I suppose I’m getting used to the fact that this is less a book review blog than it used to be. I’m sorry. Maybe I’ll be more diligent in 2014? Regardless, here’s what I’ve read (for a certain value of) recently.
Phew. I’m leaving out a few that I’ll try and do separate writeups for.
The Testing is Joelle Charbonneau’s Hunger Games clone. Young people from post-devastation colonies are selected to compete for spots in the government’s university, like some juiced up Gaokao. The testers are sadistic and the tests have consequences.
It wasn’t badly written, but I can only recommend it to people who liked the Hunger Games and dislike novelty. Oh! Here’s a difference: The female protagonist is only in love with one boy. I guess that makes it un-Hunger Gamesish.
I read James Dashner’s dystopian YA dystopia book The Maze Runner more out of duty than pleasure. The story isn’t terrible. There’s a small colony of teenage boys living in a compound in the middle of a shifting maze with no memories of their lives before they arrived but their names. Thomas is the hero and we follow him from the day he arrives in the maze.
A few bits of the story irked me (a colony of boys – plus a telepathic Smurfette character – might have made sense when Lord of the Flies was written but without a reason, it seems pretty stupid this century) but it was the writing that really killed the book for me. Its sentences were boring, and everything felt very telegraphed. There weren’t any really interesting questions beyond the information everyone withheld from Thomas, but the withholding felt incredibly manipulative throughout.
I would recommend this for kids who found The Hunger Games too dense/intense, but it pales in comparison on pretty much every other level. Not terrible, but there’s way better stuff out there (The Knife of Never Letting Go leaps to mind, especially since the consequences of the all-male colony are explored.)
On the cover of Chan Koonchung’s novel The Fat Years there’s a subtitle reading: “The novel no one in China dares publish.” Le sigh. The book’s publishing history in other places doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the book itself. It’s also funny that I’ve seen it billed as a dystopian science fiction novel, whereas for the most part to me it resembled actual China. There were exaggerations, yes, but this is not the stuff of 1984 (there is an element of Brave New World in it, since as far as I know [SPOILER ALERT] China doesn’t actually lace its water supply with trace amounts of Ecstasy). Mostly though, the book served as an interesting look at how modern China exists.
The first two thirds of the book follow a series of characters in Beijing, but mostly Lao Chen, a writer from Taiwan. An acquaintance of his meets him on the street asking about the missing month they’ve experienced as China experienced its ascendancy. The rest of the world’s economy collapsed, you see, but China managed to get through and everyone is so happy and self satisfied. The book is mostly about trying to figure out why and what happened.
The last third of the book is more like an essay from the mouth of a government official explaining what happened and why and how. If you don’t care about Chinese politics and media and such, this part will likely be terribly dull, but if you do care, it’s fascinating. I liked it a lot, despite its hyperbolic claims of how no one in China dare reads it.
I’ve only read Warren Ellis’ run on The Authority before reading Ed Brubaker’s Revolution (Book 1). The Authority is the Wildstorm universe’s Justice League analogue, except rather than just maintaining the status quo they take an active role in getting governments to behave better.
In this book, Jack Hawksmoor God of Cities, has taken over the presidency of the United States and is on his way to making the world a better place whether people like it or not. Renewable energy for everything, healthcare and all the good stuff. But not everyone is happy about it. The Authority has to deal with a rebellion by a bunch of “patriotic” superheroes who are much more powered than they used to be. And Midnighter (the Authority’s Batman analogue) has been brought into the future by Apollo (the Authority’s Superman analogue) to see what a terrible fascist dystopia the Authority hath wrought with the best of intentions. Midnighter is sent back to try and make sure that future doesn’t come to pass.
It’s a good story about politics and superpowers that deals with things differently than the mainstream DC or Marvel continuity really would.
My big problem with this book is that the VPL doesn’t have book two, so I haven’t been able to learn how it ends yet.
Monsters of Men is the concluding book in the Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. This trilogy was less like three separate books than one story separated into three volumes, which is part of why I preferred this book to the middle book. It actually had an ending.
[Spoilers to follow.]
In this concluding section Todd and Viola have to try and unite humanity against the overwhelming opposition of the aliens they thought they’d killed in the war (before Todd was born). They’re trying to create a peace and Todd is becoming more like the Mayor because he’s learning so much. There’s a lot of Star Wars-esque father issues going on. Viola is hiding her distrust of the new Todd and they’re all growing up and she lets the war get personal while she’s trying to broker a peace. It’s all very dramatic, with one excellent return of a character from early on in the story that I didn’t see coming. And it ends really well.
There’s a new viewpoint character, one of the aliens, which I quite enjoyed. One of the issues with the series is that the first book is told completely from Todd’s perspective, and Viola doesn’t even have a voice for a good chunk of it. In the second book she becomes a viewpoint character. But if a young woman starts the first book, there’s not a lot for her right off the hop. And explaining that Viola is there and everything Todd thinks at first is wrong kind of defeats the purpose of how that book is set up. I don’t know if it’s a huge problem, but the fact that it takes so long to get a kickass female protagonist might turn off some female readers. Just a caution.
The Ask and the Answer is the second book in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series. I didn’t like it as much as The Knife of Never Letting Go, but it is definitely worth a read. (There will be spoilers ahead for TKoNLG ahead. Be warned.)
If the first book is about Todd becoming a man, this one is about the kinds of choices an adult has to make. Todd thinks that Mayor Prentiss is his enemy but through this book he has to work with him at the cost of most of his soul. Viola gets to be a viewpoint character through this story and she’s in with the rebel/terrorist organization trying to stop Mayor Prentiss using bombs. The two of them are stumbling separately through terrible morasses of gray moral areas, so the adventure of the first book, with its clear goals and antagonists is largely gone.
There’s a lot of torture in this book. At least it felt like a lot. It’s much bleaker than the first. There’s more distrust between Todd and Viola but it isn’t pushed to such extremes that you have to yell at the characters or anything. They’re the only ones they really can trust, but it’s hard. Viola is being used to ferry bombs around to blow shit up and Todd’s being used in concentration camp duty branding the aliens. Nothing really good happens in this book, which is mighty oppressive (and that’s from a person who enjoys Empire Strikes Back downer endings, especially in the middle book of a trilogy). Oh no, the interactions with the horses were a tiny bright spot.
Also, I hated the fact that the publisher used a different font for Todd and Viola’s narration, especially since they were also labelled [Todd] and [Viola]. It was redundant and Viola’s font bugged the hell out of me.
I’m looking forward to finishing the series to get a fuller perspective on it, but yeah, so far bing an adult on New World sucks.
In our YA Services class last week, Eric brought up Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go as a YA dystopia that’s much better than The Hunger Games. I borrowed it after class and wasn’t disappointed.
Todd is a month away from his 13th birthday, which is the time in Prentisstown you become a man. The thing is that in Prentisstown there are no women, and he’s the last boy left. Oh and also everyone can read everyone else’s thoughts all the time (it’s called Noise), including animals (Todd’s dog says “Todd!” a lot and “Poo!” – but is still less boring than the sheep who just say “Sheep!”). And Prentisstown is the last outpost left on the planet after the Spackles – the alien inhabitants from before the colonists arrived – caused all of this terribleness with their bioweapons.
But then Todd finds something in the woods whose thoughts he can’t hear, and he learns how misled he’s been.
Ness’ worldbuilding is excellent. There are so many things that make you go “How does that make sense?” but through careful revelations of what Todd didn’t know because he’s still a kid when the book starts that makes the horror of Prentisstown (and of the world in whole) much more gripping. Todd and Viola (the strange thing he found in the woods whose thoughts he couldn’t hear is a girl) engage in this huge voyage and the stakes feel really high. Also, I loved that he doesn’t love his dog from the beginning.
My only complaint is that the ending is so cliffhangery to make you want to read the next book, it’s a little offputting. I mean, I borrowed the next book, but manipulation into reading a trilogy kind of bugs me.
Other than that this is a great read, especially about the effects that violence has on people. No violent act in this book is just a tossaway thing, which I love.
Lois Lowry’s The Giver was in our unit on dystopias, and yes, it fits there. I ended up being unimpressed with it as a book though, mainly because of the “unique snowflake” syndrome it exhibits.
Jonas lives in a society where you’re assigned a job to be trained for when you hit 12 years old. Not exactly 12, because you’re part of a year which all hits these milestones together. The society has a huge number of rules and surveillance to maintain itself. Jonas is understandably excited about his upcoming assignment. But he gets a weird job that sets him apart from the community as a keeper of memory, which is when you learn that no one can see colours or knows what hills or snow are, since the Sameness was instituted to eliminate pain and poor choices.
It’s a good book, as far as it goes. It’s very firm in its support of individual choice as opposed to terrible efficiency (something it shares with A Wrinkle in Time). The problem is how Jonas has to have memories transmitted into him psychically and then the ending is kind of abrupt (though it’s also kind of ambiguous, leaving a few interpretations open until being stomped on by the sequel). The thing that bugs me is how Jonas and the Giver are the only people in the world who aren’t drones that care only about the status quo.
There’s more good than bad to it, though Scott Westerfeld does a better job with similar material in Uglies. Uglies is a bit more YA and this is a bit more childrens’ I guess.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a pretty big deal in the YA SF community. I remember one of my WPL co-workers (am I allowed to say where I used to work now, Rick?) who was a YA librarian who was so incredibly anticipatory of Mockingjay (the third in the series). They’re making a movie of it, for what that’s worth.
I’ve often heard of this book as the antithesis of Twilight. Katniss Everdeen is a girl from one of the conquered districts in this dystopian future America. She is awesome though because she goes out into the unregulated forest and hunts with a bow and brings home food to sell to her village. Because everyone is kept poor and hungry and working in coal mines in her district.
The titular games are a sacrifice each of the conquered districts makes to the capital for having dared to rebel generations ago. One boy and one girl from each district (there are 12 of them, the 13th having been destroyed) are pitted against each other in a televised (but more futuristic than television) fight to the death.
What makes Katniss awesome is how strong she is. She is making active choices throughout the novel, shaping her future which has consequences. There’s a romance subplot driven by the boy who goes from her district, but Katniss is into the strategy of it all, and there’s not a lot of room for pining for a vampire to be her true love.
Highly recommended. At some point I’ll probably read the sequels, because this book just set things up and you can tell the stakes are moving up from a mere bloody battle royale.