While The Crossing has an unusual concept and striking setting, it's bogged down by faintly-drawn characters, black and white morality, and purple pro...moreWhile The Crossing has an unusual concept and striking setting, it's bogged down by faintly-drawn characters, black and white morality, and purple prose. Longer review to come from Strange Horizons.(less)
It can be easy to delude yourself into thinking that your opinion on an author is authoritative. After reading Delirium and Pandemonium, I felt fairly...moreIt can be easy to delude yourself into thinking that your opinion on an author is authoritative. After reading Delirium and Pandemonium, I felt fairly confident in not expecting the world from Lauren Oliver. This is eat-my-hat time, though; I was wrong, and I look forward to reading more of her novels after reading Hana (including Before I Fall, which everyone told me was gangbusters but which, after Delirium, I gave a pass).
None of the problems present in Delirium and its sequel appear to be present here, although they're both set in the same universe. In fact, viewed through Hana's eyes, this universe feels better grounded and more easily understood. Oliver includes a broader spectrum of sexualities and identities. The world feels more diverse and alive, whereas in Delirium it felt more muted.
And that difference seems to lie in choice of narrator. Hana has all the standard passions and foibles of a real teenager, whereas Lena seemed muted and remote. As a minor character, Lena remains distant and inscrutable here, but it works well as a contrast to the more vividly rendered Hana.
When I say Hana is real, I mean that she is passionate, lively, but still sometimes makes mistakes. Realistically, some of her mistakes are romantic (I don't know anyone who made it out of adolescence without at least one romantic misstep). Love isn't simple here--the entire novella is set in a world of grey morality. This means that the message is more complex and simply more interesting.
The format does it a slight disservice, though. The ultimate climax must be intimated, rather than seen, and the development leading up to these events is fairly rushed. This could have been a whole book, easily--a tragedy, certain, and not a romance, though I think it could have been a very successful tragedy.
But still, for all its slender composition, Hana has made me a fan of Oliver's work. It's not that I don't like her writing--simply that I wasn't much a fan of Lena, it turns out. I'm excited to see where she goes in the future, in wrapping up the Delirium trilogy (the second of which, even, was far more successful for me than the first) and in subsequent books.(less)
I was initially resistant to reading Pandemonium, sequel to last year’s Delirium, despite the fact that I’d p...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
I was initially resistant to reading Pandemonium, sequel to last year’s Delirium, despite the fact that I’d picked up a copy for giveaway during a Lauren Oliver signing at Oblong Books. I hadn’t much enjoyed Delirium–though I appreciated Oliver’s prose very much, I found the novel, overall, to be quite bland. Both protagonist Lena and love interest Alex mostly bored me, and their puerile acts of rebellion–which included illegal downloading of music and going to raves–weren’t enough to distract me from the fundamentally implausible premise.
But then I saw Pandemonium described on a goodreads review as “unbelievably better” than the first volume and decided to give it a chance.
And I’m glad I did!
Don’t get me wrong; Oliver’s premise remains quite difficult to believe. In her talk at Oblong, Oliver described the Delirium series as “alternate history”–closer, I suppose, to Never Let Me Go than to Brave New World. Conceptualizing this universe as one that runs alongside to ours, rather than existing after it, helped a bit in locating myself in the setting. It certainly explained the oddly contemporary references, which made little sense otherwise. However, I’m still not sure if the novel’s alt-history setting was well explained enough in the text itself. Certainly, there seem to be few clues to that effect, and it’s difficult to imagine when our society diverged from this one to produce Lena’s.
However, Lena herself grows significantly over the course of Pandemonium. Whereas once she seemed meek, bland, and frustratingly nondescript, now she’s truly strong. It’s not the cartoonish strength often found in these novels. Instead, she seems to have grown logically from her former identity as an obedient member of her society to someone quite capable of standing on her own and making her own choices.
Oliver tells the tale of Lena’s journey through two interwoven narratives. One is set “then”–just after Lena leaves her home for the first time after the events of Delirium–and “now,” later, when Lena infiltrates New York City as a member of an underground rebellion. It’s a neat conceptual trick (Oliver played similarly with form with slightly less success in Delirium, inserting fictional primary source documents about her world between chapters) and successfully keeps the narrative moving at a brisk, even exhilarating pace. I was surprised, and refreshed, after Delirium, to see how quickly the story moved, without sacrificing Oliver’s lovely stylistics.
Gone, too, was bland love interest Alex–his mantle taken up by a boy named Julian, who was far more vivid in his characterization and background. Julian was believable and sympathetic. His childhood ailments, his beliefs, his depression, all rendered him a complex and interesting love interest. I was able to understand Lena’s affection for him here much better than I was for her first beau.
Pandemonium is not a perfect book. As I said, the premise remains shaky, and there’s not one, but too cheesy and obvious plot twists near the novel’s end. But it’s a more-than-worthy successor to Delirium. Lena’s concerns are now given weight, importance, compared with the frippery of the first novel. She’s vividly characterized, as is her romantic foil. And her story is still told through Oliver’s gorgeous stylistics. I’m glad I took a chance on it, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Pandemonium even to those readers who felt lukewarm about the previous volume.(less)
Larkstorm opens like many mainstream dystopian novels. Lark Greene is a young student preparing herself for h...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
Larkstorm opens like many mainstream dystopian novels. Lark Greene is a young student preparing herself for her job placement. She the daughter of a societal leader in a strictly regimented society where citizens hide away from mysterious, evil “Sensitives”–beings who were once known as witches. Though most of her school mates are also awaiting their marriage contracts, Lark herself has already been bound–at seven, to her best friend, Beck. But then Beck is accused of being a Sensitive himself, and she’s plunged into an adventure that takes her far away from her school, her former life, and her comfort zone.
If all this makes you think that you’re in for a light SF, dystopian read, then think again. It does, in fact, open as a stock dystopian–and the first third is set in a world heavily redolent of novels such as Matched and Delirium. It also opens with many of the flaws inherent in such dystopian novels. There’s the hazy history, the strictures against sex or relationships that seem less sensible and present mostly to provide angst. But Lark is a fairly compelling character, with a strong voice and a lightly wry sense of humor, and her relationship with Beck–innocent, affectionate, charming–better rendered than what you find in most dystopian novels.
Then the book undergoes one of the most bizarre genre shifts I’ve ever seen in a YA novel.
Halfway through, we learn that all these Sensitives really are witches. And both Beck and Lark are actually completely enmeshed in witch politics. Lark enters a palatial summer estate that’s encased from the winter by a magical snowglobe-type barrier, and the witches there start to teach her how to harness her powers. Suddenly we’re in witch school! In the middle of a war between two types of witches!
I found this all very jarring.
I’d heard that Larkstorm was a fantasy. However, the ideas and worldbuilding are communicated in a way far more common to paranormal romance. It’s recounted in breezy conversation, or through training sequences. There are plenty of artificial, magical reasons provided why Lark and Beck cannot be together and a host of magically-driven (rather than, say, character-driven) conflicts. Though Miller does an admirable job in imagining the histories and even family trees of her universe, it never quite came together for me in a way that felt fully-formed and real.
I think this is, in part, because even in light dystopian, a reader has to piece together the rules of the universe slowly over the course of a book. I felt I had really only just begun to get a handle on the rules here when those rules were flatly negated. One-by-one, characters came out of the woodwork to assure Lark that everything she knew about them was a lie. But I simply didn’t understand their relationships to Lark well enough to begin with for such developments to feel shocking or resonant. I spent the middle third of the novel disoriented, putting the pieces back together, trying to locate myself–and Lark–within her universe.
By the end, I did recover–and by Larkstorm‘s end, the primacy of the tender relationship between Lark and Beck is once again asserted. It’s a genuinely sweet, healthy adolescent love (rare for PNR!), and the prose centered upon their relationship is some of the novel’s strongest. Once I accepted that yes, indeed, I was reading a paranormal romance, I found myself enjoying the book quite a bit.
But as a whole, I found the composition frustrating and disorienting. I’m not really sure whether the dystopian opening was necessary, and in some ways, it felt like the author’s heart wasn’t quite as invested in the world there as the one encountered later in the novel. I suspect that paranormal fans will enjoy this–provided they get past the first third, to Larkstorm‘s more fitting and heartfelt witchy world–and it’s certainly as strong as many traditionally published YA romances. But readers looking for a sci-fi flavored fantasy are likely best giving it a pass.(less)
I had some hesitations with Divergent when I read it last year. While I enjoyed Tris, our narrator and heroine, and the strong, well-paced prose, I found much of her story in the first book trifling. As Tris chose a faction in her dystopian world and moved through Dauntless initiation, she spent much of her time zip-lining and jumping off buildings and acting like a hooligan. Realistic, maybe, for a teenage girl, but at times I was a bit frustrated at her refusal to pay attention to the war blossoming around her.
I had high hopes for Insurgent, though, which promised to begin with Tris's Dauntless training behind her and with the more significant global problems of her universe instead. And I was far from disappointed.
Insurgent deepens the themes of the first book in several significant ways. First, Roth tirelessly explores the sociological and emotional impact of the faction system. Tris and Tobias travel through their futuristic Chicago in this volume, visiting the various other factions; we are able to perceive the differences between the people within them in greater depth. Much of this is achieved through Roth's deft hand at characterization. She creates surprisingly vivid characters in a very short span of time. More, these characters all manage to display not only their chosen faction traits, but the underlying traits of their factions of origin. And no character is better drawn than Tris herself.
In Insurgent, Tris mourns her parents. However, their deaths not treated cavalierly, but rather informed just about everything Tris does and experiences. There were many small, moving moments--like when Tris glances in a mirror, and realizes that her mother will never see the woman that she herself is becoming. It was touching, very human, and nicely executed. But more, the depths of Tris's grief--which has her realistically contemplating suicide--also reflect the values inculcated in her during her Abnegation childhood. This omnipresence of the worldbuilding, evidenced in the way that each character was conceived, made the world feel very real. It swayed me, in a way that I wasn't quite convinced through the first book.
And Roth pushes all of her characters to their emotional extremes. There's a war going on, sure, but Tris and Tobias in particular are also forced to face some uncomfortable truths about themselves. Some of this is brought about through what can only be called a plot contrivance (truth serum), but the emotions that they work through at this stage of their relationship still rang very true to me.
The science is made deeper here as well. The plot is more significantly concerned with the simulations, which were more of a side-note in the first volume, as well as the neurological differences between the Divergent and the rest of the populace. And the neurology was refreshingly sound! There's even a completely accurate description of mirror neurons. I may or may not have squeed.
If I had any reservations about Insurgent, they concerned the novel's opening. Roth includes almost no recapping--a conscious choice, apparently, but one that simply didn't work for me. The cast of characters in this series is quite large, and I found it hard to find my footing. Despite the brisk prose, it wasn't until I was about a hundred pages in that I really found my rhythm. I didn't need a lot to help me out, but a simple "Caleb, my brother," for example, would have sufficed.
I also suspect that some readers might find the endless discussion of the factions, and the differences between them, to be a bit exhausting--but to be honest, I didn't. It was just so well-executed in the particulars. For example, the religion of Amity resembles Quakerism; Abnegation worship like Protestants. These little details made the world feel very real.
And finally, the ending was just fantastic. It features a great science fictional twist that will likely be controversial but which I whole-heartedly enjoyed. Unlike many second volumes, Insurgent accomplishes much more than moving around plot pieces. It felt like a necessary part of the story--and a deeper part, too. I look forward to the third book.(less)
At first glance, Daughter of the Centaurs by Kate Klimo contains all the ingredients for a great YA novel. It’s got an intriguing premise–it’s the story of Malora, the last human on Earth, and how she comes to join a society of centaurs after the apocalypse destroys human society. The setting is very detailed. While it nominally takes place somewhere on the African continent, the centaur society contained within is very well-developed and, initially, appears to be rigorously thought-through. Malora, twelve at the outset of the novel but fifteen during the bulk of the action, is a practical, hardened survivor, not unlike Katniss Everdeen. She’s the type of heroine many YA readers (myself included) love.
Unfortunately “many promising components” does not a “good book” make. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy Daughter of the Centaurs for all I hoped that it would be a rousing and fresh YA tale. My first problem was with the narration. I was immediately struck by how simplistic it was. Though it makes some sense that the novel is told in present tense–Malora herself is a character who lives very much in the present–the story nevertheless felt as though it was being told at an odd arm’s length. The descriptions of characters felt muffled; their reactions far removed from the novel’s events. Events and worldbuilding, when not imparted through dialogue, were described in a plodding, methodical, almost clinical way.
The first several chapters still held some promise. Malora is part of a tribe of humans who utilize very primitive technology to keep afloat. She learns how to train horses from her father. When her tribe is destroyed, she takes to the plains, raising and breeding a herd of horses. These chapters are the novel’s best, and while not exactly riveting, the relationships between Malora and the “Ironbound Furies,” as the horses come to be called, are quite well-realized.
But I can’t say the same about her relationships with any of the centaur characters.
Klimo’s very evidently done a great deal of work with her centaur society. She’s developed laws, class stratification, a job system, architecture, entertainment. And, as Malora comes to join the Highlander society, we get to learn all about it. For roughly two hundred pages, she’s given a tour of the centaur world, where she asks bland questions about the underpinnings of this world and where Orion, her centaur host, obligatorily answers them. I love rich worldbuilding, but I found this incalculably boring. Eventually (after the novel put me to sleep), I realized why–there is no conflict between the characters here. The stakes are kept very, very low. We never fear for Malora’s safety. We never worry that she’ll be “turned out,” despite vague warnings to that effect. She encounters obstacles, but those sort of . . . roll off her back with little impact on the plot’s development. In truth, when she’s told, at one point, that she cannot choose blacksmithing as her career, I failed to feel even the slightest flame of sympathy for her. In fact, I felt nothing. What did it matter, anyway? I had no idea what Malora liked (beyond horses) or wanted (beyond being with her horses, who she inexplicably left behind with another caretaker for all we’re told she cared).
This general lack of conflict was very strange considering the social stratification, sexism, and racism inherent in Klimo’s centaur society. The centaurs are broken up into two groups, the noble Highlanders, and the peasant Lowlanders, but the peasants seem to accept their poverty with nary a neigh of protest. The women are all subjugated, forced to cover up in fear of “inflaming” the passions of the male centaurs–but other than some vague mumblings about how sad it would be if Malora had to cover her long red hair, this is summarily accepted, as well. Worst of all were the race of cat people willingly indentured for life to the centaurs. The Twani were one of the worst examples of a “happy slave” race I’ve ever seen in either sci-fi or fantasy. While there is ample opportunity for someone to comment on how messed up it is that these half-cat creatures very literally work themselves to death–and that the centaurs have plentiful chances to liberate them, but instead choose to take advantage of them–it never happens. Instead, we’re asked to just accept the fact that these plucky catmen wish to live in service of the centaurs because of some memory of racial debt. Dated and offensive, tropes like these really need to go.
Because of all of the above, I had quite a bit of trouble with my time spent in centaur society. I suppose that I was supposed to find it all rich and captivating, but instead I was unsettled and disquieted. There was opportunity here to eventually reveal the society as dystopic–and Klimo almost does, near the novel’s end. But instead we’re suddenly plunged back into truly trifling matters. The conclusion concerns not, say, societal overhaul, or Malora’s rejection of the centaur who has made her his (ugh) “pet,” but instead a horse race. Really. And, while I’m fond of horses myself, I did not much care whether Malora won, or lost, at this juncture. I’d gone cold to her, and her concerns–and the novel did little to convince me to feel otherwise.
Daughter of the Centaurs could conceivably appeal to readers who really, really like horse books, and those who don’t mind dated societal metaphor without any accompanying social commentary in their fantastic fiction.(less)
In my last review, I wrote that Ally Condie suggests a bit of the “we have always been at war with East Asia”...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
In my last review, I wrote that Ally Condie suggests a bit of the “we have always been at war with East Asia” themes of 1984 in her new novel, Crossed. In a weird bit of synchronicity, Margaret Peterson Haddix’s The Always War takes those slight, thematic elements of Crossed and expands them into a novel of their own.
Fifteen-year-old Tessa’s society really has always been at war. In a futuristic, but impoverished America, she’s stuck scrubbing hospital floors while her neighbor, a gifted military student, goes on to be a hero. The novel’s first half is richly rendered, and reminded me a bit of the Molly McIntire American Girl books in their accuracy. The society of The Always War has been touched by perpetual wartime at every level–people’s aspirations are directly tied to the war effort; technology is designated solely for military use; and normal people are expected to push up their sleeves and contribute themselves, no matter the color-draining effect this has on their lives.
I loved the beginning of this book, though I must admit that I was a touch unsettled by the extreme youth of Gideon, one of their war heroes (he’s in his teens), and the heroine’s own very young voice and nature. Unfortunately, as The Always War developed, these problematic elements were thrust to the forefront, and compounded by the presence of Dek, a prepubescent rebel said to be only eight or nine years old. She’s trading goods on the black market and knows how to pilot and repair aircraft and all of this stretched the bounds of credulity for me.
As did the core premise as revealed in the last half of the book. Some of this is suggested by the title and the book’s Orwellian, throwback nature (of course the war isn’t real; we suspect that from the first page), but the ultimate revelations struck me as incredibly improbable, as did the fact that these revelations came to all hinge on the actions of a bunch of children. And it’s not as if I’m averse to kids being heroes–it’s only that here, I never quite believed it.
Still, I could imagine eating this book up if I were, myself, a younger reader. I suspect the target audience will enjoy the sparse, survival-oriented details of Haddix’s society, as I once enjoyed Changes for Molly, and I doubt they’ll be as bothered as I was by the twists and revelations.(less)
I was a bit hesitant to read Crossed after having had a mixed experience with Matched, the first in the serie...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
I was a bit hesitant to read Crossed after having had a mixed experience with Matched, the first in the series. While reading Matched, I was initially thrilled by the strong, lavish writing; an early scene even moved me to tears. Unfortunately, a lukewarm romance eventually tempered my enjoyment of the novel. Condie had us take a few too many walks with her chaste teenage couple, Cassia and Ky, and I found myself fairly bored by the novel’s conclusion.
I’m sad to say that I had an almost identical experience with Crossed.
Crossed also began with promise. Now removed from the safety of the Society, Cassia Reyes is living on the outskirts in a work camp, where she’s taken an assignment in the hope of finding her sweetie, Ky. Ky, meanwhile, is living in a decoy city meant to fool the Society’s enemies into thinking they’re more prosperous than they really are. There were interesting shades of “we’ve always been at war with East Asia” here, and I thought that, if Condie was going to mature the dystopian society of her first book (which seemed to borrow liberally from Lois Lowry’s The Giver), then there are worse authors to riff off of than Orwell for that growth.
Soon, Cassia and Ky begin two separate journeys across the wilderness to find each other. The chapters prior to their reunion are nicely paced and lively. With the focus turned to survival, rather than the love triangle of the first book, I found myself riveted.
But then Cassia and Ky reunite, and all that wonderful tension unravels. While the romance is a shade more passionate than what’s found in the first book (the kids kiss more than once), it still didn’t feel like the epic love story needed to carry a novel like this one. Condie also seems shy about addressing the desires of her adolescent characters. It’s not that I mind that Cassia and Ky’s romance is unconsummated–plenty of teenagers don’t do it. But they don’t struggle with this choice at all or even meaningfully contemplate it. For Cassia and Ky, abstinence is easy–even when their lives are at stake and they spend all of their time unsupervised. This aspect of Crossed, and Condie’s approach (there’s one scene that could be read as a sexual interlude, but where, as we later learn, the teens merely hug) puzzled me.
But in truth, many aspects of Crossed felt similarly muted. Cassia still doesn’t have a very strong personality, and she can be frustratingly obtuse sometimes. There are a host of minor characters here, and all but one are conspicuously underdeveloped. The teenagers should be preoccupied by survival, but instead countless pages are spent contemplating poetry. These are odd choices for a book about a rebellion and a forbidden, star-crossed romance. Ultimately, Cassia and Ky’s journey felt slow, and by the end of the novel I was more frustrated than entranced.(less)
Hot on the heels of YA action/dystopians of yore like The Hunger Games and Divergent, Legend arrives next week to try to fill a niche I’m not entirely certain needed filling.
It’s the story of Day, a supergenius criminal who can fall off buildings and stuff with nary a bruise, and June, the supergenius soldier tasked to find him. Told in their alternating voices, we’re taken on an exploration of a near-future Los Angeles while Day deals with his family’s increasing illness and June works to track him down. Eventually, these star-crossed teenagers fall in love, of course, though the action here is solidly focused on street fights, riots, and bank heists, rather than the couple’s scant kisses.
Marie Lu’s voice is strong, and the downright breezy nature of Legend is one of its most redeeming features. It’s an easy novel to get wrapped up in, and the plot moves fast enough that most readers won’t notice the places where the story is stretched a bit thin.
And there are several places where that happens. Let’s face it: the premise of Legend is, in and of itself, fairly implausible. Both Day and June are superspecial, supergifted, superbrilliant fifteen-year-olds. One is his nation’s most wanted criminal; the other, the top soldier. But they’re fifteen, and I never quite bought the premise that a totalitarian military outfit would trust a young recruit with the degree of power that June is granted.
The characters are also not-terribly deep. They’re not poorly written, or offensive, and we get bright flashes of their home lives that make both June and Day a little more real. But the family members who provide Day’s primary motivations are never more than sketchily developed. They’re plot devices, not people, meant to conveniently raise the stakes when needed without getting in the way of the narrative’s dual focus.
There were also several plot twists that felt convenient, or development that happened suddenly, without sufficient foreshadowing. And the universe never quite felt real enough to me–I wanted more grit, and deeper description.
I’m not sure if any of the above matters, really. This is a pulpy, action-oriented book, and it’s really not meant for a nit-picker like me. And for an action narrative, it’s pretty decent. More True Lies than Transformers.
I do wonder, though, what it adds to the dystopian canon. The characters were better realized in Divergent; the setting better described in The Hunger Games. Heck, back in 2007, Nancy Farmer was doing the whole military dystopian thing to much more terrifying effect. in House of the Scorpion. When it comes down to it, I’d recommend Legend strictly for action junkies and the dystopian-obsessed. Other readers can probably give this one a pass.(less)
It was a handful of years ago now that I went away to Florida for graduate school. I was going to study poetry, though I already fancied myself a bit...moreIt was a handful of years ago now that I went away to Florida for graduate school. I was going to study poetry, though I already fancied myself a bit of a poet. What I hoped to learn most of all—and I'm not sure I ever articulated this to my peers there, though maybe I did, on some night obliterated by cheap beer and sweat—was control. Being a "master" of an art, I thought, is to tame that art—to control it fully, to have words at your command, to know when to rein them in and when to let them run wild.
I've always been a highly metaphorical writer, but I've also sometimes been prone to excess. Sometimes my words ran away with me. A poem would start one place and end up somewhere else entirely. In talking to those who read my writing, I learned that my similes sometimes connoted meanings I had not intended (and didn't particularly like). Words, I thought, were powerful; pick the right ones and you're as good as psychic, able to impart specific images into the mind of your reader. I wanted to become as good at it as a wizard would be, or a telepath.
And, though my workshop experiences weren't always perfect, they certainly were helpful for that. Sure, I winced and grimaced as my peers did something that, at the time, I could only feel was nitpicking, as they scrutinized every small word, every adjective/noun pair, every physical description to decide whether it was physically feasible or not. It was painful; I can't deny that. But it was also necessary. They made me defend every word choice. If I couldn't, I knew that word had to go.
As I've drifted to writing fiction, I've found myself prone to the same excesses in drafts (naturally; I am fundamentally the same writer). I count myself lucky that I've found readers and critique partners who continue to make me justify and defend myself. I never like it when it's happening, but my writing is always better for it.
I tell you all of this to let you know that I understand where debut author Tahereh Mafi is likely coming from. I empathized with her as I worked through her highly stylized, ambitious upcoming debut Shatter Me, the first in a trilogy. I also say this as acknowledgement that what I saw as persistent and pervasive language problems in her novel may not bother all readers. Hell, I know that only a handful of readers of my undergraduate poetry was ever able to articulate what bothered me about it; a number of them just thought my poems "pretty."
Perhaps some readers will, likewise, be charmed by Mafi's language. It's certainly unusual, which is why I can't deny that this is an ambitious book. Shatter Me is told in a loose, highly metaphorical style. Text formatting is liberally dickered around with—there are run-ons and random text breaks and even strike-outs. In a way, it's the type of novel I'd love to see succeed wildly—I love books that play with form and voice, from Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker to Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now.
But what distinguishes Mafi's writing from these favorites of mine was the fact that I was never quite convinced that she was in control of her prose. Indeed, it often felt like she allowed the rhythm of her words to walk away with her book. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than in her construction of metaphors, and the book is absolutely jam packed with them. I couldn't move more than a few pages before I'd strike a turn of phrase that just felt off.
"Hate looks just like everybody else until it smiles. Until it spins around and lies with lips and teeth carved into the semblance of something too passive to punch" (74-75, ARC edition).
"My stomach falls over" (100).
"I'm granite and limestone and marbled glass. I don't move" (164).
"Warner thinks Adam is a cardboard cutout of vanilla regurgitations" (165).
Now, on the surface, these might seem fine—even a bit pretty. But if you read them closely, really consider the meaning conveyed by the words, they're nearly nonsensical. What does it mean to have lips and teeth carved into the semblance of something too passive to punch? How does that make hate look unlike everybody else? Does that mean that she wants to punch hate, or not? What is her stomach falling over, precisely? Do "granite and limestone and marbled glass" all connote immobility? Granite might—and marble might, but I'm not sure that "marbled glass" does. Limestone is known for being a soft stone, one easily altered by time. Does that communicate the same sort of message, or does it just muddy what would have otherwise been clear had Mafi simply said, "I'm granite. I don't move"?
The register is often off too, rendering both the prose and the dialogue fairly melodramatic. Discussions of electricity sparking between bodies abound, as do very grave sentence fragments. Emotions and memories "burn" and faces are "etched in astonishment" and the color red is frequently compared to blood.
All of this is a shame, because had the language been more carefully executed—hell, more controlled—I likely would have loved it. But I believe that the onus is on the writer to earn our trust in their mastery over prose. I never was quite convinced that Mafi was the master here; her writing was just too imprecise, connoting all the wrong things (and clearly not intentionally) entirely too often.
Beneath all of that, the story is okay. The first third of the book is a claustrophobic tale of a girl raised largely in isolation in a post-apocalyptic (don't call it dystopian—I don't think anyone is under any illusions that this is a utopia) society. There really isn't any sci-fi world building, but what's there doesn't offend. And while the main character Juliette, and love interest Adam, are fairly bland (their characterization not often going any deeper than "good"), Mafi's villain and her supporting characters are strongly realized and instantly engaging. Though pacing flounders in the middle, it picks up by the end, though by that point it becomes a very different sort of book—and not the sort I was expecting by the novel's beginning.
But I when it comes down to it, I just couldn't get past the prose. There's some potential here, flashes of wild beauty, and I'm curious to see whether Mafi is eventually able to cultivate this potential in subsequent books. But sadly, if I can overwork my own metaphor, Shatter Me is mostly full of weeds.
A review copy of this book was generously provided by the publisher.
Last night, I stumbled across a Facebook quiz where you can "discover your faction" a la Veronica Roth's upcoming debut Divergent. It was a clever pie...moreLast night, I stumbled across a Facebook quiz where you can "discover your faction" a la Veronica Roth's upcoming debut Divergent. It was a clever piece of marketing and design, where you select options in a brief thought experiment until your single true faction becomes clear. I scored as Candor, of course, representing the faction in Roth's book which values honesty above all else. So of course, I'm going to be honest here in my review of the book.
That little test distilled what is, perhaps, the greatest selling point of Roth's book, the simple hook which asks you to consider your own values and traits and categorize yourself according to them. I found myself doing so several times throughout Divergent. Am I truly a member of Candor, or would I be Erudite, the erudite villains who embrace learning and scholarship? Is my kind husband Amity, valuing happiness and comfort, or Abnegation, valuing selflessness?
But despite the attractiveness of this premise, it never rang true for me even at the outset. Oh, sure, younger teens might buy it without question (in a rare display of Candor-like candor, my husband quipped, "Factions? Teens eat that shit up!") But Roth's society leaves little room for gray areas—members exemplify or extol one value, and one value only, and if they fail in their initiation into that faction they become "factionless." The presence of this large, disenfranchised group—educated up to age sixteen, and then dumped on the streets to become homeless wanderers—undermined the credibility of her premise, even as it was meant to raise the stakes.
As Roth built her near-future Chicago, ruled by the gray-clad Abnegation who preach selflessness above all else but still dictate every aspect of life for the rest of the population, I found myself questioning the premise over and over again: why didn't the factionless just rise up? Who would tolerate such a bizarre system of social stratification? The reasoning that Roth gives—that the factions were formed in response to what various people believed to be the sources of war (so people who thought warring people were cowards formed Dauntless, extoling bravery) was artificial and, more, simply insufficient to make her premise feel plausible.
Of course, the journey of her main character Tris is supposed to illustrate the flaws in such a system. Tris is Divergent—at sixteen, she undergoes testing to show which faction she is best suited for before she chooses one (why both choosing and testing were necessary was never entirely clear to me, though the characters in Roth's world believe in this system so whole-heartedly that I doubt many readers will question it) and discovers that she has predilections which would make her well-suited for three factions: Dauntless, Abnegation, and Erudite. Well, sure, I wanted to say, but don't most human beings have these complexities inside them? Roth tells us that this isn't the case, and that Tris is one of very few.
Tris ultimately chooses Dauntless, because she's swallowed a bunch of (later proven true) propaganda about the evils of Erudite and because she feels herself to be a selfish person. As a Dauntless initiate, she is required to undergo many trials before she becomes a full-fledged member of her faction. These trials were, I suspect, meant to mimic the high-octane action of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy.
But sadly, the nature of these trials was, through the book's first two thirds, fairly trifling. I must note that I'm not a big fan of action sequences generally. Though I enjoyed The Hunger Games, it wasn't because of the action itself, but rather because of the high emotional stakes for our heroine Katniss. And these stakes weren't merely personal—she enters the games to save her little sister—but global as well, as we're told from the outset of the impoverished state of the Districts. In this way, Katniss's time in the Games becomes an act of rebellion as well as an act of personal sacrifice.
But we know from the beginning that Tris's choice to join Dauntless is entirely a self-centered one (she tells us as much). And, more, she whole-heartedly believes in the faction system for most of the book, agreeing with her father's prejudiced assessment of Erudite faction members even after her own brother joins them. Her view of her society is childlike, unquestioning, and simplistic. The only thing at stake if she fails her initiation trials is that she might become factionless herself—but of course, she chooses this risk. And so the trials themselves need to be compelling on their own merits to sustain reader interest.
But for a reader like me, a reader who hates action films and thinks random acts of dare-devilry silly, they aren't. Most of Tris's trials through the novel's first half are extremely milquetoast, the kind of activities that bachelor-party attendees are fond. She plays paintball in an abandoned amusement park. She practices gun skills at a shooting range. She goes zip-lining. Though these were all related in a breezy, effortless way, they just weren't very interesting, in and of themselves.
My frustration with the degree to which Roth explores these events was fairly high. At one point, approximately halfway through the book, Tris's friends describe to her events pertinent to the rebellion that has been simmering since the outset of the novel, and she tunes them out to think about her experiences zip-lining instead. I felt a bit like I was being held captive by this silly, frivolous girl (for all her angst), and very nearly gave up on finishing the book despite its obvious prose merits. And I must note that Roth's stylistics are abundantly strong. She writes in a way that's both sparse and lovely. But lovely prose just isn't enough: I need emotional engagement, and at this point I was just feeling put-out.
Luckily, I persevered, and Divergent became a much stronger novel by its conclusion. In the last half, the bachelor party games are abandoned for high-tech hallucinations which were much more compelling and, I think, better illustrations of the bravery Dauntless is supposed to represent. The romance plot, which spent a long time on the back burners, is developed to good effect, and Roth finally explores her society's inherent flaws in the last fifty pages. These pages were emotionally stirring indeed. I even felt my throat tighten at certain sacrificial events.
But I wouldn't be Candor if I didn't say that I think Roth waited too long to get there.
In all, this was a book of solid stylistics and ultimate impact, but it was marred by throat-clearing, false starts, and a bit of frivolity. Roth shows her cards in the last half to very good effect, and I'll undoubtedly look into the sequels (with all of the seeds of an emotionally-affective premise sown, I hope the next book will be compelling from the outset, rather than the middle!). But if, like me, you're not a big fan of action-for-action's sake, then I must warn you that you'll have to grit your teeth for a whole lot of mindless action with low emotional stakes to get to the meat of the story.
A review copy was generously provided by the publisher and GoodReads First Reads program.(less)
Talk about going in with preconceived notions of a book’s quality. 40 pages deep, and I was completely ready to pan Bumped.
Megan McCafferty’s long-awa...moreTalk about going in with preconceived notions of a book’s quality. 40 pages deep, and I was completely ready to pan Bumped.
Megan McCafferty’s long-awaited follow-up to the Sloppy Firsts series is a tongue-in-cheek satire about a future where only teenagers are capable of reproduction. At the outset, the science fiction is hammy and laid on thick, full of FutureWords™ and sketchy world building. As I neared the end of the first part, I already had the bulk of my review worked out in my head.
I'd talk about how McCafferty's earlier books were the most effective when she was illuminating character relationships or composing poignant scenes about adolescent love—not being clever. I'd write about how the conceits in Sloppy Firsts that left me coldest—the slangy cafeteria-table run-downs, the ridiculous teen-author-undercover subplot—where McCafferty aimed for inventiveness, but always fell short, utterly failed to ever ring true for me. I'd talk about how this novel hinged on such conceits, a belief in a world so alien in terms of human psychology that the human story fell apart. It would be a great, cutting, thoughtful negative review. It would get me lots of votes on GoodReads (the only reward for reading a bad book). It would be awesome.
But then (oh crap), I began to really, really enjoy the book.
So much for all those GoodReads votes! Because when it comes down to it, McCafferty's "first young adult novel" (in her foreword and acknowledgements, she refers to it in quotes, as though she doesn't quite believe it, either) is a biting comedy with a tender heart. As the story unfolds, we follow Harmony, a girl raised by religious extremists who see it as their duty to repopulate the Earth, and so marry their girls off young; and her twin sister, Melody, who has been raised by a pair of insane economists whose ideas about commodifying reproduction have spurred countless girls to sell off their reproductive fruits to the highest bidder; as they navigate their own relationship as well as sexual relationships with the boys around them.
We meet these long-lost twins at sixteen, just after their reunion. Harmony, on the run from a bad marriage, journeys to secular America with plans to proselytize to her non-believer sister. Melody, meanwhile, is grappling with her identity as one of the few non-pregnant members of her social group, and is, all the while, resisting an obvious crush on her (too short to procreate with) childhood best friend.
Their story is told in alternating voices. Harmony's voice is sweet, but sharply observant. Her religious devotion and questioning are recounted by McCafferty in a way that can only be called tender. In fact, Melody's voice was the one that I initially struggled with. It's peppered liberally with FutureSlang, to the point of sometimes losing clarity (I'd recommend that you just roll with it, as I did; everything will be explained by the novel's conclusion). Adding to my difficultly was the fact that much of this slang and terminology was icky, from muthahumping to Preggerz to FunBump to bumping.
But about halfway through the novel, I began to realize that the instinctive revulsion that I felt at this book's obsession with sexualized stretch marks and its unwavering commitment to talk about things like mucus plugs was really the point. This is not a shy, demurring book. It is, instead, a critique of the reproductive underpinnings of both modern religion's focus on purity and secular society's focus on sexuality. Through its intertwining narratives, McCafferty weaves a subtle message about the similarities of these two drastically different cultures, and illuminates their biggest commonality: the way they devalue women beyond their reproductive capacity.
However, and to my delight, she still managed to create a story that was utterly sex-positive. In light of her premise, I feared that we might get a lot of handwringing about how young girls should abstain, a la XVI. Instead, Bumped is refreshingly pro-lovemaking (though the society she depicts is not). The sexual experiences of our dual narrators are diverse, but always well-justified and easy to understand. Even as I was cheering Melody's choice to step away from her babymakin' business, I was also cheering Harmony's growing (and clearly sexual) romance with pro-babymaker Jondoe. Honestly, I never thought I'd be celebrating the sexual and spiritual love of a pair of evangelical, verse-spouting Christians, but there I was.
So, sure, there's some hammyness here. The mistaken-identity plot with the twins is one you've seen a million times before, and, yeah, all this talk about negging and pregging did make me feel kinda strange. But nevertheless, Megan McCafferty has schooled me about counting my, uh, eggs before they're hatched. This isn't Sloppy Firsts but it's still a damned good read.
A copy of this book was generously provided by the publisher for review purposes.(less)
In a richly realized future society, where every member of the younger generation faces death before age thirty, sixteen-year-old Rhine is kidnapped,...moreIn a richly realized future society, where every member of the younger generation faces death before age thirty, sixteen-year-old Rhine is kidnapped, stolen away from her home and wedded against her will to Linden Ashby, the wealthy son of a governor. Captive in his Floridian mansion, she (and two other young women) must find a way to cope with this new marriage. For Rhine’s sisterwife Janna, coping means shutting down emotionally, barring her new husband access to all of the most intimate parts of herself. For thirteen-year-old sisterwife Cecily, coping is becoming a model bride, and conceiving a son for her husband almost immediately. But for Rhine, there’s only one way to stay afloat: escape.
Lauren DeStefano’s debut is atmospheric, beautifully written soft-science-fiction, which seems to owe more than a little to Wuthering Heights (and, if I’m guessing right, the Mountain Goats album Tallahassee). Set in a sprawling, vividly-rendered estate, the prose is lit by splashes of horrific color: brown and orange lumpy citrus fruits litter the ground in the orange grove; the women swim through bright blue, holographic oceans in the pool; later, they dress in hot pink dresses described as looking like tinfoil. Through these colorful touches, DeStafano does a good job of making it clear that we’re in another world, despite the compelling human emotions of her characters.
These emotions, centered on processing grief, on captivity, and on finding balance in a forced, unwanted marriage, are fundamentally more adult than adolescent. The expectations placed on the women, and the situations they find themselves in, are, likewise, adult situations. For example, I suspect few teenagers will truly appreciate Cecliy’s sadness at her inability to breastfeed her child. Ultimately, the ways in which Wither fails seem to arise more out of the novel’s positioning than anything inherent to its prose or story.
Because this is a very slow, character-driven novel, and the motivations of the characters are fundamentally grown-up despite their youth. There is little black-or-white morality here. Characters who initially appear villainous—Rose, Cecily, even Linden himself—turn out to be victims of their circumstances, and their motivations (particularly the fact that Linden never forces himself sexually on Rhine, something many reviewers have noted) only make sense if viewed through this lens. When it comes down to it, I struggled a bit against the novel’s slow pacing and heavy, grown-up introspection at first. Then I put the book down, thought about it for a while, and decided to try approaching it as I would an adult novel, rather than YA, and found it much more rewarding.
This is the second novel to which I very strongly had this reaction—the first was Carrie Ryan’s The Forest of Hands and Teeth, another book which heavily featured plotlines about marriage, and which languished in pretty prose and a dark tone. But I enjoyed Wither much more than I did The Forest of Hands and Teeth. It’s a more unified story, and the characters (all of the characters, really, but particularly the wives), are better drawn and more interesting.
Is this science fiction perfect? Well, no—the rules of the “virus” (that boys die at 25 and girls at 20) make no sense, nor does the idea that the other nations of the world are submerged while the east coast of the United States remains intact. But Wither shares more in common with Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or McCarthy’s The Road than an Octavia Butler novel; science fiction is just an atmospheric conceit, present to create tension or to make the emotional situation of our characters that much more dire. I suspect that DeStafano started with the emotional plight of her characters, and let the setting grow from there, rather than crafting a dystopian situation and then creating characters as a means to explore it.
In the end, I very much enjoyed Wither—something about its prose, its thoughtfulness, and its beautiful ending (lovely and open-ended, but we know how these things go in YA—we’ll undoubtedly get an unnecessary sequel) felt absolutely classic. However, I suspect that this crossover title will much more strongly appeal to adult audiences, especially women who enjoy thoughtful and poignant soft-SF a la The Time Traveler’s Wife, than teens seeking out the next Hunger Games.
A review copy of this volume was generously provided by the publisher.(less)
I’m opening my review with this caveat because, as someone who owns a dog-eared copy of The Feminine Mystique, whose heroe...moreXVI is not a feminist novel.
I’m opening my review with this caveat because, as someone who owns a dog-eared copy of The Feminine Mystique, whose heroes are Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin, and who has, at times, stopped shaving her armpits (sometimes one just can’t be bothered), accounts of feminist content in Julia Karr’s debut were definitely a selling point for me.
The initial premise of XVI make it sound as if it has feminist potential. In the near-future, girls are allowed to have sex on their sixteenth birthdays; at this time, they’re tattooed with the roman numerals “XVI” on their wrists to advertise their sexual availability. In public, they’re sexually harassed, raped, and assaulted, but in private, lower-class women are expected to maintain their purity so that they might be elected to serve as female companions to high ranking men on colonies out in space, a career move that their government promises will elevate their families above their impoverished origins.
But, though this is, undeniably, a discussion of the dual pressures that young girls face in our society both to be sexual and remain pure, the ultimate conclusions of XVI seemed to me to be little more than tut-tutting about the sluttiness of teens. And therein lies the problem with this sort of narrative, particularly when it’s aimed at teens: too much of a focus on the evils of sexuality; the animalistic, uncontrollable urges of men; and the goodness of girls who choose to abstain, and readers are left with something that’s no better than a fifties morality tale where our intrepid heroine ends up pregnant, destitute, or dead—all because she chooses to have sex.
And this is what happens to girls in XVI who, you know, do it. Or even want to do it. They end up homeless, murdered, raped, or burned-beyond-recognition. Most of the men in this universe are pedophiliac bogeymen who want little girls as their slaves, sexual or otherwise. We know that our hero Nina Oberon has depth because she’s squicked by the idea of having sex—we know that her friend Wei is truly awesome because she doesn’t have sex, either, despite the fact that she’s legally allowed to do so. We know that the designated love interest, Sal, is an okay guy because he tells Nina that he doesn’t want to do it, either. He just likes kissing.
(My apologies, but I didn’t find this very realistic for a teenage boy. Not that all teenage boys are unmitigated horn-dogs or anything like that, but surely he wouldn’t mind having sex?)
In this way, XVI sets up a false dichotomy for girls: “defend” your virginity, and have depth, and don’t die (or have lighter fluid poured on your face, and be set on fire), or be a shallow, mindless “sex-teen” who wears revealing clothing, enjoys flirting, and ultimately bites it in the end.
(Significant, too, I think, that women in this society are protected from STDs, but not pregnancy . . . why? Really? Why? I don’t get what benefit this would have to anyone in this society.)
The only hint at complexity here is during a scene where Nina realizes that—oh, my my!—she might actually enjoy having sex. I had hopes that this would lead to some discussion of healthy and safe ways for teens to explore their sexuality, but instead, she’s relieved of the possible burden of doing it when Sal tells her that he doesn’t want her to be a “sex-teen” either. Phew! All this would be fine, except there’s no hint of the real, myriad joys of sex, or how a teenager can keep herself safe and explore her sexuality in this world. Maybe it’s something that Karr plans to explore in future volumes, but it’s just too simplistically stated here, a stark reduction of the reality of adolescent life into a black-or-virgin-white morality. Karr’s argument is the same one that teenagers are getting in their abstinence-only sex ed classes, and it’s a fundamentally whacked, harmful one. Any way I can get an old copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves packaged with this book? I feel like we’ve fallen so far since the nineteen seventies.
So, no, XVI is not a feminist book.
Apart from these rather important issues, XVI is a mixed-bag. It has some of the silliest world building I’ve seen from a YA dystopian—goofy slang abounds, including “emo-detectors,” “sex-teen,” and “trannies.” And the writing, generally, is quite slip-shod. There were quite a few run-on sentences in my ebook that did not seem to be for stylistic effect. Transitions between scenes were abrupt and jarring. Dialogue was wooden. At times, the book seemed unfocused—though the back-cover copy promised that it was about the quasi-feminist issues I discuss above, the bulk of the story was really about Nina recovering from her mother’s death, joining a rebellion, escaping her murderous almost-step-father, and trying to find her supposedly-dead father (I won’t spoil this plot point, but I will say that when we reach a resolution, it’s an entirely listless, uninteresting one).
But XVI did have something going for it: the characters. Nina and her friends were, without exception, well-rendered and interesting. More, they were incredibly true-to-life. Even Sandy, Nina’s sex-teen friend with whom she has a somewhat combative relationship, was sympathetic; their complicated friendship reminded me of fading friendships I shared with other girls as a teenager. And Nina has two male friends—Mike and Derek—real, platonic friends who act like real, messy boys. I can’t recall any YA novel I’ve read lately that’s done guy friends nearly so well.
(Done less well? Awesome-side-character Wei’s stereotype of an Asian-mystic mother. A scene where she applies herbal medicine to Nina’s wounds and shows her a magic box that’s “around 794 years old” was just ridiculous, both for its unsubtle stereotyping and its needless specificity.)
Likewise, Nina’s emotional situation, the story of grief over her mother’s death, of caring for her little sister while balancing life with her new group of friends, was realistic and compelling. For me, this was the real heart of the novel—not the poorly-conceived dystopic elements. Karr seems to genuinely understand the emotional situation of teenagers, and she knows how to craft them in all their thorny glory. Ally Condie could learn something from her, I think.
Unlike Condie, Karr has significant room to grow on a prose and pacing level. But her approach to teenagers is still excellent, despite my feminist reservations about her chosen themes. There’s promise here, undeniably—even though XVI was sort of a hammy, poorly-conceived outing, I’ll be keeping an eye out for Karr’s future works. (less)
Matched is yet another YA-hype magnet. Because of the seven-figure deal the novel netted author Allie Condie, it was almost impossible to go in withou...moreMatched is yet another YA-hype magnet. Because of the seven-figure deal the novel netted author Allie Condie, it was almost impossible to go in without preconceptions (and I'm not generally one to avoid spoilers, anyway). I'd heard Condie read prettily-written snippets on NPR; I'd also perused reviews on GoodReads decrying it as a derivative spin on YA-dystopic classics like The Giver.
But the truth is a bit more complex than that. Its taken me a few weeks to mull over my reaction to Matched, the story of Cassia Reyes (don't let the name fool you; she's written white as toast), whose faith in her structured, near-future society is shaken when she discovers that her arranged marriage to her neighbor, Xander, was not as perfectly plotted as she thought. On the day following her MatchBanquet, a sort of dystopian prom where her future nuptials to Xander are announced publicly, Cassia finds that she may have been meant for someone else, another neighbor, the supposedly broodalicious loner Ky.
I was really impressed by the opening of the novel, despite my reservations. It's in the first seventy pages or so that Condie's prose really shines. Though stylistically sparse, her writing is surprisingly rich with sensory details. The Match Banquet was particularly well realized--you can practically feel the rough texture of the green dress she wears, and though the emotional relevance and richness flags a bit when we're returned to her bland suburbs, Condie eventually works us up to a grandparent death scene that had me openly weeping. We're talking poignant, emotionally accurate stuff. I was surprised, and had trouble understanding the level of haterade I'd encountered.
Then I read the rest of the novel, and began to understand.
It's not that Matched is particularly bad--it is, in fact, not particularly anything. Though the dystopian world building here is far sounder and more seamless than the glaringly problematic world of the similar, upcoming Delirium by Lauren Oliver, they suffer from what is essentially the same problem: a chronic lack of passion.
Cassia is sweet, but bland. Her two potential matches, Xander, and Ky, are sweet, but bland, and quiet, but bland, respectively. Her parents are good people that I could hardly be roused to care about. The most compelling characters--Cassia's grandfather, who bites it in the first hundred pages, and her younger brother, who hardly figures into the plot--aren't quite well-drawn enough to feel real. The Society that rules Cassia's world is never threatening enough to seem truly dangerous, and the supporting characters are essentially interchangeable. A few scant weeks after reading, I'd be hard-pressed to tell you why or how any of them belonged here.
There are hints of complexity, but these are introduced almost as an afterthought. Cassia has one friend who suffers from panic attacks, and whom her betrothed, Xander, treats with surprising sympathy. This sympathy is promising (my first thought is that there might have been a love relationship between the two), but is ultimately meaningless. There are suggestions that Xander and Ky may have shared a long history of friendly rivalry and perhaps just plain friendship--but this is insufficiently developed, too.
Rather than fleshing out these points of fascinating character conflict, Condie gives us, instead, a repetitive and plodding story. Cassia and Ky climb a mountain over and over again and exchange bland poetry and something akin to boring indie comics. They share chaste kisses and hold hands. Their affair has none of the heat of genuine teen love, or even the unfulfilled promise and pain that we got in, say, Twilight. This isn't just passion put off for later. It's a relationship that might as well be between asexuals.
Condie's writing holds more potential than many YA writers who write books I didn't care about: I know she's capable of being affecting, and, though, yeah, her world is derivative, at least it's not gratingly irritating. I can see picking up the second book, but if it remains as bland and inoffensive and just plain boring as this, I can't imagine reading the series through to the end.(less)
With its slightly cheesy title, riffing obviously on a Beatles’ tune, and tag lines that play up its romantic elements far more than its science ficti...moreWith its slightly cheesy title, riffing obviously on a Beatles’ tune, and tag lines that play up its romantic elements far more than its science fictional ones, I picked up Beth Revis’ Across the Universe with some trepidation. After all, true science fiction is rarely done in young adult literature these days and even more rarely done well. And much of the marketing and buzz around Revis’ debut seems to downplay the speculative elements. Already, there are plenty of reviews from YA reviewers saying stuff like, “I was afraid this would be like Star Trek but it wasn’t,” or which begin, “I’m not usually a fan of sci-fi, but . . .” As someone who loves Star Trek and is, in fact, enthusiastically into sci-fi, I was worried that Across the Universe might miss the mark for me.
Then I sat down to read it. Next thing I knew, it was nearly five in the morning, and I was done.
Across the Universe is the highly compelling story of Amy Martin, who joins her family in cryosleep on an exploratory vessel called the Godspeed bound for Alpha Centauri. When she’s awoken fifty years too soon, she meets Elder, rising leader of the mono-ethnic, non-popsicle population of the ship (and the sole libidinous teenage boy). Now separated from her parents by half a century, Amy must discover who is waking—and killing—those in cryosleep; and defend herself against Eldest, the ship’s current leader who sees her red-headed presence as a disruption to the frail peace of the ship; all the while discovering the ship’s darker secrets.
This story is told, alternately, from both Amy and Elder’s perspective. In less capable hands, this sort of alternating voice can make the pace flag. But Revis is clearly a capable writer--Across the Universe was a thrilling book and relentlessly plotted. Though I found myself occasionally wanting to come up for air, her writing worked well to gradually pull us into the growing horrors of the ship.
And the ship’s reality was, in fact, pretty horrible. Initially, I suspected that Revis would do little more than riff on The Giver or Harrison Bergeron, giving us a morality tale about the importance of differences and, like, specialness. But what’s happening here is actually much more complex, logical, and terrible. Though I feel like the horror in some places trespassed into the cartoonish (and, once, the really squicky—I don’t want to spoil, but the phrase “the sweaty, musty smell of sex” comes up), it was mostly nightmarish and grounded enough to remain compelling.
I’d say that the stronger influence here would be Jeanne DuPrau’s excellent City of Ember. The Godspeed is, likewise, a totally enclosed environment, and Revis does a good job of describing the claustrophobia of it, as well as giving it a nicely dusty touch.
I did have a few problems with Across the Universe, though it was easy to look past these as I got sucked in deeper and deeper into the story. For one thing, Amy’s voice was quite a bit blander than Elder’s—he felt flawed, thorny and compelling, while his counterpart was more anonymous. Part of this might be because I felt skeptical about Amy’s near-future home of origin, a world where people eat Hot Pockets and watch Star Wars, but play “VR Games” (why not just make them play Wii Sports?).
Finally, the plot comes together in ways that I didn’t find completely plausible, as the resolution required certain characters to act either unbelievable or willfully obtuse. It wasn’t quite an idiot plot, and Revis distracts us well enough that it’s easy to overlook this, but certain aspects of the novel’s end did trouble me.
Still, this was a thoroughly enveloping book—and damned good sci-fi. It’s clear that Revis thought carefully and deliberately about both the scientific and sociological implications of her universe, then matched this vivid world with several intriguing mysteries, stylistically sound prose, and a largely compelling cast. Ultimately, she manages to do what none of those lazily-crafted YA dystopians have: create an effective and fascinating SFnal world. In the end, I can say with confidence that Across the Universe isn’t only “sci-fi for people who don’t read sci-fi” but “sci-fi for people who love sci-fi,” too.
Disclosure: A review copy (actually, two—where did that first one come from?! Don’t worry; I’m dutifully passing on my extra to another reviewer, but still, mystery book in the mail! Weird!) was generously supplied by Penguin and LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program.(less)
I was really excited to pick up an e-ARC of Lauren Oliver’s Delirium on netgalley, as her first book, Before I Fall is one of my crit group member Sha...moreI was really excited to pick up an e-ARC of Lauren Oliver’s Delirium on netgalley, as her first book, Before I Fall is one of my crit group member Shannon’s all-time faves.
On a prose level, I can certainly understand her fondness for Oliver’s writing. It is very pretty and well-controlled, full of the sort of stylistic flourishes often absent in young adult literature. This was especially true in terms of her descriptions of the natural and man-made landscapes of the book. Delirium is set in a near-future version of Portland, Maine, and I almost felt like I’d been vacationing there by the time the book was finished. It’s a very well-described setting.
Unfortunately, other aspects of the world building, and many other aspects of the plot, fell flat for me.
My first problem was with the premise at large. This is a dystopian novel, and it opens with an extended infodump establishing our universe: in the future, a cure for love has been found, and with it, a host of mental disorders and crimes have been eliminated, too. At the age of eighteen (and not a moment sooner, we’re told, for fear of ill health effects—though this guideline is later broken without more than a slight nod of acknowledgement), all citizens are put through a “procedure” (a partial lobotomy, really), which cures them of all forms of love, from romantic infatuation to filial affection. The resulting population is peacefully matched to their future spouses, and, I suppose, the reader is supposed to be horrified.
I had issues with this infodump as a narrative device—I think it’s always a little bland to start a book this way—but I would have abided by it if Oliver had built something truly terrifying with her premise. But instead of seeming scary, our heroine Magdalena’s world just seemed simply implausible to me. I think this premise is indicative of a larger problem with YA dystopians: they often seem to be forming arguments in opposition to criticisms that no one has made. If we’re to look at humanity, historically, and as we know it today, I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that anyone would line up for procedures which “cure” them of love, as the narration tells us has happened in this society—particularly as Lena’s society is nominally somewhat Christian, a religion which at least in its modern form pays a great deal of lip service to the importance of love. Further, there’s no inciting incident—the formation of a political dictatorship, for example; or some sort of plague or war that leaves humanity vulnerable—to really justify this sort of philosophical sea change. We see hints of some political despotism; there are raids of homes and all citizens are constantly monitored. But these tropes go unexplored and when they are described in any depth, it’s somewhat limply. Perhaps Oliver is holding out for the second and third volume in this series to give us any deeper answers, but I found that it contributed to this volume’s failure when added to the more pervasive problems.
What’s worse, though (as I said above) what we have of the setting is beautifully described, it’s written in a way that is entirely too contemporary for my tastes. Bear in mind that I don’t dislike near-future political science fiction. When used correctly, I think contemporaneous details can contribute to the richness of a dystopian text. Take, for example, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In Atwood’s novel, the accuracy of details makes it easy to see how her society advanced from one very much like ours to an absolutely stifling dystopian world. Sadly, the details of Delirium do none of that. Lena runs for her high school track team; her friend downloads music illegally. I found neither of these details, or any of the others like it, to be particularly incisive enough to create those sorts of logical links between our world and a terrifying future. Instead I found myself wondering if perhaps Oliver simply lacked the imagination to create an accurately vivid world herself.
She tries. I know that she did because she utilizes an interesting narrative device, starting each chapter with a fictional piece of literature from her society, an excerpt from one of their handbooks for children or history texts or perhaps a prayer. But these, too, fail to coalesce into any deeper, more meaningful message. There was a vague anti-science message that I had a bit of trouble parsing—one prayer is a recitation of the periodic table, and there are references to how the church and science have merged to form a “New Religion, which teaches the Holy Trinity of God, Science, and Order.” I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect this was supposed to be scary. But I don’t find the periodic table, even if told in nursery-rhyme form, particularly scary, and if the message is that we’re supposed to be scared of scientists who want to give us lobotomies, well then, yeah, clearly.
Finally, though Lena’s voice is well-done (if a bit of an Everygirl), and some of the supporting characters vividly rendered, I found Alex, the love interest, the most important character to get right in a book about star-crossed lovers, to be utterly bland. He’s cute. He and Lena kiss. He recites poetry. But other than that, I have no idea who he is, and why he’s so special.
Maybe that’s sort of the point. There’s a recurring thread here about Romeo and Juliet. In Lena’s repressed society, it’s taught as a “cautionary tale” about the dangers of love. When Alex hears that, he laughs and says it’s a great love story. The only problem with that is, of course, to call Romeo and Juliet naught but a great love story is to oversimplify. It is a cautionary tale—about blood feuds—and the capriciousness of Romeo’s emotions, particularly, and the fool-heartedness of both Romeo and Juliet are also important themes. Of course, that’s not how Romeo and Juliet are often perceived by high schoolers. Many see it in reductive, over-simplistic terms (see also: how Bella and Edward interpret it in New Moon), which is how they often see love, too, throwing themselves into it whole heartedly even with people who aren’t that interesting.
If that was really Oliver’s point, then I think it’s a provocative one for a modern YA author to make. However, if that was her point, I really wish she would have shared it with her audience.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes from netgalley.com (less)