A collaborative effort between film director Guillermo del Toro (known for films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy) and author Chuck Hogan, The Strain was originally conceived as a series for television; it is now the first in a trilogy of vampire novels.
The Strain has a relatively simple premise: a plane touches down in New York City, and all but four of the people on board are dead. Of course, given that this is a vampire novel, you can probably guess what happened. The Strain then proceeds to follow primarily the scientist Ephraim Goodweather, but also a multitude of characters who are caught in the path of the supernatural infection that begins to spread across New York City.
Vampires that are actually scary (thank goodness) We all know that vampires have become incredibly romanticized in recent years, and I’m not going to go into a lengthy tirade on the subject. Suffice to say: it’s not too often that we get vampire fiction which features vampires that are actually scary, and so I find it immensely refreshing when we do. The Strain is one of those stories that goes for the all-out scary vampires, and it does it right. These are vicious, bloodsucking creatures that share a lot of similarities with traditional vampires; however, there are some interesting new twists as well. Del Toro and Hogan take the elements of vampire mythology we’ve seen countless times before and weave them into something fresh and re-contextualized for the modern world. This approach, the meshing of new and old elements into something all its own, works surprisingly well.
A scientific approach While maintaining elements of traditional vampire mythology, The Strain takes a very scientific approach to its subject matter. It’s no mistake that the book’s primary protagonist is a scientist: every aspect of the vampires is dissected and analyzed from a scientific perspective. Instead of just magically infecting people by biting them, the vampires strike with a fleshy “stinger”; this stinger injects victims with parasitic worms that spread the infection. This is only one aspect of how these vampires function, however, and much of the book is devoted to unraveling the scientific rationale behind their anatomy. I’ve never seen vampires approached in this way, and I really enjoyed it; by explaining seemingly supernatural characteristics through science, these modern-day vampires feel credible in a way that most others don’t.
A well-rounded cast of characters The Strain features a surprising number of viewpoint characters, and the book’s perspective jumps frequently between them. This can be jarring and sometimes frustrating as the frequent perspective shifts don’t feel completely necessary, but it’s not a major detriment to the book. With characters only being presented in short snippets, I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of characterization. Most of The Strain’s characters are complex and flawed, and one of my favorite aspects of the book was getting to see how they perceive each other differently. The Strain may not need as many point-of-view characters as it has, but for the most part, the relatively large cast works well.
Setting up the story The Strain is not a stand-alone story; it is very clearly the first section of a larger arc. This works both for and against the book. On the one hand, most of the book is just setting up the conflict that is to come in the trilogy’s next two entries, The Fall and The Night Eternal. The vampires themselves don’t really start appearing until about halfway through the book; if you’re reading The Strain, you’re obviously reading it for the vampires, so it is worth noting that this aspect of the story doesn’t become prevalent until a couple hundred pages in. On the other hand, despite focusing on such extensive buildup, this book is not boring. Del Toro and Hogan ratchet up the tension for a long, long, long time, and so when the action finally lets loose in the second half of the book, it hits hard.
Why should you read this book? The Strain isn’t without its flaws, but most of them are relatively minor. It’s an incredibly effective vampire novel, and while it focuses mainly on exposition and setting the stage for the next two books in the trilogy, the engaging cast of characters and high levels of tension still make it an engaging read. For fans of vampire fiction (vampire horror, that is), The Strain is definitely a book you’ll want to check out.(less)
Constructed from the unfinished writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin is a stand-alone story from the First Age of Middle-Earth taking place long before The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. While approximately 75 percent of the book previously appeared in various sections of Tolkien’s other writings, his son, Christopher Tolkien, edited the entire tale together into a single book for the first time. It was published in 2007.
The Children of Húrin follows the family of the titular Húrin who is captured by the Dark Lord Morgoth and then refuses to submit to his will. Angered, Morgoth curses Húrin’s family, sentencing darkness and despair to follow them throughout their entire lives.
The early days of Middle-Earth The Children of Húrin is set thousands of years before the events of The Lord of the Rings, but the time difference doesn’t feel as significant as it is. While The Children of Húrin is located in a region to the north of the area in which The Lord of the Rings takes place, Middle-Earth feels very much the same as it does in Tolkien’s more famous work. Hobbits aren’t present in this story, but men, elves, and dwarves all play significant roles, and the antagonism between them is sharp and primal. Instead of Sauron, this story features Morgoth (with Sauron as his lieutenant); his role in The Children of Hurin is virtually identical to Sauron’s in The Lord of the Rings, but he is not the primary antagonist of the story.
The Children of Húrin is much smaller in scale than The Lord of the Rings, focusing primarily on the trials and tribulations of Húrin’s family, and most specifically his son, Túrin. As the entire story takes place within the context of a war with Morgoth and only contains a snippet of this great conflict, I imagine some readers could find it frustrating that the events of this war are never resolved within The Children of Húrin. I, however, appreciated the story’s tight focus, and fortunately, the events of the war with Morgoth are detailed in Tolkien’s other writings; The Children of Húrin can serve as a starting point for delving into the mythology of the First Age, and if it inspires you to dig deeper into the history of Middle-Earth (as it did for me), Tolkien’s writings on this era are readily available.
Not the Tolkien you know If you’ve read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, you’re familiar with the kind of stories Tolkien tells; be warned, though—content-wise, The Children of Húrinis very, very different from Tolkien’s more famous works. All of Tolkien’s traditional traits are here: the distant viewpoint, the telling of the story as if relating a long-lost legend, the lavish world-building that hints at the vast mythology of Middle-Earth without explicitly revealing it, and of course, the ever-present orcs, elves, and dwarves. However, The Children of Húrin is a much darker story than either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings; it plays out more like a Shakespearean tragedy than anything else. I expect that this aspect will be the most divisive amongst readers of the book. Don’t go into The Children of Húrin expecting whimsical hobbits or grand quests: this is the story of a family unraveling under the weight of the curse placed upon them—it’s not a particularly pleasant story, nor is it emotionally fulfilling. This wasn’t a detriment to the book in my case (I love those kinds of stories), but if you don’t enjoy tragic tales, The Children of Húrin may not be the book for you.
Why should you read this book? If you’re a fan of fantasy, and especially if you’re a fan of Tolkien, The Children of Húrin is a must-read. I’ve made numerous comparisons to Tolkien’s other works, but I do believe that The Children of Húrinmust be taken in the context of these other works; if you’re new to Tolkien, The Children of Húrinis not the book to start with—it will be most effective for those who have already enjoyed Tolkien’s other writings and want to delve deeper into the mythology of Middle-Earth. For those who do love exploring this mythology, however, The Children of Húrinhas it all: the brevity and quick pace of The Hobbit, the epic storytelling of The Lord of the Rings, the solemnity and pathos of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the detached narrative voice of an ancient myth. Its tone and content are more reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire than Tolkien’s other works, and this won’t appeal to everyone; for me, however, it was a breath of fresh air. I’m a huge fan of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but The Children of Húrin is far and away my favorite of the three; this is Tolkien at his absolute best. If you do choose to give The Children of Húrin a shot, I recommend reading the illustrated edition (this is only the hardcover version, I believe), as Alan Lee’s artwork is gorgeous and greatly enhances the reading experience.(less)
Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament is the debut novel from author S.G. Browne, and it follows the first person narrative of Andy—whose major defining characteristic is that he’s, well… a zombie. Killed in a car accident and reanimated shortly after, Andy now lives in his parents’ basement and attends a zombie support group hoping to find some way to integrate back into society.
A somewhat refreshing take on the zombie genre With many zombie stories arising in recent years in books, movies, television, and video games, the genre has been wearing itself rather thin. Like many others, I’m a fan of zombie stories, but also like many others, I’m starting to get a little bored with the genre. I know that Breathers, with its narrative told from the perspective of a zombie, isn’t the first story of its kind, but it’s the first that I’ve been exposed to.
I enjoyed being able to read a zombie tale that isn’t endless gore and soul-crushing despair, but instead more of a story that deals with discrimination and disability in an unfriendly society. At its heart, Breathers is a novel about a minority trying to find its place in a world that is unwelcoming to it, and the parallels to real-world struggles for equality are obvious. Browne uses the zombie genre as a lens to gain perspective on these themes, and while Breathers doesn’t contain any radical insights regarding the nature of prejudice or discrimination, it’s an interesting approach to a well-worn genre. I also appreciated Browne’s use of satire, as it lends an edge to a story that otherwise could’ve fallen very flat.
Comedic, but dark There’s no question that Breathers is a comedy. Andy has a very dry sense of humor, and his sardonic first person narrative works well in the context of the book. This is fortunate as the plot of Breathers doesn’t really start moving until over halfway through the book, so you’ll be relying entirely on Andy’s narrative voice to get you through a large section of the novel—but since Andy’s voice is fun, quirky, and entertaining, this isn’t a major issue. Breathers never made me laugh out loud, but it kept a smile on my face for a few hundred pages.
What surprised me most about Breathers was how dark it actually is. The novel opens with Andy having killed his parents (it then skips back in time to build up to this), and there are a few moments of surprising brutality throughout the book. This isn’t a dark novel in the sense of it being grim or depressing (quite the opposite, in fact), but these moments give the book a sense of weight that effectively counterbalances its comedy, and they are the sole reason Breathers amounts to anything more than meaningless comedic fluff. While seemingly jarring in comparison with the rest of the book, I appreciated the dark moments in Breathers immensely.
Why should you read this book? Breathers is a lot of fun. Andy’s first person narrative is quite funny, and the book takes an interesting approach to a tired genre through the use of themes that are highly relevant to the real world. Breathers is a quick read, and while it may not be particularly deep or insightful, it’s more than entertaining enough to be worth your time.(less)
Written very much in the style of S.G. Browne’s debut novel Breathers, Fated is a light, comedic novel that follows Fate (yes, the literal incarnation of the abstract force). Growing bored of assigning fates to the majority of humans for thousands of years, he soon finds himself falling for a mortal girl—which, of course, is absolutely forbidden for an immortal entity like himself. It isn’t long before Fate realizes that his affections could have drastic implications for the entire human race.
An intriguing premise I love the concept at the heart of Fated. Nearly every character in the book is an immortal entity like Fate: Sloth, Gluttony, Love, Ego, Guilt, Wisdom, Temptation, Karma, and so on. It’s a massive cast of characters (although most of them have relatively minor roles), and every one of them has their own little quirks and idiosyncrasies that work to either complement or oppose the roles they fulfill—Death, for example, wears mortician’s gloves and a particle mask, and Truth is a kleptomaniac. With Fate himself the star of the book, this is a premise that drew me in right away.
A snarky first person narrative Fated relies quite heavily upon the first person narrative of its protagonist, who has an incredibly cynical view of humanity; his job, after all, does require him to deal with the portion of humanity which never amounts to anything great (in the world of Fated, the ones who do amount to greatness belong in Destiny’s realm). As such, Fate spends most of the book delivering snarky criticisms of humanity, and this is where most of the book’s humor comes from. It’s amusing for the most part and is entertaining enough, but Browne tends to fall back on the same jokes over and over, few of which are particularly funny.
Fated’s first person narrative works, but after a couple hundred pages, it becomes tiresome. Furthermore, Fated contains a near-overload of references to real restaurants, stores, and products. They work effectively in the context of the book, but even a few mere years after its release, Fated is already starting to feel slightly dated. This is an issue that will likely cause the book to become more and more alienating to readers as time goes on.
Unfulfilled potential With such an intriguing cast of characters, it’s obvious that a story like Fated would have a lot of potential. Unfortunately, Browne fails to fulfill this potential. Most of the book’s immortal cast are relegated to their defining quirks, failing to become the fully-developed characters that they could’ve been, and end up being nothing more than one-note jokes. However, there was one aspect of Fated that bothered me even more: Sara, the mortal girl that Fate falls for. She exemplifies the “beautiful-mystery-girl-who-instantly-falls-in-love-with-the-protagonist” trope perfectly, and she’s never allotted an ounce of character development (considering she’s the only non-immortal major character in the novel, this is especially annoying). If Sara had been an actual character and not just a cardboard cutout pasted into the novel, I likely would’ve had a much higher opinion of Fated; this is the most significant issue with the novel.
Fated also relies quite heavily on a few last-minute plot twists, and your overall opinion of the book will likely depend on whether these twists work for you. For me, they didn’t. It’s not that the twists in and of themselves are bad, it’s simply that after hundreds of pages of buildup, they didn’t quite deliver the punch that they needed to. I do think it would’ve worked much better in a shorter format; the story could’ve been told in less than a hundred pages with just as much, if not more, effectiveness. In fact, if Fated had been a short story rather than a novel, I believe it would’ve been quite good. This is just a matter of personal taste, however; Fated may work better for some readers than for others.
Why should you read this book? Although Fated has some major problems, there are aspects of the book that I genuinely liked. The premise is fantastic, Fate’s first person narrative is entertaining and has some truly funny moments, and even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the final twists, their audacity and ingenuity were refreshing. If you’re looking for a light read with some interesting ideas, Fated is a fine choice.(less)
John Dies at the End is a comedic horror novel by David Wong—pseudonym of Jason Pargin, one of the senior editors for humor website Cracked.com. It was originally written as an ongoing web serial before being collected and revised into a single book. A film adaptation was released in early 2013.
Seriously, this is the weirdest book I’ve ever read Even after reading John Dies at the End, I really couldn’t tell you what this book is about, and trying to describe it is even harder. I’ve read plenty of blurbs and synopses for the book online, but none of them really do Wong’s novel justice. I’ll give it my best shot, though. John Dies at the End follows David (the author) and John, who both become exposed to a mysterious demonic drug known only as “Soy Sauce.” They gain the ability to see into other worlds, and begin to encounter a variety of monstrous creatures who are wrecking havoc in their small town (which, in an ongoing joke, is called “Undisclosed”); David and John make it their mission to fight these creatures in whatever ways they can. Insanity ensues.
If you really want to know what you’re getting into with this book, here’s a better (if more vague) description: put H.P. Lovecraft and the brain of a teenage boy in a blender, and then throw the resulting pulp at the wall. This will give you something resembling John Dies at the End. It’s weird, it’s erratic, it’s immature, and it’s completely crazy to a degree beyond anything I’ve ever read before.
Strengths and weaknesses It feels odd to attempt to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a book as unorthodox as John Dies at the End, but that’s what I’m here to do. One of the book’s greatest strengths is its use of Lovecraftian, cosmic horror. If you’re not familiar with Lovecraft’s works, this is a type of horror that proposes the existence of gods and monsters that are so vast, so immense, so powerful, that they are completely beyond the scope of human comprehension. This is one of my favorite types of horror, and John Dies at the End makes fantastic use of it. The book’s other greatest strength is its humor. This mostly comes directly via John’s wisecracking and self-referential remarks (which consist almost solely of teenage humor and jokes about a certain part of his anatomy), but there are some truly hilarious moments in this book.
John Dies at the End also has some significant problems. It skips around wildly through time and space, perhaps a consequence of its former format as a serial, and I found this to be rather disorienting. In addition, due to a lack of clarity on the part of the author, there were confusing sections of the book in which I didn’t know where the characters were, who knew what, or what they were trying to do. The plot is so thin that I’d be hard-pressed to say that one even exists, and I was ready for the book to be over by the time I was halfway through. John Dies at the End is a couple hundred pages longer than it should be, and it becomes significantly bogged down in the middle of the book. Finally, there are the characters. None of them are as developed as they should be for a book of this length; beyond their names and place of occupation, I could tell you almost nothing about the book’s two major protagonists. However, I don’t think this is as big a problem as it might be in another book. John Dies at the End really isn’t about its characters, and their lack of development didn’t detract from the reading experience; in fact, I didn’t even notice how underdeveloped they were until I had finished the book.
Why should you read this book? John Dies at the End is one of those books that will appeal almost exclusively to a very niche audience. If pulpy, cosmic horror and a teenage sense of humor appeal to you, you’ll love John Dies at the End. If not, then this is a book you’ll probably want to stay away from. For me, it was a mixed bag. There were some genuinely funny moments that made me laugh out loud, and as a fan of Lovecraft, I loved the cosmic horror elements (in fact, I wish they had been more of an emphasis in the book); on the other hand, I found the story’s tendency to skip erratically through time and space with little to no warning to be annoying. John Dies at the End definitely isn’t a book for everyone, but if it sounds like something you’d enjoy, I encourage you to check it out. After all, you must be curious: does John really die at the end?(less)
Published in 2004, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is one of the more ambitious works of genre fiction in the last decade, and it gained a new surge in popularity when the film adaptation was released in 2012. Cloud Atlas follows six loosely-connected stories, each of which are able to both work separately and intertwine into a grand whole.
Unorthodox and ambitious Cloud Atlas is quite unlike anything I’d previously read. The six stories that comprise the novel follow what I’ve come to think of as a “parabolic” structure. Before I explain that, however, I should give a brief chronology of the stories: the first story takes place in the mid-1800s, the second in the 1930s, the third in the 1970s, the fourth in present day, the fifth at an unspecified time in a dystopian future, and the sixth in a post-apocalypse Hawaii.
I describe Cloud Atlas’s structure as parabolic because of the way in which these stories are arranged. They are presented in chronological order, but each of the first five stories breaks off at a critical point. The sixth story is then presented in its entirety. After this, the first five stories are returned to and concluded in reverse order, so the book ends with the same story as when it began. While such a format may seem gimmicky, it works quite effectively; Mitchell doesn’t use it as a cheap trick, but rather as the foundation upon which he constructs his novel. With the stories spanning a wide range of genres, Cloud Atlas could have very easily become a haphazard collection of tales in the hands of a lesser writer—but with Mitchell, the transition from drama to thriller to comedy to dystopian science fiction is as smooth as silk. Furthermore, Mitchell wisely refrains from giving any direct context for his stories; without explanation, he simply drops you into six radically different settings and trusts you to keep up, a task which is enjoyable and rewarding due to Mitchell’s clean and effective worldbuilding. Each story is interesting and complete in its own way, but due to the subtle linking and thematic resonance, Cloud Atlas becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Six distinct voices Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cloud Atlas is the way in which Mitchell is able to harness such distinct styles of writing in each of his six stories. The first story, told in the format of a journal written in the mid-1800s, feels shockingly authentic to its time period. This holds true as the book progresses: the writing in the subsequent stories matches the settings perfectly, even as they continue into the future. If you had given me each of the stories in Cloud Atlas separately and told me they were all written by the same author, I would not have believed you. Mitchell’s talent for creating such distinct and authentic voices is downright astounding, and Cloud Atlas is worth reading for this reason alone.
Unfortunately, while these distinct voices are perhaps Cloud Atlas’s greatest strength, they are also its greatest weakness. The dense prose of the first and second stories and the stylistic language of the sixth can make them extremely difficult to get through. While I enjoyed the content of the stories themselves, I frequently found myself bored and frustrated with the writing in these sections and became eager to return to the more contemporary parts of the book. This isn’t a huge issue in retrospect—I didn’t fully appreciate what Mitchell was trying to do with Cloud Atlas until I had finished the book—but certain sections of the book can be a struggle for someone trying to get into it for the first time. If you find yourself having a hard time with the early parts of Cloud Atlas, stick with it. You may feel like abandoning it, but it’s worth it to keep going.
Why should you read this book? Cloud Atlas has that singular trait of all great art: even after it’s over, it lingers in your mind. It took me a long time to get into the book, but now that I’ve finished it, I can’t get it out of my head. I keep thinking about it, and the more I do, the more I fall in love with it. Mitchell is clearly an author of immense talent, and in Cloud Atlas, he offers up to his readers a wealth of material to ponder and enjoy. While I’ve only read it once, I suspect that Cloud Atlas is a book which becomes deeper and richer upon rereading, which I fully intend to do. Cloud Atlas may be more fulfilling for some readers than others, but I highly recommend reading it so you can find out for yourself.(less)
What if you could simply stop aging? This is the question that lies at the heart of Drew Magary’s debut novel, The Postmortal. Told through what is essentially a series of electronic diary entries written by a man named John Farrell, The Postmortal chronicles the near-future where a cure for aging has been discovered and humanity has taken its first tentative steps toward immortality.
Living forever—that’s great, right? Maybe not. The cure for aging that sparks the world of The Postmortal guarantees that its recipients will never get any older; they won’t feel any older, they won’t look any older, and they won’t be able to die of natural causes. It might seem great in concept, but it’s not as wonderful as you might believe; The Postmortal addresses the consequences of eternal life head-on. One character points out that retirement is no longer an option. A young woman suddenly realizes that she is always going to get her period. As the doctor who gives John Farrell the cure says, not being able to die a natural death only ensures some other form—starvation, disease, perhaps a knife to the heart in some dark alley. The Postmortal takes a serious look at what it would mean to never age, and it’s rarely a positive look.
It’s not post-apocalyptic, it’s pre-apocalyptic The Postmortal is a curious book in that it’s certainly an apocalyptic story, but it’s not post-apocalyptic. Rather, this is the story of humanity rushing straight into an apocalypse—and in a way, that makes it even darker and more depressing than the typical grim tones of post-apocalyptic settings. In The Postmortal, the future promises only to be ever-worse than the present, and there’s no way to stop its inevitable coming. It’s not cynicism, it’s just reality—a very, very unpleasant reality.
While The Postmortal certainly has a satirical edge—and even a few funny moments scattered throughout—I wouldn’t describe it as a light or comedic book by any stretch of the imagination. This book is very, very dark, and it is not a fun read. It even feels like Magary is trying to channel George R.R. Martin at some points; whenever the characters get a little taste of happiness, something has to come along and ruin their lives. I don’t mean any of this as a complaint, however, because Magary handles this aspect of The Postmortal spectacularly. He has a talent for creating emotionally engaging characters very quickly, so it hurts to see them continually and unfairly beaten down by the world. There was one scene in particular that hit me very hard; I had to put the book down, and I spent the rest of the day in a foul mood. Only one other book has ever been able to punch me in the gut with that much force, so I commend Magary for being able to pull it off.
Stumbling over the finish line For all its strengths, there was one aspect of The Postmortal that just didn’t click with me. There is a particular plot thread that is introduced late in the book, and I found it both uninteresting and unbelievable—which was made all the more prominent in comparison to how grounded and genuine the rest of the book felt. Rather than stay consistent to the very last page, The Postmortal devolves into something that comes across as cheesy and very “marketable.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a betrayal of the rest of the book, it just does not mesh with what came before, and it taints an otherwise incredible reading experience. As someone who is often disappointed by endings, this would normally hurt my opinion of the book significantly; however, since the rest of The Postmortal is just that good, it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me.
Why should you read this book? Bothersome plot thread aside, The Postmortal is an absolutely amazing book. While I was making my way through the first three hundred pages or so, I was fairly convinced that it would rank amongst the best books I’ve ever read, and although the final section of the book knocked it down from that potential status, those first three hundred pages remain stellar literature. If you like books that challenge you, disturb you, and sweep you into terrifying fictional worlds that feel all-too-real, then The Postmortal is for you. If you like books with complex characters, razor-sharp writing, and fresh ideas, then The Postmortal is for you. I guess what I’m trying to say is: if you like great books, then The Postmortal is for you. Go read it.(less)
World War Z could perhaps be considered the definitive zombie novel of the last decade; you’d be hard-pressed to find another stand-alone zombie story that comes more readily to the minds of modern readers. After finally reading it myself, I was happy to discover that is has, for a number of reasons, more than earned this revered status.
An unorthodox format The subtitle of World War Z is “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” and that’s exactly what this book is. It isn’t told in the conventional format of a novel as there isn’t a protagonist or even a group of characters that the book follows. Instead, it is broken up into a series of many, many interviews (supposedly conducted by the author, Max Brooks), in which survivors of “World War Z” tell their stories. These stories are arranged in a roughly chronological format so as to follow the arc of the Zombie War from its inception to its conclusion, which, in its own way, makes the Zombie War itself the protagonist of the novel.
The format of World War Z may not sound like the recipe for engaging novel, but Max Brooks presents these interviews with such confidence that you simply cannot help but continue to turn the pages. With perhaps a few minor exceptions, every survivor’s story is crafted with such attention to detail that you’ll want to keep reading just to absorb all the meticulously drawn facets of the Zombie War. Unfortunately, the voice of each interviewee isn’t quite distinct enough to make any of them memorable beyond the actual content of their stories. They do begin to run together in a continuous stream that sounds more like conventional prose than the natural voices of separate people, but this is a relatively minor trade-off that detracts very little from the book as a whole.
Spectacular worldbuilding If Brooks deserves to be commended for one aspect of World War Z above all others, it has to be the worldbuilding. By the time I finished the book, I felt as if I was actually a reader in the future who had flipped through the chronicle of a legitimate period in human history. Every detail of the Zombie War is colored with such real-world truth that they’ve been seared into my mind with an incredible vividness; I keep having to remind myself that the people and events that defined the Zombie War—Yonkers, Redeker, the Honolulu Conference—are all fictional.
Even more remarkable than this worldbuilding is that Brooks never resorts to heavy exposition, and that is perhaps the primary reason why World War Z is as engaging as it is. Instead of falling back on basic info dumping, Brooks uses a very clever technique to fill his readers in on these people and events: he splits them up into tiny bits of relevant information, and then strategically places that information within the interviews. Slowly, over the course of many interviews, you will be able to piece together the chronology of the Zombie War—and there is something immensely satisfying in being able to put everything together on your own, rather than simply being told what happened.
Captivating stories Although the individual interviewees in World War Z aren’t quite as distinct as I would have liked, many of their stories are astounding snapshots of high-quality writing. You might think that a novel told in the format of World War Z would fail to present thunderous action sequences or the moments of sheer, adrenaline-pumping terror that you’d naturally associate with a story about a “Zombie War,” but you’d be wrong. The interview format allows Brooks to give us both stories of the defining moments in the Zombie War through the perspectives of first-hand accounts and intensely personal stories of endurance and survival from the rest of the world’s populace. World War Z features massive, jaw-dropping battles between the military and the undead, heart-pounding escapes from zombie hordes, and even quiet, simple stories of people trying to find their place in a world where humanity is on the brink of annihilation. Some stories are straightforward and climatic, while others contain clever psychological twists. The variety between them all will keep you turning pages to find out what Brooks is going to throw at you next.
Why should you read this book? There is a reason why World War Z is considered to be such a definitive zombie novel; it has everything you could want from this kind of story, and the refreshing interview format spices things up enough that the book is able to dodge the potentially dangerous pitfalls of not having a protagonist or any consistent characters to invest in throughout the course of the novel. Is it perfect? Certainly not. Even still, I had a blast with this book. I finished it feeling anything but disappointed, and the vivid (and often horrific) imagery still haunts me in the best way possible. World War Z is an absolute must-read for any fan of zombie stories or even speculative fiction in general, and I don’t hesitate at all in giving it my highest recommendation.(less)
Although The Drowned Cities is marketed as a sequel to Ship Breaker, it can stand as a completely independent novel, with only one character from Ship Breaker appearing again in The Drowned Cities.
Set in the same unspecified future point in which Ship Breaker took place—a future where resources have become scarce, governments have collapsed, and the gap between the rich and the poor has become almost insurmountably wide—The Drowned Cities focuses on a young girl named Mahlia and a young boy called Mouse in the waterlogged ruins of Washington, D.C.
A masterfully crafted setting As he did in his previous novels, Bacigalupi proves to be a master of setting. His talent for using a few carefully chosen words to bring his setting to life is simply unrivaled by most other authors I’ve read. Although there are hints all throughout The Drowned Cities that this world is same one in which Ship Breaker took place, the half-drowned remains of America’s capital city is an environment unlike anything Bacigalupi has tackled before; and he paints it with such a degree of detail that you’ll wonder if he’s been to our future himself. Bacigalupi is never so blunt as to tell us exactly what landmarks his characters are encountering, as they know little of the modern era that we live in, which they refer to as the Accelerated Age; but his details never leave it unclear to the reader. It’s downright chilling to see some of the most famous buildings in America reduced to meaningless hideouts for self-styled warlords in a flooded city, but it always feels completely plausible. Our era is nothing more than an ancient, half-understood history to the characters in The Drowned Cities, and the things we built and cherished are nothing more than the crumbling backdrop to the perpetual wars and power plays between the rival factions that have risen from the ruins. To put it simply, The Drowned Cities contains one of the most sharply realized settings I’ve encountered in fiction—as you read, you’ll feel the squish of mud in your boots, the howling of genetically-engineered coywolves in the distance, and the sear of hot metal against your flesh. No one creates setting like Bacigalupi; this is the work of a storyteller who is an absolute master of his craft.
Is this really YA? The Drowned Cities is marketed for young adults, as was Ship Breaker, but Bacigalupi once again pushes the boundary of that demographic to its absolute limit—and maybe just a little bit beyond. The Hunger Games sparked a fair amount of controversy with its depictions of violence between children, but The Drowned Cities takes the same issue and brings it to a whole new level; children are snatched up by warring military factions and turned into soldiers or killed. There’s no question that this is a book for mature readers, and Bacigalupi refuses to back away from depictions of brutal violence—it’s part of the world that The Drowned Cities takes place in. It’s not gratuitous, it’s just real. This is a future where everyone is vying for power, and it’s through violence that they get it.
In addition to the violence, Bacigalupi steers away from the standards of YA, having multiple viewpoint characters. The story skips back and forth between different characters with every chapter, and yet each character’s story is so intertwined with each of the others that their viewpoints always feel relevant to the main plot. Bacigalupi also proves to be incredibly skilled at altering the reader’s perception of each character depending on whose eyes we’re looking through; few authors can pull off these switches with such fluidity, and Bacigalupi is one of the best.
Completely satisfying, beginning to end The more books I read, the more I find that modern authors seem to struggle with endings; it’s usually with a book’s climax that I find myself most dissatisfied. Bacigalupi, however, knows how to do it right—one of the few who do, it seems. The opening chapters of The Drowned Cities are engaging and action-packed. While the story slows down a bit after that, Bacigalupi keeps the tension and the stakes high through the multiple viewpoints. It doesn’t take long for things to ramp up again, however, and once the book gets going, it doesn’t let up until the end—and what an ending it is. Bacigalupi’s previous books have all had very satisfying climaxes, but this is perhaps his best one yet. At once both explosive and emotional, with characters you care about on both sides of the conflict, the climax of The Drowned Cities contains some of the most intense pages that I’ve read all year. And when I finally closed the book, I felt something that I don’t feel all that often: completely, totally satisfied with what I had just read.
Why should you read this book? Bacigalupi is one of the few authors that I can comfortably rely on to produce top-notch material with every new book, but he really has outdone himself with The Drowned Cities, creating something truly remarkable. While The Drowned Cities may not achieve the complexity of Bacigalupi’s debut novel The Windup Girl, and while it may not be as instantly absorbing as Ship Breaker, it’s nothing less than a stellar book. The Drowned Cities is arguably Bacigalupi’s best novel to date, and without a doubt one of the best novels of the year—you owe it to yourself to read this book. You won’t be disappointed.(less)
China Miéville’s Railsea could be described as a retelling of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—if the ships were trains and the whale was a giant mole, that is—but to do so would be trying to fit Railsea into a descriptive box in which it doesn’t quite fit or belong.
Railsea takes place in a world where, instead of ships traversing the ocean, trains traverse a landscape swathed in a seemingly infinite tangle of railways. All manner of deadly predators burrow just below the surface, ready to snatch up anyone who sets foot on the open ground. It is in this world that we are introduced to Sham ap Soorap, a young boy aboard the moletrain Medes, whose captain is obsessively hunting a monstrous white mole.
No, this isn’t just a retelling of Moby-Dick As I mentioned in my introduction, Railsea is so much more than just a twisted retelling of Moby-Dick. That was how Railsea was first described to me, and while it caught my attention, I can’t imagine that such a description would ensnare every reader in the same way that it did me. That’s why I can’t emphasize enough Railsea’s uniqueness, and how it really isn’t a retelling of Moby-Dick; the inspirational elements are there, to be sure—an evasive white monster, the obsessive captain hunting it, and a protagonist who happens to be aboard that captain’s vessel—but Railsea is something complete and magnificent in and of itself.
The setting that Miéville crafts for Railsea is brilliant in its creativity. The concept of a world that has an endless tangle of railroads instead of oceans, where cities and towns must be built on rocky islands and continents where the burrowing beasts can’t reach, where vicious creatures fly and fight in toxic clouds miles above the ground, and where mysterious monstrosities called “angels” patrol the rails, is nothing less than absurd, and yet Miéville depicts it in such precise detail and with such passion that I would happily read many more books set in the world of Railsea.
Embracing eccentricities Embracing eccentricities—that is really the only phrase I can think of to describe Miéville’s quirky style of writing in Railsea. This is a weird book, there’s no doubt about it (then again, it wouldn’t be a Miéville book if it wasn’t), but he really does go all out in Railsea. He plays fast and loose with words and phrasing, making up completely fantastical words that somehow make total sense and painting descriptions that not only conjure beautiful mental images when read but also sound beautiful when said aloud. Miéville takes all the standards for writing a book and throws them to the wind; he writes the book how he wants to write it, and it completely, totally works.
The oddities are almost too numerous to count. In Railsea, “and” is always written as “&,” which is enough in and of itself to give the book a unique little spin. It doesn’t stop there, however: Miéville abandons the perspective of one character halfway through the book in favor of skipping between three different ones. One- or two-page chapters will occasionally be sandwiched in the middle of some of the book’s most intense scenes, during which Miéville will step in as a narrator for relevant and frequently humorous commentary or exposition. Perhaps most interesting of all, the narration occasionally even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, acknowledging that it is a book and that there is a storyteller behind the words on the page. All these oddities are far from a weakness, however; they’re Railsea’s greatest strength. The short expositional chapters, which would likely have been annoying in the hands of any other author, frequently put a smile on my face and sometimes made me laugh out loud. Railsea embraces these eccentricities with such enthusiasm that you can’t help but be swept up in them; what may seem like missteps and asides from a confused and uncertain storyteller are, in truth, all part of the magic that makes Railsea the absolute joy that it is.
Why should you read this book? It’s hard for me to put Railsea into words, and even harder for me to put my love of Railsea into words. Although there are a few issues here and there—such as characters who aren’t fully developed and an ending that’s not wholly satisfying—Miéville has tapped into an odd sort of storytelling magic with Railsea, and it sucked me right in and didn’t let go. I don’t think there’s any more I can say to convince you of how fantastic this book is, so I will simply encourage you to go out and find a copy for yourself. It may not click with you in the same way that it clicked with me, but I sincerely hope that you enjoy it as much as I did. Railsea is something so uniquely wonderful, so infectiously entertaining that I encourage everyone who loves books to at least give it a try.(less)
The Dirty Streets of Heaven, the first entry in an urban fantasy trilogy by Tad Williams, is told from the perspective of an angel (yes, a literal angel) who goes by the name of Bobby Dollar. Working in the fictional city of San Judas, Bobby Dollar’s job is to defend the souls of the recently deceased as they enter the afterlife, where they are sentenced to an eternity in either Heaven or Hell—that is, until a seemingly regular soul goes mysteriously missing, and neither the angels of Heaven nor the demons of Hell have any clue where he has gone.
Urban fantasy with a twist In the world of The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Heaven and Hell are both very real, as are the angels and demons that inhabit them. Even the angels, however, have no idea whether God really exists, and no religion is ever presented as being “true.” The religious aspects of The Dirty Streets of Heaven remain mostly shrouded in mystery, and though the book occasionally asks questions about the nature of Heaven, Hell, and God, it never dwells on them for long. Perhaps these questions will be dealt with further in the sequels, or perhaps they will never be dealt with at all. The religious backdrop in The Dirty Streets of Heaven isn’t there to provoke the exploration of deep religious questions; it’s there to provide a unique foundation for a supernatural thriller. Williams has created an urban fantasy with a twist, and he clearly has a lot of fun with the creativity that it lends him—if you simply accept the world of The Dirty Streets of Heaven and go along for the ride, you’ll have a lot of fun, too.
A seamless blend of humor and action The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a book full of surprises in terms of both plot and character, but the thing that surprised me most of all while reading was the humor—and how consistently funny it actually was. I wouldn’t call this a comedic book by any stretch of the imagination—it is, in fact, depressingly dark at times—but Bobby’s first-person narrative brims with a dry, detached wit, and he kept me laughing even through the book’s dreariest sections. Not having expected this humorous aspect, I was a bit jarred when I first began the book and struggled to adjust to the casual snark of Bobby’s narration, but once it clicked with me it became one of my favorite parts of the book. This isn’t to say that The Dirty Streets of Heaven is all about the humor, however; this is a book that is filled with a lot of action, a lot of intensity, and a lot of serious moments, all of which are magnificently well-written. Williams’s true accomplishment is his seamless blend of the humor and the action. At no point does either become so prominent as to weigh down the story; they play off each other in perfect synchronicity and perfect balance, keeping the story fresh and engaging from beginning to end.
Spot-on pacing If there’s any other aspect of The Dirty Streets of Heaven that Williams really deserves to be commended for, it’s his masterful pacing. It may take a few chapters for the story to hook you, but once it does, it never lets go. The Dirty Streets of Heaven is relatively short when set against Williams’s massive fantasy novels, but it’s still more than long enough to risk large sections where the story could’ve slowed to a crawl—only it doesn’t. Williams’s enormous action sequences are frequent enough to keep the story from dragging, and his clever use of humor all throughout the book spices things up enough to keep the story moving during its smaller moments.
Why should you read this book? While far from perfect, The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a really fantastic book. Set against a fascinating religious backdrop, brimming with all sorts of exciting ideas, and maintaining a seamless blend of action and humor throughout its entire length, everything here is worth reading. The Dirty Streets of Heaven is the first book I’ve read from Williams and I enjoyed it immensely—I can’t wait to get my hands on the next entry in the series.(less)
In a new young adult science fiction series, Dan Wells tackles the post-apocalyptic dystopian genre that has become so popular in recent years. While not the most original take on the genre, Partials is consistently entertaining and surprisingly satisfying.
The Partials are a group of genetically engineered supersoldiers created to win wars; however, shortly after their creation they turned on humanity and unleashed a virus called RM, which wiped out most of the human population in an event called “the Break.” Partials takes place eleven years after the Break and follows sixteen-year-old Kira Walker, one of the few thousand people immune to RM, who have gathered on Long Island after the retreat of the Partials.
A post-apocalyptic “Best Of” mashup While reading Partials, I couldn’t help but feel that many of its elements were derived from popular post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. One of the story’s major threads is the search for a cure to RM, which has been consistently killing human infants for eleven years, effectively eliminating humanity’s ability to reproduce. This entire plot line echoes Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men with an eerie degree of similarity. The Partials themselves, in their capabilities and motivations, are strongly reminiscent of the machines from the Terminator films, and one scene late in the book is practically copied from a scene that takes place in the final book of The Hunger Games trilogy.
All these elements made reading Partials feel like a post-apocalyptic “Best Of” collection, with many of its great moments and ideas having already been done. However, even noticing all these similarities, I never felt like they detracted from the book—if anything, they enhanced it. No single element is dwelt upon long enough or is prominent enough to make Partials feel derivative of these other works; instead, I got to see elements of my favorite dystopian fiction mashed together, and Wells pulls it off with such effectiveness that I was more than pleased with the cohesive whole that resulted.
Hints of epic fantasy Wells has mentioned more than once on the podcast Writing Excuses that he originally intended to write epic fantasy before he broke into the market with his I Am Not a Serial Killer trilogy, and Partials is his first published book where his epic fantasy inclinations clearly show through. Partials features a surprisingly large cast of characters, and many of them will be present for hundreds of pages, only to disappear for hundreds more. These characters can occasionally be difficult to keep track of, but Wells colors them with enough characterization to make them feel like real people, with lives and purposes beyond the scope of the story. While Kira is always present at the center of the story, the cast of characters around her is always rotating, and this keeps the story fresh throughout its entire length.
In addition, while the story takes place over the space of a few months and never steps outside the ruins of New York City, the scope never feels less than huge. Partials covers a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively; and the intricate overlap of plot and subplot, combined with the large cast of characters and the constant threat that one bad decision could wipe out the remains of humanity in an instant, all give Partials a surprisingly massive scale for its genre—and yet, there are hints littered all throughout the book that the sequel will expand the scope of the story even further. This may be post-apocalyptic YA, but it feels like epic fantasy in all the best ways.
Complex characters, complex themes Perhaps even more so than with the scope, I was impressed with the complexity of the characters and themes in Partials. Wells has proven his talent for creating engaging first-person narrators in his other novels, but he wisely chooses to step back to a third-person narrative in Partials. This story is less about Kira Walker and more about a group of teenagers struggling to find their purpose in life when everyone around them is telling them that life—in particular, creating more of it—is their purpose. The novel explores questions that would inevitably arise if humanity was on the brink of extinction: do women have a right to their own bodies when reproduction becomes paramount to the survival of humanity? Is a totalitarian state an acceptable price for peace when the last society on Earth is at risk of tearing itself apart through civil war?
Every character in Partials has their own answers to these questions; even when they share the same goals, their differing approaches to achieving those goals create divisive conflicts that split even the closest of friendships. Partials raises a lot of questions, but rarely does it answer them; instead, it gives us the ability to understand and sympathize with every character’s point of view. We’re never really sure who will be right, who we can trust, or who we should side with, because it could be anyone at any time; and everyone’s opinions and motivations are in a constant state of flux. Wells keeps careful control of all these aspects of all these characters, and it keeps the conflict and momentum high from beginning to end.
Why should you read this book? As someone who has read all of Wells’s novels to date, I believe Partials may be his best work so far. He draws from some of the best post-apocalyptic and dystopian sources in fiction to create the world of Partials without ever feeling derivative, handles a large cast of characters with relatively few missteps, and feels more in control of his story than he ever has before. Although his characters will occasionally spout one-liners that feel oddly misplaced in the context of the story, Wells’s tight writing and deft handling of complex characters and themes round out an immensely entertaining and powerful novel. I didn’t expect to like Partials as much as I did, and I feel no hesitation in giving it a strong recommendation.(less)
A stand-alone adult novel from author Dan Wells, The Hollow City is a thriller that thematically and tonally follows closely in the footsteps of Wells’ own I Am Not a Serial Killer trilogy, but branches off into new territory for the author in terms of content.
The Hollow City follows Michael Shipman, a man who wakes up in the hospital having lost two weeks of memory. He is quickly diagnosed with schizophrenia and moved to a psychiatric hospital, where he is stalked by monsters and the mysterious Faceless Men—literally, men without faces. All the while, the threat of a vicious serial killer known as the Red Line Killer hangs over his head—a serial killer that seems to have an agenda eerily similar to Michael’s own. Trapped within the psychiatric hospital, Michael soon becomes focused on unraveling the mysteries that surround him, but cannot rely on his own mind to tell him what is real and what is not.
Unreliable narration at its best Upon reading The Hollow City, you will quickly learn to distrust viewpoint character Michael Shipman. Wells keeps the book’s narration down to a tight present tense first person viewpoint, taking great care to filter everything through Michael’s eyes. Michael sees things both natural and supernatural, with nothing to indicate what is real and what is not, often leaving the reader as disoriented as he is. Shipman’s unreliable narration is The Hollow City’s greatest strength, and often the only thing to keep the book’s momentum from grinding to a halt in the slower sections.
Michael’s paranoia is also strangely infectious, a testament to the strength of Wells’ writing in The Hollow City. Michael obsesses over electronic devices, which he believes are being used by the Faceless Men to monitor him at all times—he avoids TVs, dumps water on clocks to short them out, and panics at the sight of a cell phone. Before long, I found myself reading The Hollow City with the same sort of obsessiveness that Michael exhibited; I was scanning dialogue and passages of description, picking apart and analyzing each sentence and paragraph in a constant search for clues or subtle hints as to the truth behind Michael’s situation. In the end, The Hollow City didn’t turn out to be a book that was layered with that much complexity, but I still found this to be one of the most enjoyable parts of the reading experience.
A disappointing third act With supernatural elements and an unreliable narrator forming the core of its story, it’s no surprise that The Hollow City lends itself to twists and turns. But when these twists and turns started coming into play in the third act, they shocked me—and not in a good way. They fit within the context of the story, but they quickly became so ludicrous that I nearly put the book down. After two acts of fascinating internal struggle for Michael Shipman, the transition is so jarring that I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Wells chose to abandon the subtlety of everything he had written up to that point simply for the sake of making his ending as wild and ridiculous as possible. Wells begins his book as one type of story and ends it as a completely different type, and nothing he writes in between warrants the change. The Hollow City’s final segment could have been powerful and completely appropriate at the end of a different book, but it simply didn’t line up with the rest of the story Wells was telling, and every aspect of the book suffers for it. I finished the book feeling cheated; I wanted the story that The Hollow City began as, not how it ended. This is a book that is unequivocally and unnecessarily broken by its third act, and the ending tainted my entire reading experience.
Why should you read this book? Ending aside, there’s a lot to like about The Hollow City. The book’s first two acts are filled with an intense personal conflict and wonderful little moments where Wells’ maturation as a writer shows through. Putting aside my dislike of the third act, I do believe Wells should be commended for the boldness and ambition of a story that never feels like it should be bold or ambitious—at the very least, the ending is anything but generic. If you enjoyed Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer trilogy, I recommend considering The Hollow City. (less)
In the vein of cult classic film The Princess Bride, Neil Gaiman presents a story in Stardust that feels at once like both a classic fairytale and something more modern, with the slightest hints of darkness around the edges. The result is a pleasant book that is enjoyable to read, but also ultimately a bit forgettable.
Stardust follows Tristran Thorn, a young man living in the town of Wall in the 1800s. In exchange for a single favor from the woman he loves, Tristran ventures out beyond the wall for which his town is named, striking out into the magical land of Faerie in search of a fallen star that he intends to bring back with him.
A wonderfully authentic voice In the telling of Stardust, Gaiman adopts a grandfatherly writing style. The narration very much feels like an elderly person telling a story they have told many times before, and this is the book’s greatest strength. At first glance, Gaiman’s casual writing style can be easy to dismiss as simple or lazy. However, upon taking a closer look, it becomes clear that Gaiman is actually very careful with his word choice and sentence structure, with everything he writes helping to create a warm, atmospheric tone. This tone can be difficult to adjust to if you’re used to reading dark and gritty fantasy (like I am), but it’s very intentional on Gaiman’s part and makes for a smooth and enjoyable read once you’ve made the adjustment.
Traditional, yet not traditional Reading Stardust feels very much like reading a classic fairytale. However, while adhering closely to the traditional feel of a fairytale, Gaiman creates a plot that is extraordinarily refreshing, filled with clever storytelling twists and subtle but witty humor. Stardust centers around three primary plot threads, all of them revolving around the search for the fallen star: Tristran, who seeks the star to bring back to the woman he loves; the remaining heirs to the kingdom of Stormhold, who are searching for the star because it was knocked out of the sky by the topaz which will give them rulership of Faerie; and one of three witch sisters, who is hunting down the star with the intention of using it to extend her immortality. Gaiman weaves these plot threads together with a surprising degree of cohesiveness, using them to create a wonderfully compact story that always feels relevant and never wastes a page.
Why should you read this book? Stardust isn’t a big commitment. It’s a short book, and an easy read as well. If you like stories in the vein of The Princess Bride, I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy Stardust. A traditional fairytale story is at the heart of this book, but the unique edge that Gaiman puts on the book, with his clever storytelling and smart writing style, makes it worth picking up for a quick read. In addition, although I recommend reading the book first, I also recommend watching the 2007 film adaptation of Stardust, which I believe is one of the best and most-overlooked fantasy films of the last decade. Although tonally similar, the book and the film differ enough in plot that they are both extremely enjoyable versions of the story.(less)
Ready Player One, the debut novel from Ernest Cline, made a bit of a splash after its publication in 2011, ensnaring readers with its high nostalgia factor for the ‘80s and easy readability for a surprisingly wide audience. Does it live up to the hype? The answer, sadly, is no. But Ready Player One is still an absolute joy to read.
At its most basic level, Ready Player One is a dystopian novel, but certainly not a traditional one. The year is 2044, and the world simply isn’t a nice place to live anymore. Nearly everyone chooses to escape the reality of life by immersing themselves into the OASIS, a virtual world—or more accurately, a virtual universe—designed by billionaire James Halliday. The protagonist of Ready Player One is Wade Watts, a teenage boy who spends much of his time in the OASIS under the name Parzival.
The greatest competition of all time Ready Player One is built upon the premise that upon his death, James Halliday left behind instructions for a massive competition within the OASIS—a hunt for an Easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual reality; the reward for the first person to find it is Halliday’s entire fortune and control of the OASIS. Wade is one of many OASIS users who took up the search for the Easter egg, becoming someone who is referred to as a “gunter.” Ready Player One opens five years after Halliday’s death, and all but the most devoted of gunters have given up the search for the egg, which has since taken on an almost mythical status. However, Wade soon begins to discover clues that reignite the hunt, placing him in the center of a cutthroat competition where his opponents are willing to take any measure to reach the prize before him.
With so much of its action taking place inside a virtual reality, Ready Player One ran the risk of creating a story without stakes—I’d seen this premise fail in books and movies before, and this was a concern for me when beginning the book. Fortunately, Cline neatly sidesteps this issue in two ways. Firstly, he presents the OASIS as something far closer to a legitimate virtual reality than a simple game; when a user’s avatar is killed, they can’t simply restart the game and jump back in with the powers and skills they had before. Defeat can be very real, and failure can be permanent, even in the OASIS. Secondly, the hunt for Halliday’s Easter egg isn’t contained exclusively with the OASIS. Many of the competitors are willing to hunt down and even kill their opponents in the real world, and it is not always possible for users to keep their identity concealed within a digital realm. These are small but important tools that Cline uses to keep the stakes high, and they aid Ready Player One in deftly avoiding the pitfalls of other stories that have taken place inside virtual realities.
The ‘80s factor Perhaps the most talked about aspect of Ready Player One is its ‘80s factor. In the novel, James Halliday grew up in the ‘80s, and his love for the era inspired him to design the entire Easter egg contest around all the books, movies, TV shows, video games, and general pop culture from that time period. As a result, Ready Player One is overflowing with references to the ‘80s, as well as more modern ones. Cline packs in everything he possibly can to satisfy his audience: references that span from Star Wars to Back to the Future, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Firefly, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Dungeons & Dragons, and everything in between. These references are often wonderful for their fans, but can occasionally grow tedious to those who aren’t familiar with them.
Popcorn entertainment At its heart, Ready Player One is not a complex, subtle, or particularly deep story. It’s like a big budget, special effects heavy summer movie, except distilled into a written format—the kind of story you want to read when you just want to relax and have a good time. I believe this is what Cline intended when he wrote the book, and, frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. He succeeds. While the first hundred pages or so can be difficult to get through due to slow pacing, once the book picks up it’s a fun ride all the way to the end. It’s cliché and fairly predictable, but I enjoyed every page of it. Keeping the right mindset is the key to enjoying Ready Player One.
On the other hand, Ready Player One’s most prominent flaw is its writing, and there is simply no excuse for its poor quality. “Show, don’t tell,” is one of the most prominent pieces of writing advice in existence, and Cline seems incapable of the former. Much of this book consists of paragraphs of summary, with Wade explaining his actions in retrospect or providing lengthy explanations of material that is only vaguely relevant to the story. This frequently grinds the plot to a halt, and having to push through these dull passages on such a regular basis tainted my overall enjoyment of the book.
Why should you read this book? Entertainment. When it all comes down to it, Ready Player One’s entertainment factor is the sole reason I recommend it. Don’t expect to be surprised with clever plot twists or marvel at the beauty of the writing, but do expect to have an enjoyable reading experience all the way through. Ready Player One is just sheer fun.(less)
Goliath is the concluding volume in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, a young adult series that follows an alternate World War I with steampunk elements.
In Goliath, Alek and Deryn have left the Ottoman Empire aboard the Leviathan in order to pick up a mysterious new passenger deep in the heart of Siberia. At the behest of this passenger, they proceed to travel across the world on a journey to New York, where the possibility of a deadly new weapon called Goliath awaits—a weapon that could potentially bring an end to the war…but at the price of millions of innocent lives.
Around the world While Leviathan and Behemoth took place in relatively small areas (a glacier in the Alps and Istanbul, respectively), Goliath broadens the scope of the series considerably. The Leviathan travels the world in this installment, taking Alek and Deryn to Russia, Japan, Mexico, and America. They meet an assortment of fascinating characters along the way, many of whom, such as William Randolph Hearst and “Pancho” Villa, actually existed in the early 20th century. These characters are all interesting and provide neat anchors to the real world, but it sometimes feels as though Westerfeld creates excessive tangents simply for the sake of meeting these real-life characters. Alek and Deryn take a backseat to actual historical figures far more than is necessary in Goliath, and the story grinds to a halt every time they do.
Just going through the motions Goliath doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises. The story’s predictability goes from being annoying to a major flaw, and this proves to be a serious detriment considering that Goliath is the longest entry in the Leviathan trilogy. Everything that was established in the first two books comes to fruition in Goliath, but nothing happens in even a remotely surprising way. More than anything, it feels as if Westerfeld is simply going through the motions rather than trying to create an actual plot.
Predictably, Deryn’s secret begins to leak out, complicating her relationship with Alek, and Alek himself becomes more and more obsessed with the idea that he is destined to put an end to the war. The perspicuous lorises bring humor to the book but don’t really serve the story, and Dr. Barlow continues to remain more of a plot device than a character. And of course, the inevitable romance between Alek and Deryn finally surfaces, only to feel extraordinarily forced. There isn’t a shred of romantic chemistry between these two characters, and the romantic subplot between them seems to exist more out of obligation than out of any genuine attraction.
A story that lacks intensity Simply put, Goliath lacks conflict. The majority of the book consists of the Leviathan traveling across the world, encountering new cultures and meeting new people. In many ways, this feels like a reflection of the story itself: it lacks the focus of the first two installments and instead meanders aimlessly, touching on numerous potential conflicts and storylines but abandoning them just as quickly. Furthermore, the war—which is, essentially, the driving force of the series—always feels distant and irrelevant. While in the previous novels the characters were constantly fighting for their lives, throughout most of Goliath their biggest worries consist of petty personal problems. The characters rarely feel like they’re in any real danger, and this results in a dull story that stretches over 500-plus pages. Frankly, Goliath was boring.
The lack of conflict shows through in Keith Thompson’s illustrations as well: while they remain as beautiful as ever, the exciting battles and life-threatening moments that he captured in the first two books give way mostly to drawings of settings and characters standing around talking. I breezed through Leviathan and Behemoth because the stories were intense and exciting, but I honestly struggled through Goliath; I probably would have given up on it if I hadn’t already invested the time to read the first two installments. Even the book’s climax was, frankly, anticlimactic; to make matters worse, it strays dangerously close to deus ex machina territory. After everything that Alek and Deryn go through in the Leviathan series, the resolution of the story and their characters feels cheap and unsatisfying.
Why should you read this book? If you’ve read Leviathan and Behemoth, you’re probably going to want to finish the series. There’s no harm in doing so if you’ve got the time, but be warned that Goliath may be a disappointment after the first two entries in the series. It lacks the intensity and excitement of the previous installments, and the novelty of the Clanker machines and the Darwinist “beasties” that originally gave Westerfeld’s take on World War I a unique twist has worn off by this point in the series. Ultimately, Goliath fails to live up to its predecessors and proves to be disappointing conclusion to a promising series.(less)
Behemoth is the second entry in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, a young adult series that tells the story of Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg, the teenage son of the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Deryn Sharp, a girl who has disguised herself as a boy named Dylan in order to serve in the British Air Service. While aboard the British airship Leviathan, Alek and Deryn are caught up in an alternate version of the First World War raging between the Clanker and Darwinist powers.
After their narrow escape at the end of Leviathan, Alek and Deryn continue their journey aboard the Leviathan to the Ottoman Empire, a country that remains officially neutral and could potentially alter the course of the war in favor of either side. After a German warship nearly destroys the Leviathan with a deadly new weapon, Alek and Deryn both find themselves alone in Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire, as the country teeters on the brink of war.
An expanded world In Leviathan, Westerfeld introduced us to the basics of his alternate history. In Behemoth, he expands into new territory. Behemoth is larger in scope; we get to see more of the Clanker powers, including powerful new war machines and deadly weapons such as the Tesla cannon. New Darwinist creations are introduced as well: the exceedingly odd perspicuous loris, which provides a curious sort of comic relief, and eventually even the titular Behemoth, a swimming monstrosity that can devour entire warships.
Istanbul provides a fascinating backdrop to the story. While the Ottoman Empire has the potential to join either side in the war, it is a Clanker country for all intents and purposes, and the Clanker influence is everywhere in Istanbul. Enormous steam-powered walkers guard different districts in the city, and gigantic mechanical elephants walk the streets. The sultan himself sits before a massive metal statue that imitates his movements with motorized grace. Westerfeld brings Istanbul to life in glorious detail, and this new setting is refreshing after the glacial backdrop of Leviathan.
A more mature (and expansive) cast Alek and Deryn are forced to grow up a bit in Behemoth. When Alek is essentially left to fend for himself in Istanbul, he begins to show true initiative by joining the city’s revolutionaries and taking on an active role in overthrowing the sultan. Deryn is given her first commanding role aboard the Leviathan, and soon the struggles and responsibilities of command weigh heavily on her shoulders. Her attraction to Alek takes on a prominent role in Behemoth, but the one-sided romantic subplot between them serves more as a distraction and a plot device than anything else.
We get to meet some fascinating new characters as well: Eddie Malone, a reporter for the New York World, adds needed complexity to the conflict in Istanbul, and spunky revolutionary Lilit and her father Zaven spice up the story, often outshining Alek and Deryn themselves. Unfortunately, the mysterious Dr. Barlow remains, once again, mysterious.
Beyond the writing Keith Thompson’s illustrations again bring the story to life in Behemoth. His work hasn’t changed much since Leviathan, and it certainly didn’t need to: the full-page panels and even double-page spreads flesh out the world of the Ottoman Empire beautifully, capturing the lavish backdrop of Istanbul in gorgeous black-and-white. As in Leviathan, Thompson’s work is the icing on the cake in Behemoth, and he often outshines Westerfeld himself. Thompson has proved to be an integral part in the telling of the Leviathan story; he contributes an essential window between Westerfeld’s world and the reader, and the Leviathan series simply wouldn’t be as effective without Thompson’s work.
Why should you read this book? If you enjoyed Leviathan, you will doubtlessly enjoy Behemoth. Westerfeld brings back everything that worked well in Leviathan and expands his alternate history with exciting new characters, creatures, and machines. The canvas of Istanbul serves as a stark contrast to the frozen Alps of Leviathan, giving the story a fresh new flavor. Although Alek and Deryn are forced to mature throughout the course of Behemoth, they still don’t progress much as characters; however, Westerfeld introduces enough interesting new material into this installment to keep the story from ever becoming dull. Behemoth is a stellar sequel, and surpasses Leviathan in almost every way.(less)
Leviathan is the first novel in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, a series of young adult novels that present an alternate World War I revolving a...moreLeviathan is the first novel in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan trilogy, a series of young adult novels that present an alternate World War I revolving around a different type of warfare—the steam-powered war machines of the Clanker powers against the genetically-manipulated beasts of the Darwinist powers.
Leviathan alternates its focus between two major characters: Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg, the teenage son of the assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Deryn Sharp, a girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to serve in the British Air Service after the death of her father in a ballooning accident. As the novel begins, Alek is forced to flee after the assassination of his parents, while Deryn (or Dylan, as she disguises herself) suddenly finds herself aboard the British Air Service’s most prized airship: the titular Leviathan.
An alternate history—Clankers versus Darwinists While Westerfeld maintains many real elements of the First World War (such as the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand), they take a backseat to his alternate version (such as Alek himself—the Archduke never had a son named Aleksander), which is probably for the better. He does a wonderful job of presenting the two major aspects of his alternate World War to us through the eyes of the two main characters. Alek's perspective introduces us to the Clanker powers, which consist primarily of Germany and his homeland, Austria-Hungary, when the war begins. Their instruments of war are battleships and steam-powered war machines that range from small two-legged walkers to massive six- or eight-legged frigates. Deryn’s perspective introduces us to the Darwinist powers—Great Britain, Russia, and a number of other other countries that remain neutral throughout Leviathan. In direct opposition to the Clankers, the Darwinists use genetic manipulation to create creatures bred specifically for war: bears as big as houses, krakens that can crush ships, and airships such as the Leviathan that are entire living ecosystems. The contrast between the Clankers and the Darwinists (and in turn between Alek and Deryn) is stark, and in many ways their differences form the heart of the story.
Although Leviathan is a novel about the First World War, it is far from epic in scope. This isn’t a complaint—Westerfeld has crafted a very tight story that keeps its focus on its two main characters. Being the first book in a trilogy, Leviathan’s primary objective is to bring its characters together and introduce the reader to Westerfeld’s alternative history, and it does so wonderfully.
Beautiful illustrations Keith Thompson provides numerous black-and-white illustrations throughout the book, and they’re one of the novel’s greatest strengths. There’s no lack of Thompson’s work: every few pages we are treated to a character sketch or a full-page panel that captures the action of Westerfeld’s story in all its glory. These illustrations are simply gorgeous and always work to enhance the story, bringing Westerfeld’s characters and world to life in a way that writing simply can’t accomplish; Thompson’s work meshes seamlessly with Westerfeld’s, and they complement each other perfectly. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that Thompson’s work often outshines Westerfeld’s throughout much of Leviathan. Thompson will often box in his drawings but bring some aspect of the picture outside the box, giving his work a three-dimensional illusion. While reading Leviathan, I found it horribly tempting to flip through the book just to look at the illustrations (which I often did), even at the risk of spoiling the story. They’re just that impressive.
Why should you read this book? Leviathan is simply a good story. No, it’s not a great story—it isn’t filled with unexpected twists and turns, and it doesn’t have a cast of deep, complex characters—but it is a lot of fun and plays around with a number of interesting ideas. Don’t start Leviathan expecting a masterpiece, because you won’t get it. But if you like history and steampunk and are looking for a solid adventure story, Leviathan is the perfect read.(less)
Ship Breaker is a young adult novel by Paolo Bacigalupi, who received great acclaim in the literary world for his debut novel, The Windup Girl. A sequ...moreShip Breaker is a young adult novel by Paolo Bacigalupi, who received great acclaim in the literary world for his debut novel, The Windup Girl. A sequel to Ship Breaker, entitled The Drowned Cities, is due for release in the spring of 2012.
Bacigalupi’s first YA novel takes place in a future that mirrors the world he created in The Windup Girl: countries as we know them today have fallen apart, genetically-manipulated people have become commonplace, and the dividing line between the rich and the poor has become immeasurably vast. Ship Breaker tells the story of Nailer, a teenage boy who works on a crew stripping the remains of ancient oil ships for valuable metal and precious resources, all the while dreaming of a better life. After a vicious tropical storm leaves the wreck of a rich girl’s clipper on the beach, he uses its owner as a means to escape his life of ship breaking, only to be caught up in a conflict between the world’s most powerful people.
A true page-turner As far as I’m concerned, it’s practically cliché to describe a book as a page-turner. For this reason, I’m hesitant to give any novel such praise. However, I believe Ship Breaker really earns this description. Bacigalupi’s interesting characters, intriguing story, and intricately detailed setting all kept me flipping the pages, even through sections of the novel that I likely would have found tedious if written by a less talented author. I read the entire novel in one day; I was so drawn in that I simply had to continue reading. This isn’t a common thing for me: I’m a slow reader, and it’s rare for me to be so engaged by a story that I devour it all in one day. This, more than anything else, may be the greatest testament to just how incredible I believe Ship Breaker is.
Pushing the limits of YA Ship Breaker is a YA novel in terms of length, pacing, and writing style, but the content of the story itself pushes right to the edge of adult literature. Bacigalupi’s previous novel, The Windup Girl, was heavy on adult content, and his tendency to stray toward that type of material shows in Ship Breaker. There is no lack of swearing or graphic violence in Ship Breaker, although it certainly isn’t beyond the realm that teenage readers are capable of handling. Bacigalupi is comfortable with adult content and he excels when writing it; therefore, I can’t help but wonder if Ship Breaker would have been more effective if Bacigalupi had simply written it as an adult novel, giving him the chance to fully embrace this darker content rather than resisting it as the YA category requires.
Seamless execution It’s difficult for me to break down exactly what works so well in Ship Breaker because everything works well. I honestly can’t praise Bacigalupi’s execution enough. His pacing is practically flawless, his writing vivid and sharp, and his setting extraordinarily believable. While not always utilized to their full potentials, Ship Breaker’s characters are all fascinating in their own ways, and the book’s climatic sequence is both visceral and emotional, capitalizing on everything that was set up beforehand to form a suitably cinematic showdown. Bacigalupi nails every aspect of this book to absolute perfection, and I simply have no other way to describe Ship Breaker.
Why should you read this book? Simply put, Ship Breaker is a stunning novel that works on every level. Bacigalupi has a keen understanding of how to craft a vivid setting, believable characters, and an engaging plot, and he integrates these elements flawlessly into a tightly structured story. Ship Breaker is a novel that worked for me in every possible way; I have no real complaints with the book. Not only is Ship Breaker one of the best YA novels I have ever read, it’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long, long while.(less)