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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
I began Monument 14 with some difficulty. Following a gripping second-person introduction, we’re plunged into...moreFull review at the Intergalactic Academy.
I began Monument 14 with some difficulty. Following a gripping second-person introduction, we’re plunged into the life and voice of Dean, a tenth grader whose world falls apart on the bus to school one morning. Massive hailstones dent the ceiling of his bus, and cars swerve from the road. There are explosions. Soon, the world is a wreck around him and he finds himself ushered in to a local big box store by a grade school bus driver who soon leaves for help.
Fourteen children are left behind. They watch the news of a mega-tsunami over an old television screen. This all sounds pretty gripping, and it should have been, but at first the story–told through Dean’s simplistic and somewhat bland narration–felt stiff to me. The characters (a jock, a bully, a beautiful girl, the new kid, the foreign kid, a pair of twins) were like cardboard cut-outs.
But I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did. Slowly, over the course of Monument 14‘s spare three hundred pages, Dean and his companions began to come to life. Holed up in the megamart after a chemical weapon is inadvertently released by an earthquake following the tsunami, they begin to carve out a meager existence. Their days are filled realistically. Sometimes they enact ingenious plans; sometimes they get drunk and play laser tag. Soon, the older kids are plunged into romantic drama. Dean loves Astrid, who disappears after a chemical-induced freak-out. When he finds her again, he learns she’s canoodling with Jake, a popular athlete. Leader Niko loves “mother hen” Josie, who loves Brayden, a bully, and so on.
There are questionable moments in the narrative, like when a thirteen-year-old girl puts on a sexual show, apparently to gain the approval of the older boys–or when Dean himself uses the term “gay” to describe a poem he’s written. But Laybourne (and Dean) mostly present these moments without narrative comment. She’s not endorsing or judging this behavior. She simply presents it realistically, and leaves the reader to make moral judgments, or not, as he or she sees fit. Contrary to my initial beliefs, these weren’t simple, cliched characters. As I came to see different sides of the children, I began to believe they were all very nuanced in their conception. If they seemed stiff at first then, well, it was only because Dean himself didn’t know them very well.
There are a few lapses here. The ending is unsatisfying, though true to the character of a schlub like Dean. The science fictional and science elements were also sometimes silly. This is a near-future world, one with a massive computer network that soon goes down. I was never really convinced that this was a necessity. If Laybourne meant to warn us about the dangers of cloud computing, well, I’m not exactly about to give up dropbox.
But those details really weren’t important. What carries Monument 14 were the strongly-conceived, spot-on teenage characters; the fascinating setting (who hasn’t dreamed of holing up in a Walmart for awhile?); and the complexity with which Laybourne deals with human nature. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s a strong, interesting one, and well worth a read.(less)
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)
Tomorrow Land is an interesting endeavor in the realm of modern publishing–a novel published in 2007 (so before the wave of books just like this) by a now-kaput publisher, rereleased in eBook form. In many ways, I think it is a perfect novel for e-publishing. It’s accessible, priced-right, and in an extremely popular genre. For those who want one more post-apocalyptic road trip, similar to Partials or Ashfall or a bunch of other mainstream novels, there’s really no reason to pass up Mancusi’s take on the zombie apocalypse.
But a “perfect novel for e-publishing” is not necessarily a “perfect novel.” Don’t get me wrong–in terms of polish, this is well done. It’s clearly been professionally edited. The e-book was formatted correctly and without glaring errors. However, in many ways, in terms of story and plausibility, it falls flat.
Sean is right that much of the problem here is created by the alternating timeline utilized by Mancusi. The main plot–where Chase and Peyton walk down a post-apocalyptic I-95 (called here “Highway 95″–it’s a nitpick, but such real world worldbuilding errors always rankle, for me) with a herd of orphaned children–is the most interesting. There’s a rich subplot about drug addiction, and the pair’s romance is exceedingly well-handled. It grows slowly, and feels based on genuine mutual respect and affection without resorting to didacticism about what teen romance should look like. I liked both of these kids, and believed in their love. They’re what kept me reading.
But the other timeline is far blander, the story of the looming zombie apocalypse and how it destroys Peyton and Chase’s mostly-normal suburban lives. Though a few of these scenes were both interesting and necessary (the incipience of their romance, the discovery of ZOMBIES!!, Peyton’s surgery and the building of her father’s bomb shelter), most was not and actually had the effect of diffusing tension in the main story. And despite this format, many plot twists felt insufficiently foreshadowed. As Sean says, we don’t, for example, learn about Peyton’s ocular implants and retractable claws for an implausibly long time.
But my biggest problem was that the text is riddled with inappropriate pop culture references. Mancusi tries to tell us that Peyton is a millenial movie addict, but that wouldn’t explain references to Edward Scissorhands (’90), The X-files (’92), Mad Max (’79), Neuromancer (’84) and a whole bunch of other stuff. The children of the 2030s appear to have no culture of their own. Instead, their cultural frame of reference is the same as mine–or, more likely, the same as the author. A very, very small number of these worked for me (I caught what might have been a stealth reference to the NZ kid’s show The Tribe, though I suppose kids with facepaint living in a retail store might happen in two media works organically), and mostly they never failed to take me out of the story and leave me scratching my head.
But still, if you’re not a nitpicker like I am, you might enjoy the story here. Again, the characters are engaging, and the central romance is sweet. It exists in a bit of a glutted market right now, but if you just can’t get enough zombie apocalypse road novels, there’s really no reason not to try Tomorrow Land.(less)