This is pretty much the platonic ideal of a middle grade novel, thrilling in its realism even with a heavily paranormal premise--because it remains ab...moreThis is pretty much the platonic ideal of a middle grade novel, thrilling in its realism even with a heavily paranormal premise--because it remains absolutely emotionally true. An accessibly written story about grief, denial, empathy, art, poverty and family--it's a nice reminder that powerful writing comes not in platitudes about the universal but in the specific lives and struggles of one's characters.
I had mixed feelings about Planesrunner, the very first novel in Ian McDonald’s very first series for adolescent readers. While on paper, it has many admirable qualities–qualities often sought in YA novels, from a diverse hero, to a well-developed SFnal premise–I wasn’t quite convinced of the appropriateness of the book for the intended audience. That remains the case with Be My Enemy, the oddly titled sequel.
What worked well in the first book continues to work well here. McDonald’s prose, particularly in details of place, is undeniably strong. While we lose the rich Neo-Victorian setting of the first novel for much of this second outing, nevertheless lovely passages like the following abound:
“All that remained of the day was a glow of red along the west of the world. Everett stood at the center of a web of light, streets and traffic and railways. With the shapes of buildings lost in the deepening darkness, with London reduced to glowing bones, it could be any city, anywhere, any world. (107)
What’s more, McDonald’s science fiction remains conceptually interesting. There’s a lot of cool stuff here from nanotechnology to a fascinating alien invasion which features seeded clone societies on far-flung worlds. This lends Be Me Enemy a heft and sophistication rarely seen in young adult science fiction–much less the middle grade this purportedly is.
However, I admit I remain doubtful about the potential appeal of the Everness series for a middle grade audience. It’s not that Planesrunner and Be My Enemy are too hard–though I can’t imagine that they are books which would grab struggling readers. Instead, it’s mostly a matter of density. Even here, where the plotting is superficially more action-packed than in the first novel, the story feels both simultaneously scattered and packed with an overabundance of scientific jargon. In the specifics, there’s a playfulness about the language, but the overall impact on the story is to bog it down significantly.
This is exacerbated by Everett’s emotional distance from the reader–an effect further amplified by the third-person narration spread across several plotlines. Here, Sen is the character who is truly emotionally engaged in the action. This engagement is mirrored in the emotional plight of Everett M, our Everett’s otherworldly doppelganger, who in one scene rages against his situation. It was a human, sympathetic moment. But Everett himself remains coolly in control of his emotions and his preternatural abilities. In fact, his biggest flaw appears to be excessive pride in himself–a trait that comes up once and never again:
“It was not just this London spread at his feet. It was all the Londons, all the worlds. He had mastery of them all. His enemies were many, and they were subtle, powerful, and clever and Everett did not doubt that he had only seen a fraction of what they could achieve, but he had a thing they did not: he had the Infundibulum, the jump gate, and the ability to work them both. He was the Planesrunner. (105)
A confident, competent hero can be heartening, but at times Everett slips from hero to ubermensch. His emotional remove from emotionally trying situations simply felt implausible in a fourteen year old. I would have better believed him to be sixteen, eighteen, or thirty.
There is one tender human moment–resonant, believable–deep in the novel’s final act, in the interactions between Everett and his father’s doppelganger. The heart of this story isn’t Everett’s feelings about Sen, or his mother and sister, but rather the relationship between father and son. I wish it had been featured earlier and expanded upon; it would have provided the action, dense though it was, with a compelling emotional through-line.
I’m aware that my similar criticisms of the first book were unpopular ones. In the tenth months since reading and reviewing that book, my feelings haven’t much changed. In fact, Everett at times feels like a critique of the “emo teenagers” (in Cheryl Morgan’s phrasing) in other YA, particularly when characters like Sen and Everett M are allowed to emote in a more familiar YA manner. That might be fine, even appealing, to the readers who feel that emotionally reserved teens are sorely needed in YA. But these arguments against emotionalism have never quite appealed to my tastes or resonated with my own adolescent experience. Perhaps I’m just not the best reader for these books. Still, I do feel like there’s a compelling emotional argument here, only buried beneath the somewhat plodding action and fairly inaccessible sci-fi conceits.
Who then, might best enjoy these books? McDonald works hard to work in contemporary references for modern teenagers, but the truth is that most of these were phrased in a slightly ham-fisted way–the parlance of adults, not teens. For example, Everett wears a suit “a bit like a plug-suit from the animated series Neon Genesis Evangelion“; he moves like a character “from the video game Assassin’s Creed.” The throat clearing and contextualizing is strange–unnecessary for readers in middle school, but important for adult readers. Nostalgic references to Duran Duran are handled more effortlessly.
(It bears being said that McDonald misses a prime opportunity to reference Pullman’s His Dark Materials series–Everett and Sen traipse around the roofs of Oxford in a scene undoubtedly redolent of the earlier steampunk, universe-crossing trilogy. This isn’t a major complaint, but it would have been nice for McDonald to–in the parlance of tropers, which is also lightly bungled here–hang a lampshade on it.)
Therefore I generally wouldn’t hesitate to recommend both Planesrunner and Be My Enemy to nostalgic readers of adult SF, who want familiar competence and emotional remove in their heroes without the angst of mainstream YA. This dense book–with undoubtedly heroic teens at its core–might also appeal to older readers of young adult who like a good challenge.
Readers who like emo teenagers (myself included) best continue to look elsewhere.(less)
Mike Jung’s middle grade debut, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities is a nearly perfect title for middle school boys and girls. Told in a voicey, easy...moreMike Jung’s middle grade debut, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities is a nearly perfect title for middle school boys and girls. Told in a voicey, easy-going style, it’s the story of Vincent Wu, middle school student, child of divorce, and Captain Stupendous devotee. In Copperplate City, he and his friends George and Max obsess over the caped superhero with all the fervor and obsession of your average thirteen-year-old nerd (I know because I was one)–the only difference being that in Vincent’s world, the superheroes are real.
But then Vincent is thrown for a loop: the previous Captain Stupendous has died, and Vincent’s crush Polly Winnicott-Lee has taken on Captain Stupendous’s mantle. This provides a fresh twist to what seem slated to be a boy-oriented story. Polly is well-drawn, complex, and scrappy, and Vincent’s growing affection for her is very sweet. The other boys are well-rendered too, particularly big lug Max, who likes to pepper his speech with Yiddish.
It’s in Jung’s tackling of issues of racial and ethnic identity that I was most impressed. Vincent and Polly aren’t characters who happen to be Asian–their Asian-American identities define them as people and yet never make them stereotypes. Likewise easy is the matter-of-fact insertion of Jewish identity. It’s not a whitebread universe, but one as dappled and complicated as our own. Jung also does a solid job of rendering both of Vincent’s divorced parents and his complex relationship to each.
I was less impressed with the handling of gender issues–in fact, Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities left me quite torn on that front. Polly is an awesome girl, navigating her feminine identity with the sophistication and aplomb that the boys lack. But she is also–aside from Vincent’s mother, who takes on a typical victim-of-the-supervillain role–the only girl present with a well-developed personality. It’s not unusual to have only one chick in this kind of novel, but Polly is consistently defined by her lack-of-girlyness and, since there are no other girls present, it’s difficult not to read a larger thesis into the novel that is disdainful of girly things. Vincent tells us of a competing Captain Stupendous fangroup, the Stupendites, in the novel's opening paragraph–this all-girl group consists of pretty, image-conscious, stupid cheerleaders who are also classic mean girls. Later, Vincent observes with relief that Polly’s bedroom is not pink or so “full of foofy ruffled blankets and rhinestones that you want to scream” (186, ARC edition). Polly protests some of Vincent’s more egregious sexist assumptions, but the overall impression is that girls are unlikely to be heroic if they like pink or looking pretty. I hope Jung challenges these outmoded assumptions in subsequent volumes by expanding the cast of female characters or giving more depth to the Stupendites.
Because otherwise, this is a pitch-perfect middle grade title, and one that I’d easily recommend to both boys and girls.(less)
Buzz can be a dangerous thing–while it does get the word out, it can also raise jealous hackles. When I heard of Stefan Bachmann’s debut novel during BEA’s Middle Grade Buzz Panel, I have to admit I braced myself for an underwhelming reading experience. It turns out, I was completely wrong. The Peculiar is a charming, sophisticated fairy story with light steampunk trappings. The prose is beautifully crafted; the universe sophisticated. Though I still believe, perhaps, that the publisher should drop the whole wunderkind angle of marketing (it seems to be one that creates as many instant enemies as fans, and really, presenting Bachmann as a talented young author, rather than a talented author, does him an injustice), it’s a solid read that’s certainly worthy of buzz.
We begin with a quasi-historical recitation of recent history–the arrival of fairykind in Victorian England, and the ensuing war. It’s here that the comparisons to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are most apt. This really does have a similar tone and approach, but is aged seamlessly down for a younger audience. It’s here, in the historical worldbuilding, that The Peculiar will offer the strongest draw to science fiction fans. The steampunk details are generally quite light, but the historical worldbuilding is clearly central to the novel.
In this world, fairies have become trapped on Earth and now live in crowded slums with their half-breed children. One of these is Bartholomew Kettle, who dreams of freedom and friends–of trapping a domestic fairy for his very own, just to cure his own loneliness.
But I was surprised to find that the narrative rotated between Bartholomew and another character, a Mr Arthur Jelliby (“a nice young man, which was perhaps the reason he never made much of a politician” ), who was not mentioned in this novel’s blurb. More, I was surprised to find Jelliby’s story the more engaging of the two. Though a reluctant hero, Jelliby was both vivid and endearing, and I found myself quite invested in his quest. This is a risky choice–so much modern YA and MG effectively dispenses of any grown-ups at all for fear that chidlren can’t relate. Whether or not this is true, however, I still enjoyed Jelliby’s portions of the novel very much.
I was less invested in Bartholomew’s story, to my surprise, though the scamp’s background was appropriately tragic. He’s simply not as active a protagonist as Arthur, and because of the duel perspectives, the readers are often privy to information that Bartholomew is not. Rather than a sympathetic viewpoint character, he became a bit like a victim in a horror film. I found myself cringing at his choices more than agreeing with them. Until he meets up with Jelliby, I found myself less engaged in his story than I would have liked.
But that’s not to say that there’s not quite a bit to like here, because there is: the language is absolutely stunning, atmospheric, and spooky; and the world is incredibly real. This is a sophisticated book–not just coming from so young an author, but coming from any author at all. With its strong fairy-tale roots and rock-solid prose, I suspect that Bachmann will gain plenty of well-earned fans.(less)
There are those who believe that YA and MG readers of the male persuasion will not read books featuring female protagonists. If that’s true, that’s a...moreThere are those who believe that YA and MG readers of the male persuasion will not read books featuring female protagonists. If that’s true, that’s a shame–because Alex, heroine of Racing the Moon is one of the most appealing I’ve read in ages. Smart and determined, she hearkens back to scrappy tom-boys like Lyra of The Golden Compass and nerds like Meg Murry of A Wrinkle in Time. Her story, of building rockets with her brother in 1947, perfectly captures the magic of science and adventure, not to mention the magic of being 12.
When Alex meets Captain Ebbs (a real-life military scientist!) while selling plants her father grows in their garden, she’s ecstatic. Ebbs designs spacefoods for the government, and Alex and her brother Chuck have been designing rockets for awhile. Ebbs introduces them to a government employed rocket scientist (and former Nazi!), Wernher von Braun, and proposes that they join her on a sailing adventure.
This is all fascinating, and I could see loving it as a kid. Rockets! Nazis! Government scientists! Awesome! But it’s with the introduction of Chuck that the story falters. Alex is, by far, the more engaging character. Determined and enthusiastic, she perfectly captures the optimism and excitement of a twelve-year-old geek girl. But again and again, her story is eclipsed by Chuck’s. We learn that he’s dropped out of Tech. We learn that he has some sort of learning disability. We learn the mysteries behind his origins, but honestly, I never found his origins all that compelling or mysterious. Many times throughout the story, he interrupts Alex, dismisses her desires as frivolous, selfishly pushes her to get into trouble. That’s all fine as a plot device, but it’s never questioned by the narrative. Armstrong seems convinced that this is Chuck’s story, but I never wanted it to be. I was all about Alexis Hart.
And Armstrong embeds a second historical plotline in the story, the tale of John Smith. Like the book’s focus on Chuck, I found the passages about his life to be fairly distracting–not to mention dry. To be honest, the primary historic plotline was quite enough for me. I’m not sure that I needed a second one here.
However, this is still an engaging title, and so many of the plot trappings are fun, and cool, and exciting. I could see giving this book to many eight-year-olds I know–those who like space and sailing and adventures. For its intended audience, it does the job nicely.(less)
There are two types of kid’s books. The first is the kind beloved by children, and only by children; the second has the kind of cross-generational appeal that means they also work for parents and other adult readers who like strong stories about childhood and adolescence. As you’d probably guess, I’m fonder of the second type of book. While I can appreciate what kid’s books that are firmly for young audiences bring to the table in terms of entertainment value and accessibility, I still like a little bit more nuance and depth in my children’s literature.
David Lubar’s Beware the Ninja Weenies (the latest in a long series of Weenies books) is very much a kid’s book that’s strictly for kids. In many ways, this collection of science fictional short stories just didn’t work for me–they were too short, too punny (one features a gorgon who turns kids into gorgonzola), too familiar (another features a plot that Lubar acknowledges is right out of The Twilight Zone), too simplistic. However, it’s incredibly successful in meeting the needs of upper elementary and middle school readers on their own terms. These short, cheeky stories are often surreal and tap right into a kid’s sense of language and logic. In one, a boy gets “gummed up” when he swallows gum. In another, Lubar explores what it means to be an “artist’s model.”
I should note that some of these stories are a touch scary. Most of them aren’t horror, not exactly, but Lubar’s characters inhabit an oddly solipsistic universe. The predominant theme seems to be that you might as well be invisible–that the world is cold to the dangers it inflicts upon you. Very sensitive children might find this unsettling
But for those with strong constitutions, these stories are just the right length to read one or two before you tuck in at night. They’re quick, interesting, and ultimately cheeky. Stand-outs include “Poser,” featuring the aforementioned artist’s model, and the excellently voiced “Frigid Relations.”(less)
In the hours since I finished reading The Obsidian Blade, I’ve contemplated several times what a possible inroads to a review might be. Most novels declare their theses clearly and easily: this is a story about adventure, or about defining oneself in a new world, or about coming of age. What’s most unusual about the opening book in the new “Klaatu Diskos trilogy” (and it’s a very unusual novel) is that it defies easy definition. And so I’m forced to resort to summary:
Fourteen-year-old Tucker’s preacher father climbs up to the roof one day and disappears. Several hours later, he appears on the road that leads to their house, several years older, and with a young blond girl in tow. That night at dinner, his father announces that they’ll no longer be saying grace because he’s lost faith in God. Life proceeds–Lahlia, the girl, is adopted out to a local family. But the strangeness continues. Lahlia’s cat never ages. Tucker’s mother becomes obsessed with Sodoku, and then is diagnosed as autistic. And then Tucker comes home one day to find his parents gone–his father has taken his mother away in search for a cure.
This initial section of The Obsidian Blade is perhaps the most “normal.” In many ways, it feels like a farewell to a suburban childhood–Tucker and his friends make trouble, play pranks, set up rope swings. But it’s also plenty unsettling. The suburban landscape feels right out of The Twilight Zone–colorless and chilly and vaguely upsetting. Hautman’s matter-of-fact tone just underscores the melancholy story.
The book just grows stranger from there, as Tucker and his Uncle Kosh begin to travel between times through the shimmering diskos–long-abandoned portals between significant human events. There are journeys to the far-future and to the past. Tucker witnesses 9/11 and the crucifixion of Jesus (rendered in stunning, gory detail). He’s rebuilt by future humans and loses several years of his life in some kind of manual labor camp. When he returns, his characterization is unchanged but he’s suddenly sporting a beard.
As the novel proceeded, I found myself wondering about its intended audience. Candlewick is advertising this as a title for audiences age twelve and up; several other reviewers have mentioned that this feels more like a middle grade than young adult novel. I can understand this; Tucker is a very young-seeming fourteen (at seventeen or eighteen, and characterized in much the same way, he frankly kind of creeped me out) and the novel is a chaste one, without any hint of sex and only the shadow of romance. But it’s also spooky, with several scenes that I’d easily call High Octane Nightmare Fuel–a giant maggot, for example, travels through time and eats people. A bunch of nanobot ants rapidly consume a corpse. Jesus’s crucifixion is depicted in gory detail. In light of that, this isn’t a book I’d give to a ten-year-old.
The religious themes, inventive world building, and time hopping reminded me of both A Wrinkle in Time and The Golden Compass. But Tucker is neither a Lyra or a Meg Murry. He’s a bit of an anonymous everyboy, and I wonder if, because of this, the novel might give some YA readers pause. He never felt quite vividly enough defined for me. Yes, he’s young, and mischevous, but beyond that, he’s not particularly well-characterized.
In fact, I think The Obsidian Blade would best suit adult sci-fi fans with literary inclinations. The first section is a beautiful, nostalgic, and stirring look at the last moments of childhood. The most vividly-drawn character is Kosh, Tucker’s middle-aged, once-wild uncle. The religious themes that follow are nuanced and sophisticated. Unfortunately, even under this framework The Obsidian Blade doesn’t quite satisfy. It ends on a cliff-hanger, with more questions raised than addressed. Deep down, I wish this had been a hefty single volume rather than the first of three, likely-slim ones.
However, all that being said, Hautman’s prose is masterful. It inspired a confidence in me that the overall experience of the trilogy will be a satisfying one, and I’ll definitely seek out the sequels. It was an iminently interesting book, evocative in a way that few novels–young adult or adult–truly are. In the hands of a less competent writer, The Obsidian Blade would have fallen flat. But even though I ended the novel puzzled, I’m very glad I read it.(less)
I’m late to the party with Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, winner of a Newbery in 2010 and recipient of widespread acclaim. It certainly deserves its praise; this is an engaging, fascinating middle grade novel, which takes stylistic risks all while celebrating a work of classic children’s science fiction, namely Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
A Wrinkle in Time is twelve-year-old Miranda’s favorite book. She retreats into its pages when her best friend, Sal, decides he doesn’t want to be her friend anymore. So Miranda branches out, befriending a small gaggle of interesting classmates.
There’s the time-traveling obsessed nerd. The secret epileptic. The snooty rich girl. The cute thief. All of these characters are rendered vividly, with realism and with nuance.
When You Reach Me‘s realism is probably its greatest asset. This is a sci-fi novel, sure, but it’s an incredibly grounded sci-fi novel. The little details here make Miranda’s New York City as nuanced as any science fictional landscape. One description, of her mother’s response to their ratty apartment when they first moved in, struck me as particularly true and touching.
This is a novel very much of its time–the time in which it’s set, not the time in which it was written. Miranda’s New York isn’t the New York of today but rather New York in the ’70s. In some ways this is a necessity; the plot very much hinges on Miranda’s identity as a latch-key kid. The wide latitude she and her friends are given (they go out for lunch, and even work in a local deli) would not be believable in modern children, even tough inner city kids like Miranda and Sal.
But the setting also works on another level, self-consciously evoking nostalgia for ’70s children’s literature–not only L’Engle’s works, but also the works of realist children’s writers like Judy Blume, Emily Cheney Neville, and Louise Fitzhugh, among others. If you know anything about the history of children’s fiction, you might know that this was an era with a strong emphasis on emotional honesty. Writers had moved passed the cheerful, “safe” renditions of childhood presented by ’50s writers such as Carolyn Haywood, and instead endeavored to speak to children with a trademarked earnestness and honesty.
Stead’s Miranda successfully recalls the heroes of these books, though her ending was a bit more pat than what you typically find in ’70s kid-lit. It seemed to reflect a feeling of resolution and finality more in keeping with the sensibilities of modern kid readers. Still, it was true to its premises, expanding along fascinating and unexpected SFnal lines.
But I can’t shake the feeling that this is strongest as a nostalgia piece, invoking A Wrinkle in Time while not quite transcending it. Perhaps that’s a tall order, but one of the trademarks of L’Engle’s Kairos books was their timelessness. While, like other authors of her generation, L’Engle’s children (though precocious) were emotionally true, they also seemed to exist in a universe unfettered by linear time. As Miranda says, “The truth is that my book doesn’t say how old Meg is, but I am twelve, so she feels twelve to me. When I first got the book I was eleven, and she felt eleven” (8). Meg’s world was one without generational markers, which is, in part, what gave it such long legs.
Will When You Reach Me have the same staying power, the same potential to speak to middle schoolers fifty years from now? I’m not entirely sure. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a great middle grade novel, a fun beginner’s exploration of certain physical concepts, a stirring mystery, and a strangely beautiful commentary on the power of friendship. But it dates itself, quite self-consciously, by embracing a story of yesterday’s children . While I don’t doubt that this will be a comforting book, familiar but still fresh, for many adult readers, I do feel that L’Engle’s mantle still remains unclaimed.(less)
Bigger than a Bread Box might seem to be of a stretch for an Intergalactic Academy review. After all, it’s apparently a fantasy title, not a science fictional one. In a way, this story–about a middle school girl who finds a magical, gift-granting bread box–might see a little typical, too. Like fluffy wish fulfillment, not a story with heft or bite.
But Rebecca Shapiro’s world is far from saccharine. Her dad drives a taxi–or he did, until he wrecked it. Her mom works nights. Rebecca herself is quiet and a little nerdy, but her universe is a fairly secure one. Until one day, when her mother stuffs Rebecca and her baby brother Lew into their car and drives off to her grandmother’s house in Atlanta, leaving Rebecca’s father behind.
Rebecca reacts with very honest adolescent rage at her mother for upsetting daily life. She hides out in her grandmother’s cluttered attic. It’s there that she finds the eponymous bread box, and unwittingly makes her first wish–for a book to read. The core premise here is a bit like the kid’s classic Half Magic. You’ve got kids, and wishes, and the magic only follows very specific rules (in Half Magic, only half of a wish was granted; here, any item wished for must fit in the bread box itself). But thematically, it’s very different from Edward Eager’s tale. Eager’s kids were wishing out of boredom. Soon, Rebecca, thrust into a new school ruled by a spoiled queen bee, is wishing out of desperation: for electronics, for pens and lip glosses to give out at school, and candy to trade at lunch, and fries from the diner back home. She’s essentially trying to plug up the holes in her life with magic. Unsuccessfully, of course. It’s that kind of book. Think Edward Eager meets Louise Fitzhugh.
Like Fitzhugh and her contemporaries, Snyder deals absolutely honestly with the Rebecca and her situation. She’s volatile, rebellious, forgetful, a little selfish, and absolutely sympathetic. She’s also bright. This is as much a novel about embracing your inner geek as it is about magic, and its in exploration of this theme–complete with discussions of the Law of Conservation of Mass and Epicurus–that Bigger than a Bread Box takes on a decidedly SFnal tone.
But the focus remains on Rebecca’s plight, as she attempts to undo the damage that her magic has done and make reparations for her mistakes. The end takes us to some very interesting, unexpected, and affecting places, and in a sense the novel’s conclusion is deliciously open-ended. It hits all the right notes, especially the most important one: honesty.(less)
Jenn Reese’s middle grade debut Above World reaffirmed my choice to start reviewing middle grade novels at th...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
Jenn Reese’s middle grade debut Above World reaffirmed my choice to start reviewing middle grade novels at the Academy. This story of a young mermaid Kampii girl about to undergo her society’s adulthood ceremony where she will eat a magical seed that transforms her legs into a tail–and what happens when that girl decides to forgo this ritual instead to save her people–begins as any young adult fantasy story might. Aluna is YA heroine of a classic sort, one who sneaks weapons lessons behind her father’s back and who stubbornly refuses to accept the gender roles of her people. Her relationship with twelve-year-old Hoku is complex and tender. Hoku is more demur than his best friend, geekier and less world-weary, and passages told from his perspective were fairly refreshing. Though I liked Aluna right from the outset, she realistically lacks self-awareness; Hoku’s perceptive (and yet childlike) chapters were a nice counterpoint to Aluna’s single-mindedness.
The undersea society is built with nuance; gender roles are strictly determined by reproductive necessity rather than personal preference; the stagnating high council copes (or fails to cope) with their dying technology. The first chapters felt a bit like a better-developed, more plausible version of The Little Mermaid. However, here conflicts and motivations were much more urgently stated. Aluna doesn’t want to leave the Kampii because she’s bored or because of a boy–she wants to leave out of a stubborn and deep-seated desire to save her people.
However, once Aluna and Hoku venture out of their city, the novel takes a surprising turn. Though early chapters hint at science fictional underpinnings (there are corporate-branded breathing apparatuses and discussions of a long-lost founder), I honestly didn’t expect the depths [pun unintended, but noted] of the development of the wider world. Hoku and Aluna soon learn that theirs isn’t the only society of genetically modified chimeras–soon, they meet bird people and horse people and even mechanical crab people.
This busy, diverse universe–so different from ours–provided my only real stumbling block. As they travel across their world, it all started to feel a bit like a busy jumble. A few of the modified offshoots of humanity were difficult to visualize, and I often felt like I was just getting to know one little pocket of society when I was whisked away to learn about another. But still, this world was a rich one to utilize as a backdrop to a middle grade novel, and if the length of the book meant that we didn’t get a ton of breathing room between settings and events, well, then, it’s understandable.
What kept me reading were the tender and honest relationships between the characters–not just between Hoku and Aluna (though their platonic friendship was great), but their eventual romantic interests, as well. The romance here is light and mostly chaste, though it feels like we might be in for something a little deeper and perhaps messier in subsequent books in the series. Aluna herself seems to be in for some big changes by novel’s end.
And Above World itself gets darker and darker as the novel proceeds. A few months ago, I compared Greg van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World to The Wizard of Oz. Like van Eekhout’s novel, Reese’s is a picaresque, with our characters going on a long journey across series of exotic locales. But the wild and sometimes scary creatures (did I mention that there’s a mechanical crab woman?) are more the stuff of low-octane nightmare fuel like Return to Oz. Our villain Fathom, like Mombi, is out for parts. It’s really quite scary, in the best, and most riveting way.
Above World is a great sci-fi tale for the middle grade reader–both girls and boys should find something to enjoy here in its rich universe, relatable characters, and accessible voice. (less)
On paper, you might think that Planesrunner is a perfect YA sci-fi read. In fact, its admirable qualities must be acknowledged: its hero, Everett Singh, is a non-stereotyped person of color (half-Punjabi Indian, raised in London); the novel has a strong focus on physics and includes extended descriptions of the science and history that underlie its premises; its undeniably well-written, with florid prose that never quite crosses the line into overwritten; it takes place largely in a trendy steampunk setting. I can’t understate that in this way, this story of a young boy who loses his father and must cross over into another universe is precisely what most adult science fiction fans believe is lacking in young adult sci-fi.
Heck, Everett Singh is both a Whovian and a troper. As a huge fan of both, you’d think I’d be a sucker for this novel.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
It took me quite awhile to locate the source of my discomfort with the story. It begins strongly enough, with Everett’s father’s kidnapping and a description of his middle-class home. His parents have recently divorced; his mother is stressed by her former husband’s disappearance and the abrupt appearance of the police on her doorstep. Their household felt fairly real, despite the fantastic nature of Everett’s situation–as he meets a cardboard cut-out villain who has sent his dad into another universe, and as he learns about the technology that his father has left in his computer that will help him travel after to save him.
Unfortunately, I found my interest rapidly flagging. And while it perked up a bit when Everett enters another London, where fossil fuels were never harnessed for industry and instead all technology is coal-electric powered, and as I luxuriated in McDonald’s undeniably strong stylistics, I soon found myself floundering again. I enjoyed the airship (or “Airish”) society that Everett eventually joins; enjoyed, even more Sen, the rakish girl/airship pilot who acts as his guide. But there were considerable pacing problems in Planesrunner. Though many of the scenes were, ostensibly action scenes, they were also fairly trifling–descriptions of airship races or shopping excursions that had little-to-nothing to do with, you know, the plot.
But the more pressing problem was with Everett himself. He never congealed for me into a believable fourteen-year-old boy. First, his emotional responses were all muted. While on the surface, this upper-MG/lower-YA story shares much in common with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, unlike that classic, this novel does not begin or end with the emotional plight of its characters. Everett frequently acts in a way that suggests that he’s just . . . forgotten about his father’s disappearance, and the family he’s left behind. He’s much like a typical hard-science fiction hero, too concerned with describing the science of his world to bother with pesky feelings. While McDonald has stated that he was inspired by Doctor Who, he doesn’t seem to have the same intuitive understanding of childhood that Steven Moffat does. Everett is no Amelia Pond, praying for someone to save her from the crack in her wall that’s eaten up her parents.
Instead, Everett is a superhero. The scope of his abilities and knowledge was frankly unbelievable. Everett is a greater physics genius than his father’s graduate students. He knows the history of his own world in stunning detail; he knows the names for parts of architecture and can understand the obscure slang spoken by the Airish population with nary a blink. Many of these abilities arise when narratively necessary with little foreshadowing. Conveniently, we’re told that Everett can see in four, five, or six dimensions (at exactly the moment when he needs to do so, of course); he’s also suddenly a master chef, just when he needs to be one. He does not have any outward (or come to think of it, inward) flaws–and certainly not the flaws of a normal, real, vital fourteen-year-old boy.
Finally, there were a few lines regarding Everett’s race that caused me to wince, though it was largely well-handled. There’s something vaguely odd about a hero of color whose love interest is described as not just white, but preternaturally white (“Everett had never seen skin so pale, eyes so arctic blue. She looked like she was carved from ice” and, later, “he had never seen a face so white, eyes so ice pale”). But worse than this elevation of very traditional Western beauty ideals is the later pronouncement that “if you met [Everett's] dad, you wouldn’t know right away he’s Punjabi, because he’s not big and noisy and he thinks about things” (emphasis added). I mean, eesh.
But these lapses, and the lack of deeper engagement of character, won’t bother many readers–who just want an immersive action-adventure story in a steampunk universe. Planesrunner will, nevertheless, appeal to them–as well as to adult sci-fi fans of McDonald’s work, who probably don’t want pesky adolescent feelings mucking up their science fiction.(less)
Greg van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World exists in a crowded market of post-apocalyptic disaster stories. Though writing for a middle grade audience, he joins authors like Mike Mullin, Suzanne Collins, and Ally Condie in addressing what the world might be like after our own is destroyed. Like Mike Mullin’s Ashfall, this story is primarily a road novel. Fisher, an adolescent of an indeterminate age, is awoken in a pod long after the world ends by a robot he comes to call Click. It seems that the Ark Click’s been guarding in anticipation of the Earth’s return to habitability has been destroyed. So Fisher, along with the robot and an intelligent young mammoth he dubs “Protein,” sets off across the continent in search of other Arks, pods, and humans who may have survived.
In some ways this is a survival tale. Though Fisher’s only recently been born, he’s been implanted with knowledge of fishing and basic survival (even reading–”Reading is fundamental!” Click quips). And so much of the book details his journey as he travels down the Mississippi in a raft, crosses the deserts of Texas, and faces monsters both biological and artificial.
Van Eekhout’s story recalls other classics–The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wizard of Oz. But it does so with a fresh sensibility. He’s talking about the destruction of our world, of course; in these ruins lie all the remains of our civilization, warts, fast food wrappers, and all. And yet he never lectures or condescends to his young audience. Fisher’s world is his own, and while it’s in some ways horrific, he’s determined to make the best of it. He doesn’t dwell on humanity’s awful past (which is, of course, our present).
So in this way it’s a solid book for its intended audience. But two aspects of The Boy and the End of the World help it to transcend middle grade even as van Eekhout is successful in writing to that audience. The first is how seriously he takes the science fictional concepts. There’s a collective of nanobot machines intent on bringing about the post-human singularity. There’s a robot unable to overcome his basic programming, even when it would serve him best (though, darn it, he makes a valiant, Data-like effort). There are genetically modified creatures who are endeavoring to carve out their own society despite the foibles of their creators. This is heady sci-fi, sophisticated sci-fi–easily the equal of what’s commonly found in both YA and adult titles. All packed within two hundred slim pages.
The second aspect that makes it a must-read even for adult readers is the humor. This is a funny book, but not in a snot and fart sort of way. Instead, the humor is dry, self-aware, and just a touch sarcastic. I laughed out loud several times during reading, like during this passage:
“Protein’s ears perked up. Soon Fisher heard it too. A distant noise quickly rose in volume to the now-familiar sound of gadget engines. Strikes were coming, and they were close.
““Do not worry, human and his unlikely friends! I will protect you! Trust me!”
“Fisher had no reason to trust this strange, cheery, oddly stomach-churning machine. Instinct and reason both told him the Intelligence was dangerous. But his slingshot and hand ax were useless against a patrol of strikers.
“And then the strikers were there, zooming down the tunnel. They opened fire at the Intelligence, guns clacking away. In the confines of the tunnel, the sound ways loud enough to hurt.
““Remain behind me, plucky band of adventurers!” the Intelligence said. The machine widened its body, forming a wall to catch the strikers’ missiles. Then it folded in on itself. Muffled bangs and pops came from inside the machine’s body. When it unfolded itself, spent missile shells clinked against the floor.
““Hello, primitive little machines!” the Intelligence called out. “You will not harm the human being and his odd cohorts!”
This expert blend of humor, high adventure, and conceptual depth means that I would not hesitate to recommend The Boy at the End of the World to readers of any age.(less)