Katya’s World isn’t my usual cup of tea–it’s undoubtedly military SF (of a naval variety), and though it’s also undoubtedly YA, it’s light on the yummy romance that I love and instead focuses on action sequences and battles. While this sea-based science fiction is the type that I’m eager to recommend to my husband (because he’s really into Cold War submarine films), it still holds a certain nostalgic appeal. Howard’s work is particularly redolent of 1970s space opera–but in all the best ways.
It’s the story of Katya Kuriakova, newly an adult an embarking on her very first submarine mission, but it does not start with her. Instead, Howard opens with an extended prologue about the history of Russalka, an ocean planet. It’s an undeniable infodump, but it’s also a lively one, which gets us quickly up to speed: the water planet would have never been colonized if not for its mineral wealth. But then Terrans forgot about it, only to return far later and kick up a civil war. In less skilled hands, this would have been dry or unnecessary (prime fodder for skimming), but Howard makes it work with his smooth, confident prose and effortless worldbuilding.
And the world really does work, quite well. This is Russian inspired, but never feels like an appropriation. Howard’s world is fleshed out and effectively seamless. This allows us to follow Katya on her first crew experiences, told through nicely controlled, third-person prose.
Now, I’m a hard sell on third-person in YA. I suspect that modern YA first needs to appeal to a reader’s desire to identify, and first-person prose is an easy short-cut for identification. But I never doubted Howard’s choice to do otherwise. Katya is a bit of a chilly heroine, whose past is informed by trauma but who has chosen to very deliberately move on from that trauma. For her to be fully-realized, we need the narrative distance that only third-person provides. The use of third-person in Katya’s World is a strong reminder that there are very valid reasons to make certain (even unpopular) narrative choices. Though I’m not sure that most readers will be aware of Howard’s choices–because they’re smoothly executed enough to not be very noticeable–I appreciated the skill evident in them.
It’s different from my usual reads in other ways, too. This is a YA tale wholly lacking in romance. But it does not lack in human relationships. Katya’s relationships with the older men around her–her Uncle Lukyan and the pirate Kane–are touching and complex. Because Katya is a girl primarily defined by her desire for adult respect and recognition, these relationships, in lieu of romantic exchanges, made a whole lot of sense.
Still, the plot didn’t particularly appeal to me to the end–we’re treated to one action sequence after another, as the crew of the Baby find pirates and an artificial sea beast called the Leviathan. This action is fairly relentless, and might be a touch dry for those readers (like me) who aren’t action fans. But it’s worth reading through them. Ultimately, the Leviathan is a complex SF villain and technology both, and the difficulties it poses push Katya to her emotional limit. The climax reveals quite a bit about a strong-heroine who has withheld so much from readers–and it’s really quite a touching story in the end.(less)
This is the fourth young adult release by Pyr that I’ve read in the past month. It’s funny how quickly one forms an impression of a publisher just by reading a handful of their current titles. Through this exercise, I’ve noticed certain patterns: third person narration, an adult-SF sensibility, and a certain textual density that’s lacking in other YA.
All of these traits are on display here in The Creative Fire, first in a new series by author Brenda Cooper. It’s yet another Pyr YA title with mature stylings and a classic SF feel. As per usual for Pyr, the prose is both confident and competent. And yet again–as was the case with Quantum Coin–the quantity of plot events and ideas squished into such a small space posed serious difficulties for me in my enjoyment of the book. And once again, as with Be My Enemy, the emotional distance kept me from really getting swept up in the story.
There is much to like here, particularly in the novel’s broader concepts. Ruby Martin repairs robots on the generation ship The Creative Fire. One day the path beneath her breaks and she’s trapped with a man from a higher social caste, one who she would have never met otherwise. During this interlude, she sings to him–soon, she’s tapped as the new voice of the people, pulled from her humble beginnings into broader society.
The first problem here is that the plotting is diffuse and more than a little strange; after spending time with Ruby and her lower-class cohort through the novel’s first third, we’re suddenly plunged into the world of the higher castes and the novel takes a strange turn. She’s groomed for leadership and stardom, made to practice her vocal craft by Fox, a musical producer and Ruby’s first lover. These chapters feel almost like they were taken from a contemporary novel–a YA Black Swan, perhaps–where the female characters call one another catty names and compete to win Fox’s heart.
It was a strange turn, oddly jarring when contrasted with the shipboard society that we’re shown elsewhere in the novel. However, upon reflection I realized that I never really got a strong sense of this society overall; maybe the recording studios and bachelor pads of the novel’s middle weren’t so much a contradiction, but rather only appeared so due to my own failure to understand the society’s fundamentals. The citizens are stratified by job, and forced to don monochromatic outfits. Their quarters vary according to rank, and while vague historical explanations were given for this, the ship never quite coalesced for me into a real, tangible place. Perhaps this was intentional. After all, Ruby’s spheres of reference are limited, and as she moves beyond the society of the grays she learns more and more. But still, the setting never quite came together for me as I hoped. By the novel’s conclusion, I was still hazy about the ship’s purpose, the reality of their destination, how the social stratification worked, and so on.
This haziness was complicated by the truly epic cast of characters in The Creative Fire. There are dozens of minor, named characters–enough that I had a hard time keeping them straight. Very few seemed well-drawn enough for me to have a true sense of their personality. Ruby herself, at least, is a compelling heroine with some interesting and dicey complexity. Her major motivator appears to be sexual desire (in the novel’s early pages, she laments her own mother’s promiscuity), but many of the men she encounters were sketchily drawn. Because I never truly understood the appeal of many of these men, I found it difficult to empathize with Ruby and to understand what, precisely, she wanted as the novel progressed. General narrative distance and Cooper’s reserved, sparse prose compounded this. While I found Ruby interesting, I never quite sympathized with her.
The Creative Fire does firm up quite a bit toward the end, as Ruby is thrust into the limelight and forced to cope with the repercussions of her role as a figurehead. It’s a more successful exploration of these themes than Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, but the world, on the whole, was less believable than Panem. The book simply often felt like it was missing something. Still, readers who enjoy unadorned, mature writing might give this one a try; it’s certainly a confidently written book, even if I wasn’t quite sold on the overall experience.(less)
It took me a bit of time to decide how I felt about Rootless, Chris Howard’s debut YA post-apocalyptic novel. On the one hand, it’s an expertly crafted story, cohesive and fully formed in the way that many YA novels aren’t. On the other, the novel is at times formulaic–and this includes the novel’s central anti-GMO argument.
Like Jessica Khoury’s recent debut Origin, Rootless is essentially science-fiction-as-a-cautionary tale. This anti-science theme is more narrow than that found in Origin, specifically one which argues that scientific tinkering with foodcrops could potentially lead to Horrible Things (if it hasn’t already), but the through line is pretty much the same: nature good, mankind and his nature-bending ways, bad bad bad.
And it’s not as if there isn’t something to Howard’s argument. Genetic engineering of foodstuffs, the resultant lack of biodiversity, the race between herbivores and companies which aim to protect our crops from them–all of these are admittedly problematic. And Howard handles them with a fair deal of deftness in the novel’s core premise: in the future, superlocusts develop in response to genetically modified, pest-resistant corn. These locusts quickly blanket the world, even consuming animal flesh after all plant life but this corn are gone. The nature and impact of this apocalypse are well-explored. It’s a creepy, atmospheric world, and an interesting premise. Regardless of your feelings toward GMOs, Howard’s setting is fascinating and complex.
And nicely explored through Banyan, our teenaged, everyman hero. His tale is essentially a picaresque as he seeks to find the world’s last trees–and his long-lost father–and, on the way, accrues a motley band of associates. My favorite was easily Alpha, mohawked love interest and spitfire of a girl. I was a little less enamored of Howard’s slightly stereotypical Rastafarian characters, but the diversity (and presence of religion at all) was still refreshing.
Howard hits the beats of Banyan’s story perfectly–perhaps a little too perfectly. This is storytelling right out of the Blake Snyder school, and everything happens exactly when and how it should. This leads to a nice sense of cohesion, but also one of predictability. Howard is clearly a capable storyteller, and it would have been nice had he subverted the narrative structure now and then.
And in a way, this was my problem with the story’s ultimate conclusion. The horrors escalate, and are appropriately horrific, but at the same time somewhat predictably so–and they surpassed the bounds of credulity for me. Rootless quickly becomes a (slightly absurd) mad scientist story, with all the nuance you might expect. By the end of the story, Howard is making countless appeals to nature, including one passage where he extols the virtues of malus sieversii, a wild apple which is the ancestor of our domestic apples:
“The apple tree was a rare kind even before the Darkness. It grew in mountains in far off places. Malus sieversii. A type of wild apple that had grown for a long time unaltered, before people knew how to mess with such things."
This is a slightly problematic argument; though malus sieversii (and other wild apples) are sometimes edible, any apples we eat are created via grafting due to the lack of genetic predictability of apples from generation to generation. You can plant apple seeds, but there’s no guarantee that the tree that grows will produce edible fruit. Therefore, almost all apples that we eat are the way they are due to human intervention.
I suspect Howard would argue that this is a bad thing–his post on the science of Rootless suggests a sort of weariness about all human intervention in the natural order of things. But I found it to be an argument without nuance–nuance that teen readers are certain capable of handling. This argument will find supporters, of course, but also detractors. I asked a plant biologist colleague about the argument here and she replied in exasperation:
“This is an insanely complicated issue, and it’s something that’s going to be exceedingly important to the future of humanity, particularly with changing climates and increasing populations: food is going to become a bigger and bigger problem. And it’s infuriating the way that the current ag-bio industrial complex is set up because no one seems to think that it’s important enough to put enough money towards basic research. Plant labs are under-funded as it is, so a lot of researchers wind up going to Dow or Bayer or Monsanto with their hats in their hands so they can keep doing this research. And this fear-mongering isn’t helping to get anything done. No one talks about golden rice (which is a GMO), because all everyone wants to talk about is Bt corn."
Unfortunately, Howard just doesn’t treat the issue with complexity. And while the story is in so many ways strong–interesting, with a rich setting and vivid voice–the way it hinges on the issue will make it a hard nut (apple?) to swallow for some readers, including this one.(less)
Quantum Coin is an interesting novel. I’m not entirely sure that it’s a necessary novel; the first volume in the series, Fair Coin (released less than a year ago!) stood perfectly well on its own, delivering a strong and satisfying conclusion.
And so I understand that EC Myers had his work cut out for him at the outset of this book, as he needed to not only reintroduce the characters and their situations but open back up a plot that was previously closed. In the end, he managed to do so satisfactorily, but the journey to that conclusion was far more meandering than the tight, well-paced experience of Fair Coin.
Spoilers for the first novel will inevitably follow.
We begin Quantum Coin with hero Ephraim Scott restored to his own world. He’s at prom with Jena, the girl for whom he spent the first novel pining–when her otherworldly doppelganger Zoe appears to throw a wrench in their after-prom plans. After greeting Ephraim with a kiss (eliciting considerable jealousy from Jena), she tells the pair that there’s trouble brewing in the multiverse and pulls them into her world.
What follows is a scattershot journey through several different timelines–and points in chronological time. This portion of the novel resembled the conclusion of the first the most strongly; if you read last week’s review of Fair Coin than you know that I found that portion of the book the least persuasive. The technology behind the journey remains complex (for me, often to the point of confusion) and what was conspicuously lacking here was a real sense of purpose for Ephraim himself. In the first novel, Ephraim wishes because he wants to improve his impoverished life circumstances; this is a motivation readers can understand almost instinctively, and so as he attempts to patch over the damage he’s done to his life we heartily identify with him.
Not so here. Though Ephraim is somewhat torn between the two girls, this conflict isn’t very well contextualized or explained. I wasn’t sure what led to his favoring one girl over the other (in the first book, both had been vividly and sympathetically rendered) and, more, wasn’t sure how this emotional plight really figured into his journey through time and multi-dimensional space. What’s worse, each of the characters is just a shade less sympathetic than they were in the first book. Jena, Zoe, and Dr. Kim (their elder counterpart) are often reduced to catty stereotypes. Ephraim spends moments of important emotional heft gawking at Zoe’s boobs. And the moments where Myers seemed to have the most opportunity for emotional depth–when the characters encounter Jena/Zoe’s beloved grandfather, for example–felt breezed over. Ephraim’s mother’s absence, particularly, was sorely felt. Their relationship was one of his prime motivators over the course of the first book, as well as a strong sympathizing element for readers with Ephraim. It’s not until the novel’s midpoint that she makes a meaningful appearance and the romantic conflicts are pushed to the forefront, too; the second half is that much stronger for it.
Myers prose itself remains fairly strong, but the overall story was often difficult to grasp, not just because of the aforementioned character issues but also because of the book’s overwhelming density. This is a big book in a small package, and frankly, could have been twice the length. In a way, the early plotting reminds me of old Flash Gordon serials. The conflicts, setting, and even scientific rules shift from chapter to chapter. The characters are always seeking out one more person to help them in their quest. But because the science here is so hefty (discussions of quantum mechanics abound, and are much meatier than they were in the first book), I often felt unmoored. The pace–though not quite as breakneck as the pace of Fair Coin–remains swift, and I often found myself paging back in search of the conflict du jour (or du chapter, as the case may be).
At the climax it becomes clear that the scattered, wild quality of the book actually mirrors Ephraim’s dilemma and what we get in those last chapters is hefty, interesting, and boundary pushing. Still, it felt a bit tangled and impenetrable for me. By the novel’s end, Quantum Coin felt much closer to adult science fiction that YA sci-fi, full of weighty decisions with universe-spanning ramifications. In fact, the YA concerns–romantic, for instance–were resolved almost too quickly, whereas the scientific conflicts formed the novel’s true climax. The readers I believe would enjoy this most fully are adult readers who love hard sci-fi, who crave density and complexity and value them above the emotional conflicts of most YA. If only Myers had been able to write a true SF doorstop to do these ideas justice!(less)
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)
It sometimes feels as if genre occupies a universe wholly separate from other fiction. Whereas contemporary works mostly use trauma to explore the emotional situation of its characters, genre fiction instead uses trauma as inciting incidents or for archetypal window dressing. In genre fiction, for instance, the orphan child is orphaned both because it creates an opportunity for that child to be a changeling or long-lost lord, and because it’s what has always been done in fairy tales and myths; it is more rare that we find characters who have been orphaned because an author is genuinely interested in exploring what it feels like to grow up parentless.
(For an interesting take-down of this, see Wes Anderson’s recent Moonrise Kingdom.)
This is true for many YA genre novels as well. Children are set adrift–like Arthur Pendragon and Telemachus–because it sets them up to later be heroic. While there’s value in these narratives, they never quite ring emotionally true for me; their mythic sparkle means that they feel far out of reach from the more mundane (though trauma-touched) events of my own life.
That’s not true for Fair Coin, EC Myers’ March debut. Though the framework of the story–a contemporary science fiction thriller that bears superficial resemblance to at least two recent YA releases, not to mention a few television shows and movies–is quite standard, the emotional life of Ephraim Scott is refreshingly real. Our hero begins the novel with the discovery of his alcoholic mother’s drug overdose. In their messy apartment, he deals with the aftermath, trying to get a hold of his impoverished life–while simultaneously juggling standard teen tensions of school and girls.
When he finds a magical coin that offers him an opportunity to fix his life, it’s understandable why he might take it. Ephraim isn’t like the children of Half-Magic; he’s not well-off, but bored. He has real problems, poverty and alcoholism and an absentee father. And the girl he likes doesn’t like him back, to boot. It’s no wonder he might want to fix things.
And yet when he flips the coin and makes a wish, his new life is just as thorny as the one he knew before. As Fair Coin warms up, Myers remains very true to actual teen experiences. There are no improbable superpowers or apparently world-changing developments. There are, instead, abusive parents, skeevy teenage boys, and crises of parental health.
It’s in this honesty that the book is most strong. Ephraim is an utterly believable teenage boy–awkward, a little obsessive, smart but not preternaturally so. His friend Nathan is likewise very real, and while the boys engage in some untoward behavior and commentary about teenage girls, sexuality, and the female form, navigating these issues is close to the heart of Fair Coin.
Because it’s as much a romance as it is a thriller, and it’s a very tender, nascent one. As someone who was once a very shy very nerdy high schooler, Ephraim’s crushes and romantic anxieties felt refreshingly real. He bumbles toward romantic confidence as only an inexperienced teenage could, with plenty of hiccups and awkward stops.
And yet Ephraim–and his love interest Jena–are so nicely rendered that I never stopped rooting for them. Sure, at times Ephraim’s gaze felt distinctively male, but Jena is written with enough complexity and depth that she never felt objectified. She was also wonderfully smart (smarter than Ephraim!). With her solid handle on theoretical physics and her revolving wardrobe of funky eyeglasses, she was easy to cheer for even when Ephraim and Nathaniel weren’t.
There were certainly times when my patience with Ephraim wore thin–his failure to notice an all-too-obvious plot development, and his drawn-out inability to grasp the mechanics of the coin itself, both tried my patience. Still, through the novel’s first two thirds, the characters were otherwise so vivid, and the pace so relentless, that I didn’t much care. And Fair Coin was definitely well-paced; I made the mistake of reading it several mornings in a row in the bath and was pruney and late to work each day–simply because I couldn’t bring myself to stop reading. This is one YA SF thriller that is legitimately thrilling.
Unfortunately the novel unravels a bit as it concludes. For one thing, the mechanics of Ephraim’s wishing–the very mechanics which felt to me to be all-too-simple at the novel’s start–grew increasingly convoluted, to the point where they lacked clarity for me despite my familiarity with the same general concept in other works of fiction. For another, Myers allowed a very blatant plot hole to creep in near the novel’s climax. This left me torn. The way the novel wrapped up was plenty emotionally resonant, allowing Ephraim the growth and healing he so dearly needed throughout the book. But the reasoning behind it felt forced and awkward, at the very time when I wanted to be swept up by the story and characters who I’d already grown to love.
But I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Fair Coin despite these flaws. The genuine depth behind these characters, and the way that the SF conceits are used to explore their emotional states (rather than their emotional states used as an excuse to explore the conceits of SF) make it a stand-out in the genre–an authentic adolescent story in a gripping SF package.(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)
The Summer Prince is a lovely book–in some ways, precisely what many adult readers of YA have been seeking. The story of June Costa, an artist in the far post-apocalyptic city of Palmares Tres, and Enki, the summer king who steals her heart, it’s diverse, sophisticated, and written in lovely, lurid prose. The world of this far-future Brazil is perfectly conceptualized; led by a council of Aunties and a queen who is selected by the temporary king once per decade, Johnson’s world shows its roots in a thousand different, subtle ways. The power balance is so because of a plague which long ago decimated the male population. The society has an interesting split between the young and the old due to artificially enhanced lifespans. And death is on everyone’s mind–not just because euthanasia here is necessarily permitted but also because the elected king is sacrificed at the end of his reign for the good of his city.
Against this backdrop, we learn of Enki–hunky, enigmatic king–and the people who love him. June, a budding artist, isn’t alone in her admiration. Not only do many other young wakas love him, but none more than Gil, June’s best friend. And so we have a love triangle, but a subversion of your typical YA love triangle situation. This is the story of a girl and two boys–but the two boys love one another.
Issues of sexuality are rendered with a deft hand; it’s accepted and unremarked upon in this world, and not only are both Enki and Gil bisexual, but June’s mother, as well. Likewise, racial and cultural diversity in this speculative framework are exceedingly well-handled. We meet an older Japanese diplomat, who paints a vivid picture of a Japan where the people have, through bodily modification, transcended their flesh.
In this way, and in terms of pure description, that the setting–and the novel–soars. Palmares Tres feels real, sparkling and gritty all at once. It’s the type of setting that you dream about days after you put the book down. Nice work by Johnson, here.
I was less convinced by some other aspects of the narrative–namely the characters. June was a more believable adolescent than some protagonists written by authors who have primarily worked in adult speculative fiction, though her emotional register felt, at times, a touch off. But other characters were a bit more sketchily drawn, particularly Gil, June’s best friend and Enki’s lover. I never quite found myself invested in him, and so Enki’s dedication to the boy (and June’s) was a bit puzzling. And though June was better-drawn, the novel’s ultimate conclusion seemed to come about through external factors rather than any fate of June’s own making. It was a bit of a deus ex machina–leading to an ending that was just a touch too pat.
But I suspect that the biggest hesitation readers will have over The Summer Prince is in its very narrative density. The plot is diffuse and scattered, and the speculative elements–worldbuilding and backstory–come with no hand-holding at all. It’s a hard book, complex and twisty. Johnson reminds me most of adult speculative fiction writers like Marge Piercy and Kelley Eskridge. At times, I struggled to put the pieces of the universe together, and I wonder if young readers will, likewise.
But for readers who enjoy such sophisticated composition–used to highlight a gorgeous setting and intriguing premise–there is a lot to love in The Summer Prince.(less)
Parody can be a hard sell when you’re a fan of the source material.
Take, for example, the works of Lev Grossman. Many fantasy fans take umbrage with his intentional riffing on the tropes of epic and children’s fantasy. Harry Potter afficianados often accuse him of hating on Hogwarts. It doesn’t so much matter if his criticisms of the genre are right, incisive, or interesting. These fans are primarily concerned with whether his jokes come from a place of love.
Essentially, they’re scrutinizing his genre cred. It doesn’t matter if he loves Wizard Rock or Narnia–it matters if he seems to love Wizard Rock or Narnia. Geeks can be especially prone to this sort of defensiveness. After all, we often grew up in environments hostile to us and the things we love.
It’s through this lens that I inevitably viewed John Scalzi’s NY Times bestselling Redshirts. A very transparent and intentional parody of classic Star Trek, which I love, I found myself wondering again and again how Scalzi feels about the source material–even though I knew that I was setting the bar unfairly high.
Overall, I’m just not sure that this is a loving riff on Classic Trek. It’s difficult not to hold Redshirts up against Galaxy Quest, its closest analog. While Galaxy Quest included similar criticisms of Trek’s bad writing, self-satisfied stars, and corny tropes, it also did a good job of replicating what Trek always did well; by the movie’s end, it became a celebration of sacrifice, teamwork, hope for the future, and wonder in the wider universe. Redshirts never quite hit any of these notes for me, though it did remind me, again and again, that Star Trek is badly written (as Scalzi says in his acknowledgments, “Redshirts is not even remotely based on the television show Stargate: Universe . . . Indeed, I would argue that Stargate: Universe was all the things that The Chronicles of the Intrepid wasn’t–namely, smart, well-written, and interested in having its science nod in the direction of plausibility”).
But perhaps such criticisms miss the mark–maybe the author does heart Star Trek with all his heart. And to be fair, Redshirts does, in fact, do some interesting things in parodying Trek. Though the exposition is often painfully written, the dialogue is snappy. Whedon fans will love the clever turns of phrase and the characters’ geeky self-awareness. The primary, uh, narrative follows Ensign Dahl, who finds himself a redshirt on an Enterprise-esque spaceship. He and his fellow below-deck cohort realize that there is an unusually high death rate among their kind, and set out to discover why. Redshirts eventually becomes an onion-peel of a book, with several layers of metatextual narrative.
It’s undeniably clever, and the book’s rules are twisty and mind-bending in the best way. Unfortunately, I rarely found it funny or meaningfully engaging. The characters are cardboard cutouts–perhaps intentionally so, but I never really felt invested in their story and so their quest to save themselves from certain phaser-fire eventually wore thin. I thought the main narrative would have worked better as a concise, sharp short-story. In novel form, I eventually lost interest. Being clever isn’t always enough.
Nowhere was this more clear than in the first of the three codas, a metatextual exercise which struck me as painfully indulgent and yet not quite boundary-pushing enough. In it, Scalzi takes on the fictional mantle of an Author on the Internet. But I really wanted one level deeper, that moment that Kilgore Trout finally meets Vonnegut, so to speak. It never came. Disappointing.
And yet the final coda was the one that finally convinced me of Redshirt‘s worth. It’s a beautifully written interlude, one which actually reminded me of my favorite Trek novel, AC Crispin’s lovely Sarek. It gave me faith in Scalzi’s prose ability–up to this point, I had my doubts–and actually left me a little choked up.
Did it make Redshirts worth it? I’m not sure. Though many of the individual parts didn’t quite work, it’s definitely an entertaining read–and oddly challenging, too. I suspect Redshirts will work better for readers who are a little less metatext-weary and Trek-wordly, which, admittedly, is most of them(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)
Just last year, both Sean and I might have been heard to muse that the magic of Japanese YA–particularly anime and manga series–was conspicuously absent from the American young adult literary environment. After reading Garth Nix’s A Confusion of Princes, which was very close in spirit to several space-bound shojo series, I began to suspect we were wrong on that count. Jeff Hirsch’s Magisterium, out in October, proves me wrong again.
What we have here isn’t quite like the girly anime evoked by Nix, nor like anything else I’ve seen in modern YA. Instead, the closest analog would have to be the work of Hayao Miyazaki. I was particularly reminded of Spirited Away. In both works, we have strong female protagonists who lose their parents and enter magical worlds–worlds where nature obeys new laws, worlds inhabited by terrifying manipulators (or consumers) of matter, worlds haunted by ghosts, worlds where people are transformed into animals and then back again. These universes are dreamlike and vaguely disturbing, but nevertheless compelling. I suspect I’ll carry the world of Magisterium with me for a long, long while.
The plot scaffolding is one you may have seen before. There are lost princesses and magical artifacts. A girl loses her parents and must cross the border into another universe to save them. But the details of the world make this still a very rich experience. Sixteen-year-old Glenn Morgan’s father is obsessed with building technological wonders in his workshop. He hopes to save Glenn’s mother, who disappeared beyond the Rift, an invisible border created by the fallout of a long-past war, ten years before our story begins. Meanwhile, Glenn dreams of outer space. She wants to join a spacefleet and take off for an interstellar colony. Despite the techy details, Glenn’s home world feels very well-grounded. The people in it are recognizable, real, and well-rendered.
And none are so well-rendered as Glenn herself, or her love interest, childhood friend Kevin Kapoor. Glenn has been shaped by the loss of her mother. She’s angry, loyal, and determined to a fault. Her growing affection for Kevin, who wears a green mohawk and comes up with bad band names for fun, unsettles her slightly. What does it mean to begin to fall for someone you’ve known your whole life, and what are you risking by following your heart? In a genre full of instalove and unrealistically adult teenage boys, Kevin–and his complex relationship with Glenn–are certainly refreshing. They get on each other’s nerves and have trouble communicating, but their relationship is so heartfelt that the ultimate resolution feels wonderfully earned. (view spoiler)[Both make grand gestures; in one of the novel’s most touching moments, Glenn plunges into a river to swim after a brainwashed Kevin (hide spoiler)]. But these actions never feel obligatory or contrived. I believed them whole-heartedly.
Hirsch uses the chemistry and tension between these characters to effectively and seamlessly teach us about the world at the novel’s beginning (having two characters fight about the universe’s nature is so much more effective than a stock infodump). Later, they accompany one another through the Rift and into the magical world of the Magisterium. (view spoiler)[Here, physics work differently than on Glenn’s Earth. Magic is real. Her cat is (awesomely) transformed into a walking, talking guardian and mentor (hide spoiler)]. They become enmeshed in the politics of the world past the Rift, and it’s here that the story lightly stumbled for me. The characters drift from character encounter to character encounter much like avatars in top-down JRPGs. Each encounter is scary and fascinating–one with a cabin-dwelling woman named Opal Whitley (named, perhaps, for Opal Whiteley?) stands out as particularly strange–but I lost sense of the driving plot.
But all recovers by the novel’s end, as secret identities and powers are revealed and wild magic does its work. I eventually realized that it’s the romance that really drives the plot here and not the more fairy tale elements like the magical bracelet. But when a romance is written so competantly and well–when the characters involved are both strong, vivid, real, and when they inhabit a world so starkly fascinating–then I’m far from one to complain. Magisterium may not be a perfect work, but, like the work of Miyazaki, it’s the kind that you just can’t help but crow about.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(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)
If you’ve been following the Intergalactic Academy, then you know that we’re fans of KA Applegate. To date, Sean has recapped over half of her classic YA sci-fi series Animorphs. Animorphs was, in fact, one of the first things we bonded over–on the AbsoluteWrite forums, we talked about how we loved this dark contemporary space opera and how badly we wished someone would bring that magic back.
So I was very excited to pick up Eve & Adam, a collaboration between Katherine Applegate and her husband Michael (who also helped her out on Animorphs, rumor has it). But based on the premise, my expectations were not particularly high. On the surface, Eve & Adam is not dissimilar to many other YA sci-fi titles out there today. In fact, the focus on genetic engineering, artificial men, and evil corporations is fairly run of the mill.
But what distinguishes Eve & Adam is, really, what has always distinguished Applegate’s work. Don’t get me wrong; this is not a particularly deep book. It certainly isn’t literary. Told in the alternating viewpoints of Eve Spiker, daughter of an evil corporate head, and Solo Plissken, Eve’s mother’s ward, Eve & Adam tells an action-oriented story about how Eve is summoned home after an accident to start designing simulated people at her mother’s corporation–and how Solo tries to intervene, bringing the corporation crashing down. It is extremely–deliciously, I’d say–fast-paced, with chase scenes and dramatic kisses. It’s a commercial novel, through and through.
As were the Animorphs novels, of course. Those packaged titles were just-as-often written by ghostwriters. They featured a strong commercial hook, frequent battle scenes, slightly corny humor, and mildly embarrassing covers. But the Animorphs series was transcendent because of its strength of character, darkness, and nuance. Our heroes were strongly rendered from the outset, distinctive and realistic. The novels trended very dark by the end, and the arguments they made–about war, about heroism–were always complex. This was not a universe of black and white, simplistic morality.
All of these elements are present in Eve & Adam, which is precisely what makes it so great.
Take the characters: Solo Plissken is a teenage boy who is aching to be a hero; in order to do so, he needs to destroy the bitchy woman who owns his life. Solo’s chapters are liberally scattered with wry humor and accurate teenage diction (cursing!). Evening Spiker is a mildly nerdy girl who is not quite sure what she wants. Does she want to be like Aislin, the friend her mother disdains for her sexual proclivities? Or does she want to be like her mom–sharp, educated, controlled?
Grand and Applegate don’t beleaguer the point with either of these characters. They present them in bold, broad strokes and then let the narrative move on. The ease with which the characters are established (and the snappy pace of the book) might make you think that it’s one note. In fact, I initially feared we were in for little more than another story about the evils of scientific research.
But that’s not what this book is about. First of all, there’s a real love for science here–from Plissken’s computer hacking to Spiker’s use of a complex sim capable of building artificial humans. Somehow, Applegate and Grant were able to capture precisely what makes games like Spore so addictive–the art of it, as well as the twitchy, modular fun. Secondly, there’s surprising nuance in the minor characters (even the villains) by the end. Thematically, this is a fairly dark tale–though perhaps not as dark as Animorphs–about discovering the truth behind your childhood myths about your parents. It’s also got a bit of a Pygmalion thing going on, about art and artists, about creators and how the things they make can grow beyond their control.
But I think the most interesting questions here are ethical: when is it right to play god? To what lengths should we go to protect our creations–our children?
Again, this isn’t great literature. But for commercial lit it does a good job of incorporating complexity and big ideas. And that, I think, is what I always liked best about Animorphs, too. They were deceptive little books. Kids turn into animals, ha ha–only not. I think the same is true about Eve & Adam. You might think this is just another YA sci-fi thriller, but there’s some pretty juicy meat here on a familiar set of bones.(less)
It’s rare that I read a novel and think, “This is an absolutely honest expression of a certain set of experiences”–rarer, still, to find such utter and raw honesty in paranormal YA. While on the surface Malinda Lo’s Adaptation shares traits with paranormal YA that has come before it (the fun, but less meaty Unbecoming of Mara Dyer; Liz Norris’ recent debut Unraveling, which I reviewed back in April) it distinguishes itself by having, at its core, an absolutely heartfelt and very genuine incipient romance. What’s more, she uses the tropes of her genre–abduction and body horror, paranormal occurrences and burgeoning supernatural powers–to explore the emotional lives of teenagers via metaphor.
And I’ll be damned if this metaphor is not precisely what science fiction is meant to do.
It’s the story of Clarice “Reese” Irene Holloway, a high school senior who gets stranded at an airport with her debate partner David and the debate team adviser. When a series of mysterious bird strikes fell several planes, they take off via rental car across the Nevada desert and find themselves in a wreck near the infamous Area 51. A month later, Reese wakes up in a medical facility, saved–but inexplicably changed.
The narrative then shifts to Reese’s hometown, San Francisco, where she makes her return to daily life. If I have any hesitation with the novel, it’s here, and in the integration of the contemporary and paranormal themes. The novel felt at times fractured, almost split between the two tales–the first, in which a girl was abducted and proceeds to use the ol’ YA paranormal cliche of googling for information about her paranormal problem, and the second, where an emotionally shuttered girl falls in love with another girl.
It’s Reese’s romance with pink-haired Amber Gray that forms the heart of the novel. Lo recounts Reese’s nascent romance with utter honesty and raw emotion, through lovely, vivid prose:
“Kissing Amber was like falling into the sea: Her body surrendered to the pull of the tide, buoyed by the saltwater, every breath tasting like the ocean. Reese lost all sense of where the surface was. All there was, was this. Amber’s lips, her tongue, her hands stroking back Reese’s hair, curling around her head and holding her steady. If their first kiss had been a bit awkward, that was gone now. (153, ARC edition)
It’s hot and tender and it opens the narrative beautifully up. Reese shares with us accounts of earlier high school days when her friends begged her to share the name of a crush and she felt she couldn’t because that was for other girls, not for her. It’s incredibly accurate in all its little details (right down to the graffiti in the gay bar bathroom) and wonderfully honest–not just as a queer teen romance, but really, for the way first romance makes all teenagers vulnerable.
When the paranormal plotline picks back up, it stitches itself together with these more contemporary passages. After this point, I never wondered for a moment why these things were happening to this girl. The girl and the story depend on each other deeply and truly and are essentially one and the same. This is a story about solitude and emotional alienation, about how love transforms you (often against your will!), and about finding solace in unexpected places.
It’s also an absolutely loving homage to The X-files. Unlike Unraveling, which felt eager to draw comparisons between it and the now-SF television classic, but never really seemed to understand it, Lo seems deeply acquainted with the show. There are dozens of nods here that X-philes would appreciate, from the obvious (Dana Scully was modeled on Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs; Fox Mulder was played by David Duchovny) to the more subtle–an interrupted kiss features in both. The X-files was a work with heavy metaphoric resonance, too–Mulder was an outsider who never quite came to terms with his sister’s abduction, while Scully spent much of the series grieving her father and grappling with her faith–and it used the paranormal to explore these characters in a thousand different ways. Lo, likewise, uses the genre of science fiction as a metaphorical tool, and she couldn’t have chosen more apt metaphors or more profound issues–sexual identity, emotional isolation, trust, and first loves–on which to use them.(less)
There are books you respect for how well they’re crafted–their pace, strong voice and vivid characters. There are novels with themes you believe in, which expand your thinking on a subject in a new and thrilling way. And then there are certain books that do one, or the other, but not both; there are novels you admire, but don’t very well like because what they say about the world is abhorrent to you. For me, Origin is one of those novels.
For the good: this is one of the most immersively atmospheric young adult novels I’ve read in a long time. The pacing, breathlessly engaging, and easily matches Beth Revis’s Across the Universe, one of my favorites. Debut author Jessica Khoury presents one of the most distinctive and perfectly realized characters in Pia, an immortal girl raised by a team of scientists in a secret lab in the Amazon rainforest. Khoury’s prose is lovely and lyrical, drawing a vivid picture of Pia and her environs. She’s a confidant writer.
I just can’t get behind what she wrote about.
The overwhelming message of Origin is “the thirst for scientific knowledge makes scientists do evil things.” To be fair, this is a somewhat classical message in science fiction, one that’s understandably been with us since Hiroshima. And it’s been particularly popular in recent pop sci-fi. Lost, for example, which Origin both evokes and conspicuously lifts certain plot points (one female scientist’s backstory perfectly matches Juliet’s) seemed to have at its heart an anti-science argument. Those behind Lost have since gone on to create other media where scientists are bumbling or evil: Fringe is in many ways the story of one scientist’s atonement for evil acts. Prometheus presented a world where scientific curiosity leads inevitably to ruin. In fact, in interviews, Damon Lindelof stated that he felt science fiction fundamentally is a cautionary tale. As suggested in Lost itself, we should just have faith, and stop asking questions.
Khoury takes a slightly different route in portraying science as evil. She simply chooses to make the scientists in her story the evilest evil people ever. They raise Pia with a wealth of scientific knowledge, but none about the outside world. They tell her that she will be a scientist, and implore her to embrace a method of cold rationality which includes murdering kittens. I am not making this up. In fact, the scientists are portrayed as so flatly evil that, when characters allude to a mysterious catalyst which make immortality possible, I said to myself, “these scientists are so evil, I bet it comes from eating babies.” I wasn’t far off.
(To be fair, there are two mildly good scientists. It was not enough to counteract the EVIL SCIENCE IS EVIL message for me.)
I recently attended a con panel on dystopian YA fiction; there, it was suggested that modern YA dystopias are dark because teens live in uncertain times. I understand that Khoury, fairly young herself, coming of age in an era when the evils of, say, stem cell research are frequently in the news, but when it comes down to it, her scientists are nothing like the passionate, curious, engaged, kind scientists that I know in my own life. The message, and its lack of nuance, felt close to an affront.
There are other ways in which Origin reminded me of Lost, particularly in the inexplicable cageyness of certain characters. There was a scene where Pia shouts at one to tell her information and he tells her over and over again that he can’t. But he could. The deflection only served to postpone the reveal of information to where it was most impactful, but it didn’t make much sense.
But still, this is a finely crafted novel, and Khoury is a powerful writer. I just don’t agree, personally, with what she wrote about. Those who enjoy sci-fi as a cautionary tale (I’m looking at you, Damon Lindelof!) will find quite a bit to like here.(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)
It’s rare that I find YA comp titles to be accurate. Many are pitched as “x meets y!” or “x for teenagers!” when neither title x nor why have anything but the most superficial similarities to the novel in question. What’s Left of Me, however, has already drawn comparisons to both His Dark Materials and Never Let Me Go–and for once, the comparisons are apt! What’s Left of Me bears some conceptual similarities to The Golden Compass and its sequels, in that it explores a world where souls are known to exist. As in The Golden Compass, these souls are very different from ours (namely, each person is born with two). But the comparison to Never Let Me Go is even more appropriate. Both novels are set in alternate versions of our own world. Both feature striking, somewhat spare prose and a melancholy tone. And both are quite lovely books.
What’s Left of Me is the story of Eva, a recessive soul trapped inside a body shared with a girl named Addie. In Eva’s world, each person is born with two consciousnesses who alternate control of their body until, around age six, the recessive twin fades away. But Eva never has. Her parents take her to doctors and specialists, desperate to avoid the presence of a “hybrid” child in their family. Finally, around age 12, Eva simply decides to let Addie take control–despite the fact that she’s very much still alive.
This means that for most of the novel, Eva narrates without truly interacting. She can speak to Addie, and she can speak to us, but she’s a prisoner, really, in her body. Zhang handles this interesting perspective well. Her prose is very well-controlled. Later in the story, when the perspective shifts to first person from third, it’s both very intentional and very meaningful.
What’s Left of Me is generally a thoughtful book. It seems to be primarily a novel about identity politics. There’s a running subtext about growing up as a member of a minority group in America; Zhang doesn’t avoid hard racial questions, and she doesn’t dodge the fact that Addie and Eva have an easier life than some in this world because they are white. But there’s also a persistent thread about growing up closeted, one which is fully explored by the novel’s conclusion. In the novel’s second half, the girls are forced to undergo medical treatment in a hospital that bears some resemblance to “ex-gay” therapy that some children are forced to undergo in our own world.
But Zhang doesn’t let her characters suffer for all this thematic complexity. Both Eva and Addie are very well-wrought characters, and their relationship is a thorny as any real-life sisterly bond. There are jealousies and romances and Zhang wonderfully explores the way her universe’s rules change both jealousy, and romance. The question of consent is present here (what if you want to kiss a boy but your other soul doesn’t?), and Zhang declines to give us any easy answers. Heady, thoughtful stuff.
That’s not to say the novel is perfect: Eva generally read much younger than 15 to me; religious exploration is conspicuously absent in a universe where souls are confirmed real; I was sometimes a little hazy on the history of Zhang’s America. But overall? This is a complex, sophisticated book–a satisfying answer to more pedestrian YA.(less)
Tomorrow Land is an interesting endeavor in the realm of modern publishing–a novel published in 2007 (so before the wave of books just like this) by a now-kaput publisher, rereleased in eBook form. In many ways, I think it is a perfect novel for e-publishing. It’s accessible, priced-right, and in an extremely popular genre. For those who want one more post-apocalyptic road trip, similar to Partials or Ashfall or a bunch of other mainstream novels, there’s really no reason to pass up Mancusi’s take on the zombie apocalypse.
But a “perfect novel for e-publishing” is not necessarily a “perfect novel.” Don’t get me wrong–in terms of polish, this is well done. It’s clearly been professionally edited. The e-book was formatted correctly and without glaring errors. However, in many ways, in terms of story and plausibility, it falls flat.
Sean is right that much of the problem here is created by the alternating timeline utilized by Mancusi. The main plot–where Chase and Peyton walk down a post-apocalyptic I-95 (called here “Highway 95″–it’s a nitpick, but such real world worldbuilding errors always rankle, for me) with a herd of orphaned children–is the most interesting. There’s a rich subplot about drug addiction, and the pair’s romance is exceedingly well-handled. It grows slowly, and feels based on genuine mutual respect and affection without resorting to didacticism about what teen romance should look like. I liked both of these kids, and believed in their love. They’re what kept me reading.
But the other timeline is far blander, the story of the looming zombie apocalypse and how it destroys Peyton and Chase’s mostly-normal suburban lives. Though a few of these scenes were both interesting and necessary (the incipience of their romance, the discovery of ZOMBIES!!, Peyton’s surgery and the building of her father’s bomb shelter), most was not and actually had the effect of diffusing tension in the main story. And despite this format, many plot twists felt insufficiently foreshadowed. As Sean says, we don’t, for example, learn about Peyton’s ocular implants and retractable claws for an implausibly long time.
But my biggest problem was that the text is riddled with inappropriate pop culture references. Mancusi tries to tell us that Peyton is a millenial movie addict, but that wouldn’t explain references to Edward Scissorhands (’90), The X-files (’92), Mad Max (’79), Neuromancer (’84) and a whole bunch of other stuff. The children of the 2030s appear to have no culture of their own. Instead, their cultural frame of reference is the same as mine–or, more likely, the same as the author. A very, very small number of these worked for me (I caught what might have been a stealth reference to the NZ kid’s show The Tribe, though I suppose kids with facepaint living in a retail store might happen in two media works organically), and mostly they never failed to take me out of the story and leave me scratching my head.
But still, if you’re not a nitpicker like I am, you might enjoy the story here. Again, the characters are engaging, and the central romance is sweet. It exists in a bit of a glutted market right now, but if you just can’t get enough zombie apocalypse road novels, there’s really no reason not to try Tomorrow Land.(less)
Like a lot of people my age, I dig anime. Girly anime, mostly–Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. My affinity for odd Japanese children’s series has often left me craving a written equivalent. Manga are great and all, but I’m a book girl at heart, and have never really found anything in American YA that satisfies in quite the way that an episode of my favorite shojo might. Magical and often surreal, these shows take the typical universal experience of growing up and wrap them in vivid science fiction or fantasy trappings. But because the narratives are created outside the American cultural sphere, they have a fantastic freshness to them. They feel strange, unexpected–they make your brain work to uncover the mystery of the world even as you follow the main character’s narrative. For example, I recently began watching Revolutionary Girl: Utena, and became immersed in the strange setting (an isolated school with a floating castle out in the woods) and central plot (a student council fight duels and the victor gets to own a girl) as much as I was entertained by the spunky main character.
So I was excited when I read the blurb for Garth Nix’s A Confusion of Princes. I got a strong whiff of “anime story!” from the declaration that “being a Prince in a vast intergalactic Empire isn’t as great as it sounds. Princes may be nearly superhuman, but they are always in danger.” And really, this novel exceeded my expectations. It’s exactly what I’ve been hoping for: inventive as any anime, with strong science fictional worldbuilding, and the distinctive characters that make Western YA novels so lively.
Before you dive in to A Confusion of Princes, you should know that this is an incredibly dense, strange book, at least at first. Within the first hundred pages, we’re introduced to Prince Khemri, who was stolen from his parents (who were either killed, or mind-wiped) in order to become an intergalactic Prince. He spent the first decade in some sort of biogoop, where he had three types of “tek” implanted into him–mektek, bitek, and psitek. These terms are dropped in without explanation, and it took me most of the novel to work them out from context clues. Super strong, with psychic abilities and access to the knowledge of the Imperial Mind, Khem was raised alone with virtual tutors. But at last he’s set free, given a dozen servants, and allowed to join Princely society–where he is, in short order, killed.
(That’s not a spoiler, by the way. We’re told in the first sentence that this is the story of Khem’s first three deaths.)
This is truly challenging science fiction. Khem is not human, least of all in his view of the world. Nix doesn’t do much hand-holding here. We’re plunged into this new, strange universe in a manner more common of adult sci-fi. It’s absolutely fascinating, and I was so excited to discover the mysteries underlying his world that I just kept reading, finishing the novel in one sitting.
It wasn’t until I was about a third of the way through that I realized that aside from Khem–strongly voiced, wryly humorous, absolutely honest–there weren’t really any characters in this book, especially not at first. But I really almost didn’t notice. We’re swept along from one intriguing science fictional situation to the next and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be so preoccupied by figuring it out that you won’t really miss people.
And then Nix pulls the rug out from under us at roughly the halfway point, when Khem meets Raine and begins to slowly take on the mantle of humanity. It’s a fascinating process, and a fascinating move in a novel such as this one. In some ways, this marks a transformation into a more typical upper-YA narrative. But Khem’s journey continues through lush environs and at a sprightly pace–and by the time he started to feel for Raine, I’d begun to feel for both of them. Sure, Nix sacrifices a little bit of the novel’s strangeness, but he exchanges it for tenderness. It works, and works well.
I really adored this book, and would imagine that it would have broad cross-over appeal–not to middle grade audiences like some of Nix’s books, but rather to adult science fiction fans. They’re likely to appreciate the rich, strange world here, even as their younger brothers and sisters enjoy the coming-of-age narrative at its core. In that way, it’s a lot like anime–and precisely what I’ve been waiting for.(less)
On the surface, Elizabeth Norris’s upcoming debut Unraveling sounds promising: a paranormal procedural featuring the daughter of an FBI agent who investigates a series of mysterious murders where bodies are discovered twisted by radiation. The novel’s opening–which also features our heroine Janelle Tenner’s very own near-death experience–is heavy on The X-files references and promise a similar degree of spooky complexity.
Unfortunately, Unraveling‘s very premise was identical to another paranormal procedural–not The X-files, but rather the still-airing Fringe.
I’m not usually one to bemoan the presence of derivative works in YA. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t even mention it. Sure, there have been plenty of paranormal novels where teens meet and flirt in biology classrooms. And okay, there have been a couple of dystopian stories featuring coal-mining populations that may or may not live under domes. I’m not, however, talking about surface similarities but rather the fundamental skeletons of both stories. Unraveling and Fringe offer essentially identical frameworks.
(view spoiler)[On Fringe, Olivia Dunham is a stubborn, driven FBI agent who investigates paranormal incidences. Initially, the basic structure of the show resembles The X-files. However, Olivia eventually comes to fall in love with Peter Bishop, a rough-around-the-edges bad boy who is actually from a parallel world. His crossing between worlds as a child–during which he nearly drowned when he came to under a lake–is causing extensive damage to both universes and threatens to cause dimensional collapse.
In Unraveling, Janelle Tenner is the stubborn, drive daughter of an FBI agent who investigates paranormal incidences. The novel draws deliberate comparisons between these cases and those on The X-files. However, Janelle eventually comes to fall in love with Ben Michaels, a rough-around-the-edges bad boy who is actually from a parallel world. His crossing between worlds as a child–during which he nearly drowned when he came to in the middle of the ocean–is causing extensive damage to both universes and threatens to cause dimensional collapse. (hide spoiler)]
These elements (and there are significant similarities to other franchises as well, including Veronica Mars and Roswell) wouldn’t, in and of themselves, particularly damn Unraveling. But Fringe is one of my favorite science fiction shows–and the specific twist mentioned above one of the most innovative I’ve ever seen on TV. Fringe has used this science fictional premise to examine its characters under a variety of frameworks. And these characters are incredibly well-drawn and dynamic, capable of carrying the story even when the SFnal premise falters. In order to succeed, Unraveling would have to rise at least to a similar level.
Unfortunately, it does not. Unraveling‘s prose is often awkward; the dialogue, on occasion, painfully corny (“Whatever you feel for him, don’t let it get in the way of what the laws of physics tell you”). And the cast is sketchily-drawn, rather than vivid. Love interest Ben Michaels, for instance, has green eyes and floppy hair and likes motorcycles. I don’t know how he moves or thinks, even after spending nearly five hundred pages with him. We’re told that Janelle resents having to raise her younger brother, suggesting that they should have an intimate relationship. But I didn’t know anything about him, either. Janelle’s mother, who is bipolar and whose personality, you would think, would have an incredible impact on Janelle, is largely absent, and when she is present she’s never developed beyond “mentally ill.” Even Janelle’s best friend is a cipher. The only thing I could tell you about him at all is that he’s half-Asian–and I only know that because at one point he drops an awkward, self-deprecating racial reference.
The only character beside Janelle that I had any concrete sense of was her father, who loves science fiction. This gave Norris the chance to name-drop some sci-fi, but I found these sci-fi references fairly shallow. At times they were even inappropriate–like when Janelle tells us her father read her Ender’s Game when she was three. But more significantly, we’re supposed to believe that he was a negligent, workaholic parent. And yet Janelle’s memories of her home life are infused with references to him. It just didn’t add up.
That’s not to say this is all bad. Despite the sometimes-awkward phrasing, the novel moves quickly, helped along by its ticking clock format and short chapters. Janelle herself is a fairly solid character. And Elizabeth Norris’ breathless stylistics actually worked well in a pinch during make-out scenes. Readers who don’t mind fairly derivative plots and are simply looking for action novels with lots of romance might enjoy it, even if genuine sci-fi geeks like me are probably best just sticking with Fringe.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(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 began Monument 14 with some difficulty. Following a gripping second-person introduction, we’re plunged into...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
I began Monument 14 with some difficulty. Following a gripping second-person introduction, we’re plunged into the life and voice of Dean, a tenth grader whose world falls apart on the bus to school one morning. Massive hailstones dent the ceiling of his bus, and cars swerve from the road. There are explosions. Soon, the world is a wreck around him and he finds himself ushered in to a local big box store by a grade school bus driver who soon leaves for help.
Fourteen children are left behind. They watch the news of a mega-tsunami over an old television screen. This all sounds pretty gripping, and it should have been, but at first the story–told through Dean’s simplistic and somewhat bland narration–felt stiff to me. The characters (a jock, a bully, a beautiful girl, the new kid, the foreign kid, a pair of twins) were like cardboard cut-outs.
But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did. Slowly, over the course of Monument 14‘s spare three hundred pages, Dean and his companions began to come to life. Holed up in the megamart after a chemical weapon is inadvertently released by an earthquake following the tsunami, they begin to carve out a meager existence. Their days are filled realistically. Sometimes they enact ingenious plans; sometimes they get drunk and play laser tag. Soon, the older kids are plunged into romantic drama. Dean loves Astrid, who disappears after a chemical-induced freak-out. When he finds her again, he learns she’s canoodling with Jake, a popular athlete. Leader Niko loves “mother hen” Josie, who loves Brayden, a bully, and so on.
There are questionable moments in the narrative, like when a thirteen-year-old girl puts on a sexual show, apparently to gain the approval of the older boys–or when Dean himself uses the term “gay” to describe a poem he’s written. But Laybourne (and Dean) mostly present these moments without narrative comment. She’s not endorsing or judging this behavior. She simply presents it realistically, and leaves the reader to make moral judgments, or not, as he or she sees fit. Contrary to my initial beliefs, these weren’t simple, cliched characters. As I came to see different sides of the children, I began to believe they were all very nuanced in their conception. If they seemed stiff at first then, well, it was only because Dean himself didn’t know them very well.
There are a few lapses here. The ending is unsatisfying, though true to the character of a schlub like Dean. The science fictional and science elements were also sometimes silly. This is a near-future world, one with a massive computer network that soon goes down. I was never really convinced that this was a necessity. If Laybourne meant to warn us about the dangers of cloud computing, well, I’m not exactly about to give up dropbox.
But those details really weren’t important. What carries Monument 14 were the strongly-conceived, spot-on teenage characters; the fascinating setting (who hasn’t dreamed of holing up in a Walmart for awhile?); and the complexity with which Laybourne deals with human nature. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a strong, interesting one, and well worth a read.(less)
In many ways, Kevin Emerson’s The Lost Code feels like a throwback to the slim YA science fiction novels of decades past. Told through the accessible, easy narration of Owen, it describes a picture of a typical suburban adolescent experience–a summer spent at summer camp–with a heavy science fiction twist. The Lost Code is set in the future, where mankind lives under Eden Domes, perfect paradises of weather and ecology, safe from the horrors of the ravaged world beyond. Owen has come from a human settlement to spent the summer living as suburban kids once did. That doesn’t mean his life is easy, however–he has to confront bullies, hormones, his own health problems, not to mention the gills he suddenly and inexplicably sprouts while underwater.
All of this sounds promising, and it’s made more so by the easy narration utilized by Emerson. In concept and prose, this is the sort of “boy book” that many librarians and teachers crave. It talks to teens on their level; it’s easily digestible and conceptually fun; it would make both a great beach and fit in well on the shelf of a reluctant reader.
But it simply doesn’t live up to all this promise. The first and most significant problem is that it’s just too long. Though the first chapter features Owen’s apparent death (gripping!), the subsequent hundred pages have no true conflict to speak of. Owen deals with a few cardboard cut-out bullies at camp, then falls in with another crowd of teenagers who have likewise sprouted gills. They swim. A lot. And trade conspiracy theories. And flirt and tease. But this was all described in extremely mild, even nostalgic terms. We’re told the stakes are high, but we never feel it. You never doubt for a second that Owen is going to beat the bullies, find people who appreciate him, or get the girl, and so it’s not a particularly interesting read.
When the more significant plot elements kick into gear, it feels too little, too late. Discussions of the ancient Atlantean mythos are particularly dull. Characters hash out and rehash their theories in thudding monotone. And the people having these conversations are mostly undeveloped. Though by the novel’s conclusion I’d begun to get some sense of Owen himself, even his love interest, Lilly, was fairly undercooked. I’d be a loss to tell you anything about her personality at all, only a few hours after finishing the novel.
It’s too bad–cut down by about half, to the length of Animorphs and other successful earlier series in this vein, I think The Lost Code could have been really fun, fluffy and entertaining. This isn’t the type of novel that would ever appeal to lit snob sci-fi fans, but it is evocative of the great commercial science fantasy that’s come before, from Barsoomian adventure stories to Flash Gordon to Star Wars. The problem is that all those serial stories were tightly paced and above all, riveting. The Lost Code instead meanders–when it really should fly.(less)
It’s funny; nothing that bothered Sean about this book significantly bothered me. I fo...moreFull review (and another opinion!) at the Intergalactic Academy.
It’s funny; nothing that bothered Sean about this book significantly bothered me. I found the political back-drop to be a step-above what’s usually found in this sort of action-oriented military science fiction, a realistic extrapolation of the current political landscape and an unfortunately realistic reflection on how kids in conquering (and culture-destroying) nations think of those their predecessors have vanquished. Which is to say, they don’t generally think of them at all. No, SJ Kincaid doesn’t go for incisive or pointed political commentary. Again, these aspects of the novel are simply background elements to what Sean quite aptly describes as Ender’s Game lite. But neither does it seem to be motivated by particular cultural prejudices.
In fact, I found quite a bit to like in Insignia, conceptually speaking. It’s the story of Tom Raines, a zitty teenaged gambler who is recruited into a military school by a hot girl. Tom’s a spot-on realistic fourteen-year-old boy. When we first meet him, he uses a cocksure exterior to hide his secret shames: a mother who has abandoned him, a cruel stepfather, a gambling-addicted (and slightly crazy) dad. Tom’s skill at video games attracts the attention of military recruiters who invite him to the Spire, a military installation in the Pentagon. There, he meets a gaggle of teenage soldiers who he soon befriends, is implanted with neural technology that makes him supersmart, and gets sucked into various instances of military school intrigue.
The introduction of Tom’s neural implant is probably the best handling of this sort of concept that I’ve seen. Kincaid does a solid job showing us how the technology changes Tom’s every thought–the very way he interacts with the world is inextricably altered. It’s a strong science-fictional concept, even if (as Sean points out), it’s not strictly possible. But Kincaid sure makes this technology, and the risks that ensue, feel plausible.
Even more plausible are the teenagers. Tom’s friends–Vikram, Yuri, and Wyatt–are vivid, complex, real. They’re also slightly obnoxious. The boys tease Wyatt (a girl with a boy’s name, as the text acknowledges) and call her “man hands.” Though she eventually earns her come-uppance–by stooping to their level, unfortunately–and though this dialogue was certainly realistic, it also made me want to give her a big hug and tell the guys to quit being so mean. Kincaid chooses realism here over modeling positive behavior. That’s fine–YA doesn’t need to be didactic–but I just hate that kind of gender policing even when it comes from real people, and it did make me cringe. And yet the teens forge a real, genuine friendship. Their nascent relationships are tender, even cute. The way they stick their necks out for each other is completely endearing. They felt like real teenagers in so many ways to me, even in their foibles.
So we have all the parts for a really strong science fiction novel: unobtrusive prose; interesting SFnal conceits; a well-rendered political backdrop; deftly-crafted characters. And yet as I read on, my attention frequently flagged. This is essentially a school story (“sci-fi Harry Potter” would not be far off), but as we follow Tom in his daily life, I noticed a lack of strong central conflict. Many of Tom’s problems were quickly resolved–his unattractive appearance, his lack of friends. Though he starts the novel deeply neglected by his father, he writes him off well-before the school story is meaningfully underway, and their relationship goes unmined for most of the book. The truth was, I wasn’t sure what the stakes were for Tom through much of the novel, and so I never felt particularly deeply invested. Ultimately, I concluded that Tom’s deepest desire was to get the–a?–girl, but even this plot element was relegated to sub-sub-sub plot until the novel’s end.
The way the novel concluded, in fact, left me deeply conflicted. I’m just not sure what I think of it, or how it sat with me–though I do admit it was gripping in a way that much of the novel’s middle wasn’t. It’s one of those endings you want to contemplate, discuss, pick apart. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tom’s actions didn’t cause at least a little controversy in the blog-o-sphere.
All that being said, there is quite a bit to admire in Insignia. It’s not a deep book, or a perfectly crafted book, but it’s a respectable debut and the kind of YA sci-fi that many teens are craving. If Insignia were a movie, it would be Tron: Legacy–nice to look at, not bad for a popcorn flick.(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)
Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences opens like a fairly typical lower-YA/upper-MG novel, with our hero sitting, bored, in class. This lasts all of a few seconds, because he soon hears a voice in his head apologizing for his imminent loss. Initially, Jesse is puzzled–until he realizes that everyone around him has just dropped dead. The world has just been conquered by little green men, and it’s taken all of a few seconds.
He’s shuffled off to a sort of human internment camp, and it’s here that the real story begins. Jesse is considered “product” by the silent, psychic Sanginians. He forges friendships with another boy, Michael, as well as two girls. Soon the quartet are gossiping and flirting with one another, finding solace and some modicum of normalcy in their relationship. As Jesse muses:
“I admit on our way back to the library that Addyen isn’t so bad for an alien. We find Michael and Lindsey and talk for while, almost like friends at school. I feel almost, I don’t know, normal.
“Lindsey and Laure even agree that women shouldn’t wear fur. Lauren is a dog person and Lindsey is a cat person, but they both feel that wearing animal fur is wrong and gross. (49)
Most of the novel is told this way, in the same sort of natural, easy, authentically adolescent voice. But it’s in the interchapters that Alien Invasion . . . becomes truly interesting. In these communiques between Lord Vert (alien master of the household in which Jesse is a slave), and his father, we learn of the man’s petty insecurities, his anxiety over forging a new colony, and his desire to prove himself to his dad.
It’s a double-edged coming-of-age story, then–one that’s not afraid to even mildly humanize the antagonists who have swiftly murdered all of humanity, in violation of even their own moral codes. Yansky raises subtle comparisons between the Sanginian occupation and other political massacres. There are the obvious parallels between the enslaved humans here and throughout history (“Good masters,” Jesse quips, “That’s the best we can hope for now”), but also more subtle, underlying thematic comparisons between occupied Earth–green and peaceful and without pollution or war–and, say, Nazi Germany, where the trains always ran on time.
It’s heavy. But Yansky doesn’t lecture his audience. Instead, these ideas are communicated subtly, through a sort of mournful tone beneath the classic, pulpy alien invasion stuff. But there’s a heady dose of hope here, too. The human teenagers slowly come into their own psychic powers, powers capable of raising resistance, no matter how meek, to the forces of their alien overlords. More importantly, Jesse comes to terms with the death he’s faced and the losses he’s experienced. This is a grounded, human story.
The closest comparison would be Vonnegut. There’s a similar tone here, a similar sense of the inherent goodness of humanity even amid all this mess. That gives Alien Invasion and Other Inconveniences a very broad appeal, potentially. While the novel’s blurb would have you believe that this is an action-packed, wacky story aimed squarely at teenage boys, there are a host of characters here (three strong girls! it even passes the Bechdel test) who are vividly drawn and relatable. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any sci-fi fan, male or female–including adult fans who are fond of deep books in pulp settings. (less)
This is Not a Test is an interesting, literary subversion of your typical post-apocalyptic zombie novel. In it, Courtney Summers presents the story of Sloane, a girl suffering through the abuse of her father and her sister’s recent disappearance; she’s actually contemplating suicide when we first meet her. Summers does an effective job of communicating her mental state through her narration, which sometimes slips into a sort of stream of consciousness. The prose itself is emotionally intense and lurid–quite a bit like poetry.
It’s an effective choice; most post-apocalyptic YA novels like Monument 14 and Ashfall emphasize the normality of your hero. This seems to craft an argument that the novel’s events could happen to you, too. But such a composition assumes that “normal” teens are in all ways neurotypical and wholesome, that they haven’t faced abuse or loss or pain. This certainly runs counter to my own adolescent experiences and the experiences of my friends. Overall, it creates a world less believable for all the wholesomeness of it before the disaster (whatever that disaster might be).
By introducing elements more common to the typical edgy YA “issue” novel, then, Summers effectively makes her universe that much more real. We’re viewing this world through the lens of a messed-up kid, and by being messed-up, that kid is, in many ways, normal. It’s an interesting gambit, and largely worked for me at setting this novel apart from its contemporaries.
However, most other elements of the book were less successful. After a brief introduction to Sloane’s tumultuous home life, we’re plunged into the story in media res, and so we have to scramble to learn the back stories of these characters. But this information is both heavily hinted at and ultimately revealed too late; I’d figured all of it out well before Sloane told us, and so the ultimate reveals didn’t quite have the oomph they should. The ending itself was interesting and gripping, but came, too late, too. In many ways this book is, as one goodreads reviewer put it, “mostly middle” with no real beginning or end.
And, worse, Sloane was one of only three well-defined characters, out of a cast of many. The boys particularly all ran together for me. They weren’t defined by their personalities or appearances but rather by the role they played within the book. This, combined with very similar, bland, mostly four-letter names, led me to be often quite confused about who precisely was who. It also led to some of the weakest prose moments:
“Rhys looks at me. “Tell me you didn’t. It’s way too soon to throw this at him.” My face gives it away. He closes his eyes. “Shit. Sloane.”
““That’s Trace’s problem,” Cary says. “Not ours.”
“Rhys gets up abruptly, throws Cary a disgusted look.
““I’m going to find Harrison.”
“When Rhys is gone, I just stand there, staring at Cary. (p. 267, ARC edition)
And so on, and so forth.
I suspect that several of these characters could have been combined to no ill effect; in fact, it would have likely given them more defined characterization and vividness.
In many ways, this is where This is Not a Test flounders compared to other recent entries in the disaster novel genre. Despite its everyman narrator, the supporting characters in Monument 14 were all very well-drawn. And it’s difficult not to compare these books. Both are built over the same basic plot scaffolding: kids hole up in a business during a disaster, form their own society and get involved in petty romantic drama. Then, just before they’re lulled into a sense of complacency, a pair of adults appear to shake up the established social order. There is much debate over whether the adults are good or evil. Eventually, our characters must journey out.
Of course, that she crafts a story which fits perfectly in the tropes of the genre is not necessarily Summers’ fault–in many ways it shows her familiarity with the zombie apocalypse canon. But in a crowded market of similar books, This is Not a Test isn’t particularly likely to distinguish itself with kids who have read a lot of apocalyptic fare. I’d recommend it, instead, for readers of literary novels who want to dip their toes in the genre pool.(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)
I should begin this review with a caveat: I am not the best reader for this book.
False Memory is unabashedly action-oriented. This slim volume features high-speed motorcycle chases, lots of guns, explosions, and other elements which generally make me go “meh.” And the action is relentless–one scene of running and police intervention and explodey things after another. It’s a novel that’s largely light on character development and metaphorical resonance and high on octane instead.
However, that being said, it is, perhaps, a perfectly conceived and executed action-oriented YA sci-fi novel.
Our story begins with Miranda North (no relation) wandering through the mall with no memory to speak of. Soon, she inadvertently unleashes a psychic blast which sends other mall patrons either sprawling or cowering. When she meets a boy, Peter, who tells her that he knows her, she chooses to follow him–to a secret underground lair where they were apparently raised along with several other super-powered psychic teens.
False Memory is a novel of ninja swords and shiny Ducati motorcycles and grand sci-fi conspiracies. In some ways, it reminded me of an old-school SF movie serial–packed full of “cool stuff,” each interlude ending on a cliff-hanger which propels the reader forward. And for a book of this type, it mostly goes very well. Debut author Dan Krokos seems to know and love his genre; there’s a palpable sense of fun here, even if the characters are fairly thin, even if the story generally lacks meaning.
Miranda had a nice voice, but her memory loss at times posed a problem for me as a reader. She’s difficult to identify with–not only raised wholly outside our culture, but lacking a culture of her own. Her companions, the “roses,” are all relatively thinly rendered as well. I particularly had little sense of either Peter or Noah, her love interests, and little idea of why she felt drawn to them–except for a vague sense of “history” or perhaps “obligation.”
These explorations of memory and identity, mostly present in the novel’s second half, made me stumble in my previously-rosy reading experience. Because of Miranda’s lack of strong identity, Krokos was never really able to fully form a central thesis about created memory, genetic engineering, or other weighty topics–which are present here, but insufficiently explored. Particularly troubling was the easy destruction of other supersoldiers because “evil!” without much acknowledgment at all of the ethical conundrum this creates for Miranda.
But, all of that said, it feels a bit like I’m missing the point in even raising these issues. This is a fun, fast read–precisely what it’s meant to be. If you like action-oriented sci-fi, it should hit the spot nicely.(less)