After reading the description of McQuerry's The Peculiars, I could not wait to read it. I love alternative histories and I love ques...moreActual rating 3.5
After reading the description of McQuerry's The Peculiars, I could not wait to read it. I love alternative histories and I love quests, and, in many ways, The Peculiars did not disappoint. McQuerry's writing style is engaging, drawing the reader quickly into the story. After years of feeling alienated and different from everyone around her, Lena sets of to the wilds of Scree (ostensibly Canada) in search of her father. The plot starts out a little slow, but quickly picks up. On the long train ride to the borderlands, she meets a young would-be librarian, Jimson, an enigmatic marshal, Tom Saltre, and eventually the eccentric Mr. Beasley, each of whom play a significant role in shaping her future.
The alternative late 1800s America that McQuerry has created is fascinating. She is excellent at painting a scene with words, and I often wanted to sink into the setting. However, at times I found myself wishing The Peculiars,were just straight fantasy, or perhaps a bit more alternate in its history. McQuerry does a LOT of name dropping - so much so that it becomes distracting. I found myself mentally calculating, 'when was that book published?' or "he would have been about this old then, right?' and wondering if the dates would line up in a plausible way. It also made it harder to accept the fantastical elements of her alternative America - how could everything here have been so different when the rest of the world, apparently, from Darwin to Marx to Napoleon, progressed in exactly the way it did in our history. There is a wonderful index of historical names, places, and things at the end of the book, but it was mostly beneficial in reassuring oneself that one had, in fact, remembered that correctly; or that, yes, that person was, in fact, real. Perhaps readers who are a little less familiar with history (or at least less concerned with accuracy) would not find this so distracting.
McQuerry also does an excellent job at characterization. Nearly everyone is three dimensional, even the spectre of Lena's father Saul, who often feels present, even when he is not. Secondary characters have histories, depth to their personalities, and a little mystery as well. Even the missionary sisters have room for growth. And there are no cardboard bad guys here. (view spoiler)[Though I must say Tom's romantic interest in Lena, and Lena's reciprocation always felt way more tell-me than show-me in an otherwise show-me sort of book. (hide spoiler)] I cannot directly quote as I am reading an advance, uncorrected proof, but McQuerry says something that I also believe to be true, there are no good or bad people, just people making good or bad choices. There are a few moments that feel a bit deus ex machina(view spoiler)[such as Mr. Beasley having the Aeolus prepared to fly a day early, or the sheriff's intervention with Tom at the end (hide spoiler)], but even they feel mostly plausible within the setting.
Perhaps this richness of characterization is what leaves me feeling a little dissatisfied with Lena as a heroine. In a story that tackles big questions like 'what makes us human,' 'what is a soul' or 'where is the line between skepticism and denial of facts,' we are left with a heroine that fails to ever move past her self-doubt to take control of her own future. My dissatisfaction could also arise from McQuerry's tone: I am not sure how she does it, but she manages to sound almost impersonal, while narrating from Lena's perspective. It allows the reader insight into what is going on outside of Lena's perspective, and one can't help but wish Lena would be just a bit more perceptive. I like her, but I do not find her particularly brave or heroic. I really want her to step up and seize control of her choices. I find myself in the uncommon position of hoping this is the first of a series rather than a stand-alone so that I get the chance to see her do it.
I received an ARC from netgalley.com ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
One would think that a dystopian novel set in a future that is not only post-apocalyptic but also post-alien contact would feel, well, alien, and woul...moreOne would think that a dystopian novel set in a future that is not only post-apocalyptic but also post-alien contact would feel, well, alien, and would take some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader - especially when the superhumans are added in. One would be wrong. Susan Jane Bigelow is a master world-builder; it is frighteningly easy to see the roots of our earth in hers. The dystopia feels like an organic evolution, a natural conclusion, for all that it feels so different. What is even more interesting is how Bigelow achieves this - no info dumps, bad-guy monologues, or even omnipotent narration. Everything comes directly from the experiences of our characters - sometimes flashbacks, sometimes flashforwards, sometimes during the action - but always first person. I don't particularly like Robert Southey, but Bigelow's writing reminded me of a one of his most famous quotes that, despite myself, I do like:
"If you would be pungent, be brief; for it is with words as with sunbeams. The more they are condensed, the deeper they burn."
Bigelow's words are brief, and they burn. The tension, the fear, the sense of danger felt by the characters is palpable on each page. There were multiple times where I felt my heart racing, or caught myself holding my breath, trying to remain silent so that Micheal wouldn't be caught. Bigelow surprised me. For someone who loves to wallow in descriptions, I was amazed at how evocative I found her writing.
Broken is full of love stories: friendships, romances, families. It is full of conflicted emotions: characters doubting themselves, doubting others, struggling with what defines a hero or heroism, which sacrifices are worthwhile. These things are all in the story because they are part of all human stories; but they do not define it. I think that is one of the things I liked best about Broken; everyone was shown in all their glory and beauty and muck and mess. Each possible future laid out before the characters says as much about the characters themselves as it does their future. Michael can see only possible futures of choices they might actually make - and Bigelow uses this to show the readers so much more about the characters than we would otherwise know.
Broken works really well as a stand alone, but the world Bigelow has created is interesting enough that I would read more books set there. Broken did have a few detraction's - I was a little sad to see that the villain was not given the same depth and breadth as all of Bigelow's other characters. Also, on a slightly-spoilery note, Michael reads much older than 14 or 18, the two possible ages given for him. If he is really 14, which I think he is, then (view spoiler)[ I wasn't completely comfortable with all of his relationship with Janeane. (hide spoiler)]Broken is technically adult speculative fiction, but I think it would do well with an older YA audience, and see why it is occasionally being billed as such.
Free copy provided by Candlemark & Gleam as part of the promotion for the sequel, Fly Into Fire.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The only way for me to really talk about The Technologists is to pull it apart into its different layers. At its most basic, Pearl's The Technologists...moreThe only way for me to really talk about The Technologists is to pull it apart into its different layers. At its most basic, Pearl's The Technologists is a mystery, a thriller. It is also a novel with a profound sense of place - not only of the where but also when. Pearl takes his setting very seriously, and in it is entirely convincing - in fact, it is primarily in the steampunkish technology that we wander outside of historical fiction into alternative history. Finally, The Technologists reads almost as an Ode to Science and Technology, as well as an exploration of their place and purpose in the world. It explores the morals and ethics of innovation, the value of technology and scientific discovery, and even attempts to distill to its simplest form what science and technology really are.
It is only in that first, most basic layer of the book - they mystery/thriller - that I feel Pearl has failed. His writing style, while beautiful and absolutely perfect for his other aims, hampers the sense of urgency he is attempting to create. I recently read a very interesting blog post from Query Shark in which she talked about word count in sentences, and sentence count in paragraphs, as part of what increases tension in mystery/thrillers. Pearl's writing can at best be called languid. It is the type of prose you wallow in, not speed through. Additionally, I get that it is a convention of the genre to introduce the reader, at a rapid rate in the first of the books, to numerous people who will be among primary characters, secondary characters, as well as mere victims of whatever disaster is imminent. This lack of characterization is okay because it is rapid. Unfortunately, according to my Goodreads status updates, I had read a fifth of the book before I really started getting to know the main characters of The Technologists. I knew that the mystery would eventually unfold; I knew that the Tech boys (and girl) would eventually be my focus; I didn't particularly care. But, here's the thing: I did care enough to keep reading because of all the other layers that Pearl did really, really well.
As a reader, I have to attach myself to someone to continue to invest in a book. Pearl's constant introduction of new characters left me with little other option but to attach to Boston, the city, as its own character. (In fact, I would be quite surprised to find that it was not at least partially Pearl's intent to make Boston so present in the novel that it appeared a character.) Likewise, Pearl's writing is at times so evocative of the mid to late 1800s, that I was surprised when I get to something 'alternative'. Everything from sentence structure to word phrasing to chosen vocabulary firmly places the book in the 19th century, while simultaneously being approachable by the modern reader. Pearl does this with such balance and grace that it is truly beautiful to behold. I was shown 19th century Boston in all its full-bodied glory.
However, where The Technologists really shines is in its handling of science and technology. It is the story of the pioneers of science education. This book is firmly about the time in history when MIT had to fight for its very existence in a world that mistrusted it. Yet, it would require an almost ostrich-like approach to current events to not realize that this is a battle still playing out today. The thing I think I most appreciated about Pearl was his ambiguity. His characters were not always fully formed because they were often embodiments of the different views people take in this fight. Marcus IS MIT, and MIT is Marcus. Agassiz is Intelligent Design, and Intelligent Design is Agassiz. And, in allowing each of these approaches to be embodied by a person, Pearl allows more nuance and ambiguity into the discussion. It is easy to ask MIT to have a protectionist stance, as an institution, within the city of Boston for its own self preservation. However, to think of Marcus sitting idly by feels morally wrong. This duality in the characters allows the reader to see the hypocrisy in thinking something is a safe decision from an institution, but morally repugnant from an individual. They are the same. So often in this fight between science educators and moral objectionists, all the decisions seem to come from cold, faceless institutions; but really they are made by people with fear, hubris, conviction, excitement, etc. - people who are anything but cold or faceless. Pearl is also perpetually defining and redefining science and technology, and the definitions rarely feel wrong. I found myself nodding along with Agassiz at first, until his rants slowly slipped into something that, at first I only could not follow, until finally they reached something I abhor.
The Technologist asks of us, where is the line between protecting ourselves with innovation and from innovation? When have we gone too far? Where does religion fit into a new, more scientific world? Where does science fit into a religious worldview? What about ethics and morality? Where is the moral line between theory and practice? (For example, was it morally acceptable for these scientists to theorize about the construction of this new virus, but wrong to actually create it? Or was it wrong to even theorize? Or should they have been allowed to create it and publish it anyway, for the sake of learning?) Does technology improve society or destroy it? Are we naturally innovators, or do we defy nature by our innovation? Were we already set apart as better than the world around us, or do we set ourselves apart by our attempts to better ourselves? Do great minds arise because of education, or in spite of it? There is not always a set right or wrong in these questions, but dynamic shades of grey that change as often as the faces of science and technology themselves change. Other times there are clear rights and wrongs, and they require action - and Pearl shows that as well. I love how deftly and beautifully Pearl deals with these issues, how he often forces the questions without providing the answers, and so I don't really care that I felt no urgency for his mystery - that wasn't really the most important question he asked anyway.
I enjoyed Incarnate, but find that I feel a bit let down as well. Medows' world building is phenomenal. The world of Range, the city of Heart, the tec...moreI enjoyed Incarnate, but find that I feel a bit let down as well. Medows' world building is phenomenal. The world of Range, the city of Heart, the technology, the creatures - they're all fascinating. I quickly realized that it would be better to rid myself of expectations because Medows broke with convention as often as she followed it. I love that her dragons, sylph, and centaurs are recognizable but also refreshingly new and different. Medows' also brought forth some very intriguing concepts - the idea of a new soul in a society comprised entirely of souls that have been living together, reincarnating over and over again for thousands of years is absorbing. How would she fit in? Why did it happen? There was so much promise!
However, rather than really letting the reader explore this stimulating new world, or perhaps dive into the mystery of how and why Ana was born, (view spoiler)[ or why the city feels safe to everyone else but creeps Ana out (hide spoiler)], or even investigate some of the questions about Heart that Ana reminded the old souls they had all once had, we are instead left with a somewhat boring romance. Don't get me wrong! The romance between Sam and Ana is so much better than what one often comes across. They slowly get to know each other; the relationship builds upon shared interests and experiences. However, in a world so amazingly crafted, with so many mysteries waiting to be unveiled, their romance wasn't really what had my interest. I wanted it to be part of the novel, not the focus of the novel.
Incarnate is meant to be the first in a trilogy (series?), and as such is absolutely good enough to make the next one an instant read. I just hope that now that Sam and Ana have their stuff figured out, we can actually get somewhere with the real mysteries.
Re-reading Journey to the Center of the Earth reminded me of all the reasons I love Verne. The contrast between the exactitude in his descriptions of...more Re-reading Journey to the Center of the Earth reminded me of all the reasons I love Verne. The contrast between the exactitude in his descriptions of geography, geology, society and people and the soaring nature of his imaginings just leaves me in awe. I love reading Verne with an atlas or a map. (In a perfect world, it would be on one of those huge full-wall sized affairs done in a Mercator or Robinson Projection with black ink on a yellowing paper; with Africa as tall as my waist, Eastern Euopean countries big enough to really see, and a beautifully elaborate compass rose in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I would follow the journey with little metal pins connected by bright red thread.) He is so precise about each step of his journey that I always feel as if he truly does want me to follow along behind him -as if he is telling me the way - until at last I come to the place where the pins on the map stop and Verne's world begins.
Verne is the same with science as he is with geography. He really knew his stuff for his time. I know that Journey is sometimes accused of not ageing as well as his other novels. There have been so many advances made in the field of geology that much of what he wrote was just flat wrong, but I think that sells Verne a little short. As with all his other books - with their inventions, machines and sciences so very far ahead of their time - he had the bravery to say, "this is what we know to be true, but what if this were possible?!" He then proceeded to lay out a logical way in which all he knew to be true could be wrong. At the same time he kept the fantasy elements firmly grounded in scientific principles that absolutely had to be true; and I respect him for that as well. (I actually got my son's dinosaur encyclopedia - with it's illustrated strati of geologic layers - to follow along with as they descended. Verne's accuracy is just amazing.)
What I probably most admire Verne for, though, is his ability to craft characters that leap from the page. He reminds me of Jane Austen in this way; he gives form to people you know, or almost know. After a while, you can see the look on a characters face or anticipate a reaction without Verne describing it because you know the character. It's your neighbor, your professor, your aunt, your brother. You've seen that face before, you've heard that laugh, you've gotten that reaction. Verne was a keen observer in all things and, lucky for us, was able to capture what he saw with words.
The story is a bit flashy spy movie meets stodgy detective story at times. I found Artemis to be an annoying brat who acted more like a miniature adult than a twelve year old. I also found little proof of his supposed intelligence aside from Sherlock-style breakdowns of information that we, as readers, were never allowed to "see" in the first place. He is less "heroic" (if that is the right word) than Holly, less intelligent than Foaly, and all around less cool than Butler. (I really loved Butler). I both loved and hated the constantly shifting point-of-view; it was nice to get to know the other characters so well, but I felt like it disrupted the flow of the story -- perhaps if it had remained only with a couple of characters it would have been better?
But, those quibbles aside, Artemis Fowl was funny. It was quirky and interesting and I think the fart jokes would have my son in stitches on the floor. I definitely think this is geared more for the younger side of middle grade, but can see the plot being complex enough to attract young adult readers -- especially if Artemis continues to mature through the series. I don't know that I would have continued to read them for my own enjoyment, but they are on the list for books to read aloud to my son.