Tag Archives: dystopia

life without bees

…would be bleak, if Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley) is any indication!

In this novel, an English man in 1852 throws himself into inventing a revolutionary hive for beekeepers, hoping his work will bring fame and fortune to the family he’s struggling to provide for. On another timeline, an American man in 2007 tends to the bee farm that’s been in his family for generations, though his wife would prefer to sell and their son would rather pursue journalism than take up the mantle. Finally, a Chinese woman in 2098 works long hours pollinating fruit trees by hand; she and her husband barely make enough money to keep themselves and their small son fed in a world devastated by food shortages, in the wake of mass bee extinction.

The three threads are linked, on one side a bit more directly than the other; the narration weaves back and forth between each of the main timelines, drawing parallels between the three parents who are all in their own way trying to guide their children into a life of stability. However, the adults all seem to be afflicted by the same parental blindness, believing that what’s best for their sons is to keep them close behind on the paths the parents themselves have forged, using the lessons learned from past mistakes and lost opportunities to show the children how to succeed where others- perhaps even themselves- have failed. Of course, the children have their own dreams and ideas about what’s best for them and nothing goes quite as planned.

“It was as if I’d created a bond between my own childhood and his, between us and the world, between the world and the universe.”

This is actually the part of the novel that worked the least well for me; as someone who has only ever been the child in the “parent knows best” tug of war, I was not especially inclined to feel sympathetic toward the parent narrators trying to reshape their sons’ futures, good as their intentions may have been. The trajectories of these relationships feel drawn out and obvious. I would much rather have seen these three characters more clearly as individuals, with the focus primarily on their bee-related passion projects, than so preoccupied with their familial relationships. Of course parents are often preoccupied with trying to care for their children, but that can be true without also redirecting the entire novel (though perhaps parents who can relate to worrying about their children in this way may find the family focus a more appealing aspect altogether than I did). Giving the reader more than one generation to invest in along each timeline does help bridge the gaps between the centuries covered here, but I think The History of Bees would have stood firm (perhaps even firmer) without losing focus on the relationship between humans and bees over time to a very repetitive sort of family drama replaying itself over and over again.

What interested me most here was, by far, the bees. This is a fiction book, not a source of scientific authority, but there are some fascinating asides detailing how bee colonies function, some of the labor involved in beekeeping, general bee habits, and population changes across a span of decades. I did not know, for instance, but have looked up on my own to confirm, that bee farmers rent their bees to fruit farmers for pollination purpose; apparently apiarists really do pack their hives up on trucks and tour them around to make a little money aiding fruit production. I was also unaware of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which seemingly healthy colonies suddenly abandon their homes and disappear in large numbers, for unknown reasons. I loved seeing how a beekeeper might feel about these parts of the job, how they could affect the work both logistically and emotionally.

“In 1988 the number of hives had been halved. Bee death had afflicted many places, in Sichuan as early as in the 1980s. But only when it struck in the US- and as dramatically as it did precisely in 2006 and 2007, farmers with several thousand hives suffered mass disappearances in the course of a few weeks- only then did The Collapse receive a name. Perhaps because it happened in the US, nothing was really important at that time until it happened in the US: mass death in China didn’t merit a worldwide diagnosis. That’s how it was back then.”

The economic Collapse that occurs in this novel in conjunction with the dying out of the bees is futuristic and built upon speculation, but Lunde’s proposed science provides intriguing food for thought and feels plausible enough. This part of the book, the explanation of Lunde’s dystopia and the weaving together of the three narrative threads, was another strong suit for me. Unfortunately this comes very late in the novel; despite the shortness of the chapters and frequent switches between characters to keep the plot from stagnating at any point, I found the majority of the read to be dull and dry, my time with the book mainly spent waiting for those impending connections as the characters walked slowly into fates that are all too obvious, sometimes even to the characters themselves:

“Perhaps I had known it all along, but couldn’t bear to take it in, because it was too big, too important.”

Ultimately, I do appreciate how all of the pieces of this plot fit together, as well as the environmental themes I’m left with. It’s simply much more pleasing to consider this novel in concept after the fact than it was to read through, and I’m not sure that I have any good ideas about what might have improved it for me. Perhaps if the whole thing had been presented as a heavily bee-detailed dystopian with more expansion on the futuristic timeline given up front, and the historical portions left as more of a footnote? The characters from the past do have their place here, but those old family squabbles carry very little of the book’s weight.

A final nagging complaint: either Lunde or Oatley seems to have had a penchant for placing commas between full sentences, where periods, dashes, semicolons, or just about any other stylistic choice would have made a better fit. I take no issue with the prose itself, but the comma usage gave the whole narrative an awkward flow I could never quite get past.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I finally read this one, even if I didn’t find it quite as scintillating as I’d hoped. And I’m leaving this experience more interested in learning about bees and how necessary they are to human life than I was when I began, so I’ll chalk this up as a win. Further bee-related recommendations (of any genre) are welcome!

The Literary Elephant

Review: Wilder Girls

CW: body horror, death (suicide, murder, and other), unethical scientific/medical experiments.

I’ve had my eye on Rory Power’s Wilder Girls for months (how could I not, with that stunning cover?!) and finally found the perfect moment for this YA dystopian / horror in October. I thoroughly enjoyed the story, though I found the writing a little inconsistent.

wildergirlsIn the novel, Raxter School for Girls is under quarantine. No one comes or goes from the island ever since the Tox started infecting the girls; over a year later, all of them have experienced the effects firsthand, students and teachers alike. Many have been killed by their bodies’ inability to adapt to sudden biological changes, including gills, morphing bone structure, scales replacing skin, and more. They’ve been told to stay put and wait for a cure, but when her friend goes missing, Hetty starts looking closer at what’s happening on Raxter Island, and finds some unsettling answers.

“We don’t get to choose what hurts us.”

First off, I must say I really like the premise and structure of this book. The mystery of the Tox and the quarantine kept me wondering and engaged from the first chapter to the last; it touches on current issues, it fits into a great setting (secluded island, defunct girls’ school), it allows for an exploration and celebration of female strength. The dual POVs were both essential and engaging. I’ve heard Wilder Girls likened to a feminist Lord of the Flies, which I don’t think is an entirely accurate comparison, nor does it do this story justice- it’s not a book about girls left alone going wild and reforming their own social order, but rather about a group of girls all stuck inside the same crisis and doing their best to help each other survive. There are still teachers present, enforcing structure and discipline into life at the school. As far-fetched as some of the details may seem, Powers does ground her central ideas by tying them to real-world problems- the main one addressed being climate change.

These days I prefer YA that tackles social issues or offers other food for thought relating to the real world that we live in. While I found just enough of this content behind the story to keep me satisfied, Wilder Girls might have made more of an impact if those themes had appeared earlier on; as is, the climate matter is tacked on at the end, leaving little room for the reader to consider the book’s ultimate horror: that a similar future might not be so far off. But I do expect more focus on a pacey plot and dramatic characters in YA than a lot of existential questions, so while perhaps I would have appreciated a bit more page time dedicated to climate change effects, I wasn’t disappointed with the amount provided.

While I enjoyed most of the plot (aside from a couple of convenient coincidences), I did struggle with a couple of other elements. The first was that I had some trouble understanding the characters’ choices- especially the teachers. They are presented as authority figures, but I had a hard time discerning whether the students trusted them, whether they should be trusted, and what the adults’ general attitude toward the students was during this crisis. Part of the problem is that the precarious dynamic between the adults and the teens is caught up in the main mystery of the Tox- character motivations are made clear when the story hits its climax, though I found them confusing up to that point. For one thing, there are only a couple of teachers left, and around 60 students, several of whom are only a couple of years below the age of the youngest teacher. When things start to look grim, I couldn’t understand why so many teens would continue to blindly follow adults they know don’t have all the answers. When food becomes scarce, for instance, what seventeen year-old wouldn’t question the people bringing in supplies and promising that it’s all temporary, that a cure is coming? What seventeen year-old doesn’t wonder whether they are being lied to when the promises don’t come true? And furthermore, Hetty is far from the first girl to see a friend go missing- why does it take over a year for any of these kids to investigate? Power does a fantastic job detailing relationships between the girls- friendships, rivalries, some f/f romance- but leaves a gaping hole in place of any explanation for the odd dynamic between those in authority on Raxter and those who follow.

“…she sounds like somebody’s mother. Patient, and controlled, because someone here has to be, and we’re children, but we stopped being kids a year and a half ago.”

In the end, I might not have even noticed the strange teacher/student interactions if I hadn’t already been having a strange experience with the writing style. I loved the physical and sensory details Power provides throughout this entire novel; every description of a body mutation brought on by the Tox, every description of the island’s natural elements overtaking attempts at civilization, of the living conditions at the school, and of the girls themselves, was vivid and effective for me. But when it came to explanations, I was somewhat lost. I don’t think Power’s logic is poor or lacking, just that it was very clear my brain runs on a different track than this author’s. Here’s an example:

“They teach us to shoot in what Welch calls a bladed stance, with the support shoulder to the target and the trigger shoulder to the back. She says it’s to make sure we hit right the first time, just in case the bullets stop coming on the boat and we have to make them count.”

I had to read this three times to understand that this stance was supposed to increase shooting accuracy, which means less wasted bullets and more saved ammunition. That may seem like only a slight rewording, but somehow the path between point A  (the stance) and point B (the worry of having fewer supplies coming in) felt to me like a winding road I could barely follow. It didn’t make sense to me that a stance was going to “make sure we hit right the first time,” and the link, that accurate shooting means wasting fewer bullets, is implied, not spoken. Fine. That’s not an impossible leap, and obviously I did figure it out in the end. But somehow, the end of this paragraph felt like a total non sequitur to me. Little things like this were tripping me up constantly in this book, though I think most readers won’t have any difficulty. Something about Power’s wording, in this instance and in many others, just did not match with the way that I process language and logic. I don’t think I can explain myself any better than that, so I’ll stop there and let you make of it what you will. If you understood Power’s meaning immediately, you probably won’t have any confusion with the writing style. Unfortunately for me, I had to do a fair amount of careful rereading, which jarred me from the story every time.

All in all, I really did like this book (enough to vote for it in the Goodreads Choice Awards!) and don’t want to scare off potential readers with my middling rating or complaints about the writing style- which, through no fault of the author’s, I just didn’t jive with. This book isn’t going to be a good fit for every reader, but I think the deciding factors are likely to be the body horror and the age range, not Power’s wording. There is some detailed graphic imagery that’s worth being aware of before diving in, especially for younger readers, who are clearly the target audience here, but if that doesn’t bother you I highly recommend giving this one a try. It’s weird, it’s wild, it’s wonderful.

(If you’re still not sure, I thought this one had a similar vibe to Claire Legrand’s Sawkill Girls, if that helps!)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I thought this was a solid debut, with unique ideas and promising style. I’ll probably check out Power’s 2020 novel when the time comes, to see whether the slight issues I had with the writing will be hammered out in a second novel, and to enjoy whatever unusual journey Power will take us on next!

Did you read any YA titles for October/Halloween this year? I’d love to hear what worked or didn’t!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dark Age

CW: murder, graphic violence (including torture), rape (off the page), use of nuclear weapons, planetary destruction

Disclaimer: Instead of a regular review (since this is the fifth book in a series) I’m going to use the opportunity of having recently finished reading Pierce Brown’s Dark Age to talk about the Red Rising series in general, and why I am reading it. So, no spoilers, and maybe this’ll be interesting even if you haven’t read any of the books in the series.

darkageBrown’s Red Rising series includes: Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star, Iron Gold, and Dark Age.

There are a lot of different factors that can motivate me to pick up a book (of course), but one thing I’m always looking for in what I read is something unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. A dystopian/fantasy with a male hero and themes of fighting for racial/social equality hardly sounds unique, but the Red Rising series has always possessed a certain level of grit that (in my opinion) sets it apart from similar stories of its genre(s). Despite a fair amount of casual sexism and ableism, which I find increasingly annoying as my reading taste shifts more toward feminism and female authors in general, Brown is the only author I read who can write a passage like this:

“I moan something in fear. There’s a lurch. A sudden pressure in my chest. He pulls away, his hand holding something red as he mouths a word dead to my ears. 

‘Worthy.’

Then he takes a bite of my heart.”

…and still leave me with room for doubt over whether this character is actually dead. Set thousands of years in the future, most of our main characters are Gold superhumans for whom surgery can fix almost anything that evolution has not already. There is a caste system, so the lower folk (lowColors) usually can’t afford to be fixed, and are worked to the bone by their superiors, but having a powerful friend can help even them. It really puts what is humanly possible and what is not humanly possible into a whole different realm.

Furthermore, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything with such a wide scope. Red Rising begins on Mars, as overflow from Earth has long since required the populating of additional planets, but the plot is mainly confined to two limited locations (a Red mine, and the Institute). As the series progresses, the plot moves farther into space. By Dark Age, we’re following world leaders who govern billions of citizens and are conducting a war between “Rim” planets and “Core” planets (though in actuality there are more than two sides taking up arms in the fray); the action is taking place in so many different places- even on ships between the planets- that the plot is just huge. Dark Age clocks in at over 750 pages, and probably at least 25% of its language (I’m obviously guessing, but it’s A Lot) is lingo specific to this series. The perspectives we’re following grant us access to whole armies, governmental bodies, and rulers with the power to end or save millions of lives with a single command; but they also give us individual humans with distinct motivations and emotions to remind the reader that no matter how big a character might seem with all their power, everyone is small in the face of the universe. The focus is craftily balanced between the very broad and the very narrow.

“Some men can stare at their feet and pretend the world isn’t falling apart. I cannot.”

And of course, the plot is utterly unpredictable. This is always a boon for me, as I find myself more frequently disappointed by authors I’ve loved in the past as their style becomes familiar to me. This has not been the case with Brown. The betrayals are brutal, the deaths are either horrific and described in minute, gory detail, or so abrupt and easy as to be almost comical. It’s meant to entertain at an epic level, but also to resonate with our own sense of humanity and the modern world.

Speaking of the modern world, Brown engages more and more with current politics as this series progresses. Gone is the simple cry for equality, and in its place, we see a much more nuanced presentation of many world issues feeding into each other. One of the topics Brown tackles in Dark Age is climate change and planetary destruction. Of course, in his universe, artists/architects have molded the environments of uninhabitable planets not only to make them livable but to mimic Earth’s rotational speed and thus fit humanity’s preferred cycle of time. Which is a statement in itself. Following that, we see a major battle on one small planet in which a “natural” storm is produced by one army to gain advantage over the other. The person at the controls experiences a moment of crisis and considers that increasing the storm to wipe everyone from both sides off of the planet might be the best way to turn the tide of the war, and for humanity at large. In addition, nuclear bombs are dropped on the planet in the spirit of “if we can’t have it, no one can.” All of this seems designed to make the reader think about our attitude toward our own planet these days. Earth is not one of the main settings for Dark Age or the larger series, but I think the point is clear enough. And this is just one aspect of the larger story.

“The waves crash all around the roots of the building. Both were made by man. Perhaps at first in hope, to give our species a new home to live and to love. But in time, I don’t know when, their creation became a vanity of will, and in the shadow of that vanity, man grew lesser for having more. Lesser for mastering the keys of creation, because he mistook himself for god, and cared less for his people, and more that his works endured.”

“The worlds cannot afford a man who wrecks a planet simply to win a battle.”

Ultimately, Red Rising is a high-tech political space drama series with a Latin / ancient Rome obsession, reflecting on the future fate of humanity. It practically requires its own dictionary- none is provided. (There is a cast list, but it shows only the house each person belongs to, no refreshers on their politics or past deeds.) Everything about this series is dense and demanding. Red Rising, the first (and shortest) novel, is certainly simpler, but even in Golden Son (the second novel) we begin to see where Brown is heading, and he really runs with it. I appreciate the challenge.

This isn’t going to be a favorite series for everyone. It’s niche, and it’s hard work. I can’t even tell you whether loving Star Wars or other space sagas is a good indicator here, because I really don’t read/watch any other space stories at the moment (other than Saga, the only story I know of that seems remotely similar, though much more readable). And honestly, I’m not sure this overview is doing much in the way of persuasion, but it’s just not a series I would recommend to everyone. I could do the usual spiel of assuring you it gets better after the first book, but forcing yourself to continue if you’re not enjoying these books is unlikely to work in your favor. And you need a strong stomach to survive Red Rising. There are impalements, flayings, live dismemberments and such in this most recent volume alone, and Brown doesn’t spare any details.

Some specific (non-spoiler) impressions of Dark Age, for anyone who has read the book: I found it very slow to start, with a few great moments but mostly political catch-up; and yet Brown ramps up the action in the end. As in Iron Age, we’re seeing multiple perspectives to glimpse different facets of the war; if I had to pick one, I think Lysander’s chapters interested me the most consistently in this volume. I was surprised by the return of a character I thought was dead (I shouldn’t have assumed this person was dead). I couldn’t bring myself to worry about Darrow with one more book on the horizon. Virginia’s new adversary seemed ridiculous at first, but I’m intrigued to see where Brown goes with it. I’m very interested in the Ascomanni, though I thought Brown’s writing of this “fairy tale” element seemed the weakest part of the novel- it felt rather shoehorned in. I’m also loving the mystery of “Figment.” I was disappointed with the lack of Sevro scenes, though.

“All that will be measured, all that will last, is your mastery of yourself.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was probably my least favorite book of the series so far, but I think the fact that I failed to reread any of the others to refresh my memory before diving into Dark Age made the read more challenging and emotionally distant for me than any of the others have been. I’m really hoping to reread a couple of the earlier titles before Book 6 comes out, but I said that last time. And I’d love to do a full series read at some point when everything is published, but it would feel like such a huge undertaking that I don’t know when it might happen. But, as I’ve made it this far, I’m still on board to read the final book of the series! I’m just really hoping it’s the final book this time. If this series goes on any longer, it’s going to feel like drama for the sake of drama, and I’m going to lose respect.

Have you read any of the Red Rising series? What did you like or dislike about it?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Testaments

At long last, after years of thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand-alone novel, after months of anticipation for its sudden sequel, after days of reading delays and blogging delays (oops), it’s time to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I won’t spoil anything from either book, but I’m going to assume that if you’re here, you’ve probably read The Handmaid’s Tale or at least have some idea of what it’s about.

I read this out of my own interest in Atwood’s writing and her portrayal of Gilead, but it was also No. 8/13 on the Booker Prize longlist for me, and 2/6 on the shortlist.

thetestamentsIn the novel, fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia secretly pens an account of the horrifying trials she faced during the birth of Gilead, the questionable choices she made from her position of leadership in the aftermath, and her own solution to the problem of female oppression in the former United States. Interwoven with her narrative are the testimonies of two girls experiencing major life changes at that same time- one who grew up in Gilead under the Aunts’ teachings, and one raised in Canada amidst protests and outrage for conditions across the border. These threads, of course, weave together with time.

“Gilead is a slippery place: accidents happen frequently. Someone has already written my funeral eulogy, it goes without saying. I shiver: whose feet are walking on my grave?”

It’s finally happened: I’ve actually disliked a Margaret Atwood book. But before I get into the negatives, I’d like to say that I do think The Handmaid’s Tale is well worth the read even for those who choose to opt out of picking up this sequel, and also that I think this is a book that will work better for many readers than it did for me. Should you read The Testaments? Picture it this way:

The end of The Handmaid’s Tale is a door slammed shut. The narrative ends at a crucial moment that is either very good or very bad for the main character, but before telling us which, Atwood locks that door and walks away, with the truth standing on one side and the reader stuck firmly on the other, left to decide for themselves where the story goes next. Surprisingly, The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel gives the reader a foothold, propping that door open just enough to offer certain implications, certain glimpses, into What Happens Next. There’s a big nod in The Testaments to the graphic novel’s final sequence. But ultimately, The Testaments throws that closed door wide open. Whether you’ll appreciate this sequel largely depends on whether you’re a reader who enjoyed imagining your own final solution when that door slammed, or whether you’re a reader with a lot of burning questions, pounding your fists on the door and wanting nothing left to uncertainty. It’s a choice each reader will have to make for themselves, rather than a flat verdict.

Because while The Testaments follows three new perspectives, we do find out here what happened to Offred.  Not every step of the rest of her life, but the general outline. This is going to satisfy a lot of curious readers, and alienate others.

Another divisive element is the fact that The Testaments is very much a book of its time. Where The Handmaid’s Tale is meant to horrify and frighten, its sequel is meant to empower and uplift. It’s not a book full of sunshine and happiness, but it tends toward female hope and perseverance in a way that its predecessor doesn’t. If this sounds like a tonal shift that interests you, odds are you’ll probably enjoy this more than I did.

But while I think opinions on whether this is a “good” sequel are going to vary wildly person to person, I think an argument can certainly be made that The Testaments is not Atwood’s best book. There are undeniably moments of brilliance in the writing, and Aunt Lydia is such a complex and intriguing character. I actually kept picturing her as Margaret Atwood while reading, though I think that has more to do with the fact that Aunt Lydia was the only character here who felt like she could have been a real person to me than any actual personality similarities (I do not know Atwood personally, obviously). For me, the pros ended there.

The cons were numerous. First, though there were some great lines, more often it felt like Atwood had lost all faith in her readers being able to pull meaning from her writing. Details are spelled out at an excruciating level:

“We joined a herd of other women: I describe it as a herd because we were being herded.”

“They were supposed to teach us how to act as mistresses of high-ranking households. I say “act” in a dual sense: we were to be actresses on the stages of our future houses.”

This lack of subtlety is not limited to the writing style itself; where The Handmaid’s Tale allows small plot details to speak for much larger problems in Gilead, The Testaments foreshadows it’s action-packed plot to such an extent that absolutely every major event and revelation actually feels anticlimactic. Additionally, the plot itself is such a standard dystopian arc that even without hints it would likely feel utterly predictable for anyone familiar with the genre, and everything comes so conveniently, impossibly easy to our heroines that I found it failed to even entertain at a basic level. Daisy and Agnes, the two younger perspectives, seem completely contrived and practically lifeless in the way that they react (or fail to react) to deaths, difficult tasks, and having their lives upturned. The format of the novel requires these women to look back on their experiences from some future point, but there’s no real attempt made at reflection, leaving even the structure feeling arbitrary and unrealized. Where is the crafting expertise Atwood utilized in The Blind Assassin? Where is the wacky, compelling plotting from The Heart Goes Last? Where is the care with which she created a new story from a beloved classic as in Hag-Seed? None of those skills seem to have carried over into The Testaments.

But you can take those opinions with a grain of salt, as many readers do seem to be loving this return to Gilead, or at least finding it wildly entertaining. Something that bothers me more than plot or characters, (something that I began to address in my review of The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel based on its ending, which was built upon in The Testaments), is the way that this change of direction from The Handmaid’s Tale even seems to subvert the original message of that book. The Handmaid’s Tale is cautionary- it’s meant to alarm readers into considering what might happen if we grow too complacent (this is aside from the fact that the details of The Handmaid’s Tale come from real problems women have already faced or are facing elsewhere in the world, but that’s another matter); The Testaments, with all its hope, says, “there’s no need to worry, even if things go wrong everything will turn out all right in the end.” It’s a comforting theme, maybe an inspiring one in some circumstances, but it seems to speak directly against the “let’s not let this happen in the first place” spirit of that first novel. Gone is the outrage that these circumstances might affect even one woman- in fact, outrage isn’t much of a factor in this novel at all. The optimism of its final chapter may even suggest that we might benefit from our world going so awry, because it would give us the opportunity to rebuild a country that seems already cracked and broken. Politically, it’s a perfect fit for 2019, and probably has something better to say about the ultimate fate of female oppression than The Handmaid’s Tale, but for me the message here just wasn’t as strong and didn’t quite ring true as a answer to the brilliant novel that precedes it.

Though this worked as neither a sequel nor a story in its own right for me, I’m not entirely mystified by the fact that it is having more success among other readers. Atwood is a big name in the publishing world for a reason, and The Testaments is not entirely devoid of merit. It is never my intent when I write a negative review to scare off interested readers, and I didn’t find this to be in any way an offensive book- just a book that completely failed to live up to its potential. I hope that it won’t win the Booker Prize next month… but I also hope that if you’re picking this one up, you have more fun with it than I did. Every book deserves to find its audience.

“Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to think that I would’ve been against any possible sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, despite my appreciation for its ambiguous ending, but this really wasn’t it for me. I’m not surprised at its commercial success so far, but I am a bit surprised it’s doing so well with the Booker judges. If by some chance this book wins, I will believe to the end of my days that it passed on the strength of the original novel that should have been worthy of a Booker win, rather than on its own substance. But I suppose I should close before I get any more petty. I’m glad I gave this one a chance, but sad that it didn’t live up to expectations. Maybe next time, Atwood.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Stand

CW: Racism, sexism, manipulation of a mentally handicapped person (these first issues present mildly, as the products of a less-enlightened time), mention of cannibalism, mass deaths, gruesome/torturous deaths, use of nuclear weaponry, biological warfare, government conspiracy.

I’ve read a fair number of Stephen King novels now, and have unscheduled plans to make my way through his entire oeuvre. King’s work isn’t perfect (what is?), but not many writers provide the number and variety of books that King has turned out- his stories are good, but it’s also fascinating to see how his work has changed over the years, covering different genres, themes, styles, lengths, etc. But without the friend who suggested buddy reading The Stand this summer (King’s longest novel in the unabridged version- my copy is 1439 pages plus a two-part preface and a prologue prior to “page 1”), this book would still be sitting untouched on my shelf with a bookmark about 200 pages in, leftover from my first attempt 7 years ago. So even though The Stand isn’t a Stephen King favorite for me, it was fun to read with a buddy and finishing it feels like a major victory!

thestandIn the novel, the US government invites disaster by tampering with a weaponized flu virus with a greater than 99 percent mortality rate. Containment and vaccination attempts fail, leaving the Superflu to wipe out a vast majority of the world’s human population. The survivors begin to move toward safer places, their paths altered by encounters with others and by urgent dreams of an endearing old black woman in contrast to a frighteningly powerful “dark man.” As one crowd of survivors cluster around Mother Abigail in Boulder and begin to piece together a new sense of order from what is left of the old way of life, another group gathers in Las Vegas, ruled by their fear and reverence for the dark man and preparing for a clash with the rival city of survivors.

“Things had changed. The whole range of human perception seemed to have stepped up a notch. It was scary as hell.”

This  is a horror/dystopia novel divided into three parts. The first depicts the outbreak of the Superflu and some of the main characters’ predicaments at that time; the second features the division of the “good” group and the “evil” group, their travel patterns and initial attempts to re-establish life in their respective dead cities; the third narrates the outcome of the groups’ leaders coming into contact with each other under the impression that only one of the cities can last, at the cost of the other. Though each contains intriguing scenarios and strong characterization, the details of the first section stand out as the most compelling. There’s something so creepy and ominous about these characters discovering themselves suddenly alone in towns full of corpses, of traveling through silent cities and over roads cluttered with cars that have become tombs; many of the main characters begin experiencing recurring nightmares around this time, and though they understand that they’ve outlived a terrible disease, they don’t really know where it came from or what to expect next. To me, that initial terror of mass deaths and an unknown future is much more eerie than one mysterious man with a blurry face.

“The smell was hard to define in any way that could be correct yet less painful than the naked truth. You could say it was like moldy oranges or spoiled fish or the smell you sometimes got in subway tunnels when the windows were open; none of them were exactly right. That it was the smell of rotting people, thousands of them, decomposing in the heat behind closed doors was putting it right, but you wanted to shy away from that.”

King’s writing style tends to the informal; his characters speak in dialect, slang, colloquialisms, etc. and their personalities shine clearly through their thoughts and dialogue, which gives the entire narrative a conversational feel- like King is in the room with you, relating a tale about someone he once knew. This style is common across most (all?) of his work, though not always to the same effect. Where this tactic felt heavy-handed to me in Dolores Claiborne and gave the writing an unpolished feel in The Tommyknockers, it lends a sense of realism to the dramatic and otherworldly aspects of The Stand. The most frightening prospect of this novel is not the power of the dark man on the page, but in the way that King makes the destruction of the human species feel plausible and, to an extent, inevitable.

” ‘Maybe he’s not real,’ Nick wrote. ‘Maybe he’s just … that scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

But more than anything, what stood out to me most about The Stand was its length. It sounds obvious, but the very structure of the book makes it impossible to ever escape the fact that this is a very long book. What typically allows a thousand-pager to succeed for me is an early introduction of conflict, an intricate plot, and a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t arrive too early.

With this book, the Superflu is introduced early, but that is not the central conflict of this novel. Our main characters are immune to the Superflu. The sickness is, essentially, a well-imagined backdrop behind a quest for survival in a hostile world, in which the largest obstacle is not the Superflu, but a man named Randall Flagg, and the dark force that drives him. This element arrives hundreds of pages into the story (I’m talking 400-500 pages, in this edition), which is a substantial amount of reading to endure without any sense of where this story is headed, or to what purpose.

Furthermore, the plot is much simpler than expected for a book of this size. Instead of twists and turns, it takes its length from the sheer amount of detail and number of perspectives it follows through a straightforward premise. To King’s credit, almost everything included seems relevant to the story at hand, to the character arcs he pursues, and to the themes he highlights; someday, I’ll want to read the original 1978 edition out of curiosity over which 400 pages he managed to cut for The Stand’s first publication. (Note: this cut did not come at the urging of an editor who thought the story too ponderous at it’s proposed length, but from the publisher who thought the cost of production would drive the book’s price up too high to for its marketed audience.)

But the biggest reason behind this book’s failure to fully impress is its quick and sadly unsatisfactory ending. Though the final sequence makes sense, in that the characters act in ways that fit their motivations and circumstances, it deviates from the drawn-out pace of the rest of the story, and essentially circumvents the epic battle between good and evil (with plenty of religious overtones) that the entire novel seems to be pushing toward. The climax does play into some interesting themes and provide food for further thought about human nature, but simply doesn’t match the trajectory of the story up to that point.

“He knew this dark man all right, his was the face you could never quite see, his the hands which dealt all spades from a dead deck, his the eyes beyond the flames, his the grin from beyond the grave of the world.”

I could nitpick a lot of small points, as well. King isn’t always good at representing women fairly, and The Stand is a prime example of this struggle (the only woman with any strength on display in this novel is Mother Abigail, who is more of a one-hundred-and-eight-year-old figurehead than a character with proper agency); many of these characters seem to share the same personality and sense of humor, differentiated mainly by the unique range of circumstances each has faced; the updating of the unabridged version to a 1990 setting rather than the original 1978 seemed a bit clumsy at times and wholly unnecessary.

But nevertheless, I don’t regret the six weeks I spent with this novel. Though from 2019 the attempt doesn’t look quite as convincing as it might have originally, it does seem that King had an intent to step away from the righteous white male hero he often employs as a champion; the godly spokesperson is an old black woman who’s risen from a history of prejudice to lead thousands of do-gooders who are unquestionably devoted to her, and another of the most significant characters is a mentally handicapped man who turns out to be stronger and more reliable than those who think themselves smarter. Unfortunately it’s also apparent that most of the women are throw-away characters meant to fill the men’s beds, cook their meals, and carry their children, and the narration has an annoying tendency to refer to Tom Cullen as a “feeb,” but under some problematic details I do think an intent to show consideration and value to characters that aren’t clear King avatars is present.

Despite its flaws and hefty size, I’m not surprised that The Stand has been held up as one of King’s lasting classics. Its messages about survival and abuse of power are still relevant 40 years after the book’s first publication; the characters are still believable, the premise intriguing, the chapters engaging and readable despite their length. It’s psychological, spooky and unique (though also interesting at this stage in the game to compare and contrast with more recent counterparts that explore along the same lines), and ultimately worth the read for Constant Readers. I would not recommend The Stand as a starting point with King’s work unless you’re sure you’ve got the patience!

“But no one knows how long five minutes is in the dark; it might be fair to say that, in the dark, five minutes does not exist.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I didn’t enjoy every moment of this journey, it did make for a great buddy read. My friend and I would read about 200-300 pages a week (alongside whatever else we were reading), and check in to go over surprises in the plot, Easter Eggs, predictions for the next chapters, and whatever else crossed our minds. We scheduled six check-ins for this book, which provided manageable deadlines and “intermissions” to keep us on track and motivated to continue. In all honesty, though I think I have the discipline to have completed this on my own in less time, I would certainly not have enjoyed the experience as much as I did with my buddy and it undoubtedly would’ve taken me several more years to convince myself to start. In any case, I’m glad to have finished, and I intend to follow-up by continuing in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy next month.

Thanks to anyone who’s stuck with me this far, this has turned into a very long review!

What’s the longest book you’ve read?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Last

Summer is the season of heat and light and beach reads, but for me it’s also when the dark and spookies start settling in, and I like to reach for something more chaotic. And so I came by Hanna Jameson’s The Last, a suspenseful apocalyptic mystery set in an atmospheric old hotel. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I would have to get my hands on a copy.

thelastIn the novel, Jon is staying at a large hotel in Switzerland for a conference when nuclear war suddenly wipes out many of the world’s major cities. The hotel guests (including Jon) spiral into a panic; many leave to catch planes that won’t be flying to return to families that no longer exist. Jon remains at the hotel with several strangers who opt to wait for help to arrive. When a dead girl is found in the hotel’s water supply, Jon takes charge of investigating the obvious murder as a means to keep busy. He suspects that the killer is still living among them. As life goes on for the few that remain, it becomes difficult to know who to trust, what is real, and where to draw the line between right and wrong.

“Is this it? I mean, for humanity. Am I the last person alive making notes on the end of the world? I’m not sure whether I would rather already be dead.”

Part dystopia, part murder mystery, part character study, part political/social commentary, part psychological suspense, and part horror novel, this is a book full of surprises. The essential end of the world provides an eerie backdrop, while Jon’s quest to hunt down an unknown murderer lends structure and plot to the novel. The tension of this story does not derive from a burning need to win justice for this girl (most of the characters are surprisingly indifferent to her death) as much as from a desire to uncover the secrets of the other guests stranded in the hotel, and to discover what extremes they might be driven to in the absence of recognized law and authority. The cast of suspects is large, and red herrings abound. I would be beyond impressed by anyone who manages to guess the true culprit before reading the final sequence- the reveal requires a certain level of suspended disbelief, but it does win points for unpredictability. Furthermore, this desperate world full of lies and radiation is made all the more compelling by how closely Jameson ties this nuclear war to our real world’s current political climate.

Though the story is formatted as a record of events written by Jon, he is open about his own biases and faulty memories. Despite the fact that his writing the story at all means he has already survived the dangers being described, the tension of the story is not lessened by this inherent evidence of his safety. Jameson makes it clear that anyone else- friend or foe- is fair game, and there’s a frightening psychological aspect behind every small discovery. The unflinching look at the morally-gray heart of humanity prevents stagnation. Crimes and disagreements within the hotel require the group to make tough life-or-death decisions. There is so much depth behind what is, on the surface, already a dark and captivating premise.

“Existing isn’t everything.”

The characters all come unique and fully formed, though learning their pasts and motives does not prepare the reader for anything these people might try next. But let’s take a moment to look closer at our narrator, Jon. In a story brimming with remarkable characters, I was struck by the unfortunate impression that Jon is the most boring, straightforward person we could possibly follow through this ordeal. Jameson does some interesting things with his characterization, making him receptive to feminism and then throwing him into situations that require him to choose between actively fighting for what is fair or settling for what is easy. His hunts for a child killer stems from an urge to do what is right, but also from a fear of finding himself idle. He is far from a perfect human- and yet, for all the hints that he’s made bad choices in the past, I expected something more extreme than the history that is finally revealed. For all of his flaws though, the biggest obstacle for me was simply that he never stopped feeling like a man written by a woman (an issue that I have only ever experienced in the opposite scenario, finding discomfort in female characters obviously written by men), and I was never quite certain why Jameson chose to make him the lead character. Any one of them could have kept an end-days record. But in the end, this mild confusion wasn’t enough to hold me back from enjoying every single page.

“The only meaning we might have left as a species- indeed, the only thing left that might matter, that might keep us motivated to get up in the morning- is the small acts of human kindness we show one another, and in my compulsion to be helpful, useful, to keep things moving forward, I’ve mostly forgotten to be kind.”

My only other small complaint involves a few inconsistencies that weren’t weeded out before publication. For instance, an entry for one of the most eventful days at the hotel begins with Jon saying that he’s been busy and is writing from the following day. Later within the account of the same day, he mentions taking a break from the group to go up to his room and write the events of the day up to that point. There are a few other details like this that don’t quite match up, but obviously this isn’t a major issue. The plot aligns properly.

As a side note, if you’re a reader who enjoys juxtaposition, let me confirm that The Last pairs perfectly with the first third or so of Stephen King’s The Stand. Though the former features a nuclear “final war” and the later a 99% effective superflu, both are apocalyptic novels that explore life for the few after the deaths of the many. It’s incredible to compare two strong writers’ ideas of the end of life as we know it, and the shreds of humanity that are left. Apparently the answer to “how do I make an apocalyptic novel reading experience more perfect?” is to pick up a second apocalyptic novel.

“I think it was Stephen King who said that the sum of all human fear is just a door left slightly ajar.”

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars. For most of this read, I expected that I would rate The Last as a 4, but once I reached the end I couldn’t think of a single flaw substantial enough to hold it back from a 5. Throughout the week that I read this novel, I was always enthused to pick it up again and find out what would happen next. It was engaging on the surface, and memorable for its hidden depths. It’ll stick with me for a long time, I’m sure. I would recommend this to fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter or Ling Ma’s Severance; though a bit different than both, it’s exciting and introspective on a level that I think will appeal to the same demographic.

Have you read this one? Do you plan to?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Early Riser

It’s happening. I’m falling behind with my Book of the Month books again. I’m not too upset about it (I’ll get to them eventually), but it does mean that I just finished reading one of my February selections, a very wintery book, in the warm spring weather of April. (Oops.) Fortunately, the Winter of Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser is such an otherworldly setting that it feels more like a fantasy world than a season.

earlyriserIn the novel, a young Charlie Worthing will work just about any job that’ll pay in Morphenox, the dreamless drug that eases almost every member of the human population (who can afford it, at least) through winter hibernation. A brave few serve as Winter Consuls, overseeing the sleeping masses through the three harshest months of the year. Charlie takes a chance on the Consul service (whose members get their sleep in the summer and stay awake through the inhospitable winter storms) and ends up in the worst sector of Wales without a proper mentor during a raging blizzard, right in the middle of the biggest mystery in Morphenox history: a mystery of viral dreams.

“The only evidence I had that this wasn’t real was that I knew it wasn’t. Nothing else.”

Early Riser is the first book I saw BOTM advertise with a warning, as a challenging read. I thought, “well, I’ve been around this reading game long enough, a challenging read doesn’t bother me,” and promptly forgot about the warning label. I remembered it as soon as I started in on the book, however; Early Riser is DENSE.

Though set in a sort of parallel world near modern day and with similar geography to our present reality, the history of Fforde’s world is not exactly the history we’re familiar with; the characters still play scrabble and view the Mona Lisa, but Morphenox has shaped society for decades and skewed connotations and perceptions. Every cultural reference comes into the novel with its own history or definition, there are a lot of new words and systems, some crucial to the story and some thrown in for world-building. Like the schtumperschreck, a gun so high-powered it can barely be lifted for use. Most of the names are imaginative like that, terms that require memorization rather than self-evident rewordings of existing objects and ideas. There are instances where the characters speak or think in ways that are meant to recap important details or plot points, but even so this is a book that requires a reader’s complete attention. There are also a lot of characters: some who aren’t who they say they are, some who are basically zombies, some who are actually two characters rolled into one. Part of the plot takes place in Charlie’s dreams. All in all, a warning label is not remiss.

” ‘We’re all something we’re not,’ he said. ‘Every one of us is stuck between the person we want to be and the person we can be.’ “

But if you are the sort of reader who likes to fully immerse in fiction, Early Riser is a wild ride. From the nightmare creatures who may be real, to tampered dreams, to corporate espionage, to gunfights in white-out blizzard conditions, I guarantee you’ll never know quite where this story is going next.

Perhaps the most intriguing element, however, is that Fforde leaves the gender of the main character up to the reader. “Charlie” is one of those names that could fit a male or female, and many would probably fill in that blank without noticing that this choice is made in the reader’s mind. Other characters are given gender pronouns, but not the main character. Charlie seemed more like a man to me, but I wonder whether this is simply due to the fact that I am a woman, and the lack of female-specific concerns made me feel that Charlie was not a woman. I waited through all 400 pages to see some indication one way or the other, but Fforde never provides concrete evidence. Which is a neat idea and it’s intriguing to peruse other reviews and see all the disparate ways readers have imagined this blank-slate character. On the other hand, if (like me) you notice early on that no gender is specified, you may have a hard time picturing Charlie. This was a small point of frustration for me throughout the story, though I do not begrudge Fforde’s attempt.

Also of interest is the formatting of the book, which includes footnotes (which I thought were fun but not strictly necessary) and excerpts from fictional historical texts at the start of each chapter (which I found very amusing and generally helpful in envisioning this world but also very distracting from the main plot). Both of these elements, though not entirely effective for me, do help immerse the reader in this wintery world and in Charlie’s mind.

“It’s the loneliness. In the Summer it simply makes you glum, but in the Winter it can be fatal. I’ve seen strong people collapse inside.”

The only real setback for me came from a lack of danger. The reader is told over and over that Charlie’s chances of survival are slim, but there’s no real worry of Charlie dying an untimely death. Unexpected saviors intervene, or Charlie is lucky, or someone sacrifices themselves for the sake of the mission- which requires Charlie staying alive, of course. In most books, the reader expects that the main character will live through most of the narration, so this shouldn’t have been a problem, but there’s a disconnect between the stakes claimed loudly in the narration and the actual likelihood of Fforde allowing Charlie to befall even a minor injury. This killed some of the tension and excitement for me, as I wasn’t particularly invested in the characters more likely to meet their demise.

“As long as I had value, I was safe.”

Initially, I picked this book up because I was interested in its viral dream aspect; earlier this year I loved Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, and was hoping for another weird sleep saga. Early Riser is certainly weird and does have some Inception vibes, but I found the Winter far more compelling than the dreams in this case. Don’t let my middling rating fool you- I’m sure I will remember parts of this story for a very long time, and the world stands out as one of the most thoroughly-imagined settings that I’ve ever read. I’m glad I picked this one up.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I had a good time reading this and loved the rich world and unpredictability of the plot, I also had a hard time reading very many pages of this book at a time. The lack of fear for Charlie and the constant need to parse new terms and concepts distanced me from the story, even though overall I would say I found the plot impressive. I wish I had made time for Early Riser back in the depths of winter, as much because of the book’s density and length as its setting.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Test

I usually try not to let length determine what I read, but there’s something so irresistible about a short book that you know you can finish in a single sitting. Yesterday I (temporarily!) abandoned a 600+ page novel in favor of not one but two single-sitting books… the one that completely stunned me was Sylvain Neuvel’s brand new slim volume, The Test.

thetestIn the novella, Idir goes to take a UK citizenship test that will either grant his entire family permission to stay in London, or get them deported. After making his way past some unpleasant people in the immigration office, he sits down to take a written 25-question multiple-choice test. A disruption in the room changes everything.

“Those who fail […] wake up on an aeroplane with their whole family, mild to severe memory loss, and the headache of the century. They never learn what happened.”

“I’ve put people on the plane, and it’s not as pretty as what the brochure says. He’ll forget everything that happened, that’s for sure. He’ll also forget he has a dog, or where he went to school. He might forget what he likes for breakfast, how much he loves his wife. He won’t be the same man.”

That’s really all you want to know of the plot going in, so I won’t say more about that.

What’s obvious from the beginning is that Idir is an endearing man worthy of any citizenship, and that he is about to fall victim to a deeply flawed system. In a few short chapters, Neuvel examines both Idir’s experience with this absurdly challenging citizenship test and a trainee’s experience with running it. Though the horrors in Idir’s chapters are somewhat expected once the reader understands the way this book operates, the cold reasoning revealed in Deep’s chapters lends satirical depth to the situation.

“Studies show that the vast majority of subjects recover completely given the right medication…”

By far the most compelling facet of the story is the way that the moderators of the test rationalize their actions and the very existence of the citizenship test in this form. Morality is a science to them with distinct right and wrong answers, and every action is quantified; the rule book is law and leaves no room for emotion. In this way, though Neuvel’s dystopian-style citizenship test is not the experience real immigrants face, he still manages an effective criticism of a recognizable process.

In only 104 pages, The Test contains a surprising number of twists and doesn’t refrain from stomping on the reader’s heart. I, for one, will be recommending this little gem widely.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I think if I had read this at another time (read: not at 1 am) or under other circumstances (read: not as a much-needed break in the midst of a long book that’s not as exciting as I’d hoped it would be) this may have been a 4 star read, due to a certain level of predictability. But as it was, I had a 5-star time while reading it! I may have to bump Sleeping Giants up my TBR.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Severance

I was almost caught up with blog posts after my holiday hiatus, but then I got sick last week and now I’m a few reviews behind again. I’ve been having a little trouble staying focused on things because I’m not quite back to my usual energy levels yet, but we’ll just see how this goes… Today I’m talking about my BOTM pick from December, Ling Ma’s Severance, a satirical dystopian novel that’s been getting a lot of interesting buzz and found its way to the 2019 Tournament of Books longlist.

severance2About the book: After months of wandering the streets of New York for the sole purpose of taking photos for her blog, NY Ghost, Candace finds work managing Bibles that are made in China and sold in the US. When Shen Fever begins to infect much of the global population, Candance stays at the office, hoping for a bonus. Work dwindles in the wake of the fever, and Candace resumes her blog, photographing the city’s deterioration until she can’t stay any longer. Out of the city, she meets up with a group of survivors heading for a safe Facility outside of Chicago.

Yes, this is a dystopian/sci-fi novel with zombies. You may think you’ve seen it before.

But in truth, the best part of the book is the satirical parallel drawn between Candace’s adult life of routine and the zombie-like victims of Shen Fever. The fever victims, unlike other zombies in fiction, are only dangerous to themselves: they perform rote tasks at the expense of personal upkeep (hygiene, proper eating,  sleep, etc.) until their efforts kill them. Candance herself denies sensible requests to leave the city for safety in favor of continuing a job that has little meaning or fulfillment for her. The reader follows Candace’s thoughts and reasoning, so her actions always make sense and seem sane, but there are so many ironies and nuances to Candace’s routines and the ways the fever works that the reader is left with a constant undercurrent of doubt about which of the “survivors”- including Candace- might already be infected.

“How do we know, one skeptical reader wrote, that you’re not fevered yourself?”

But the zombies are not entirely symbolic. The narration alternates between Candace’s time in New York leading up to her decision to leave, and her time with the survival group on their journey to Chicago. She has run-ins with infected persons both before and after leaving New York, and while Ma’s zombies are not mindless brain eaters who amass in hordes of undead armies that wage slow attacks against the living, the descriptions of the fevered can still be graphic at times.

Even more brutal is the commentary against corporate work. Though the fate of the one character who does try to make a break from employment under destructive super companies is left hazy, Candace highlights the problems she sees with her job and repeatedly questions her choice to stay there. Her own Chinese background colors her experience with the outsourced laborers who assemble her bibles. Though she may disagree with the practices of corporate America, society assures her she must work for a living, and her employers reward her actions with regular paychecks- so she keeps coming back. One of the most haunting aspects of the novel for me is the way that the job endures even without the personnel. The city’s infrastructure is crumbling, and yet Candace’s key card keeps opening the office doors, the system keeps logging her hours, her bonus can still be earned. Long after the phones stop ringing and the office empties, the routine is the same. If Candace isn’t working for the rest of the world, and she’s not working for her own benefit (what is she going to do with that bonus in a world that operates on strength rather than cash?), who is she working for?

“If you are an individual employed by a corporation or an institution, he said, then the odds are leveraged against you. The larger party always wins. It can’t see you, but it can crush you. And if that’s the working world, then I don’t want to be a part of it.”

And so I conclude that this is not a novel for zombie lovers or even necessarily dystopian fans; Severance is for the young (or young at heart) wondering what to do with their lives and worrying over the state of the modern world. It’s for the readers who are looking for a little extra encouragement to follow their dreams instead of their wallets. It’s a quick read that will stay with you. And the ending is just ambiguous enough that you can change your mind over and over again about how things turn out.

Personally, I like a bleak outlook.

“Just because you’re adequately good at something doesn’t mean that’s the thing you should do.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Very nearly 5 stars. I think this one will stay with me a long time. It certainly stuck with me when I ran a fever of my own after I finished reading. I wish I had managed to read this one before the end of last year, as I think it would’ve been one of my favorite BOTM selections for 2018.

Further reading:

  • For more biological disasters leading to a vastly reduced world population, check out the ultimate dystopian novel, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. In this book, a troupe of Shakespeare actors travel around to small communities of those who are left, the five narrative perspectives crossing in strange and beautiful ways due to a grand mix of choice and circumstance.

I don’t like the dystopian genre as much lately, but I’m so glad I made an exception for Ling Ma’s wonderfully bizarre book. What’s the last book you read that turned out to be a good surprise after you thought you wouldn’t like a certain aspect of it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Morning Star

You may already know that I’ve been in love with Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy from the very first page. I’ve been trying to savor each of the three books, but I’ve finally come to the end of the last one, and what a bittersweet journey it has been. This is a spoiler-free review of the third book, but if you haven’t read the previous two books, you should probably do that first. If you need a refresher on the series, you can read my complete reviews for Red Rising and Golden Son with these links. And now, on with Morning Star.

“If you’re watching, Eo, it’s time to close your eyes. The Reaper has come. And he’s brought Hell with him.”

morningstarAbout the book: Darrow has been severely betrayed. He loses everything at the hands of the Jackal, including, to an extent, himself. The Reaper has been reduced to a shell of his former glory, and his will to go on has all but evaporated. The Sons of Ares, however, are bigger than one man, and the Rising rages on. Although with newfound trust and confidence issues, Darrow is an important member of the Sons and he learns in Morning Star what lengths his allies will go to in order to aid him–and also that allies are not necessarily friends. Darrow must play more carefully, but the Sol System is in all-out war and he has no choice but to take his place in it. He must call on other Colors for aid, as well as beat the Golds from within. He must overthrow the Sovereign, but the Jackal is an obstacle that won’t be ignored, and conflict in the Rim will also prove problematic. With all of these threads of war battling one another, Darrow knows he needs to eliminate some enemies, align with others to increase his numbers, and still the odds will be against him as the battles grow and casualties mount. He needs friends, but he’s afraid including them in his efforts will only endanger them further. Still, no one knows danger like Darrow. From the moment he joined the Sons, he knew he would die for the cause. When that’s no longer the end he wants, it seems the only way to prevent becoming a martyr is to win–everything, and at all costs.

“How many mothers have prayed to see their sons, their daughters return from war only to realize the war has kept them, the world has poisoned them, and they’ll never be the same?”

Best aspect: the characters. I love a book with strong characters, and this is that. Sevro has always been interesting, but he takes center stage in Morning Star. He acts when Darrow can’t. He’s funny and severe and, underneath it all, achingly human. Mustang is the epitome of the independent, leading female. Victra is a wild card, but she’s the card this book needs. The Jackal, Roque, the Sovereign… perfect villains who fight not in the name of evil, but in misplaced honor and defense of what they believe to be the best achievements of humanity. And Darrow, he’s the bloodydamn Reaper of Mars. He’s the hero who makes mistakes, the one who suffers the consequences even if he manages to win, the man who must act as a symbol and shoulder the responsibility for an entire people. He evolves. He sees his own flaws, Eo’s flaws, his friends’ flaws, and somehow he loves and finds strength not despite them, but through them. He can lead, but he can also follow orders. These characters are a force to be reckoned with.

“There’s not a Red on Mars that doesn’t know your name, Reap. Not a single person in the digital world who doesn’t know that a Red rose to become a prince of the Golds, to conquer Mars. I made you a myth. And now that you’re back from the dead, you’re not just a martyr. You’re the bloodydamn messiah the Reds have been waiting for their entire lives.”

Plot twists are also a supreme strength of Brown’s in this series. When you think Darrow has a trick up his sleeve, everything comes crashing down instead. When you think he’s certainly met his end, he’s got the best trick up his sleeve of all. But he’s not the only one who can think and surprise readers–every character has his or her moment. In fact, I think the superb plot twists of Morning Star can also be attributed to great characterization. The betrayals, the surprise alliances, the failures and successes the reader can never see coming, can all be attributed to characters that have too much depth to ever be black and white. Everyone has a reason for everything, and so there is always a reason to love a character, or to forgive him/her–or even to hate him/her when the tables turn–but once you’re lulled into thinking one thing, Brown reminds readers that nothing is certain, that people change and lie  and cheat, but then as soon as a new order is in place, he shuffles the cards again and someone else is on top. There’s no way to predict what’s next, and even skimming ahead is practically impossible because every 20 pages or so there’s a completely new life-or-death situation with new characters and someone important has probably died and other miscellaneous catastrophic destruction has occurred. The only way forward, the only way to understand it all, is to keep soldiering on, one sentence at a time.

“Which would you fear more […] a god? Or a mortal with the power of a god? […] A god cannot die. So a god has no fear. But mortal men… how frightened they are that the darkness will come. How horribly they will fight to stay in the light.”

And, of course, that brings us to my other favorite aspect, the writing. Brown uses sentence fragments, which is normally something that bothers me, but it works here. Every paragraph is perfection. Every chapter title has you thinking “Oh, goryhell, this one’s going to be epic,” and then it is. Down to the level of individual word choice, this book is fantastic. Brown weaves in little-used words to great effect. He included the phrase “Bye, Felicia,” with comedic but intense results, both in the popular and literal uses of the phrase. There’s a new take on a T. S. Eliot quote in there. There’s Latin. It’s heavy, it’s light, it’s funny, it’s depressing–one mood flows right into another seamlessly, and no word is presented timidly. I loved every sentence. There are great implications about equality. There are one-liners. The dialogue, the exposition… no complaints.

“And I wonder, in my last moments, if the planet does not mind that we wound her surface or pillage her bounty, because we silly warm things are not even a breath in her cosmic life. We have grown and spread, and will rage and die. And when all that remains of us is our steel monuments and plastic idols, her winds will whisper, her sands will shift, and she will spin on and on, forgetting about the bold, hairless apes who thought they deserved immortality.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. The first two books of this series, I could hardly put down. But this one… Morning Star was a weighty one. I could hardly read more than twenty pages at a time without needing an emotional break from the chaos within, and with over 500 pages that meant a lot of breaks. There’s so much constant action that it’s difficult at times to take it all in. Although I don’t mind a book I need to take breaks from, if I had to find a flaw in this one, the constant push of high tension would be on that list. I was okay with the going being slow, though, because i wanted this trilogy to never end. Now I will be (not so) patiently awaiting the release of the first book in the spin-off series, which looks like it should be published sometime in 2017. In the meantime…

Further recommendations:

  1. Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel, Ender’s Game, is a great choice for fans of Pierce Brown’s trilogy. Featuring a young protagonist enmeshed in a series of space battles that are presented to him as games but which carry life-or-death consequences, Ender’s Game also steals readers’ attention with strong characters, incredible plot twists, and space politics gone awry. Ender is a paradigm-altering fighter, like Darrow. You can find my complete review of this book here.
  2. Fans of Brown should also check out Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a novel about an immersive online video game with real-life danger for main character Parzival. The game revolves around 80’s pop culture trivia, including movies, games, and music, but the virtual reality online world in which the game takes place is a universe in itself, with its own politics, planets, and high-stakes players. Find my complete review here.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Marissa Meyer’s Cress, the third book in the YA science fiction Lunar Chronicles. I’ve heard this is the best book of the series, and so far I’d have to say I agree. Stay tuned to find out why.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Update: you can also check out my full review of the next book in this series, Iron Gold