Ambelin Kwaymullina’s debut young adult novel, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf, is an entertaining example of young adult dystopian fiction with some unique and interesting aspects.
The story takes place in an almost utopian world that has grown in the aftermath of an environmental apocalypse known as the Rapture. Humans seek to maintain ‘the Balance’ and coexist with nature to prevent any similar thing from ever happening again. However, this society has its dark side. Ever since the Rapture, some individuals, like Ashala herself, manifest in strange powers and abilities that are seen by society at large as a threat to ‘the Balance’. As a result they are persecuted and confined. However, not everyone agrees that these Illegals endanger the balance and some are unwilling to surrender themselves into the government’s keeping.
The title itself accurately summarises the general plot of the book. Leader of a tribe of runaway Illegals, Ashala Wolf has been betrayed and captured. In order for her captors to catch the rest of the tribe and learn their secrets, Ashala will be subjected to a mysterious ‘machine’ capable of reading her memories.
If you’ve been anywhere near a bookstore in the last year or so, or have even just spent a little time online, I probably don’t need to tell you that young adult dystopian fiction is big at the moment. Many, like this one, utilise the first person point of view. So, with countless dystopian reads already on the market, what distinguishes this book from any other?
Firstly, one of the main features that struck me about The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was its distinctly Australian influence. Despite the fact that the continents in Kwaymullina’s world have been rearranged and Australian itself likely no longer exists there, it is strongly hinted that Ashala, like the author, is of Australian Aboriginal descent.
(Also, unrelated to the quality of the story itself, but extra points for the lack of whitewashing and having the dark skinned protagonist depicted as such on the cover.)
Kwaymullina also weaves in various elements of Dreamtime mythology to great effect. There are also other, less obvious, cues such as the description of the Saurs (large intelligent lizard creatures), which in parts seemed reminiscent of blue-tongued lizards. On a more political note, it might have just been me, but I also thought I noticed some parallels between the treatment of Illegals in Kwaymullina’s society imagined society, and the current plight of asylum seekers in Australia.
The non-linear narrative also adds interest with a substantial amount of the book being composed of Ashala’s memories regarding the events leading up to her incarceration. The story itself is pacey and the characters are likable. There is a romance subplot but it is not overwhelming and doesn’t detract from Ashala’s status as a strong and driven female protagonist.
Some readers may be disappointed that due to the point of view and nature of the narrative, we don’t really find out all that much about Ashala’s world outside of the Firstwood. Personally, it didn’t bother me that much and I enjoyed the hints that were given. I will be interested to see how the world-building is approached in the following books.
Overall, I thought The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was a promising start to a series that managed to introduce some refreshingly unique elements to a popular genre. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for the next book and will be interested to see what Kwaymullina comes up with next and how she develops as an author. I’d definitely recommend this as a quick, entertaining dystopian read with a uniquely Australian flavour. (less)
I've been waiting to read this book for ages and when I heard about the Lies of Locke Lamora Read Along (http://bit.ly/zLXUOe) I couldn't resist joini...moreI've been waiting to read this book for ages and when I heard about the Lies of Locke Lamora Read Along (http://bit.ly/zLXUOe) I couldn't resist joining in.
Germline, T.C. McCarthy’s ambitious debut novel, is the first installment in his Subterrene War trilogy. While it is ostensibly labeled as work of near-future military science fiction, that description barely scratches the surface of the true scope of the novel: Germline is, in essence, a gritty and confronting coming-of-age story featuring a deeply flawed protagonist. The result is intense, uncomfortable, and more than just a little bit brilliant.
A grim, believable future, and a protagonist to match
Germline is set in a decidedly bleak near future where U.S. and Russian troops battle for the Earth’s few remaining mineral deposits. Foremost in the Americans’ arsenal are deadly squads of all-female, genetically engineered super-soldiers. These women, known as Genetics, are indoctrinated into a cult-like religion of Faith and Death and exist for the sole purpose of killing as many enemy soldiers as possible before they themselves die or are “honorably discharged” (via a bullet to the head) at the age of eighteen. However, the U.S. advantage is short-lived, as the Russians soon begin to engineer Genetics of their own. As the supply of healthy human troops dwindles, women are “encouraged” to stay at home breeding future war fodder while the U.S. military recruits old men and boys.
Enter Oscar Wendell, a sub-par, drug-addicted reporter with a few friends in high places and ambitions for a Pulitzer Prize. When Wendell manages to secure an assignment with U.S. troops on the front lines in Kazakhstan, he believes he has finally scored the story that will make him famous. However, he soon realizes that nothing could have prepared him for the realities of war. Already an addict, Wendell begins to rely increasingly upon narcotics while both his former life as a reporter and the civilian world gradually cease to exist to his tormented mind.
Daring and confronting
I say Germline is an ambitious debut because it is in no way the kind of “safe” first novel we sometimes see from new authors. McCarthy refuses to limit his fiction by sticking to familiar or uncontroversial concepts, or those we can view from a comfortable distance. Nor does he feature characters and scenarios calculated for the broadest possible appeal and least likelihood of causing offence. Instead, McCarthy chooses a nihilistic and disturbed protagonist, places the reader inside that character’s broken mind through first person narration and then proceeds to pack his novel with biting social commentary.
So many things could go wrong with this kind of setup that one has to admire McCarthy’s daring, if nothing else. Yet he manages to pull the novel off in spectacular fashion, creating a grueling experience sure to impress the reader.
A harrowing first person perspective
Oscar Wendell’s first person narrative is undoubtedly one of the key factors that make Germline such an intense novel. Reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, Wendell is not necessarily a likeable protagonist and the reader is privy to his every flaw. He is a selfish, self-indulgent, broken wreck of a human being whose emotions jump between extremes with alarming regularity. Furthermore, he is not even particularly capable compared to the novel’s other characters and his continued survival in a war-zone is just as often due to the efforts of a progression of friends in high places, genetics, fellow soldiers, and dumb luck than the result of any actions of his own.
Despite all this, Wendell is somehow the perfect protagonist to carry the reader on an eye-opening journey through McCarthy’s desolate future. In addition, although I am no expert on psychology and addiction, McCarthy’s depiction of this aspect of Wendell’s character seems very true to life. Wendell is, in essence, a deeply flawed and believable human being who—seemingly beyond hope—must learn to take responsibility for himself the hard way. “The hard way” doesn’t get much harder than this.
The prose itself is direct and unadorned in a way that perfectly complements the setting and protagonist. After all, there is little time for poeticism when the world is falling apart around you.
No shortage of social commentary here, sir
Germline gives the reader their first glimpse of a world where basic human rights have been all but stripped away and provides countless hints at more to come. Although we are limited to Oscar Wendell’s personal experience in this world, once one looks below the surface much more may be read into the novel. The horrors that Wendell witnesses cannot be viewed in isolation: they are, after all, the product of the society that allowed them.
For instance, the gender of the Genetics serves a dual purpose. The accepted explanation to the Genetics’ gender holds that the initial male prototypes, unlike their female counterparts, are too prone to uncontrollable, testosterone-fueled violence; but the female models provide yet another benefit. Their presence on the battlefields can be used by those in power to counter any allegations of sexism in excluding women from the front lines. While this idea may make some readers uncomfortable, it is deliberately calculated to be troubling and one would be hard pressed to say that this kind of set-up is in any way endorsed.
And now for the really uncomfortable part…
All in all, although Germline is a work of science fiction it is, in many ways, not all that far-fetched or unfamiliar. The technology depicted throughout the novel is futuristic yet disturbingly plausible. McCarthy merely takes already existing and fast developing technologies such as genetic modification and cloning to the next level. As someone who has some familiarity with genetics and related science, there was nothing depicted in the novel that I found particularly implausible.
Likewise, the novel’s premise, despite being unpleasant, is also quite believable and finds its basis in real world issues. Most would agree that humanity is just beginning to realize, somewhat reticently, that natural resources are not infinite. Furthermore, it is not hard to believe that if we continue to rely upon such finite materials too much longer we could well end up with the kind of resource war scenario McCarthy depicts. Some may be so bold as to suggest that, to some extent at least, we already have.
So why should you read this book?
Germline is without doubt one of the most intense and affecting books I have read in long time. The fact that the details of the novel remain clear in my mind a month after finishing it should be a good indication of the extent to which it engaged me as a reader. Nevertheless, it won’t suit everyone: Germline is not a light read, nor is it an easy one. What it is however, is a well-executed and relevant novel that will haunt you long after you finish reading. It is gritty, unsettling, confronting, and at times quite harrowing yet I wouldn’t have it any other way. (less)
This was tricky to rate. The first half was probably around 3.5-4 stars while the second half was 5 star material. So I guess that evens out to around...moreThis was tricky to rate. The first half was probably around 3.5-4 stars while the second half was 5 star material. So I guess that evens out to around 4 stars (4.375 exact) not considering that this was a debut.
Definitely recommended and I'll look forward to the next instalment. :)
Will probably write a full review some time in the future. (less)
Debris is the debut novel of Australian author Jo Anderton and the first in a projected trilogy, The Veiled Wor...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon
Debris is the debut novel of Australian author Jo Anderton and the first in a projected trilogy, The Veiled Worlds, to be published by Angry Robot Books. Despite some minor flaws, Debris is quite a solid first novel and showcases Anderton’s substantial storytelling talent, marking her as a name to watch in the future.
What goes up must come down Debris takes place in Movoc, a remarkable technologically advanced city that sits in the shadow of a symbolic mountain known as the Keeper. Since the revolutionary discovery that most individuals possess the ability to manipulate the small building blocks of matter known as pions through certain geometric configurations and ritual gestures, Movoc-under-Keeper has led the world in everything from architecture to art and medicine. However, while it may seem like a utopia for those who possess significant pion-binding ability, beneath society’s surface lies corruption and oppression. An underclass of ‘collectors’ are forced to collect the bi-product of pion-manipulation, known as debris, and are shunned by the rest of society.
Like many recent debut novels, Debris is told from a single first-person viewpoint, that of the protagonist Tanyana. When we are first introduced to Tanyana, she is one of the city’s elite, a prodigal pion binder and master architect, working on her most ambitious project yet. However, she soon falls victim to a suspicious accident. Her masterpiece is destroyed, she is left scarred, and her connection to the world of pions is severed. Bound into a bizarre ‘collecting suit’, Tanyana must learn to adapt to life at the lowest rung of society, all the while attempting to discover the truth about her fall. However, there is more to the world of pions and debris than meets the eye. Beneath the surface of society brews something far greater and more dangerous than she ever imagined.
A perfect set-up for some truly epic conflicts Have you ever read a novel where you had a few gripes with certain characters but were never once tempted to put the book down? How about a novel where at certain points you were not 100% sure what you were reading or what the author was trying to achieve, yet despite it all you were intrigued and still kept coming back for more? This pretty much summarizes my experience with Debris.
A dystopian world of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and the tale of an individual’s fall from the highest rungs of society are not exactly new to the fantasy genre, yet Anderton manages to put her own spin on these familiar tropes and make them feel fresh. The world itself is unique, containing a number of intriguing aspects. For instance, the opposing forces of debris and pions make for a compelling and complex magic system. The collecting suit and its relationship with its wearer is also quite a fascinating concept that has many potential uses throughout the series. In addition, the government organization, the veche, provides a satisfyingly foreboding presence and its agents, referred to as ‘the puppet men’, are undeniably creepy and sinister. Furthermore, I thought that the reliance of Movoc’s upper classes on pions and the division between ‘binders’ and ‘collectors’ were believable byproducts of a society wherein most individuals possess some degree of pion manipulating power. In some ways this may even be interpreted as social commentary on Western civilization’s own growing reliance on technology. Anderton also does a good job of depicting the culture shock suffered by someone used to having everything come easily, suddenly losing it all and being forced to work to fulfill even the most basic needs. Altogether, this provides an excellent stage for a number of conflicts to play out and for various questions to be explored throughout the story.
Imperfect characters you will grow to love On the whole, the characters are quite well developed and believable. Initially I had some reservations about Tanyana, as I found her a little cold and self satisfied and disliked her haughty demeanor. Nevertheless, as the novel progressed she retained her distinctive ‘spark’ but adapted to circumstances and grew as a person, becoming much easier to relate to as a result. Due to the first person narrative we don’t get as much insight into some of the secondary characters as we could. Nevertheless, many are quite well developed and leave you wanting to learn more about them. For instance, I loved the warmth in the relationship between the group leader Kichlan and his ‘broken’ brother Lad. In addition, their landlord, Eugeny, also stood out as a complex and three-dimensional individual.
On the other hand, there was one character whose behavior just seemed odd throughout the entire novel and who wasn’t believable to me as a person. Without spoiling the novel for others, there turned out to be a legitimate reason for this strange characterization; however, the way it was executed was not particularly subtle. Usually I would consider this a major flaw as it failed to utilize what could, with a slightly lighter touch, have been a shocking surprise. Initially, it also seemed unrealistic to me that a protagonist who had previously been shown as competent and intelligent would fail to have seen this development coming. However, after contemplating why this didn’t bother me as much as I thought it should, I had a realization—this novel is not really about the unexpected reveal; it’s about the characters and their reactions to each other and the events around them. When I looked at the situation considering the fact that Tanyana had recently lost almost everything that made her who she once was, it seemed fitting that she would ignore seemingly obvious cues in a final desperate attempt to hold onto one last connection to her former life.
Building up to something even more climactic As Debris is the first novel in a trilogy, its main purpose is to introduce the world and characters and set up events that will culminate in later books. Anderton definitely achieves this and the necessary worldbuilding and characterization is quite fascinating, despite the fact it results in a slightly slower pace. Furthermore, the action really picks up at the end of the novel and there are a number of plot twists that I didn’t see coming. The events that occur in the last quarter, as well as the connection I felt to the characters by this point, made me quite eager to find out what happens next.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll mention that there is some violence in this novel, though it’s pretty mild by modern standards. Additionally, Anderton shows that she sure knows how to write a sex scene, although I’m sure it’s nothing most adult readers can’t deal with!
Why should you read this book? Those who take pleasure in checking out new talent on the fantasy scene will have a hard time finding fault with this year’s debuts, and Debris is yet another impressive and promising title to add to the list. Personally, I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the series and can’t wait to see where Anderton goes with her characters and world. I have a feeling that the next book, Suited, will be even more impressive.
Although Anderton makes what could be considered some strange choices throughout the novel, overall Debris worked for me and managed to immerse me in its world. I would definitely recommend it as a book that will appeal to readers who prefer their fantasy complete with a unique magic system, strange technologies, believable characterization and a dystopian edge. (less)
Blood Song is the debut novel of Australian author Rhiannon Hart and the first installment in the Lharmell tril...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon
Blood Song is the debut novel of Australian author Rhiannon Hart and the first installment in the Lharmell trilogy. Blood Song is quite an impressive debut, and one that should appeal to a wide range of readers despite being aimed primarily at the young adult market.
The story is narrated in the first person by Zeraphina, the second daughter of the Queen of Amentia, a small and rather impoverished kingdom in Brivora. While her mother and sister are auburn-haired and green-eyed, a childhood illness left Zeraphina with pale eyes and black hair. She also has a number of traits that may not be considered proper in a princess or even entirely natural in a human being. She has an affinity with animals, an inexplicable craving to travel North, and a strange obsession with blood. When her older sister is promised in marriage to a prince from a rich northern nation, it appears that Zeraphina will finally get a chance to find the answers she seeks. A strange and hostile country known as Lharmell may well hold the key, but is Zeraphina really prepared for what she might find there?
More than meets the eye Were you to visit your local bookstore and take a cursory glance at the blurb of Blood Song, you might be tempted to dismiss it as yet another paranormal teen romance involving forbidden love and using vampirism as a metaphor for raging adolescent hormones. However, this would be selling the book decidedly short in a number of ways. I must admit that when I first received my review copy of Blood Song, I was a little worried that I knew exactly where this story was going (you’ll have to forgive me my cynicism this once). Nevertheless, after flipping through a few pages I didn’t notice anything particularly off-putting, and the book seemed to be quite well written. Intrigued by what I saw, I decided to sit down and read it through. Much to my delight, not only did Blood Song refrain from descending into cliché, it also incorporated an interesting story, some fascinating world building, believable characters, and some legitimately creepy monsters!
An interesting, driven plot and a deft touch for setting One aspect of Blood Song I found quite refreshing was that the plot gets straight to the point. This is a relatively short book; as a result, Hart cannot afford to spend pages and pages setting the scene or waste time on unnecessary exposition. We learn of Zeraphina’s strange idiosyncrasies and her family’s inopportune situation within the first chapter, and from then on, the plot progresses in a definitive direction. One gets the impression that Hart knows exactly where she wants her characters to go and how she wants the plot to develop. We learn vital information about Hart’s world not through long descriptions or large information drops, but via smaller hints that form pieces of a larger puzzle which is pieced together as the story goes along.
As might be expected in the first book of a trilogy, not every plot-line is tied up neatly, nor event fully explained by the end of the novel. In fact, the novel raises more questions than it provides answers to, right up until the last quarter. Here, the action really picks up and we are finally introduced to the strange and hostile landscape of Lharmell itself. This alien and otherworldly setting is fascinating and provides what is undeniably the most interesting world building.
Believable characters and a proactive heroine Hart’s characterization is one of the strongest points in this novel, as she succeeds in creating flawed, believable, and often selfish characters that still manage to be likable and easy to relate to. Unlike many other teenage heroines I’ve come across, Zeraphina is proactive and doesn’t waste time whining about her problems or lamenting the fact that she is different. Instead, she takes it upon herself to find an answer to her questions and attempts to solve her own problems. Although her actions are not always wise, at least she actually does something. Furthermore, romance, though hinted at, is not the driving force behind the plot. Thus, Zeraphina does not spend her days obsessing over the male lead, Rodden, or wishing he would pay attention to her. Instead she finds him an annoying hindrance to her plans and often wishes he would just leave her alone. I found this much more compliant with her single-minded and independent character. I also quite enjoyed the presence of Zeraphina’s animal companions, as they add a softer side to her character and had distinctive personalities and roles in their own rights.
Although the secondary characters in the novel are quite well developed and reveal multiple layers to their personalities as the plot progresses, they are few and far between. Apart from Zeraphina and Rodden, there are only a few other individuals who really contribute to the plot in any significant way. Although this didn’t overly detract from my enjoyment of the novel, I felt like this would help the world seem a little more fleshed out. Some of the minor characters that were briefly introduced throughout the novel have some potential and I would like to see them take on larger roles in the sequels.
Why should you read this book? Overall, I consider this to be an interesting and unique book in what promises to be a worthwhile new series. The author is definitely talented and Rhiannon Hart is a name to watch in the future. I’d recommend Blood Song to young adult readers who want something with a little more substance than they might find in the majority of teen fantasy offerings. It would also suit adult readers who like their fantasy reasonably light and with a dash of romance, humor and legitimately creepy monsters. Personally, I can’t wait to return to the creepy and dangerous land of Lharmell with its desolate landscape, deadly inhabitants and acid rains.(less)
Prince of Thorns is the spectacular debut novel of talented new British author, Mark Lawrence. The first installment in the Broken Empire trilogy, it promises to be one of the most exciting releases of 2011. Dark, captivating, relentless and haunting, this brilliant epic fantasy more than delivers in all regards.
Imagine the earth as a desolate wasteland. The dead rest uneasily and hundreds of claimants battle for various thrones across the Broken Empire. Now you’re getting close to the world portrayed in Prince of Thorns. The story revolves around Jorg Ancrath, the warped 14-year-old heir to the kingdom of Ancrath. When he was just ten he was forced to watch, held fast in a hook briar, as his beloved mother and younger brother were brutally murdered at the behest of a rival lord. When his father, the king, chose political gain over retribution, the injustice drove Jorg to abandon his place and pursue vengeance as an outlaw. Since that fateful day something inside Jorg has been broken. He watches and perpetrates acts of violence with cold indifference and lives by a simple philosophy, “Care about no one and you have no weaknesses.” Surrounded by his deadly band of Brothers, survival is merely a game to the young Prince, and one he intends to win by any means necessary.
Fast paced, exhilarating and absorbing Lawrence’s fast paced and relentless narrative wastes no time on introductions, plunging the reader headfirst into the aftermath of Jorg and his brother’s latest bloodthirsty foray. Readers will soon decide whether they can stomach the graphic violence and dark humor that define the novel, and those that can are in for an exhilarating ride. Prince of Thorns shares many qualities with the thorns for which its prince was named. By the end of the first chapter it had well and truly sunk its hooks into me and I was in for the long haul whether I liked it or not. I had more than one night of lost sleep which I blame entirely on Mark Lawrence. In addition, like the scars covering Jorg’s body, the echos of the story remained with me long after I turned the last page.
A warped yet relatable protagonist Prince of Thorns is narrated in the first person and thus we watch events unfold through the eyes of Jorg himself. This offers a unique and somewhat disturbing perspective, as Jorg sees human life as expendable and lacks empathy for those around him. He considers anyone he may grow to care about as a liability that must be removed before it can be used against him. Despite these sociopathic tendencies, and the fact that he is responsible for almost innumerable atrocities, Jorg is decidedly charming and remains unnervingly relatable. This must be considered a remarkable feat by Lawrence as he makes his audience feel sympathy for a character so morally ambiguous it verges on flat-out evil. A significant reason for this is Jorg’s very realistically wrought background. While a reader may not always relate to the choices he makes or the person he has become, the emotions that lie behind Jorg’s decisions and the events in his life can be identified with.
The secondary characters are also very well developed, from the stoic Nuban to the rather despicable Rike. All have their own distinctive flavor, perform their own roles and feel believable in the context of Lawrence’s world. Most importantly, while most of the characters of Prince of Thorns may be labeled as “bad,” they are never stereotyped. These are real people with realistic emotions who have come to where they are now through events and decisions we can all relate to.
A gritty tale for a broken world This captivating tale plays out against a haunting, vividly realized backdrop: the desiccated corpse of a once technologically advanced civilization. Lawrence excels in creating an intense and oppressive atmosphere, enveloping the readers and drawing them further into his world with each new revelation. Magic and science are interwoven, becoming almost indistinguishable in many cases, such as the origins and powers of the monstrous leucrota. This desolate landscape, coupled with the cruelty of the narrator, makes Prince of Thorns a captivating yet undeniably gritty and confronting experience. Some readers may be disturbed by the way it plunges mercilessly into the darkest corners of the mind. Others will revel in the depravity and delight in this exploration of the most sinister aspects of the human experience.
These dark elements, however, are never explored more than necessary. Rather than overloading the narrative with excessive explanation, Lawrence proves very skilled in dropping hints throughout the narrative, showing us the world through Jorg’s eyes and allowing us to piece the puzzle together ourselves. This adds a whole new dimension to Prince of Thorns, enhanced even further by seemingly effortless intermingling of familiar elements with the distinctly foreign.
Kvothe’s evil little brother While many may compare Prince of Thorns to other gritty and epic works like Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—and be quite right in that comparison as well—I’d like to compare it with Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. Although Jorg doesn’t fill his autobiography with stories of how he charms the ladies or lament the fact that he has extreme superpowers he can’t use, both books are coming of age biographies of extraordinary boys far too wise for their age, and the hardships of their lives.
Why should you read this book? Dazzling in its brilliance, Prince of Thorns is a must read for any fan of gritty, epic fantasy that delves into the darkest depths of humanity. I was left feeling slightly bereft and a little shell shocked when it ended. Luckily, this is only the first in the trilogy so there’s two more books to come. It may quite possibly turn out to be the debut of 2011, and Mark Lawrence is definitely a name to watch in the future. While I could easily write another few pages on how much I loved this book, I’d much prefer you go out, grab a copy, and read it for yourself. You can thank me later. (less)