the distance.
Yes. But. This particular flood plain is the floor of the Yellowstone Caldera, northeastern portion. It lies directly over the the bulge/magma hotspot shown schematically in Pic #3 above. And those mountains in the distance are the edge of the caldera. In plain English, the mountains are the RIM OF THE VOLCANO. If and when there is another major eruption, this peaceful valley will be a seething, violent cauldron, and millions of tons of molten rock and ash will spew forth.
A similar caldera from the same hotspot (but in southern Idaho) was formed between 10 and 12 million years ago, and the event dropped ash to a depth of one foot, 1,000 miles away in northeastern Nebraska. Within the past 17 million years, 142 or more caldera-forming eruptions have occurred from the Yellowstone hotspot, as discussed in this Wikipedia article.
In what follows, I will focus (as usual) on big-picture aspects of the story, and stay (mostly) away from plot details. If you are completely unfamiliar with the book, there will be some mild spoilers in the details. But most of those are implied in the publisher’s synopsis.
And watch for comments by SPECIAL GUEST REVIEWER, karen!! (YAY!!). karen’s comments will appear in this format.
So let’s talk about some general aspects of this book.
Will the Yellowstone caldera have another massive eruption at some point in the future? I think the odds are very strong that it will. The site is under continuous surveillance, and you can check up on the latest at the USGS/University of Utah website. . There is even a webcam where you can watch for the next eruption:
Note the wispy puffs of steam here and there at ground level. And this quote from the webcam page:
”This area hosted a variety of rock- hurling hydrothermal (steam) eruptions during the 1930s... In recent years, similar smaller blasts have been known to occur.”
Now, if that doesn’t get your heart pumping, then you fail the geek test.
Will the effects of a major eruption be devastating for all life within a radius of hundreds of miles (including human, if we survive all those other apocalypses that may come sooner than this one)? Absolutely.
Here are some critters that were fossilized by a previous eruption of the hotspot - the one in Idaho, mentioned above. The pic is from Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, in Nebraska. And yes, that is volcanic ash that surrounds them (and covered them before it was cleared away).
There is a ton of science on this subject, and hundreds of web pages, scholarly articles, books, etc. that delve into all the scientific details. The Yellowstone Supervolcano is very real, and a lot is known about it.
The author placed the scene of his Ashfall story in Iowa, about 900 miles from the eruption site. I think this choice was reasonable based on the ashfall zones from relatively recent eruptions (see map in Pic #1). The ashfall might not reach quite the depths discussed in the book, at that distance from the caldera. And the noise levels described in the days after the eruption might also be somewhat overstated. But these are minor quibbles, I think, and the quibbles could also be wrong.
In any case, it seems very likely that all human life within several hundred miles of the caldera would be exterminated by the combination of projectiles, ash, poisonous gases, and habitat destruction (and there are other factors that the reader will discover). So, I would say that the Iowa scene was an excellent choice overall for the story as written.
Human behavior, post-apocalypse: For review purposes, let’s just say that some really bad human behavior happens, beginning soon after the initial cataclysm. As a reference point, think about New Orleans in the days and weeks after Katrina. There were acts of extraordinary heroism, courage and selflessness. There were also acts of barbarism, violence, and savagery. Many of us watched coverage of those events, and I doubt that we will ever forget what we saw. Now, instead of toxic flood water, think of a blanket of ash and an atmosphere of sulphur dioxide and other noxious goodies. And a VERY much larger impact zone.
Do normal rules of law, order and civility break down in such situations? You bet. Do people of high character rise to the occasion, match wits with the disaster and the demons, and win a few battles here and there? Yes, they do. Both of those manifestations are handled extremely well here, and in stark, vivid detail. Not for the squeamish, but certainly not over the top in my view. I found it all highly engrossing and very believable.
Male POV: The merits and demerits of this first-person male narrative approach have been discussed elsewhere. I thought that Alex was very effective as the story-teller, and both the telling and his character became more interesting and nuanced as the story rolled along. There were moments, especially early, where Alex was, umm, annoyingly obtuse. And yes, I wanted to slap him around a few times as he struggled to master the obvious. But for me, those problems disappeared around 20-30% into the story, and I give kudos to the author for the highly believable growth in his character.
karen’s comments: i was talking to mike mullin at ala, and he said that one of the things he likes to do is reverse the typical gender roles. so darla is very mechanically-inclined, and practical, while alex is a bit more emotional than your typical boy in YA novels.
Strong, smart female protagonist: Darla was definitely one of my favorite female leads in recent memory, and I will continue to emphasize the critical importance of intelligent, proactive women whenever I find them in my reading. Put simply, Darla is a prime force for survival of the good guys. More on this from karen below - but she is resourceful, clear-headed, very determined, and extremely capable. AND - she takes the initiative. No wimpy girl, waiting around for the strong guy to point the way. NO WAY!! Darla is a winner in every sense.
karen’s comments: and it's great that she is older than him, and that he does look up to and respect her, despite being a giiiiiirl. but they are still on equal footing. they both have something to teach the other, and that's where their attraction come from; not this more shallow connection you see a lot on YA, where it is all surface level, or seems to arise because of proximity only, and not because the characters have any real feelings for each other.
Survival tactics Let this sink in for a moment. Most of the area covered by ashes is farmland that normally produces a sizable percentage of the nation’s food (and a huge amount for export). Wheat, corn and other staple crops; cattle, pigs, and poultry - all wiped out by the ashfall. The repercussions are felt worldwide, and some of this is detailed in the book.
But the everyday struggle for the next meal is uppermost in the story. Town-boy Alex must learn quickly how to cope. Farm-girl Darla, with her knowledge of machinery and creative use of all available items, is critical to most of the adaptations. I was really impressed with the way these aspects of the story were handled.
karen’s comments: these two have come through the trenches together, but their relationship doesn't seem to be because of external conflict; that thing that happens when two people share the same traumatic experience and that binds them together emotionally, but that conflict made the relationship possible just by bringing them together in the first place. they do keep rescuing each other, to varying degrees, but i think their characteristics are compatible even without the circumstances, you know?
Who’s in charge of recovery efforts? And WHERE is the government aid? Some reviewers have questioned the near-total absence of U.S. government support in much of what happens here.
What really interested me was the mechanism by which the government DID play an active role, and the extremely sinister aspects of that. The prominent role of government contractors in recent U.S. military engagements - and one company in particular (**Blackwater/Xe**) - were very much in my thoughts as I read those sections. The other prevailing theme in this regard was the martial-law mentality of the scene, and the loss of human values that resulted.
karen’s comments: well, there is an attempt made in the book to gather people together into refugee camps, but what happens there seems to be a criticism on the way FEMA is unprepared to deal with large-scale events of this kind. there aren't enough supplies, no one really knows how to handle the volume of people, no one knows how long this situation will continue... and, of course, put the wrong people in charge, and things are going to get ugly. as they do. and it only becomes more horrifying in the sequel, the problems with the refugee camps. we just have too damn many people in this country, and if something like this happens, this is a very realistic portrayal of how things could go down. (hiding under my bed now)
Is there a sequel?
Why yes, there is! And karen has a copy of the ARC, and has written a preliminary review. The book will be released in October 2012.
karen’s comments: the sequel... well... i don't want to give too much away, but darla and alex become separated, and as time goes on and food becomes scarcer, people become harder and more imaginative in their fight for survival. there aren't "good guys" and "bad guys," there are just people trying to survive. and while some people do in fact seem very very bad, usually mullin will throw in a scene that humanizes them a little, so they can't just easily be dismissed as "bad." it's a very smart thing to do.
Wrap-up So, I really enjoyed this innovative story about a titanic catastrophe and the valiant efforts of two teens to cope. I did not get hung up on the likelihood of the event. It may not happen for many millennia, but there are good reasons to keep an eye on that enormous caldera.
karen’s comments: what's great about these books is that he is crazy for the science. he doesn't shrink away from using actual medical terminology, or going off on a geological fact-tangent. but in a way that doesn't sound like a textbook. it just makes the story more believable and more important to read. i cannot praise this book highly enough.
Agreed! I thought the story told here was highly plausible in the event of a major eruption, and extremely sobering in its implications. The book can serve as a wake-up call for an action plan. If and when it happens, there will be tremendous death and destruction on a global scale. But forewarned is still forearmed for those who survive, and I took this book as an appeal to the better angels of our nature.
There are nearly 5,000 reviews of this book on GR, and the official synopsis explains clearly what is meant by the term ‘Unwind’. So, I am going to asThere are nearly 5,000 reviews of this book on GR, and the official synopsis explains clearly what is meant by the term ‘Unwind’. So, I am going to assume that those who read this are familiar with the basic premise. If not, that’s okay - some of the context will be evident here. But it is much easier to review this without major spoilers if I don’t try to tap-dance around the basics.
This book certainly deserves its legion of fans, and could become a phenomenal movie. I strongly recommend it for those who can handle the grim central themes. It plays on your deepest emotions, and gives your logic analyzer a good workout at the same time.
There is a group of big ideas that I will discuss in the second half of this review. And one gut-wrenching core concept - that some unspeakably awful things are in store for a lot of teenage kids. Basic human values are redefined, including the ‘sanctity’ of human life and the responsibilities of parents to their kids. The historic origin for all this is the intransigence of human attitudes on both sides of a tough issue. The outcome is a tide of events that sweeps young humans into institutional crimes, and these are cynically accepted - and mostly ignored - by adults.
These are all big, in-your-face polarizing topics. They demand a firm grasp on one’s own values, and value judgments of events in the story. But Shusterman never preaches here, and never pushes any final judgments except one - that the ‘solution’ in this fight over reproductive rights was at least as heinous as any of the original crimes.
I liked the story and concept a lot. With that said, it seemed obviously farfetched at first, and I was expecting a more thorough world-building treatment than the one that I got early on. I struggled with that, and it was somewhat distracting.
Fortunately, the narrative and the three main characters were highly engaging for me from the beginning. I was especially impressed by Risa, the excellent female lead - strong, tough, smart and adaptable, just what I want to see in this era of clueless insta-love. Any author would be proud of her, in my opinion. In addition, most of my background issues were covered by the midway point, and the narrative really rocked from that point on.
Overview and comments
This section will be relatively spoiler-free, I think.
The author does provide a brief intro/history of the events that led to the central scenario here. It is enough to get you grounded and provide some context for the opening scenes. But for me, there was still a feeling that the author jumped into the story very quickly, with introductions to three teenagers who are facing critical moments in their lives. At that point, I still didn’t understand the rationale at any deep level, and the experience was a little disorienting.
Gradually, however, there were enough details filtering into the narrative that I was able to focus increasingly on the characters and events. For me, both the characters and story were very effective from the beginning, and their momentum continued to build as the events took center stage.
I was sympathetic with all three of the major characters, but especially with Risa - the orphaned ward of the state. As I have said in other reviews, we don’t see enough of her strength, savvy, and intelligent action (my opinion) in recent top-selling fiction. I really liked Risa, and my admiration for her grew through the course of the book.
Connor was a frustrating protagonist for me, but I can understand the author’s purpose in writing him that way. Deeply compassionate - but temperamental and prone to impulses of very poor judgment - he had to grow in all sorts of ways as the story moved along, and he did. I wanted to slap him around a few times, and my view was shared by others in the story. But I was impressed by the author’s development of this character in latter stages.
Lev was perhaps the most interesting character, in his striking transformation from one set of bedrock principles - as his earliest memories - to a radically different manifesto by the end. Lev gives you a lot to think about, and so do Risa and Connor. Their life journey really carries the book, and I thought the author was extremely effective in his use of them as the main vehicle.
So, characters and events are the main thrust of the page-turning narrative, and it reached a point for me that I really couldn’t put it down toward the end. I even forgot to highlight passages on my Kindle for later review, and I swear it was not encroaching senility that made me forget! The book had a major grip on me - a really suspenseful, grab-and-don’t-let-go read.
Thoughts on the Big Questions
This section will implicitly involve spoilers, but I have tried to minimize plot reveals.
I want to focus here on the big questions that are always looming in the subtext. In particular, I want to take this scenario of a possible future and trace it back a bit to where we are now.
How precious is human life? When does it become precious? What restrictions should the state place on the “Right to Life”, especially among the unborn? The turmoil surrounding these questions is a daily debate in current society (and I am thinking especially of the USA in this regard, where the story occurs).
Shusterman presents a series of documentary examples: news releases, tales of despicable acts, extreme positions on all sides of these questions. He very pointedly avoids telling the reader what to think. Instead, he lets the characters think and talk about the issues.
“Unborn babies… they suck their thumbs sometimes, right? And they kick. Maybe before that they’re just like a bunch of cells or something, but once they kick and suck their thumbs— that’s when they’ve got a soul.”
“Maybe it’s the best answer of all. If more people could admit they really don’t know, maybe there never would have been a Heartland War.”
In Shusterman’s telling, the conflict develops along naturally incendiary lines. It reaches a point where the belief in “sanctity of human life” is a mockery in relation to the war that grows out of the dispute.
What happens in that case? Well, Shusterman presents a truly bizarre outcome that is the core premise of the book - an agreement that would never occur under normal, peacetime conditions. In a one-page dialogue, he reveals how this agreement came to pass. If you have read the book, you will remember the dialogue. At some point, you most likely took a position on both the outcome and the rationale, and your impression of the book was driven in large part by the position you took. That was certainly true for me.
On first reading, the dialogue seemed inadequate to me as an explanation for the agreement. But it started to make a lot of sense on second and third reading, and by that point I found it plausible, no matter how cynical and sickening the implications were. My reading of history is that many critical turning-point events seem impossible until they happen, but seem inevitable after that. But some highly respected friends had a very different take in this case, and I can certainly understand their reactions. It is good to be aware of this going in.
In any case, one implication of the agreement came through very clearly. There was a lot of money to be made from it, and powerful forces took that idea and ran all the way to the bank.
“People wanted parts.” “Demanded is more like it... And all those new parts had to come from somewhere.”
”It didn’t take long for ethics to be crushed by greed. Unwinding became big business, and people let it happen.”
Can Transplants Think?
Whether or not souls exist Connor doesn’t know. But consciousness does exist— that’s something he knows for sure. If every part of an Unwind is still alive, then that consciousness has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?
My take on these issues (in the book) is that teens are left to work the answers out for themselves, while adults look the other way.
“The unborn have souls. They have souls from the moment they get made— the law says.”
“maybe an Unwind’s spirit stretches out, kind of like a giant balloon between all those parts of us in other places. Very poetic.”
Context and point of view are critical here. The conversations are among teenagers on the ‘firing line’. These are not adults, making rules based on hardened ideologies. They are kids who deal with the consequences.
He tries to imagine himself stretched so thin and so wide that he can reach around the world. He imagines his spirit like a web strung between the thousand recipients of his hands, his eyes, the fragments of his brain— none of it under his control anymore, all absorbed by the bodies and wills of others. Could consciousness exist like that?
He thinks about the trucker who performed a card trick for him with an Unwind’s hand. Did the boy who once owned that hand still feel the satisfaction of performing the trick?
As an adult, I read these passages and think, “Nah. It wouldn’t be like that at all.” From my neuroscientist perspective, I wouldn’t expect any vestige of consciousness in any ‘harvested’ organ that is not a brain.
But my adult perspective is not the issue here. These are teenagers who are trapped in a system that was born in warfare, hardened by greed, and then marginalized in the collective adult consciousness. Their bitter reality is carefully ignored on the radar of the average adult in this society. They are the living victims, and no adult is taking responsibility for explaining whether and in what sense they will remain alive.
Conclusions This book has a lot of power, and has forced many adult readers (me included) to think more carefully about the consequences of ideology run amok. The story won’t work for everybody. But I will be extremely interested in the sequel that is coming soon, and one thing I want to see is whether adults can ‘grow up’ in this world.
Actions have consequences, and responsibility doesn’t end when you don’t want to deal with it any more. Can we do better? I believe that is a good thought for any day.
Thanks very much to Erika and many other GR friends who recommended this book to me. I depend so much on their judgments in choosing the books that I read, and I am deeply grateful to have them on my side.
There are so many excellent and moving reviews of this book on GR, from my friends and many others. Too many to list here. My advice - look at what your friends had to say about it, or just start at the top and go from there....more
I am rounding this up to 4 stars. I would probably put it around 3.7 or 3.8 if I had the option.
I definitely enjoyed this book and would recommend it.I am rounding this up to 4 stars. I would probably put it around 3.7 or 3.8 if I had the option.
I definitely enjoyed this book and would recommend it. It is a very good, involving story that gets better as it goes along. The writing is good, but I agree with other reviewers that the style is best for, say, grade 6 and up. At the lower end of that range, I would be concerned about some very scary scenes and bad things that happen, especially in the first half of the book. It is fine for adult reading, but don't expect a lot of depth in the rendering of characters, or really detailed development of some of the weighty plot implications.
As I have said in other reviews, I read plausible dystopian novels, like this one, because I want to know at a visceral level just how awful the future may really be. I also want to see how some people manage to survive it, and what sorts of lives they are able to lead. All of those questions were treated with considerable skill here, and for the most part the story flowed very nicely and at a rapid pace.
For me as an adult reader, there were missing details that would have helped to understand more about this world. But I don't see that as a problem for younger readers. I was impressed by the strong, smart female protagonist - 15-year-old Mara - and it was very easy to care about her and many of the other characters. The emotional roller-coaster action was handled very well, and in general the plot elements were quite plausible. There were lots of interesting tidbits about the new world, its innovative engineering, and Mara's race-against-time quest there, and some nice bits about important relics from the old world. There was a definite sense of momentum in the action that carried all the way through.
I think this would be a very good book for parents to share and discuss with their young-teen kids. As things now stand, the world portrayed in this book is a lot more likely than most people are ready to admit. For kids who can handle the emotional trauma of fictional death, I believe that it would be a responsible act to let them know what may happen to their world. They may want to get involved in doing something about it before it is too late. ...more
The 5-star rating is the easy part. This book is so outstanding, in so many ways, that I wasn't in doubt about that from the first coupleMarch 4, 2012
The 5-star rating is the easy part. This book is so outstanding, in so many ways, that I wasn't in doubt about that from the first couple of chapters on. And it got MUCH stronger in the last 25% or so.
The hard part is deciding what I should say about it, even though there is a great deal to be said. The problem is this: most of the items that I want to cover are very difficult to verbalize without overt spoilers.
I am going to study the reviews of my friends, and a few others, to see how they did it. Then I will think about what I can contribute to the discussion, and be back with that in a day or two (I hope).
For now, let's just say fasten your safety belt, keep an open mind, and prepare for a wild ride that is well worth the turbulence. Just be sure that your most recent meal is well settled before you start, okay?
March 6, 2012
Lots of great reviews out there! You can find plot summaries and an abundance of insight there.
Here are my thoughts, after a couple days of reflection. For those who haven't read it, this book is awesome but not an easy one to review. For those who have read and reviewed it, you know what I am talking about, and I hope I can measure up to the standard that you have set.
Penryn is a beautifully realized example of the strong, smart female protagonist* that we should see much more often in literature than we do. As an aside, I think it is entirely appropriate for goodreads reviewers to take authors to task when they create female leads of a different sort - those who, all too often, embody the opposite extremes. Enough, already with the needy, brainless-twit females who seek out the company of worthless guys, in the full knowledge that they will be dominated and abused! In any genre, but particularly in YA, this is sending precisely the wrong message - in particular, to young women who may well emulate what they read, or think that they can’t do any better.
Here, Susan Ee shows how powerful a young woman can be when she is stubborn in her loyalty, and can face the most horrific circumstances with unwavering strength and analytical calm**. Armed with these very human attributes, she can think her way out of trouble almost as fast as she gets into it. Her martial arts expertise, and a lot of experience dealing with paranoid schizophrenia in her immediate family, also come in very handy throughout this gripping story. This is a writer with an amazing talent, and Penryn is an awesome creation.
Raffe is fascinating in very different ways, both to us as readers and to Penryn. An extremely complex character, his behavior is by turns enigmatic and decisive, strong and vulnerable, vicious and caring, stern/unyielding and gentle/nurturing. Smart as she is, Penryn struggles throughout with his shifting moods and (to her) unpredictable behavior. Yes, she feels that weird fascination/attraction too, but all of that is handled with delightful subtlety and a realistic (well, considering) progression. For the most part, she maintains her focus on getting some useful clues about what she is dealing with. Meanwhile, he is tuned in to most of that, and seems equally determined to maintain her ignorance about him and his motives. For example (quotes are from Penryn’s POV and not necessarily in order from the book):
“Instead of declaring victory and walking away safe, like any sane survivor, he chases after them into the dark woods.”
“When he opens his eyes again, they are more black than blue and completely unreadable. Whatever is happening behind those shuttered eyes is now impenetrable.”
For her part, Penryn struggles to maintain her icy calm, and her hatred of this alien creature whose clan has done so much to devastate her world:
“My shoulder feels cold and vulnerable once his warmth is gone. I bite the inside of my cheek to give myself something more demanding to feel.”
... “sympathy trickles into me. As different as we are, we are in many ways kindred spirits. We’re just two people striving to get our lives back together again.”
A lot of their exchanges have a definite edge of hostility, as appropriate to the storyline:
Raffe: “You humans have always had some kind of herding instinct that seems to bring you together. And this is the largest herd around.” Penryn: “Town. Not herd. Towns are for people. Herds are for animals.” He snorts rudely in response.
But there are moments when Penryn is, understandably, dazzled by the power of the other side:
..”despite its practical origins, the total effect is a stunning array of celestial bodies in a seemingly choreographed air ballet. If Michelangelo had seen this in daylight with the sun streaming down from the glass dome, he’d have fallen to his knees and painted ’til he was blind.”
“I stuff all my doubts down where I can’t feel them anymore. This is a lot like leaping over a chasm. If you don’t think you can do it, you can’t. I step through the door.”
Looking back at these quotes, I see a feature of the writing style that impressed me throughout. The wording is relatively simple, with very few long words, or even very long sentences. Penryn’s first-person narration is presented almost as if she were dictating it in real time, as the events unfold. It has an immediacy that lets you feel very much in the presence of the action.
But in that context, there were two points that really hit me as I read. The first was the fact that no sensible reader would want to be anywhere near the grisly action that occupies a sizable fraction of the book. No thanks, I will just sit here in my quasi-fetal position and read the lurid description, that’s CLOSE ENOUGH, aaagghhhh!
The second really impressive point - about the up-close-and-personal narration - was the sheer intricacy of the storyline, and the many interwoven threads of human and angel characters that moved on and off stage as the story played out. Some of these threads were nicely and deftly resolved; others were clearly spinning out of sight, to (presumably) show up in the next book or two; while still others were sitting right there in front of you at the end, screaming with red-light warnings like this: we REALLY need to get some answers here about this, uh, ISSUE that is just staring at us!!
After finishing the book, I reflected a bit on the extremely clever ways that the author combined classical angel mythology/religion, and the intricately twisted vision of angel behavior, politics and culture that she developed here. Wow! First, it got my head turned around and upside down on the whole issue of what angels are all about - and this theme is much more intricately developed than we as reviewers have wanted to say. Read it and enjoy for yourself. Second, it left the author with hundreds, even thousands of avenues open for exploration in the remaining books of the series. Her ability to write a story that comes to closure on a number of fronts, but leaves so many open doors to pass through, was truly mesmerizing and one of the very best features of the book for me.
So, I loved it. And like many who have read and reviewed it, I am anxious to see the next installment. But I can certainly appreciate the beauty of what has been done here. A debut novel, an indie production, an incredibly low price, and a marvelously well-written story. It took some serious courage for the author to take this route, and I am very grateful for what she has given us.
With all of that said, there is some major gruesomeness in a handful of scenes, and one in particular that has been referred to as ‘the tree scene’. So take that into account when deciding whether this might be for you.
If you can handle that part: Highest possible recommendation. For me, the author deserves no less.
*I borrowed this phrase and bookshelf label from Kaethe. Where appropriate, I will apply them to books as I read - and gradually, to books that I have previously read and rated. I will do the same with a shelf labeled ‘female authors’, following the lead of Cindy and others. These are small steps, but in the right direction.
**Penryn is the fictional embodiment of what I would call ‘functional intelligence’. She has definite, highly ethical goals and sticks to them, with clear vision and a world of smarts. Like Penryn, women have every reason to be proud of their intelligence, and to show no hesitation in using it. It is long past the time to abandon cultural stereotypes that say otherwise. And besides, women as a group show more functional intelligence than men by a rather wide margin. I will have more to say on this point in future reviews.
3.5 Stars. There is much to admire about this 1990-vintage panorama of Earth in the 50-year future (at the time of writing). From our vantage point, ~3.5 Stars. There is much to admire about this 1990-vintage panorama of Earth in the 50-year future (at the time of writing). From our vantage point, ~20 years into that predicted future, many of the deeply disturbing trends are playing out along very similar lines as those predicted in the book. Equally important, a lot of mostly-positive trends are also falling more or less into place. In many ways, the predictive power of this book is quite remarkable.
I was also impressed by the ambitious scope of the work. The writing is very good in its treatment of scientific issues, both real and fanciful. There is a helpful postscript in which the distinctions between known and speculative science, and the author's thinking behind the story lines, are made clear. And the coverage of Earth is comprehensive, from the core (site of a central dramatic theme) to the deeply disturbed crust and its too-many humans, to near-earth orbit and then beyond. All of these themes are treated with great skill, and a complex story that moves along nicely and with some very exciting developments. Moreover, there is a really interesting discussion of the processes of human consciousness, and a very clever plot development that grows out of it.
My problems with the book are in the relatively weak character development, and - for my taste - rather clumsy treatment of individual human relationships. I just didn't get the feeling that the major characters were portrayed with the skill that characterized the other elements of the story. This was something of a distraction from what was otherwise a really good read.
This was my first major read on my new Kindle, and I borrowed it online from the local library. There is a great deal of potential in this lending mechanism, and I can recommend it highly for those who have access....more
For me the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, was excellent. This one, the second of the“I AM THE CIRCLE AND THE CIRCLE IS ME”
For me the first book in this series, The Knife of Never Letting Go, was excellent. This one, the second of the series, was outstanding. The story picks up where the first book ends. With that said, I will avoid specifics of plot elements as much as possible, and focus on general themes and the writing.
Patrick Ness has succeeded brilliantly in reaching two objectives that I would have thought incompatible. On one hand, he has written a gripping story that is dominated by strong characters, with crisp, clean plot lines and universal good vs. evil themes. The pages turn rapidly, as if by themselves.
On the other hand, he has used only first-person narration to build a dense network of conflicts and deeper implications into this relatively simple storyline. The two main characters (Todd and Viola) struggle throughout with big questions for which there are no clear answers. The romantic aspects of the story are complex and constantly shifting. These complexities had me thinking hard (in a good way) through most of the book. My thoughts kept shifting from the latest plot twist to the bigger picture and back again, as the pages just kept turning.
A lot of the complexities are built around the bigger issues of mind control – both internal and external. Without getting too specific (I hope), there are ongoing internal struggles for both Todd and Viola – with how to fight the evil forces, but also with understanding just what is evil and what is (mostly) good. In short, they are constantly in the foggy area of tradeoffs, facing choices between bad and worse scenarios. But those internal struggles would be manageable, if not for the external struggles against the mind-control and other powers of a truly bad (male) leader. And I won’t even talk about the extremely complex female leader, except to say that she is perhaps the most fascinating character in the book. The mastery of the book is that it juggles all of these big themes in a compelling narrative that is really hard to put down.
The fact that all of this is done in first-person voice required extreme skill. In The Knife of Never Letting Go, the telling was done entirely by Todd - an unsophisticated (but not at all simple) coming-of-age boy. While I much prefer to read language that is elegant and beautiful, Todd is not capable of such language, and the author sticks to his guns on this point. In hindsight, this choice was critical for making the story come alive, and I really admire the author’s ability to make it work.
With that said, I was more than happy to see the equal reliance, in this book, on the much more sophisticated and articulate voice of Viola. Her active narrative role was a major enhancement to the reading experience for me.
More importantly, the author alternated the two voices beautifully to explore a whole new range of complex emotions as the characters struggled, learned, succeeded and failed in the overwhelming challenges that they faced.
One of the best features of this book is the constant challenge to re-examine your ideas about what, and who, is really good or really evil. You think you know, and it all seems so simple, but you are continually forced to rethink your assumptions.
I also loved the fact that the author took a lot of chances – notably with a very inventive mode of ‘communication’ that plays a crucial role in the story. In many ways, this book forced me to rethink my own definition of great writing. I love the great wordsmiths, the ones with liquid prose that flows through your head and spreads ideas as it passes. For me, the central wonder of this book is that it spreads a wealth of ideas, but does so with deliberately ordinary prose.
For me, this incredible book is as near to perfection as I am ever likely to see. This could be my template for a five-star book – a definite masterpiFor me, this incredible book is as near to perfection as I am ever likely to see. This could be my template for a five-star book – a definite masterpiece. Having just read another classic that also pushed onto my all-time favorites list – Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – I was struck by just how completely the great writers can take possession of your mind and your life. All they require is some of those too-brief periods when you can sit and really concentrate on their wondrous stories and skills.
I found quite a few really excellent reviews of this book below. I will focus here on aspects that were not so frequently covered in other reviews.
First, a personal note about GR friends. I have reached a point, in my year-plus on this site, where nearly every book I read was unknown to me until I read a favorable review by a friend. In this case, Cindy liked The Dervish House and recommended it for fans of The Windup Girl. That would be me (I couldn’t put it down, and would definitely re-read it). And the comparison is certainly apt, as several reviewers have noted.
But for all my admiration of The Windup Girl, I think this book is written with much more depth and skill. It is certainly more sensitive in its treatment of female characters. Another book that would draw comparisons is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow, which I read many years ago and was also a major influence at that time. But again, I think that The Dervish House is a superior read. Both books sparkle with dense, twisting prose. Both combine history, science, and human emotion with adventure and a rapidly evolving storyline. In both cases, the technical mastery is dazzling, and every sentence is tightly structured, with multiple layers of meaning and insight. But here, the writing is very full of human life, with characters that seem both real and worth caring about. Religious and spiritual traditions play a critical role here, and add greatly to the impact of the story. Pynchon’s masterpiece, by comparison, is arid and impersonal, and in that sense the reader (this one, anyway) is not personally drawn into the story.
This is not a book for those who want a quick or light read. The writing is very readable but dense, with an almost metronomic precision that must be followed carefully to be understood. Moreover, it is loaded with detail about Turkish history and culture that will not be familiar to many readers (including me). I am perfectly okay with this – I like to take a book on its own terms, and enjoy it (or not) by how well it succeeds in the world it creates. For me, the great writers always teach, and learning from them is one of the great joys of reading.
More than anything else, this book read for me like a felt-life guide through the past and near future of Istanbul. After reading it, I didn’t want to live there, but I certainly felt the value of understanding its complexities, and the central place it occupies in so many cultural histories. These historical lessons and perspectives alone would have made it a top book selection on my shelf.
But there is so much more here. In fact, the fluid integration of extremely complex themes is what I found most amazing about this work. It really pushed all of my intellectual and spiritual buttons, since the themes are both universal and a big part of my own everyday thinking, when I contemplate this crazy world and my place in it. The level of skill required to seamlessly integrate these deeper themes, in a ripping good story, was simply stunning. I found myself shaking my head in amazement, and I certainly didn’t want it to end.
***The following contains fairly specific hints about plot elements, but no direct spoilers (I think).
For example – what is really important for a meaningful and rewarding life? Each of the major characters has a different set of answers, and each of their stories is brilliantly written from his/her everyday point of view. These points of view are often expressed in extremely effective dialogue (and several gripping monologues), all very tightly woven into the storyline. It’s all about money for one – the deal, the river of currency flows, and the technical skill to grab a handful with perfect timing as it slides by. For another, a life of drug abuse and casual meanness is transformed, by a critical moment, to religious visions that have complex origins and multiple interpretations. The question of just what these visions represent becomes a fascinating element of the story. For a third, a life of sensory deprivation becomes a detective chase and a thrilling but dangerous adventure. All of these perspectives are presented as narratives with incredible skill, by a great writer at the top of his game.
A second example – what does the future hold for the human species? In most dystopian worlds, human actions have made the home planet all but uninhabitable, while those most responsible live largely in denial of their misdeeds, and above the resulting fray. Where does it all lead? The Windup Girl looks at this issue and presents a terrifying and cruel future that is, perhaps, inevitable given the path we are now on. By contrast, The Dervish House takes a much more subtle and nuanced approach. The toll of human excess is everywhere in evidence, and there are plenty of reasons to look back in anger at past abuses. But the characters generally don’t do this. They simply live in the world as it is. Yes, it is unbearably hot, and everyone knows this is very bad but they get on with it. Yes, nanotechnology has terrifying potential for both intended and unintended calamity. But nanobots and nanodrugs play important and workmanlike roles in everyday life, a bit like the smartphones that many of us rely on today. In this book, the future is a work in progress.
I was left shaking my head and smiling at the sheer artistry of it all. And anxious to move through my long TBR list of recommendations by GR friends. Their collective intelligence about great books is my great pleasure. For The Dervish House, my highest recommendation. ...more
First, the caveats. This book is not for everyone. It has terrifying moments, along with some graphic, explicit scenes that many may find offensive.
WFirst, the caveats. This book is not for everyone. It has terrifying moments, along with some graphic, explicit scenes that many may find offensive.
With that said, I give a lot of latitude to books that are written with extreme skill, and to a moving story that is well told. The Windup Girl, for me, is outstanding in both those respects. Ten pages in, I was hooked, having found the rhythm of some unusual terminology and the dystopian scene. From that point on, I couldn't put it down, and there aren't very many books that have that effect on me.
Put simply, this is a terrifying, all-too-real vision of a possible future. Bacigalupi has assembled a tale of extreme power. It has a churning, visceral energy and a flow of events with a logic that first surprises, and then seems inevitable. I have read many great novels, but it is hard to think of another with the sustained emotional punch of this one.
Why read such a book, with such an emphatic, don't-feel-good message? For me, it is an ounce of prevention - a kick in the pants to start thinking about a better way to move forward. I firmly believe in illuminating the path we are on, and asking if we really want to go there. More about that in future reviews of other books.
As an extreme cautionary tale, for me this is as good as it gets. It won't brighten your day. But it could lead to positive steps if we understand why this may happen, and come out thinking that it doesn't have to....more