This is a solid action-adventure read with some really sound worldbuilding. Despite the cover, it's not steampunk at all but rather post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Unfortunately, my engagement was hampered by James' unusual choice in point-of-view (alternating between first person, present tense, and third person past), which kept me from really loving it fully until the conclusion--which was awesome. Great climax with some surprising twists. Overall, this felt very Japanese RPG-inspired in the best possible way, like if someone made Final Fantasy VI into a book.(less)
Atmospheric Analysis: I wasn’t too fond of Glow‘s stark, subtle cover at first, thanks in particular to the obvious stock image of the girl in the por...moreAtmospheric Analysis: I wasn’t too fond of Glow‘s stark, subtle cover at first, thanks in particular to the obvious stock image of the girl in the porthole that forms the letter “O.” But in reading, it grew on me–it captures the book’s darkness and claustrophobia well.
The American cover is a huge improvement over the UK version, which features a cartoonishly photoshopped face. I mean, how big is that girl’s forehead? What happened to her chin?! Cool idea (and I dig the font embellishment), awful execution.
Planetary Class: Though set in space, the science fiction of Glow is a touch harder than most space opera; it’s dark thematics and cynicism about humanity also distinguish it from old school, fundamentally optimistic space opera works like Star Wars. But some sci-fi fans have made room for both darkness and scientific rigor in their space opera by distinguishing a “new” space opera–one that encompasses gloomy, techy works like the remake of Battlestar Galactica. Glow would be right at home under this label.
Mohs Rating: Glow rates a 4 on the Mohs scale. While the type of deep space travel and artificial gravity isn’t possible, the use of a constant acceleration drive makes the space travel at least plausible. I’m not so sure about the giant robot suits, though.
Planetary Viability: Ryan tries really, really, really hard to fool you into thinking that the worlds aboard the spaceships Empyrean and New Horizon are founded on plausible science. She’s clearly read some wikipedia articles about space travel and generally seems to be aiming for a hard sci-fi feel.
Unfortunately, it all falls apart during an absolutely painful “As you know, Bob”-style infodump. Rather than seeding technical details throughout the novel, our heroine Waverly pauses to reflect on physics classes with another character. And during this conversation, Ryan’s major worldbuilding error becomes clear. She thinks that space is an ocean, and that the ships, if not accelerating, will come to a stop on their own. In fact, though she’s provided her ships with reverse thrusters to provide some form of braking, she seems to imply that they’re not in use:
“. . . that was the original mission plan. Halfway to New Earth, both ships were supposed to cease their acceleration, turn around, and point the thrusters toward New Earth to slow themselves down. With the ships pointing in the opposite direction, slowing down would create as much a feeling of gravity as accelerating. So why didn’t the New Horizon just do that? Waverly was stumped. (p. 91, ARC edition)
I suspect Ryan wrote herself into a corner there due to several plot twists, but wasn’t clear that she understands that when a spaceship stops accelerating, it will just continue to coast at the same speed forever–until something stops it.
Xenolinguistical Assessment: Glow is told through a delicate third-person POV. The language is crisp and lovely without any unnecessary embellishment.
Expanded Report: Glow is the story of Waverly and Kieran, a pair of sixteen-year-olds being prepped for marriage aboard their claustrophobic spaceship home. Young Waverly isn’t absolutely certain that she wants to marry her boyfriend, but since she’s expected to have at least four children while very young, she doesn’t precisely have a choice.
But then their ship is attacked by another, the New Horizon. Unlike the Empyrean, the New Horizon was populated with religious folks, who unfortunately lost their own capacity for reproduction a generation ago. So they do what any inhabitants on a spaceship full of lies would: they attack the Empyrean, and steal all of their young women.
This is a dark, dark book. I feel like I can’t state that enough: it’s dark. If you’re wondering precisely how dark it is, the narrative includes religious zealots, drugged food, invasive surgery without consent, murder, riots, solitary confinement, and an atmosphere of constant sexual violence. And the sexual violence is not only perpetrated by the baddies: even the good guys seem to take part, leering at Waverly from the outskirts of her memories.
Waverly and the other young girls are taken onto the New Horizon to be integrated into existing family units. The population there is religious, reminiscent of early American pioneers (nearly all of the characters on both ships have protestant/British names, except for a small handful with awkwardly “exotic” names like ). They’re not quite strawman Christians, though I could imagine that Anne Mather, the ship’s pastor and captain,rubbing some religious readers the wrong way. But Ryan doesn’t seem to believe that these individuals are particularly terrible compared to those Empyrean. As I said, they’re pretty nasty folks, too–who starve their children and then force them into marriage at a very young age.
The book rotates perspective between Waverly and Kieran’s stories. Waverly’s is probably the stronger. She grows from a naive girl into a practical-minded leader. Some of this growth is due to the trespasses on her body that she experiences during her time on the Empyrean. I don’t want to spoil anything, but what happens to her is really horrific.
Meanwhile, Kieran is busy replaying Lord of the Flies with the other boys aboard the Empyrean. He is jailed by Seth, a romantic rival for Waverly’s affection who is largely depicted as a cartoonish monster; Kieran has to overcome his physical isolation to become the ship’s leader, a position promised to him since birth. The boys generally act like savages, though some of Seth’s criticisms of Kieran are oddly correct. He has been privileged, in a way that no other boy aboard the ship has been. Later, when he begins to form an on-board religion that I suspect was meant as an answer to Anne Mather’s more sinister Christianity, he slips into rhetoric that seems quite ominous, too, citing the other boys’ lack of faith as the reason for their parents’ deaths:
“I’m wondering how different things might be if we had been paying attention to the spiritual side of our mission. What if we’d been more mindful? Would God have been kinder to us in the hour of our need? Would our mothers and fathers and sisters be with us here today if we’d paid Him more attention? (p. 265)
The only characters here who are remotely likable are the girls–Waverly and her comrades-in-captivity. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a nuanced portrait or a complex person. It’s that Ryan’s overwhelming thesis seems to be one about the inherent evil of humanity–a vision that I don’t particularly agree with. This dark view of man informs everything about Glow, making the book bleak and heavy, a downright uncomfortable read. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a striking book, and one I’ll think of often. I really appreciated the skill with which it was written, and because I’m curious how Waverly and Kieran will overcome what seem to me to be their now-insurmountable differences in belief, I’ll likely read the sequels. But I still didn’t enjoy reading Glow. In fact, the novel filled me with dread.
Glow will appeal to readers of who love dark sci-fi with a techy feel. Fans of Ender’s Game and Battlestar Galactica should take a look. An excerpt is available to read online from tor.com, and the novel is available to purchase from Amazon or your local indie bookstore.
Circus Galacticus is an enjoyable change from most middle grade genre novels–rather than your typical fantasy...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
Circus Galacticus is an enjoyable change from most middle grade genre novels–rather than your typical fantasy setting, Deva Fagan offers young readers a lightly science fictional world. Orphan Trix is shocked when her hair randomly turns pink one day–that shock’s compounded when she’s invited to run away and join the space circus by the handsome and mysterious Ringmaster.
He takes her to live under the Big Top–which is actually a spaceship–where she’ll be sorted according to her natural abilities as a clown, or a star, or a stagehand. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because this is actually a fantasy novel; Trix starts the story in a boarding school, and though she moves on to a place that is, in name, a circus, Circus Galacticus is actually a magical school novel. All of the elements are there: the houses, the embarrassing cafeteria scenes, the relationship with her roommate–there’s even coursework!
But the props of this world owe more to their science fictional predecessors than most fantasy novels. There’s a dimension bending spaceship and her nameless, charismatic driver; food replicators; and inner-ear translators (so . . . Doctor Who, Star Trek, and Hitchhiker’s, check, check, and check!). These oblique references amused me, but I think they’d serve as an even better entryway into genre for younger readers.
In truth, though, I frequently found myself considering how younger readers would like the book–without getting really absorbed in it myself. This is fairly young middle grade. Don’t get me wrong; I liked Trix, and her story. She’s spunky, heartfelt, and honest. But I wish Circus Galacticus had dug just a little bit deeper. Maybe that’s to come; the novel ends feeling more like the first chapter of a longer journey than a journey into itself. Or maybe I’m just the wrong audience. I think kids will like this–particularly the 8 to 10 set, who dig Doctor Who but might not be ready for the deeper cynicism of comic sci-fi like Douglas Adams.(less)
In Tankborn, Karen Sandler’s young adult debut with the new multicultural press Tu Books, we meet a genetically engineered girl named Kayla. She’s spending her last days of childhood living with her “nurture mother” in the overcrowded slums of her world while she waits for her job assignment. As she stresses over her eventual vocation–and for good reason; GENs like her are often sent far away from their families of origin–we learn more about Loka, and the fascinating people who live there. Kayla is a GEN, created in the tanks of the title. Not only does she have superhumanly strong arms, but she also has an augmented brain, with an embedded clock and access to stores of professional knowledge left there by her “trueborn” engineers.
We also begin to learn about Loka’s strict caste system: the GENs at the bottom of the pyramid, disdained even by lowborn humans, and the very few, wealthy trueborns at the top. Sandler enriches these class divisions with differences in race and dress. All of this information was so richly detailed that, initially, I had trouble keeping track of it all–but luckily, Sandler’s strong prose carried me through.
Loka is a world that’s bountifully rich. As a novel, Tankborn challenges you to learn its rules and digest them, like Kayla has. An example of this is the wonderfully detailed religion that the GENs follow; it’s different than the religion of the trueborns (and different from anything we know on Earth), and it rightfully impacts Kayla’s life and decisions. You can’t understand her unless you understand her faith, but, having understood that, you’re in for a much richer experience than you are with many YA sci-fi titles that leave matters of religion, class, and race unexplored.
In this way, I strongly feel that Tankborn is just what the genre has been waiting for. There are a lot of complaints these days about cookie cutter dystopians, and authors who can’t be bothered to consider plausibility or worldbuilding. Sandler’s writing punches those complaints in the face. This is the kind of science fiction that’s timeless, even though it was (for whatever reason) much more common in the ’70s and ’80s than it is today. With the deftness of Sherri S. Tepper and Ursula Le Guin, Sandler creates an utterly plausible world.
As for the story, it’s solid, nicely paced, and thoughtful. Kayla and Mishalla are admirable girls, though their upbringing has (understandably) warped their perceptions of the world around them. Kayla’s growth is fascinating, particularly her struggles with religion. My only criticism centers around certain plot revelations that occur three-quarters into the book. Without spoiling, I can say that these twists were a bit more fairy tale than I really like. Through Tankborn‘s first half, I expected a resolution that hinges on questions of the GENs’ humanity, but the story Sandler gives us instead felt a bit well-worn.
Still, that hardly detracts from what’s done well here–and what’s done well is done very well indeed. I’d easily recommend Tankborn to any sci-fi fan who has been left wanting by recent YA dystopians. (less)
Hot on the heels of YA action/dystopians of yore like The Hunger Games and Divergent, Legend arrives next week to try to fill a niche I’m not entirely certain needed filling.
It’s the story of Day, a supergenius criminal who can fall off buildings and stuff with nary a bruise, and June, the supergenius soldier tasked to find him. Told in their alternating voices, we’re taken on an exploration of a near-future Los Angeles while Day deals with his family’s increasing illness and June works to track him down. Eventually, these star-crossed teenagers fall in love, of course, though the action here is solidly focused on street fights, riots, and bank heists, rather than the couple’s scant kisses.
Marie Lu’s voice is strong, and the downright breezy nature of Legend is one of its most redeeming features. It’s an easy novel to get wrapped up in, and the plot moves fast enough that most readers won’t notice the places where the story is stretched a bit thin.
And there are several places where that happens. Let’s face it: the premise of Legend is, in and of itself, fairly implausible. Both Day and June are superspecial, supergifted, superbrilliant fifteen-year-olds. One is his nation’s most wanted criminal; the other, the top soldier. But they’re fifteen, and I never quite bought the premise that a totalitarian military outfit would trust a young recruit with the degree of power that June is granted.
The characters are also not-terribly deep. They’re not poorly written, or offensive, and we get bright flashes of their home lives that make both June and Day a little more real. But the family members who provide Day’s primary motivations are never more than sketchily developed. They’re plot devices, not people, meant to conveniently raise the stakes when needed without getting in the way of the narrative’s dual focus.
There were also several plot twists that felt convenient, or development that happened suddenly, without sufficient foreshadowing. And the universe never quite felt real enough to me–I wanted more grit, and deeper description.
I’m not sure if any of the above matters, really. This is a pulpy, action-oriented book, and it’s really not meant for a nit-picker like me. And for an action narrative, it’s pretty decent. More True Lies than Transformers.
I do wonder, though, what it adds to the dystopian canon. The characters were better realized in Divergent; the setting better described in The Hunger Games. Heck, back in 2007, Nancy Farmer was doing the whole military dystopian thing to much more terrifying effect. in House of the Scorpion. When it comes down to it, I’d recommend Legend strictly for action junkies and the dystopian-obsessed. Other readers can probably give this one a pass.(less)
When I was contacted by Entangled‘s publicist about reviewing Obsidian, I felt it prudent to warn him that paranormal teen romance is hit-or-miss for me. The genre’s not an automatic fail–I did enjoy Shiver, and Unearthly, and Rampant, and I’m always a sucker for early LJ Smith. But the writers of the aforementioned novels often critique the genre even as they’re writing in it, taking a careful, feminist approach to situations and characters amid all the smouldering glances.
Jennifer Armentrout’s Obsidian is, unfortunately, the other type of supernatural romance. It’s in the tradition of Twilight and Hush, Hush, featuring a douchebag (the narrator’s words, not mine) with washboard abs as our love interest. If, like me, you lose patience quickly for guys like Daemon, who sneeringly tell our intrepid heroines to go away in between stolen kisses and heavy breathing, then you might want to give Obsidian a pass.
That’s not to say that Armentrout’s book is without merit. Our narrator, a bookish recent transplant to West Virginia named Katy, has a strong, believable voice. Our other primary characters were also vividly rendered, from Katy’s mom, to Daemon (despite his douchitude), to Daemon’s sister Dee. And Armentrout is clearly a confident romance writer. The make-out scene (and, uh, scene where Daemon rubs up against Katy) was genuinely hot and nicely handled.
But I’m not sure I could say the same for the novel as a whole. Katy has a habit of mulling over everything that happens to her right after she describes it to us–and often right before she recounts it to another character. This means that single events are reiterated two or three times, bloating the word count and making the pacing flag. We don’t find out about Daemon’s extraterrestrial origins until the novel’s halfway point–and we don’t learn of the conflict between the Luxen and the woodenly evil shadow aliens until close to the novel’s conclusion. The sexual tension and “mystery” of Daemon’s identity (spelled out for us in the novel’s blurb) just weren’t enough to carry it for me.
And certain elements felt tacked on, particularly the fact that Katy was a book blogger. As a reviewer of books about “a guy with a touch that kills,” you’d think she would have been more genre savvy. Instead, Katy bumbles along, no different, really, from Bella Swan or Nora Grey. At one point, after being assaulted by an alien baddie, she notes that she’s being followed–and doesn’t tell her alien bestie about it because she willfully decides that it must just be some creep. C’mon, girl.
Generally, I felt that Obsidian was a novel with some promise, but which could have benefited from tighter editing. There were quite a few sprawling, difficult-to-parse sentences; at least one instance of a character being referred to by the wrong name; issues with word repetition and larger instances of narrative repetition. With a bit more polish, it could serve as a nice introduction to superhero sci-fi for paranormal fans, or serve as a steamy side dish to the bland I Am Number Four.(less)
Did you see the new Tron movie? I can’t help but wonder if Ernest Cline did–and if he winced when he realized...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
Did you see the new Tron movie? I can’t help but wonder if Ernest Cline did–and if he winced when he realized how similar it was to his book.
Ready Player One is conceptually nearly identical. Eccentric millionaire computer whiz invents rich VR-world. Years later, he’s gone and a kid must enter the computer in order to save the old man’s company from evil corporate shills. Jeff Bridges would even make a great James Halliday.
But unlike TRON: Legacy, Ready Player One samples liberally from not just one 80s film franchise, but all of them. In the obsessively detailed retro-futuristic sci-fi world of the OASIS, it seems that the pop culture of the 80s doubles as the pop culture of the 2140s. Other than the OASIS itself, mankind seems to have been incapable of creating anything of artistic value since Y2k.
The effect is dizzying, not unlike Ready Player One‘s cover. The novel’s fast-moving pages could easily double as a catalog of recommended viewing, listening, and gaming for any self-respecting geek kid. It’s not really realistic, or plausible, but it sure was comfortably familiar for this 27-year-old reader.
The story is simple: Wade Watts recounts how he became overlord of the OASIS with the help of his best friends, Aech and Art3mis. Wade’s voice was, perhaps, a little too perfect. Tiresome infodumps abound, especially in the first half of the novel–at which point they’re replaced with equally tiresome battle and game recaps. There’s nothing worse, I suspect, then to have to listen to someone recount the plot of video games–except maybe to have to listen to them recite Monty Python. That happens here, too.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a fun novel. Ready Player One is accessible, and the core friendship between the three teenagers is well-rendered and believable. But it’s also a little simplistic. Villains are one-dimensional. Minorities are stereotypical (there are two Japanese boys obsessed with “honor”). Endings are tidy. We’re told that this is a world where racism and sexism don’t matter because everyone can pretend to be a white guy. Hmm.
But I can’t deny that this is a book that a lot of people will love. It might not be particularly challenging, but it’s undeniably entertaining. It’s a great read for geeky teen readers who are into 8-bit culture–or geeky adults who, like the inhabitants of the OASIS, just want to escape into some harmless fun.(less)
I was a bit hesitant to read Crossed after having had a mixed experience with Matched, the first in the serie...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
I was a bit hesitant to read Crossed after having had a mixed experience with Matched, the first in the series. While reading Matched, I was initially thrilled by the strong, lavish writing; an early scene even moved me to tears. Unfortunately, a lukewarm romance eventually tempered my enjoyment of the novel. Condie had us take a few too many walks with her chaste teenage couple, Cassia and Ky, and I found myself fairly bored by the novel’s conclusion.
I’m sad to say that I had an almost identical experience with Crossed.
Crossed also began with promise. Now removed from the safety of the Society, Cassia Reyes is living on the outskirts in a work camp, where she’s taken an assignment in the hope of finding her sweetie, Ky. Ky, meanwhile, is living in a decoy city meant to fool the Society’s enemies into thinking they’re more prosperous than they really are. There were interesting shades of “we’ve always been at war with East Asia” here, and I thought that, if Condie was going to mature the dystopian society of her first book (which seemed to borrow liberally from Lois Lowry’s The Giver), then there are worse authors to riff off of than Orwell for that growth.
Soon, Cassia and Ky begin two separate journeys across the wilderness to find each other. The chapters prior to their reunion are nicely paced and lively. With the focus turned to survival, rather than the love triangle of the first book, I found myself riveted.
But then Cassia and Ky reunite, and all that wonderful tension unravels. While the romance is a shade more passionate than what’s found in the first book (the kids kiss more than once), it still didn’t feel like the epic love story needed to carry a novel like this one. Condie also seems shy about addressing the desires of her adolescent characters. It’s not that I mind that Cassia and Ky’s romance is unconsummated–plenty of teenagers don’t do it. But they don’t struggle with this choice at all or even meaningfully contemplate it. For Cassia and Ky, abstinence is easy–even when their lives are at stake and they spend all of their time unsupervised. This aspect of Crossed, and Condie’s approach (there’s one scene that could be read as a sexual interlude, but where, as we later learn, the teens merely hug) puzzled me.
But in truth, many aspects of Crossed felt similarly muted. Cassia still doesn’t have a very strong personality, and she can be frustratingly obtuse sometimes. There are a host of minor characters here, and all but one are conspicuously underdeveloped. The teenagers should be preoccupied by survival, but instead countless pages are spent contemplating poetry. These are odd choices for a book about a rebellion and a forbidden, star-crossed romance. Ultimately, Cassia and Ky’s journey felt slow, and by the end of the novel I was more frustrated than entranced.(less)
I'll admit that it's a bit difficult to discuss A Million Suns, Beth Revis's follow-up to last year's NY Times bestselling Across the Universe, without gratuitously spoiling it. That's because its very premise is predicated on the kind of twist that's made all the more delicious when it sneaks up on you; where once the "spaceship fueled by lies" tagline seemed mildly snark-worthy, its spooky accuracy soon becomes clear. So please bear with me as I do my best.
I can say that this volume sees Elder taking control of the interstellar ship Godspeed. Now faced with an agitated populace, Elder struggles with squashing a growing rebellion. And Amy bears the weight of the sexual assault she endured in the previous book and tries to figure out her place on a ship where she'll never fit in.
This is heady stuff, complex social science fiction that asks deep questions about agency while also leaving few emotional stones unturned for our young protagonists. The primary question here is one of free will--should the people of the Godspeed have it, even if it poses a danger for the fragile society of the ship? Should Elder lead just because he was born to do so? Is Amy really choosing Elder, or do they care for each other only because there's no one else around who will have them? In the hands of a less-capable writer, these musings might be ponderous. But A Million Suns is anything but.
Like Across the Universe, this is fast-paced, riveting writing. I'd almost forgotten how fundamentally engaging that story was, how it swiftly carries you along until it's three a.m. and you really need to sleep, but can't because you really need to read just one. more. chapter. It also has a wild, untamed quality that perfectly accentuates the narrative chaos our heroes endure. The Godspeed is, once again, vividly rendered. I felt claustrophobic and trapped reading this book, just as I did when I read Across the Universe. They're both hypnotic and strangely immersive works.
Unfortunately, they both suffer from the same primary problem: an unnecessary mystery thrown into an already complex mix of genres. I understood the presence of this mystery better in Across the Universe. It felt truly extraneous here, a distraction from the more pressing narrative concerns of society building and integration. Worse, it wasn't all that mysterious--I figured out most of the twists well before they were revealed.
But that's hardly reason to give such a strongly-written volume--and series--a pass. A Million Suns is a worthy sequel to its predecessor, and I honestly can't wait to read what happens to Amy and Elder next.(less)
In my last review, I wrote that Ally Condie suggests a bit of the “we have always been at war with East Asia”...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
In my last review, I wrote that Ally Condie suggests a bit of the “we have always been at war with East Asia” themes of 1984 in her new novel, Crossed. In a weird bit of synchronicity, Margaret Peterson Haddix’s The Always War takes those slight, thematic elements of Crossed and expands them into a novel of their own.
Fifteen-year-old Tessa’s society really has always been at war. In a futuristic, but impoverished America, she’s stuck scrubbing hospital floors while her neighbor, a gifted military student, goes on to be a hero. The novel’s first half is richly rendered, and reminded me a bit of the Molly McIntire American Girl books in their accuracy. The society of The Always War has been touched by perpetual wartime at every level–people’s aspirations are directly tied to the war effort; technology is designated solely for military use; and normal people are expected to push up their sleeves and contribute themselves, no matter the color-draining effect this has on their lives.
I loved the beginning of this book, though I must admit that I was a touch unsettled by the extreme youth of Gideon, one of their war heroes (he’s in his teens), and the heroine’s own very young voice and nature. Unfortunately, as The Always War developed, these problematic elements were thrust to the forefront, and compounded by the presence of Dek, a prepubescent rebel said to be only eight or nine years old. She’s trading goods on the black market and knows how to pilot and repair aircraft and all of this stretched the bounds of credulity for me.
As did the core premise as revealed in the last half of the book. Some of this is suggested by the title and the book’s Orwellian, throwback nature (of course the war isn’t real; we suspect that from the first page), but the ultimate revelations struck me as incredibly improbable, as did the fact that these revelations came to all hinge on the actions of a bunch of children. And it’s not as if I’m averse to kids being heroes–it’s only that here, I never quite believed it.
Still, I could imagine eating this book up if I were, myself, a younger reader. I suspect the target audience will enjoy the sparse, survival-oriented details of Haddix’s society, as I once enjoyed Changes for Molly, and I doubt they’ll be as bothered as I was by the twists and revelations.(less)
Until I picked up Ashfall, I’d forgotten how much I loved survival stories.
The genre is an odd match for me. In many ways, even for a sci-fi lover, my tastes run toward the stereotypically “girly.” I don’t like war stories. I don’t like action sequences. Soft sci-fi is usually the rule of the day, and while a few post-apocalyptic tales–Meg Rosoff’s romance-and-psychic-incest touched How I Live Now comes to mind–have stood out among recent reads as pretty nifty, I’d forgotten how much a gritty survival story can really resonate with me. After all, I didn’t even particularly love Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I found the lack of worldbuilding frustrating; the core emotional conceits, mawkish and unearned. I thought maybe Ashfall wouldn’t be for me, not because of any flaws inherent in it, but because it’s just not my type.
But the first few pages of Ashfall raised long-forgotten memories. In seventh grade, I was assigned Harry Mazer’s Snow Bound in English class. Though now I’m sure I’d find the novel slight, I was captivated. It was the story of a pair of grumpy teens holed up together in a broken-down truck during a blizzard. So many details have stayed with me–small, realistic touches that gave the novel much more texture than even the classics we read that year–like how they melt snow and chewing gum together over the cigarette lighter to make a very-poor-man’s tea. It wasn’t a romance, not quite, but it was about how harsh situations can change people, and it dealt with those situations and feelings honestly. I loved that book.
Snow Bound was part of a grand tradition of kid’s novels in that era that were hyper-realistic. Messy families and working class kids abounded, and so when Mazer wrote about a disaster situation, it seemed natural to approach it with such a strong attention to detail. In Ashfall, Mike Mullin does the same thing, but he takes it a step further–expanding the length and subject matter to something fitting with modern YA. But the honesty, the precise details, and the accuracy feel like they’re from another era, and I can’t help but fear that we’ve lost something as we’ve moved away from that time.
Sean feels that Ashfall was hampered by narrative distance. I don’t agree. This is the type of novel where everything is rendered so deliberately that aspects like narrative distance feel as if they’re simply the natural result of the characters’ actual identities. Alex isn’t a particularly special or flashy boy–that’s because he’s a normal kid, one who plays World of Warcraft (described accurately), does martial arts (described accurately), and has obnoxious friends (described accurately). If there’s distance between Alex and the reader, that’s because Alex is a normal kid dealing with absolutely abnormal events. As he’s separated from his family, he must confront death alone in a hundred different iterations, from the animals he skins and eats (described in unflinching detail), to the murder of those who he loves (described in . . . well, you get the idea).
Mullin never shies away from the truth, not once, in this book. As Sean says, there’s the admirable presence of a gay couple early in the novel’s pages (they’re allowed heroism rarely seen in media portrayals of QUILTBAG individuals). There are also the hard realities of everyday life: eating, using the bathroom, sex, disease. If you think this sounds like a grim book, then you’d be right.
It’s also transcendent.
Ashfall, through its precision and honesty, moved me in a way The Road never did. The romance that grows between Alex and Darla is one of the best ones I’ve ever seen in YA, and one that’s certainly earned after the trials the pair endures over the course of the book. Mullin manages to use these teenagers–sixteen and seventeen years old–to say something really affecting about romance, something true to the characters’ ages but unspeakably deep nevertheless.
“The most important part of seeing Darla every night wasn’t the fooling around. It was the few minutes we talked while holding each other, the feeling of security I got with her, the feeling of being understood and loved. Before the eruption, I wouldn’t have believed that I could cuddle up every night with the girl who starred in my dreams and not be totally preoccupied with sex. But the trek across Iowa had changed something. I wanted, needed to see her so badly that it woke me up at night. But making out was incidental to my need–nice when it happened, but secondary to the simple pleasure of sleeping beside her." (440)
When I was about halfway done with Under the Never Sky I IMed Sean with my ratings predictions. I guessed that he’d fall to the more negative side of neutral, while I’d cling to the more positive side of that divide. It seems I was right about Sean’s feelings, though my own reaction surprised me.
I must say that there are several significant problems with Under the Never Sky. Like Sean, I suspect that the story starts in the wrong place. We’re introduced to Aria after she’s ousted from Reverie. We don’t get to see the virtual Realms in which she spends her time until about halfway into the book, so it’s difficult to understand precisely how her life has changed. In light of this, and her general naivety, I took a very long time to warm up to her, and the pacing through the novel’s first half was quite slow. There were significant worldbuilding problems–the ominous Aether is never explained or even sufficiently described to be scary; the genetics of the both the Dwellers (who genetically modify themselves for stupid stuff like tans but not to solve more significant, but spoilery problems) and the Outsiders (who have super senses within certain family lines along with animalistic traits in individuals that seem unlikely to be so prevalent in such a limited population) didn’t quite gel for me; I had questions about language and the wider universe; I thought the names were silly and bizarrely hippie-ish (Paisley and Peregrine and Aria and Reef); a girl at the onset of menstruation is described as smelling like violets.
And yet I really, really enjoyed this book.
Of the two societies, that of the Outsiders is by far the fresher and the better described. It’s a bit like Russell Hoban’s neo-Iron Age society developed in the novel Riddley Walker. These are hunters, split into warring clans, who have short lives shaped by the meager existence they eke out. It was also surprisingly bad-ass. Our hero and love interest is tattooed and dreadlocked, wields a bow and has the reflective eyes of an animal.
His world–filled with knife-huntin’ guys who have super senses and pointy canines–reminded me a bit of the post-apocalyptic New Zealand glimpsed in the millennial teen show The Tribe. I’m a big fan of The Tribe, despite goofy plots and goofier face paint. It’s the type of world I’ve always very much wanted to see realized in a YA novel, and Rossi does a good job here capturing a cool, rusty, punky zeitgeist. There’s this extended scene where our heroine Aria learns knife fighting over the course of days, assisted by two rakish boys, and normally I would have found it a little indulgent but it was so cool that I just didn’t care.
That’s not to say that this is a shallow novel. It’s not. I’d contrasted it with Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, a book that never quite won me over despite widespread popularity. Like Uglies, we’re given two societies, one techy, one not; both, here, are better described, with their own societal strictures, problems, and cultural norms. These norms intelligently inform the behaviors of the characters, who we get to know gradually, through strongly written, alternating narration.
Perry, our Outsider boy, was instantly sympathetic. His very human struggles with his brother, as well as his attachment to his young nephew, made him easy to identify with. I took longer to warm to Aria, but by the time she makes her first kill, she won me over as completely as she did Perry. Even better, I bought their romance. It was heartfelt, real, and realistically complex. They had great chemistry.
And overall, despite its flaws, I bought this book. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a very strong debut–the kind of world I’d love to visit, with a pair of characters who I wouldn’t mind being friends with after the apocalypse comes.(less)
In one of my favorite-ever pieces of Internet writing, a blog post at tor.com called “SF Reading protocols,” Jo Walton writes:
“Having a world unfold in one’s head is the fundamental SF experience. It’s a lot of what I read for. Delany has a long passage about how your brain expands while reading the sentence “The red sun is high, the blue low”—how it fills in doubled purple shadows on the planet of a binary star. I think it goes beyond that, beyond the physical into the delight of reading about people who come from other societies and have different expectations. . . . SF is like a mystery where the world and the history of the world is what’s mysterious, and putting that all together in your mind is as interesting as the characters and the plot, if not more interesting. We talk about worldbuilding as something the writer does, but it’s also something the reader does, building the world from the clues."
The world-as-central-plot-mystery can be one of the most unique and signifying aspects of a science fictional work. As the writer applies other aspects of story to the text, he or she must also seed both enough intrigue and enough hints to rouse the curiosity of the reader and slowly render a cohesive world. In this regard, Jodi Meadows’s debut Incarnate, out next month, is one of the most successful YA sci-fi novels I’ve read in years.
The world of Range at first feels like your typical fantasy setting. There are sylphs and dragons and centaurs who circle a beautiful city with a massive library and towering spires. But Meadows introduces one important difference right up front: the people here are immortal, and their souls have been reborn into one body after another for five thousand years. This has huge ramifications on the social structure of Heart, their central city. The world is a utopian one, free from prejudice thanks to the frequent switching of races, genders, and ages that the inhabitants enjoy. With all the time in the world, people do work they love, and many seem to dedicate their lives to dancing, music, baking, or even science with little concern for economics. They never have to worry about losing their loved ones or their friends, because death just means that another body—another lifetime together—is right around the corner.
Ana is a newsoul, the first in five thousand years. Raised in isolation by an abusive mother, who is horrified to lose the old friend who was supposed to get Ana’s body, Ana grows up with few social graces. This isolation is shown to good effect in the story. Ana is hot-tempered, prickly, labile—realistic in her strengths, insecurities, and fears. She’s a very real heroine, and very really eighteen.
We follow Ana out of her isolated woodland cabin toward Heart. After a sylph attack, she’s saved by Sam, a charming old soul who eventually promises his people that he’ll see to Ana’s education (something not required of even younger children in Heart—they’ve had many lifetimes to learn, after all). Because Ana is as new to this world as we are, we learn about it slowly, through her eyes.
For some readers, the surface events–the visits to the market and library and the dancing and piano playing and romance–might feel a little well-worn. Sam is definitely a cutie, and there are some steamy passages, but there’s enough SFnal romance on the market right now for their relationship to feel a touch typical. But Incarnate isn’t a romance, not at its heart. Instead, it’s a science-fantasy mystery, raising questions not just about Ana and her uncharted new life but about the nature of Range itself.
Because the deeper we get into Heart, the more we learn that everything is not what it seems. For one thing, the “typical” fantasy creatures are described very different from how they typically appear in high fantasy:
“The dragons came from the north. They looked like giant flying snakes with short legs, and talons like eagles. Their wings were as wide as their bodies were long. They were beautiful, but we’d already fought our way through shadow creatures that burned, horse people who used human skin as clothing, and giant humanoids who destroyed everything they saw” (ARC edition, 139).
I mean, “horse people who used human skin as clothing” doesn’t sound like the centaurs I remember from mythology.
The dragons, particularly, seem to have a unique relationship with the central city of Heart. They attack its temple, an eerie structure that the first humans just found lying there, and they spit a green caustic acid on any human who would try to interfere. Their behavior is described as regimented, but fundamentally strange. As a sci-fi reader, I found this mystery very intriguing.
But even more intriguing was the mystery of Heart itself. The first reincarnated humans found it waiting for them, supposedly left by a god for their use. But the walls seem to have a voice and a heartbeat and the old fogeys in the city seem to have no idea why this is the case. And they don’t care to investigate it, either.
I cared, though. I reached the passage that described the throbbing heartbeat of the city’s indigenous walls and gasped. This delicious moment of mystery reminded me of the first appearance of the polar bear in LOST–both a hint and proof that the world of the work was not everything it seemed.
In this way, I suspect that Incarnate’s closest analog is not your typical YA fantasy fare but instead something like Philip Jose Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first of the Riverworld books. In the Riverworld, the dead of humanity–all of it—are reborn naked on the side of a river. They’re immortal, and given an endless supply of food, but otherwise, they—and the reader—are in the dark. The rest of Farmer’s series is about exploring the truth of their situation.
And below its surface, that seems to be what Meadows is doing here. It’s a risky move; conceptual mysteries like this don’t always pay out in a satisfying way (come to think of it, neither LOST nor the Riverworld saga really did). And non-genre readers, or readers who want their genres more neatly delineated, might just not see the point. But watching an author take such risks in modern YA sure is exciting, and I absolutely can’t wait to see where the mysteries of Range lead.
I should mention that Meadows’ book is also gorgeously written, filled with evocative descriptions of setting and scenery and food and music and kissing. It’s also a thoughtful book. Despite initial hiccups in letting love transcend their bodily forms, the people of Heart are queer and genderbendy and just don’t care, in a way that’s completely in keeping with their unusual lifecycle. And Ana’s struggle with purpose and mortality is touching and resonant, too. As much as it reminded me of SF works like the Riverworld series, it also reminded me of books set in the Tortall or Redwall or Valdemar universes, cozy fantasy classics. Incarnate has a lot going for it—but if you’re like me, the mystery might have the strongest pull of all.(less)
Cinder, Marissa Meyer’s debut, easily delivers on the great fun of its premise: it’s a sci-fi retelling of Cinderella, set in New Beijing, with a cyborg as our poor little waif. I suspect there can be a temptation to oversimplify fairytale retellings, relying on the bland characters of the original stories rather than breathing new life into the source material. Here, however, we’re given a fresh spin on this old story.
What makes Cinder more than just fluffy princess stuff is Cinder herself, as well as the diverse cast of characters who surround her. She’s a scrappy, slightly sarcastic mechanic with soft heart. Her speech and reactions are very contemporary-feeling, and I suspect she’ll more easily connect with modern YA readers than either many sci-fi or fairy tale heroines. Her voice is believably adolescent and breezily casual, though not quite cliche enough to be called “snarky.” She’s nicely balanced and realize –even if she is only thirty eight percent human.
Cinder doesn’t remember her childhood–she was raised by a foster family who sets her to mend household electronics while her “stepsisters” preen and giggle and prepare to go to the prince’s ball. Peony and Pearl, like Cinder, are surprisingly fresh and nuanced. Rather than the flat monsters of the fairytale, one sister (Peony) is, though a little superficial, a very sympathetic character. As were other supporting members of the cast: Prince Kai, our love interest; Dr. Erland, who tries to derive from Cinder a cure for the plague that’s destroying the Earthen population; Iko, the completely awesome android. These characters are built deftly, in quick, seemingly-effortless strokes. It’s a cast as vital as any you’ll find on Joss-Whedon penned television.
The plot, likewise, moves briskly, with just enough of the fairytale (the ball; the stepsisters) to ground us, but enough fresh details (a plague! a war between Earth and the moon!) to keep it surprising. Much of the plot concerns the political machinations of the Lunar queen, and the impact of this court drama on New Beijing. And yet it’s never boring–much closer to the original Star Wars trilogy than the prequels.
Cinder‘s romance was particularly striking. Meyer could have easily defaulted to instalove here–the fairytale framework would have excused it. Yet instead, she gives us two down-to-earth, likeable characters, lets them spend sufficient time together to flirt and joke and nearly kiss, and allows the chemistry to grow naturally from there. Though Prince Kai could have been a smarmy love interest–he is a prince, after all–he’s not. He’s respectful and kind, a good foil for Cinder, who is herself a little rough around the edges.
If Cinder has any flaws, they would lie with the villains–who are a bit one dimensional–and the very predictable plot twist that is obviously telegraphed on page 50 and not revealed until the last five pages. I’m almost tempted to forgive Meyer this; it’s a fairytale, after all, and we know exactly what kind of happy endings we’re in for with this sort of story. But she teases the reader in a way that made me wonder if she thought it would ultimately surprise us.
It didn’t surprise me, but this is still a very worthwhile read. I’d easily recommend it to any reader who loves either Firefly or Sailor Moon–who are looking for the same quality of setting and character and, above all, fun.(less)
Greg van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World exists in a crowded market of post-apocalyptic disaster stories. Though writing for a middle grade audience, he joins authors like Mike Mullin, Suzanne Collins, and Ally Condie in addressing what the world might be like after our own is destroyed. Like Mike Mullin’s Ashfall, this story is primarily a road novel. Fisher, an adolescent of an indeterminate age, is awoken in a pod long after the world ends by a robot he comes to call Click. It seems that the Ark Click’s been guarding in anticipation of the Earth’s return to habitability has been destroyed. So Fisher, along with the robot and an intelligent young mammoth he dubs “Protein,” sets off across the continent in search of other Arks, pods, and humans who may have survived.
In some ways this is a survival tale. Though Fisher’s only recently been born, he’s been implanted with knowledge of fishing and basic survival (even reading–”Reading is fundamental!” Click quips). And so much of the book details his journey as he travels down the Mississippi in a raft, crosses the deserts of Texas, and faces monsters both biological and artificial.
Van Eekhout’s story recalls other classics–The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wizard of Oz. But it does so with a fresh sensibility. He’s talking about the destruction of our world, of course; in these ruins lie all the remains of our civilization, warts, fast food wrappers, and all. And yet he never lectures or condescends to his young audience. Fisher’s world is his own, and while it’s in some ways horrific, he’s determined to make the best of it. He doesn’t dwell on humanity’s awful past (which is, of course, our present).
So in this way it’s a solid book for its intended audience. But two aspects of The Boy and the End of the World help it to transcend middle grade even as van Eekhout is successful in writing to that audience. The first is how seriously he takes the science fictional concepts. There’s a collective of nanobot machines intent on bringing about the post-human singularity. There’s a robot unable to overcome his basic programming, even when it would serve him best (though, darn it, he makes a valiant, Data-like effort). There are genetically modified creatures who are endeavoring to carve out their own society despite the foibles of their creators. This is heady sci-fi, sophisticated sci-fi–easily the equal of what’s commonly found in both YA and adult titles. All packed within two hundred slim pages.
The second aspect that makes it a must-read even for adult readers is the humor. This is a funny book, but not in a snot and fart sort of way. Instead, the humor is dry, self-aware, and just a touch sarcastic. I laughed out loud several times during reading, like during this passage:
“Protein’s ears perked up. Soon Fisher heard it too. A distant noise quickly rose in volume to the now-familiar sound of gadget engines. Strikes were coming, and they were close.
““Do not worry, human and his unlikely friends! I will protect you! Trust me!”
“Fisher had no reason to trust this strange, cheery, oddly stomach-churning machine. Instinct and reason both told him the Intelligence was dangerous. But his slingshot and hand ax were useless against a patrol of strikers.
“And then the strikers were there, zooming down the tunnel. They opened fire at the Intelligence, guns clacking away. In the confines of the tunnel, the sound ways loud enough to hurt.
““Remain behind me, plucky band of adventurers!” the Intelligence said. The machine widened its body, forming a wall to catch the strikers’ missiles. Then it folded in on itself. Muffled bangs and pops came from inside the machine’s body. When it unfolded itself, spent missile shells clinked against the floor.
““Hello, primitive little machines!” the Intelligence called out. “You will not harm the human being and his odd cohorts!”
This expert blend of humor, high adventure, and conceptual depth means that I would not hesitate to recommend The Boy at the End of the World to readers of any age.(less)
On paper, you might think that Planesrunner is a perfect YA sci-fi read. In fact, its admirable qualities must be acknowledged: its hero, Everett Singh, is a non-stereotyped person of color (half-Punjabi Indian, raised in London); the novel has a strong focus on physics and includes extended descriptions of the science and history that underlie its premises; its undeniably well-written, with florid prose that never quite crosses the line into overwritten; it takes place largely in a trendy steampunk setting. I can’t understate that in this way, this story of a young boy who loses his father and must cross over into another universe is precisely what most adult science fiction fans believe is lacking in young adult sci-fi.
Heck, Everett Singh is both a Whovian and a troper. As a huge fan of both, you’d think I’d be a sucker for this novel.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
It took me quite awhile to locate the source of my discomfort with the story. It begins strongly enough, with Everett’s father’s kidnapping and a description of his middle-class home. His parents have recently divorced; his mother is stressed by her former husband’s disappearance and the abrupt appearance of the police on her doorstep. Their household felt fairly real, despite the fantastic nature of Everett’s situation–as he meets a cardboard cut-out villain who has sent his dad into another universe, and as he learns about the technology that his father has left in his computer that will help him travel after to save him.
Unfortunately, I found my interest rapidly flagging. And while it perked up a bit when Everett enters another London, where fossil fuels were never harnessed for industry and instead all technology is coal-electric powered, and as I luxuriated in McDonald’s undeniably strong stylistics, I soon found myself floundering again. I enjoyed the airship (or “Airish”) society that Everett eventually joins; enjoyed, even more Sen, the rakish girl/airship pilot who acts as his guide. But there were considerable pacing problems in Planesrunner. Though many of the scenes were, ostensibly action scenes, they were also fairly trifling–descriptions of airship races or shopping excursions that had little-to-nothing to do with, you know, the plot.
But the more pressing problem was with Everett himself. He never congealed for me into a believable fourteen-year-old boy. First, his emotional responses were all muted. While on the surface, this upper-MG/lower-YA story shares much in common with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, unlike that classic, this novel does not begin or end with the emotional plight of its characters. Everett frequently acts in a way that suggests that he’s just . . . forgotten about his father’s disappearance, and the family he’s left behind. He’s much like a typical hard-science fiction hero, too concerned with describing the science of his world to bother with pesky feelings. While McDonald has stated that he was inspired by Doctor Who, he doesn’t seem to have the same intuitive understanding of childhood that Steven Moffat does. Everett is no Amelia Pond, praying for someone to save her from the crack in her wall that’s eaten up her parents.
Instead, Everett is a superhero. The scope of his abilities and knowledge was frankly unbelievable. Everett is a greater physics genius than his father’s graduate students. He knows the history of his own world in stunning detail; he knows the names for parts of architecture and can understand the obscure slang spoken by the Airish population with nary a blink. Many of these abilities arise when narratively necessary with little foreshadowing. Conveniently, we’re told that Everett can see in four, five, or six dimensions (at exactly the moment when he needs to do so, of course); he’s also suddenly a master chef, just when he needs to be one. He does not have any outward (or come to think of it, inward) flaws–and certainly not the flaws of a normal, real, vital fourteen-year-old boy.
Finally, there were a few lines regarding Everett’s race that caused me to wince, though it was largely well-handled. There’s something vaguely odd about a hero of color whose love interest is described as not just white, but preternaturally white (“Everett had never seen skin so pale, eyes so arctic blue. She looked like she was carved from ice” and, later, “he had never seen a face so white, eyes so ice pale”). But worse than this elevation of very traditional Western beauty ideals is the later pronouncement that “if you met [Everett's] dad, you wouldn’t know right away he’s Punjabi, because he’s not big and noisy and he thinks about things” (emphasis added). I mean, eesh.
But these lapses, and the lack of deeper engagement of character, won’t bother many readers–who just want an immersive action-adventure story in a steampunk universe. Planesrunner will, nevertheless, appeal to them–as well as to adult sci-fi fans of McDonald’s work, who probably don’t want pesky adolescent feelings mucking up their science fiction.(less)
Like the first volume in the Bumped series, Thumped is a unique sort of beast in YA speculative fiction. In a world full of poetic, but fundamentally...moreLike the first volume in the Bumped series, Thumped is a unique sort of beast in YA speculative fiction. In a world full of poetic, but fundamentally serious romance-focused dystopian novels, these are chatty, comedic novels whose primary purpose seems to be to comment on our own society’s foibles, particularly our current reproductive climate. McCafferty’s story–of twin girls raised in far-different societies who have both faced pressure to reproduce before the age of eighteen thanks to a global reproductive crisis–doesn’t take the dire tone of more traditional sociological science fiction. Instead, it’s chatty, tongue-in-cheek, kind of gross, and apparently light. But don’t mistake this for jokey chick-lit. The rollicking tone actually conceals a rather tender and incisive interior.
Thumped begins eight months after the conclusion of Bumped. The twins, Melody and Harmony, are preparing for their widely-advertised double twin birth. You might remember that this doesn’t quite jive with the ending of Bumped–all will be revealed in good time, though I have to admit that I didn’t think this twist was the best of what McCafferty offered us within Thumped‘s pages.
In fact, generally the pacing was all a bit scattered. As was the case with Bumped (and, come to think of it, the Jessica Darling novels), important events often happen off-screen–events that were emotionally relevant enough that I wondered if they shouldn’t have been included here. Instead, over Thumped‘s first half, we have establishing scenes, a caper-like kidnapping that was a little rough around the edges, and a light rehash of the school drama of the first novel. Through these scenes especially, I couldn’t help but feel a little weary about Melody’s more pedestrian, slang-laden plotlines. Harmony’s voice is undoubtedly the stronger, and it was interesting to note how McCafferty flawlessly incorporated her pregnancy into her narration. Harmony feels like a teenage girl who is on the verge of popping out a few babies. She’s mournful of her lost childhood, physically uncomfortable, and a little apprehensive. In contrast, Melody’s plot felt a bit trifling.
The girls continue their romances of the first novel. Again, Harmony’s relationship with Jondoe is the more tender and better developed of the two, at least initially. But the real treat here–and the meat of the novel–is the development of the relationship between the two sisters. After the events of the first novel, I hadn’t expected this–but the twins are abruptly vividly real in their relationship dynamic. It’s an imperfect sisterhood (as all sisterhoods are, I suppose), but it’s also a powerfully written testament to friendships between girls and friendships between sisters. The scene where they discuss their long-lost mother was perhaps the most moving of the novel:
“With the names she gave us, she had to love music,” Melody said, with an uncharacteristically faraway look in her eyes, “. . . I bet she was more like you in that way, and it’s sweet that you’re actually living up to your name, and then some.”
“I should have modestly insisted that I wasn’t early as musical as Melody made me out to be, but I was too taken with the idea that I had somehow inherited talents from my birth mother that Melody had not.”
““And she wrote heartbreaking songs about being misunderstood by wanky parents, brainless friends, and boys she loved hwo didn’t love her back.”
“I was afraid to move so much as a single muscle. I wanted her to keep talking about our birthparents in a way that made them feel realer than the conjurings of my own heart and soul. (page 181, ARC edition)
The development of the sisterly relationship at the center of this duology represents a certain maturing of the themes found in the first Bumped novel (where girls were just as often pitted against one another than not). In fact, generally I’d say that Thumped presents grown-up versions of Bumped‘s themes. Rather than ruminations on oft-too-young sexualization of teenagers, we have an examination of the reproductive pressures faced by mothers both young and old. Teenage girls are encouraged to see their children not as people but as experiences (something that has happened historically to young unmarried women pressured into giving up their babies for adoption); bodily choices–from the type of birth one has to whether one breastfeeds–are reduced for the declared good of the child. Just as was the case for the first volume, these are real issues faced by real women, sometimes very young women, and it was stirring to see McCafferty tackle them the way she did.
In fact, by the novel’s conclusion it was all very “stirring”–as the girls decide what to do with their reproductive futures, facing the melancholy truth of their universe, and ours, I found myself getting very choked up. If YA dystopians have garnered any consistent criticism, it’s that they’re not socially relevant enough. McCafferty’s novels stand as an answer to that. Her world might not be our world in a literal sense, but for all intents and purposes the conflicts faced by both Melody and Harmony are identical to the conflicts faced by women and girls today. These are important questions–and these are important books.(less)
When it comes to Crewel, Gennifer Albin’s highly buzzed October debut, I’m of two minds. On the surface, this is one of the most innovative titles to come so far out of the dystopian craze. It’s the story about Adelice, a gifted spinner who can miraculously see–and manipulate–the very threads of matter and time that make up her world. All girls so blessed must become Spinsters, locked in an opulent compound where they live a lavish lifestyle of parties and gowns while tasked with the responsibility of tending to time and space. Of course, in return they will never see their families again and, more, must live lives of chastity.
The writing is absolutely beautiful, and herein lies Albin’s greatest gift–the ability to perfectly describe a world completely foreign from our own and make you believe it. Arras is a hint classical–towns are named “Romen” and “Cypress,” and there are fishing villages filled with copper-skinned rebels. But it’s also a hint evocative of a Stepford America, too. Women work only as secretaries and teachers, and they don pantyhose and heavy make-up. Men wear smart suits (some double-breasted) and generally look like early-sixties Ken dolls. And yet these two very disparate sides of Arras mesh seamlessly. It’s a vivid, innovative setting, and I believed it completely.
The mystery that lurks behind Arras’s shining, g0ld-threaded surface is undoubtedly the strongest driving force of the novel. Who are these girls who can weave time and space? What happens when people are “cleaned” and “ripped” from the looms? Why did Adelice’s parents so fear her becoming a Spinster? How did such a world begin? The quest to discover the truth about a novel’s world is more common in adult science fiction than YA sci-fi. I can think of only two YA titles whose universes were as well-rendered and deliciously compelling (Incarnate, and A Confusion of Princes). It’s a bit like Lost in that way; some readers will want to keep up with the story so that they can discover the truth about those polar bears.
But . . . this is also where my major hesitation about Crewel lies. I intuited early on what the truth of this world might be, and after that, the pieces fell a bit too easily into place. This is a story you’ve seen before (with at least one major motion picture release centering on the same twist). Well before the reveal, I became frustrated, rather than riveted.
I suspect this was largely problematic because Adelice’s personality only became fully-formed near the end of the novel. Early on, she was rather sketchily described, an impression not helped by her lack of response to the trauma she faces throughout. Eventually, she became a rather angry girl–an interesting twist, but one that happened just a little too late for me. Likewise, her love interests were very faintly drawn. And some of the more political thematics, about women’s roles, compulsory heterosexuality, purity, and beauty standards, felt ill-fitting with this world once I discovered the truth behind it.
And yet Crewel is still a promising, beautifully written, and iminently interesting book. It takes the kind of risks that I wish more YA sci-fi would, even if they don’t, in the end, always pay out. I’d recommend it for any reader who enjoys lyrical prose and rich worldbuilding. And, while the ultimate mystery of the world didn’t work for me, I’m sure it will be quite fresh and surprising for its intended audience of teenagers.(less)
Jenn Reese’s middle grade debut Above World reaffirmed my choice to start reviewing middle grade novels at th...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
Jenn Reese’s middle grade debut Above World reaffirmed my choice to start reviewing middle grade novels at the Academy. This story of a young mermaid Kampii girl about to undergo her society’s adulthood ceremony where she will eat a magical seed that transforms her legs into a tail–and what happens when that girl decides to forgo this ritual instead to save her people–begins as any young adult fantasy story might. Aluna is YA heroine of a classic sort, one who sneaks weapons lessons behind her father’s back and who stubbornly refuses to accept the gender roles of her people. Her relationship with twelve-year-old Hoku is complex and tender. Hoku is more demur than his best friend, geekier and less world-weary, and passages told from his perspective were fairly refreshing. Though I liked Aluna right from the outset, she realistically lacks self-awareness; Hoku’s perceptive (and yet childlike) chapters were a nice counterpoint to Aluna’s single-mindedness.
The undersea society is built with nuance; gender roles are strictly determined by reproductive necessity rather than personal preference; the stagnating high council copes (or fails to cope) with their dying technology. The first chapters felt a bit like a better-developed, more plausible version of The Little Mermaid. However, here conflicts and motivations were much more urgently stated. Aluna doesn’t want to leave the Kampii because she’s bored or because of a boy–she wants to leave out of a stubborn and deep-seated desire to save her people.
However, once Aluna and Hoku venture out of their city, the novel takes a surprising turn. Though early chapters hint at science fictional underpinnings (there are corporate-branded breathing apparatuses and discussions of a long-lost founder), I honestly didn’t expect the depths [pun unintended, but noted] of the development of the wider world. Hoku and Aluna soon learn that theirs isn’t the only society of genetically modified chimeras–soon, they meet bird people and horse people and even mechanical crab people.
This busy, diverse universe–so different from ours–provided my only real stumbling block. As they travel across their world, it all started to feel a bit like a busy jumble. A few of the modified offshoots of humanity were difficult to visualize, and I often felt like I was just getting to know one little pocket of society when I was whisked away to learn about another. But still, this world was a rich one to utilize as a backdrop to a middle grade novel, and if the length of the book meant that we didn’t get a ton of breathing room between settings and events, well, then, it’s understandable.
What kept me reading were the tender and honest relationships between the characters–not just between Hoku and Aluna (though their platonic friendship was great), but their eventual romantic interests, as well. The romance here is light and mostly chaste, though it feels like we might be in for something a little deeper and perhaps messier in subsequent books in the series. Aluna herself seems to be in for some big changes by novel’s end.
And Above World itself gets darker and darker as the novel proceeds. A few months ago, I compared Greg van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World to The Wizard of Oz. Like van Eekhout’s novel, Reese’s is a picaresque, with our characters going on a long journey across series of exotic locales. But the wild and sometimes scary creatures (did I mention that there’s a mechanical crab woman?) are more the stuff of low-octane nightmare fuel like Return to Oz. Our villain Fathom, like Mombi, is out for parts. It’s really quite scary, in the best, and most riveting way.
Above World is a great sci-fi tale for the middle grade reader–both girls and boys should find something to enjoy here in its rich universe, relatable characters, and accessible voice. (less)
Bigger than a Bread Box might seem to be of a stretch for an Intergalactic Academy review. After all, it’s apparently a fantasy title, not a science fictional one. In a way, this story–about a middle school girl who finds a magical, gift-granting bread box–might see a little typical, too. Like fluffy wish fulfillment, not a story with heft or bite.
But Rebecca Shapiro’s world is far from saccharine. Her dad drives a taxi–or he did, until he wrecked it. Her mom works nights. Rebecca herself is quiet and a little nerdy, but her universe is a fairly secure one. Until one day, when her mother stuffs Rebecca and her baby brother Lew into their car and drives off to her grandmother’s house in Atlanta, leaving Rebecca’s father behind.
Rebecca reacts with very honest adolescent rage at her mother for upsetting daily life. She hides out in her grandmother’s cluttered attic. It’s there that she finds the eponymous bread box, and unwittingly makes her first wish–for a book to read. The core premise here is a bit like the kid’s classic Half Magic. You’ve got kids, and wishes, and the magic only follows very specific rules (in Half Magic, only half of a wish was granted; here, any item wished for must fit in the bread box itself). But thematically, it’s very different from Edward Eager’s tale. Eager’s kids were wishing out of boredom. Soon, Rebecca, thrust into a new school ruled by a spoiled queen bee, is wishing out of desperation: for electronics, for pens and lip glosses to give out at school, and candy to trade at lunch, and fries from the diner back home. She’s essentially trying to plug up the holes in her life with magic. Unsuccessfully, of course. It’s that kind of book. Think Edward Eager meets Louise Fitzhugh.
Like Fitzhugh and her contemporaries, Snyder deals absolutely honestly with the Rebecca and her situation. She’s volatile, rebellious, forgetful, a little selfish, and absolutely sympathetic. She’s also bright. This is as much a novel about embracing your inner geek as it is about magic, and its in exploration of this theme–complete with discussions of the Law of Conservation of Mass and Epicurus–that Bigger than a Bread Box takes on a decidedly SFnal tone.
But the focus remains on Rebecca’s plight, as she attempts to undo the damage that her magic has done and make reparations for her mistakes. The end takes us to some very interesting, unexpected, and affecting places, and in a sense the novel’s conclusion is deliciously open-ended. It hits all the right notes, especially the most important one: honesty.(less)
I’ll get this out of the way: Partials by Dan Wells is built on some solid ground. It’s the story of Kira, a strong, somewhat militaristic heroine who is training to be a medic in a society that’s dying. All but 1% of Earth’s population has been killed off, and babies don’t survive their first fragile hours. In the hopes of discovering a cure, humanity’s leaders have demanded that women become baby factories, giving birth to their first doomed children at the age of 18. But to no avail. Humanity’s last safe haven (on Long Island, of all places) faces a double threat–attacks from a group of rebel humans known as the Voice and from the humanoid robots known as Partials who they suspect planted the virus that destroyed humanity in the first place.
Sounds awesome, right? And in some ways, it is. This is sweeping, cinematic sci-fi–the kind of dark, militaristic stuff that draws a cross-gender audience and fans who want their crapsack worlds to be SERIOUS BUSINESS. Kira’s story, peppered with child soldiers and action sequences and impressive-sounding (if perhaps not very realistic) science, would translate well to the big screen. I suspect this will draw some coveted audiences: adult sci-fi fans and, most important of all, boys.
It’s only if you poke your nose in too deeply that the problems become evident. Sure, there are some surface flaws–implausible, infodumpy dialogue and slow pacing through the novel’s first half are the most pressing. But the issues that concerned me here were those underlying the central conceits. The setting never felt quite fully fledged. I didn’t understand how the society worked. If girls are so valued for their reproductive capacity, why waste educational resources training them to be medics or nurses? Why allow them to venture out into dangerous areas? How is it possible that all of remaining humanity be so ignorant of the way that the cybernetic Partials work? These lapses felt more like plot contrivances than anything else–meant to keep the story moving, even if at the expense of the book’s overall soundness.
None of this would have bothered me had the character relationships been richer, or deeper. Kira’s a well-drawn character, but she’s essentially the only one. Her love interest is completely flat; their interactions totally lacked in chemistry and had a creepy undercurrent I couldn’t quite pin down. Her relationships with her friends should have had a familial closeness thanks to their extreme living conditions, but instead felt contrived. When Kira vows to save her friend’s unborn child, her reasoning never seemed to transcend “because baby!” Richer character interactions and less time spent describing viral identification in a lab (a process never really discussed convincingly for me) would have helped quite a bit.
This was especially true in the case of Kira’s interactions with Samm, the captured Partial who shows up halfway through. Wells begins to hint at a relationship or some sort of chemistry between the two, but the novel ends with this, and many other threads, largely undeveloped. The story ultimately failed to satisfy. I’m not one of those readers who utterly loathes a cliffhanger, but I do like to see the characters evolve appreciably within a volume. That didn’t quite happen here. Both Kira and Samm’s growth felt forestalled for later volumes.
In this way, Partials repeats the mistakes of many adult sci-fi novels: unrealistic dialogue; stiff or simplistic characterization. And while Wells hints at complexity and richness, few aspects of Partials felt truly mature for me. But let’s be frank: this is meant to be movie-style SF, where gritty images and tense scenes drive the plot rather than totally sound worldbuilding or in-depth characterization. I suspect Wells’ work will attract its fair share of fans–those who like dark, serious sci-fi will find a lot to like within its pages.(less)
At first glance, Daughter of the Centaurs by Kate Klimo contains all the ingredients for a great YA novel. It’s got an intriguing premise–it’s the story of Malora, the last human on Earth, and how she comes to join a society of centaurs after the apocalypse destroys human society. The setting is very detailed. While it nominally takes place somewhere on the African continent, the centaur society contained within is very well-developed and, initially, appears to be rigorously thought-through. Malora, twelve at the outset of the novel but fifteen during the bulk of the action, is a practical, hardened survivor, not unlike Katniss Everdeen. She’s the type of heroine many YA readers (myself included) love.
Unfortunately “many promising components” does not a “good book” make. Sadly, I didn’t enjoy Daughter of the Centaurs for all I hoped that it would be a rousing and fresh YA tale. My first problem was with the narration. I was immediately struck by how simplistic it was. Though it makes some sense that the novel is told in present tense–Malora herself is a character who lives very much in the present–the story nevertheless felt as though it was being told at an odd arm’s length. The descriptions of characters felt muffled; their reactions far removed from the novel’s events. Events and worldbuilding, when not imparted through dialogue, were described in a plodding, methodical, almost clinical way.
The first several chapters still held some promise. Malora is part of a tribe of humans who utilize very primitive technology to keep afloat. She learns how to train horses from her father. When her tribe is destroyed, she takes to the plains, raising and breeding a herd of horses. These chapters are the novel’s best, and while not exactly riveting, the relationships between Malora and the “Ironbound Furies,” as the horses come to be called, are quite well-realized.
But I can’t say the same about her relationships with any of the centaur characters.
Klimo’s very evidently done a great deal of work with her centaur society. She’s developed laws, class stratification, a job system, architecture, entertainment. And, as Malora comes to join the Highlander society, we get to learn all about it. For roughly two hundred pages, she’s given a tour of the centaur world, where she asks bland questions about the underpinnings of this world and where Orion, her centaur host, obligatorily answers them. I love rich worldbuilding, but I found this incalculably boring. Eventually (after the novel put me to sleep), I realized why–there is no conflict between the characters here. The stakes are kept very, very low. We never fear for Malora’s safety. We never worry that she’ll be “turned out,” despite vague warnings to that effect. She encounters obstacles, but those sort of . . . roll off her back with little impact on the plot’s development. In truth, when she’s told, at one point, that she cannot choose blacksmithing as her career, I failed to feel even the slightest flame of sympathy for her. In fact, I felt nothing. What did it matter, anyway? I had no idea what Malora liked (beyond horses) or wanted (beyond being with her horses, who she inexplicably left behind with another caretaker for all we’re told she cared).
This general lack of conflict was very strange considering the social stratification, sexism, and racism inherent in Klimo’s centaur society. The centaurs are broken up into two groups, the noble Highlanders, and the peasant Lowlanders, but the peasants seem to accept their poverty with nary a neigh of protest. The women are all subjugated, forced to cover up in fear of “inflaming” the passions of the male centaurs–but other than some vague mumblings about how sad it would be if Malora had to cover her long red hair, this is summarily accepted, as well. Worst of all were the race of cat people willingly indentured for life to the centaurs. The Twani were one of the worst examples of a “happy slave” race I’ve ever seen in either sci-fi or fantasy. While there is ample opportunity for someone to comment on how messed up it is that these half-cat creatures very literally work themselves to death–and that the centaurs have plentiful chances to liberate them, but instead choose to take advantage of them–it never happens. Instead, we’re asked to just accept the fact that these plucky catmen wish to live in service of the centaurs because of some memory of racial debt. Dated and offensive, tropes like these really need to go.
Because of all of the above, I had quite a bit of trouble with my time spent in centaur society. I suppose that I was supposed to find it all rich and captivating, but instead I was unsettled and disquieted. There was opportunity here to eventually reveal the society as dystopic–and Klimo almost does, near the novel’s end. But instead we’re suddenly plunged back into truly trifling matters. The conclusion concerns not, say, societal overhaul, or Malora’s rejection of the centaur who has made her his (ugh) “pet,” but instead a horse race. Really. And, while I’m fond of horses myself, I did not much care whether Malora won, or lost, at this juncture. I’d gone cold to her, and her concerns–and the novel did little to convince me to feel otherwise.
Daughter of the Centaurs could conceivably appeal to readers who really, really like horse books, and those who don’t mind dated societal metaphor without any accompanying social commentary in their fantastic fiction.(less)
Starters is Lissa Price’s debut, and it opens with one of my favorite conceits in near-future sci-fi: the evil corporation. I was particularly fond of the eerie dream-destroying company of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (less enamored of the one that appeared in Dollhouse, though I thought it was, perhaps, that franchise’s strongest feature), and was excited to see a similar trope employed here. Teen Callie visits a clean, stylish office to offer herself up for sale. In a universe where everyone is either very young, or very old, Prime Destinations offers the oldest residents the chance to borrow a young body for a few hours, and Callie intends to to lend hers out for a ride or three.
She’s seeking this opportunity because she and her brother and her sort-of-boyfriend live in abject poverty, squatting in a building where they must fight off bands of rogue teenagers. Our first glimpse at Callie’s home life provided my own first taste of trouble with this novel. The prose up until this point had been rosy and simplistic. It remained so even when describing her younger brother’s crippling health problems. These scenes seemed to lack a certain necessary gravity. They felt like fluff, even when describing some very heavy subject matter.
Callie’s childish tone continued to pose a problem for me throughout the book, and the simplicity contained therein would be repeated in worldbuilding as the story unfolded. Callie’s body is lent out twice. The third time, she abruptly wakes up in the middle of one of her body’s outings. Finding herself in a club filled with old people who are inhabiting young people’s bodies, Callie begins to ask questions of those around her. We get our first taste of the wider world of Starters, and a disappointing world it is.
This is a universe where, because of vaccine scarcity (a vaguely plausible excuse, though not perfectly executed in the particulars) everyone is either very old or very young. Further, the elderly now live and work until they are two hundred years or older. This could have introduced captivating changes to society. Given a new lease on life–increased mobility and a chance to see one’s golden years unfold for twice the normal length of time–how would a population react?
Like stereotypes, that’s how. It’s not just that most of the old people here are villains, though the assumption that teenagers would be okay with such ageism unsettled me somewhat. It’s that these characters are far less interesting than what we’d see on Golden Girls. Theirs is a culture that only goes so deep as games of bridge (what, no bingo?!) and nagging their grandchildren. I got the impression that Price was simply not interested in exploring anything deeper here. If she was, she didn’t show it, instead spending most of her time on a half-baked sort-of-pre-murder mystery or with scenes that seemed to mimic other dystopian titles.
There are some bright spots: the ultimate villain is undeniably creepy; the book moves quickly, propelled by Callie’s young and chatty narration. But it’s just not a very deep novel. It’s not as if a book can’t be both playful and complex. Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, for example, is a tongue-in-cheek social satire which successfully explores meaningful ethical questions–all without losing its sense of humor. Meanwhile, Starters succeeds in the fun department, but it fails to do anything more. (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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)