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Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

July 27, 2014 6 comments

Dreams-of-the-Golden-Age-Carrie-Vaughn

Dreams of the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn (Tor, 2014) gives us the sequel to After the Golden Age (2011). Moving forward some twenty years or so, Celia West is now a dedicated mother and dynamic business woman. She’s married to Dr. Arthur Mentis, a superhero with mental powers, and has two teen daughters, Anna and Bethy. Having watched Celia work her way through the early years of living with two superhero parents, we now get to watch her try to make a better job of bringing up her own two girls. All of this is, of course, under the shadow of superpowers. Being a numbers person, she’s calculated there’s a 40% chance of the next generation having superpowers. Even if the genetic quirk does not kick in on one generation (she did not have any superpowers), the same percentages apply to the next. That’s why she’s not only watching her own children like a hawk (well-known detective without superpowers), but also monitoring what’s happening to the other families that were exposed to the trigger radiation all those years ago.

 

To avoid repeating myself, I invite you to read the review of the first book After the Golden Age, because all that stuff about parenting is relevant to this sequel. Once you have that under your belt, you can absorb the idea this is both an adult and a YA book. We get the parental angst as teen daughter Anna is doing the secretive thing and not talking with those who could give support and advice if she’s developing superpowers. Indeed, so bad does it get that Celia tells her best friend, the police chief, to put the children under surveillance and try to keep them out of trouble if they begin fighting someone a little out of their league. From the teens point of view, we see them trying to come to terms with their powers and decide what to do with them. Naturally, they almost immediately see themselves as superheroes in waiting but, when one tries to interfere in a robbery, he finds himself outclassed and is badly beaten. His problem, like Anna, is that his power is slightly more passive than aggressive. The other three who can freeze things, sorta control the weather, and blow stuff up with laser beams, do a lot better because they can disable their opponents.

Carrie Vaughn

 

Anyway, with the addition of an out-of-towner who can jump (he’s much in demand for basketball), these teens do the usual thing of forming a gang, bickering, getting jealous, falling out, wondering who to go to the prom with, and so on. The parents do the big corporate superhero thing of trying to save the city by making it a better place in which to live. Needless to say, a supervillain is in play. He or she may be nicknamed The Executive and works entirely out of sight, manipulating people to get what he or she wants. It’s fairly obvious from an early point who the villain must be, but the confirmation of The Executive’s identity is one of these really elegant jokes that comes in the final quarter of the book.

 

This should be leading you to my conclusion that this is a very good book in parts. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not simply throwing away all the YA stuff. In fact, some of that proves to be interesting as they discuss whether to tell their parents about their powers, or how to strike the right balance between a positive use of their powers and avoiding serious injury or death by recklessly exposing themselves to danger. However, all that becomes academic when Celia is yet again kidnapped. The scenes with her tied to a chair and exchanging opinions with the villain are the highlight of the book. Unfortunately, although elements of the rescue are done well, the whole sequence goes on too long and is, at times, confusing. So this is a brave attempt to write a sequel to an outstandingly good book and, as sequels go, this is good of its type. I just wish authors did not feel under such commercial pressure to revisit the same themes quite so relentlessly. This means you buy Dreams of the Golden Age if you enjoy superhero fiction and don’t mind it being of slightly patchy quality.

 

This book was sent to me for review.

 

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy

January 15, 2014 2 comments

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy (Scholastic/Arthur & Levine, 2014) is the first in a planned trilogy which sees me inadvertently straying into young adult territory again. Sadly, when I pick out books to read by title, I have no clear idea what to expect from a previously unread author. It’s part of the fun of being a reviewer in constantly trying something new in each new batch of books. Unfortunately, I find myself back in the black-and-white world of the YA market. It actually doesn’t start badly, briefly recreating some of the vibe from the original Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Yes, we’re in High School territory where the seventeen-year-old hero is something of a sporting jock whose coach also teaches the Civics (i.e. History and Moral Philosophy) class on what it means to be an American citizen. Unfortunately, instead of then going on to military training and into battle with the Bugs, we then grind into the preliminary moves for a Civil War scenario. Today Idaho, tomorrow the whole of America.

OK so here we go with a near-future political thriller. It’s not really SFnal albeit there are slightly more advanced AI interfaces for mobile technology and communication systems. For most practical purposes, we’re to confront this brave new world as equivalent to our own in terms of culture and the practicalities of day-to-day living. Our young hero is Daniel Christopher Wright. Because his father had been on active service, he joins the Idaho National Guard as soon as he’s old enough. Thus, when the book starts, he already knows how to shoot, but his knowledge of the US Constitution is almost zero. The trigger for events is a federal law requiring all US citizens to carry an ID-card. It’s a one-stop form of identification, whether talking about personal issues like access to medical records if the card carrier is injured and needs emergency treatment, or access to all state and federal programs. Ignoring the utility of such cards, this plan is deeply controversial because all the cards carry a GPS transmitter enabling those with authorisation to track where everyone goes. Many citizens and some US states see the card as an invasion of individual privacy, and they oppose the implementation of the law. President Rodriguez, however, is not in the mood to hear these protests.

This brings us back to Idaho and Governor Montaine who enjoys strong support both from the two houses of the state legislature, and among the voters. As an opponent of Big Government, the state exercises what it claims to be a sovereign power of nullification. Hence, the state will happily continue to comply with all the other federal laws, but ignore the ID law as unconstitutional. The federal government interprets this as an act of rebellion. There are legal routes for disputing whether any given law is constitutional. By denying the courts the chance to order a stay in the operation of the law pending a hearing on the merits, the Governor’s choice of unilateral action produces confrontation and megaphone diplomacy. Had this been a book written for adults, we could have had a sharp political thriller. There’s obviously dissent within Idaho as to the merits of this action. More importantly, the negotiations with other states and the federal government quickly escalates to brinkmanship. This could have been lovingly described with border incidents and local rioting adding pressure to the decision-making process.

Trent Reedy

Trent Reedy

Unfortunately, this is written for fourteen-year-olds and therefore gives us a young protagonist as the point of view. We’re treated to lots of infodumping on the Constitution and how it can be interpreted. That’s when we’re not playing high school football or going through the usual teen angst of first love and what that really means. The hook for the novel is that every last member of the Idaho National Guard has been called up for duty in Boise. There’s a major civil disturbance in the streets and the police can’t cope. The Governor would have preferred seasoned “troops”, but most of the experienced soldiers are overseas. This means our new recruit is sent out into a riot situation with a loaded gun. When someone throws a rock, it cracks both his head and the glass of the gas mask he’s wearing. In the confusion, his gun accidentally discharges. At the sound of the shot, bullets fly from both the members of his platoon and the rioters. People are wounded and killed. It’s one of these avoidable catastrophes. The Governor was wrong to allow raw recruits on to the front line. The officers were at fault in ordering troops into direct confrontation with the rioters carrying loaded guns. With plenty of blame to spread around, the Governor decides to defend the National Guard. None will be identified nor go through trial on homicide charges. So begins the cat-and-mouse game until Wright is outed as the one to fire the first shot. Then we deal with the local fallout as the tension between the President and the Governor intensifies.

The situation is interesting and the way in which the local people respond is credible. No matter what I might think of the romance between Wright and his girl, it remains within the YA limits and parents will not find anything to object to. But this is the end of the good things I have to say about the book. Frankly, I think it seriously misjudges the market, which is a profoundly ironic comment for me to make given my track record of actively disliking most YA fiction. But bear with me for a moment.

This is YA military fiction and aimed mainly at young boys who are not best known for their patience. Although there are set-pieces where our hero and his group of young supporters burst into action, there are also significant gaps between them. During this quiet time, we get discussions of the political picture which most of the shoot ‘em up brigade are likely to find boring. The result is a novel of very uneven pacing. Yes there are themes relevant to the young from asking what duty a son owes his ailing mother, how does any soldier balance commitment to the army against potentially higher moral imperatives, what role is there for honour in these difficult situations, what price should we be prepared to pay to defend our privacy, what does friendship really mean in terms of mutual help and support, and so on? There’s also a lot of discussion about the practicality of the more libertarian ideals of self-sufficiency, the right to bear arms, the relationship between the individual, the state and the federal government, and so on. So from a strictly educational point of view, the book is somewhat ambitiously advancing the agenda for discussion of civics and politics. Unfortunately it does so at some length and to the detriment of the action that might induce younger readers to keep turning the pages. I think the book would have been more successful if it had been less overtly didactic. As an adult, the discussion of these issues is painfully superficial and, given the blandness of the action, I found it tedious in the extreme to read this to the end. So Divided We Fall is a book that will appeal to thoughtful fourteen-year-olds and not to adult readers. As a final thought, the jacket artwork is seriously misleading. There are no scenes of helicopters flitting around the White House. That may come in later books. This is much less exciting.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey

October 13, 2013 Leave a comment

The Toadhouse Trilogy

Those of you who know me will understand books like The Toad House Trilogy: Madmen by Jess Lourey are not my usual reading fare. This is both a book intended for the young adult market and it’s self-published (available from Amazon). Under normal circumstances, either of these factors would predispose me to ignore the title. But I’m something of a fan of the author’s fiction for adults. She writes rather good murder mysteries. So I thought I would look at how she approaches a different market. Before starting to read, I confess the fact she had not found a conventional publisher for the book is disconcerting. When someone with talent and a track record of now nine published books, fails to place a book through her agent, this suggests either that there’s something wrong with the book or the publishing industry is irrationally turning its back on a good book. With that thought in mind, I begin to read.

The obvious point of comparison for this book are the Thursday Next and associated novels by Jasper Fforde. These are great fun with the older Ms Next able to use a Prose Portal to enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. A part of the humour is the self-awareness of the characters in each book and the ability to rewrite the text — for example, the ending of Jane Eyre is changed. Jess Lourey develops this trope by allowing her protagonists to change anything they want in a book they visit but, if they do, this destroys the book and all the characters in it.

Because this book is explicitly YA, it has two children as the protagonists: Ania, aged eleven, and her blind brother, Spenser, aged nine. As a form of homage to To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee, we start off in Alabama during the Great Depression where, with the disappearance of their mother, they are being cared for by their supposed grandmother, Gloriana (think Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene). They travel from one book to another with the help of the enigmatic Gilgamesh, who pilots a magical room in the shape of a garden toadhouse (it miniaturises the travellers who then take exactly nine minutes and eleven seconds to resume their usual size, a potentially dangerous delay if you look like food to a passing predatory bird or animal). They acquire a ten-year-old “stowaway” called Tru — it’s a reference to Truman Capote. Ania has the Enigmata on her hands, i.e. she has a Gort imprinted on to the flesh of each hand. The Gort is the twelfth letter of the Ogham alphabet — sometimes called the Celtic Tree Alphabet — and places us firmly in a fantasy story drawing on Irish faerie mythology in general and the Tir Na Nog in particular. To get to this land, heroes needed luck or a helpful guide. Our heroes have to play the book version of the video game, solve clues, and find three “treasures” hidden in plain sight inside classic novels.

Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey

The mandatory evil enemy is Biblos Skulas (or Βίβλο σκουλήκας which translated from the Greek means Bookworm). This appears to the children to be a giant man, i.e. he follows in the footsteps of Piers Anthony’s “adult conspiracy”, first introduced to the world in Crewel Lye, as the adult who devours rather than savours books. He will stop at nothing to capture Ania, killing Gloriana in the first section of the book. Indeed, later on, Ania meets refugees from other books. Many have been tortured by Biblos in the hope they will reveal where our heroes have been hidden. Although it’s not the fault of the children, this does not prevent the survivors from being somewhat bitter.

There’s a great deal of adult sophistication on display in this book. For example we meet Kenning in Ellipses. But instead of descending to the level of punning adopted by Piers Anthony (increasingly excruciating as the Xanth series has progressed), this author is embedding knowledge in the work. If readers are curious, there’s an entire world awaiting exploration both in the language she uses and the books she draws from and propels her protagonists into. For those of you into the technical side of writing, this is a work of intertextuality, extensively revising the work of others to fit into this story.

We first trespass into The Time Machine by H G Wells where we avoid direct interaction with the time traveller. His machine has been pulled inside the sphinx, so all they have to do is get the door open. Except, of course, it’s not that easy and requires a brief diversion into the Indian epic, The Ramayana. Then needing medical attention, we pass through A Tale of Two Cities on to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Lewis Stevenson. You should have the message by now as we jaunt off to the Sinbad books.

The syntax is relatively rich and, in vocabulary terms, is probably ahead of the lower end of the young adult market. This is good. Younger readers should be stretched. Showing them the range of words and their meanings helps them to grow. Choosing to make the book longer also indicates an older age. I’m not sure where this leaves us in terms of market. It flirts with unpleasant truths but sees our small band of heroes making steady progress, although not without some struggles, which makes it suitable for younger readers. It gently explores some potentially significant moral issues and, in conceptual terms, plays with some interesting metaphors that would be relatively incomprehensible to most young people. I’m therefore left with an ambivalence. I think it falls between the two stools. It has elements that certainly fit into the YA niche, but in terms of language, concepts and length, it’s tending to adult fare. Except it lacks the “meat” to be an adult book. It pulls its punches too much as it stands. Given that this is the only book written so far in the trilogy, I class it as an interesting failure. But there’s real potential as a dark fantasy for adult readers in the mechanisms of creating, amending and ending books. Rewritten this could become something powerful. The backstory as to the origin of Biblos points the way.

For reviews of other books by Jess Lourey, see
November Hunt
December Dread
January Thaw.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

What, if anything, is wrong with young adult fiction?

October 11, 2013 4 comments

I’ve decided to write this opinion piece because I’ve recently been exchanging emails with several authors and publicity departments about some of my reviews. It seems I’ve become somewhat notorious for dismantling both books intended for young adult readers and books with a gender bias for female readers. In fact, I’m destructive about any book, film or television episode I think poor. Although I seem to have been particularly vehement when it comes to the YA market and paranormal romance, I find the majority of books, films and television episodes average at best and more usually below average. It does no good pointing to the About page where I assert the right to say when I think a book is bad. So here goes with a more specific opinion piece, primarily thinking about YA fiction.

What is YA fiction?

I’m not at all sure when the concept of the young adult emerged nor precisely what it means in terms of age. You see some books fairly obviously targeted at the genuinely young, whereas others seem to be aimed at fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. If I was simply going to be cynical, I could suggest this is a catch-all category for all the books not good enough to sell to the adult market. Put another way, with reading ages as defined for educational purposes not mapping directly on to physical age, the wider the alleged age range for YA books, the less meaningful it is. For the record, the American Library Association defines the classification as books for those aged between twelve and eighteen. I suppose that means books aimed at a broadly intermediate group whose sensibilities have matured to such a point they can no longer be considered children, but have yet to grow more interested in books with adult sensibilities. In this, let’s remember one of the virtues of youth should be curiosity about the adult world.

Why do I tend not to like YA books?

I grow somewhat frustrated if I feel an author is patronising the readership. By this I mean the author is peddling mindless escapism or that the book suggests there’s always an easy solution to problems. In the poorer books, we see anodyne descriptions of criminal or dangerous activities. Situations containing more explicit challenges to health and safety tend to be avoided. Obviously this does not disguise the fact there are many books unsuitable for children. But thanks to the growth of the internet, one of the features of the modern world is the speed with which children mature. Whereas my generation remained relatively naive until teenage years, modern children are remarkably knowing. This sophistication, often denied by adults, does not mean I think books on YA shelves should be full of darkness and existential despair. The fact the youth of today face the probability of unemployment and possible dangers from climate change does not mean we should deny them the occasional happy book.

So here goes with a simple proposition

In all forms of fiction, authors should show life as it is with credible characters behaving as we would expect given the context. Obviously this includes the possibility of dealing with the “big” issues of parental separation and divorce, abuse of alcohol and dugs, the death of family members or friends, and so on. When we move into fantasy and start talking about vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beasties, we should understand these beings survive by eating humans. Having them as cute love interests rather belies their essential nature. Taking a different tack, setting characters in a dystopian context gives them a chance to challenge existing political systems and become beacons of hope for the downtrodden of their mundane reality. Such books are not inherently dark. They can be inspirational.

In other words, there’s no reason in principle why there cannot be a balance of elements in fiction intended for young adults to read. It may be legitimate to make concessions in terms of vocabulary selection and sentence structures. Reducing the barriers to comprehension encourages more to read. Encouraging the reading habit is a social good. But when it comes to the choice of subject matter and the plot, I’m completely opposed to sanitising or dumbing down the world for consumption by those deemed young. In this I categorically deny an automatic linkage between physical age and the need for protection. Indeed, I think publishers do an active disservice to the young by “censoring” the content made available for reading. This does not mean, as a generalisation, I’m going to dismiss all YA books as superficial and stand on a soapbox to proclaim all publishers should focus on depth and avoid relentless optimism and sunshine. I try to be fair and judge each book on its merits. This means looking at the characters and judging their credibility.

Going back a moment, it was probably wrong of me to use the word “censorship” in this context. Parents and other authority figures have an interest in controlling the nature of the fiction or other media content consumed by “children” in their custody. I respect the right of parents to deny the young access to information that may help prepare them for the rigours of the world. I may think it foolish, but that’s what parenting is all about. I shall, of course, continue voicing my opinion. Hopefully, over time, publishers will more consistently produce books that challenge the prejudices and preconceptions of the young, and parents will be more flexible about what they allow their children to read. It’s a case of less trivia and more realism, but avoiding anything pornographic. Although pornography is freely available on the internet, publishers can at least use their marketing to signal some degree of “safety” to parents.

My own age as a factor

At this point, I should remind readers that I’m a senior citizen and therefore far removed from the current experience of the “young”. People who disagree with me often criticise my views because I’m applying adult sensibilities to books intended to be read by people culturally different to me. They assert the best people to judge the worth of YA fiction are the young who buy and read it. Publishers point to the millions of profit they rake in each year and legitimately suggest they must be doing something right. The fact the books sell in such numbers is itself a confirmation of their fitness for purpose. Put another way, one of the primary justifications for consuming any fictional content is to derive entertainment. If our lives are full of pain and misery, it’s potentially good therapy to escape into a fictional world where people have better lives. It reminds us that, if we can overcome our own problems, we too can have happiness.

So a potentially legitimate complaint about my reviews of YA fiction and, to some extent, romantic fiction is that, as an elderly male, I’m not the target audience and so have little meaningful to contribute to the discourse on the merits of either form of fiction. This would be a somewhat ironic way of dealing with my opinions. The adults who run the publishing industry are predominantly male, and they decide what’s fit to print and market to the YA and romance niches of the market. Parents feel competent to judge what their children should read. Teachers and librarians assume the right to judge which books should be made available to younger readers. And, of course, the majority of individuals who write YA fiction are themselves adults. Denying the right of older readers to review is not terribly rational. As applied to adult women, they can make up their own minds what they want to read without taking any notice of my views.

A conclusion

So, to be clear, I’m not against YA fiction or paranormal romance because of the genre labels imposed on them by marketing departments. But I am against all books peddling plots that make no sense, involving characters with no credibility, and written in prose that shows a lack of writing craft. That my experience to date tends to find the majority of YA and paranormal romance books suffer these faults is just an accident of fate. Every now and then, I do find good books in the most unlikely of genres or subgenres. Serendipity is what keeps me reading. However, here come a few closing thoughts. I think there are too many books published each year. The vast majority are poor. If commissioning editors were more discriminating and the editorial staff actually worked with authors to maintain a higher standard, all readers would benefit regardless of age. So I would throw away all genre labels. I’m for good books offering interest and/or excitement when I read them. If readers want the dull and boring stuff, they can dip into the self-published pool where, sad to say, most of the books fail to achieve professional standards.

Silevethiel by Andi O’Connor

September 19, 2013 2 comments

Silevethiel by Andi O'Connor

Silevethiel by Andi O’Connor (Purple Sun Press, 2013) looks and feels like a self-published book. There’s nothing about the publisher’s website to suggest it’s anything other than a vanity label created by the author for this book. Sadly reading it confirms it as poorly written with one or two typos in the digital version I read. In a way, the opening chapter should mark it out as dark fantasy. The King is found murdered in his bed, his heart ripped from his body and left draped over his head. His daughter and only living heir is spirited out of the kingdom only to fall foul of assassins who leave her for dead. But the prose style and vocabulary choice mark it as essentially intended for young adults. Hence, the darkness is quickly waved away and the language trivialises the events. Indeed, some of the prose is embarrassing in what is presented on the page as a professionally produced publication. Here’s Irewen running past the guards into her father’s bedchamber where the blood is almost dry. So why has it taken so long for the alarm to be raised? In a well-run castle, someone notices if the king is slaughtered and raises the alarm. Then she’s led off through the “expansive” castle to the sitting room (obviously a castle designed by Walt Disney) where she perches on a settee, takes a slug of wine to calm her nerves, tucks a stray raven curl of hair behind her ear, and decides to get out of Dodge. I confess to almost giving up at the end of the first chapter but, after following the heir apparent’s example and taking a fortifying drink, I soldiered on.

This prince guy with the elf magic (and hormones) coursing through his veins comes upon the scene and rescues the fair damsel before she can get properly deceased. Laegon is definitely a useful person to have around. He can pull out two arrows without making the wounds worse, neuralise the poison that’s been slowly spreading through her body for an hour (the icy cold has not been enough to kill this tough young woman), and he can close the wounds from the inside out. No Irewen, don’t go towards the light! Anyway, after deciding which way to go, she regains consciousness and greets the lonely elf prince again after a ten-year gap. He’s one of these shy twits who would be red-hot if he let himself go but. . . So he’s never known true love (it’s apparently a pretty rare commodity in these magical times until an author gets just the right pair together in the cold) and can satisfy the virgin requirement for relationships with sex-starved princesses. Before the love birds get too deeply involved, a word of explanation. Silevethiel is a lioness and the Dame of the Guardians who, like, protects people. The Dame was able to save Irewen because she’s, gasp, a quarter Green and Wood elf. Now calm yourselves. The Elf Discrimination Act is in force: equal treatment for all on the basis of their race. But that means the princess has the mind-talking ability. Human Daddy king married a commoner with elf blood. They could do nothing to hush up the lowly birth, but they did hide the witchy bit. Fortunately, there’s an elven prophesy that someone just like Irewen (what a coincidence) will reunite the four elven races and save the world. Isn’t this exciting? Particularly when you discover she can talk to the dead? Is that not cool or what?

So then we plough through some mind-numbingly banal romance, endure bathos without any sublime bits in-between, and have some fighting with Drulaack — zombie warriors, no less — sent by her evil cousin who has a lock of her hair and can track her every movement (well, perhaps not every movement). This inspires our princess to learn to become an Amazon — no, not an online bookstore — fighting with bladed weapons without faltering in her strikes. Go, Irewen, go! And she’s recruited as protectee by Silevethiel. Things just naturally go her way until the evil cousin attacks from within and then the virgin prince is told he must stay home while the princess goes on a quest. Ah the stresses young love must bear even if the virgin prince is over two-hundred years old (he’s been saving himself for a long time). Fortunately this is written for twelve-year-old girls so it all comes out right at the end with a little predictive ability showing her children in the future with the prince (after he loses his status as a virgin, of course).

As a final note of sadness, this is not even the worst book I’ve read so far this year. Yes, I have been less than merciful here but I did at least get to the end. In moments of naive abstraction, it amazes me that books like this can ever find a market. Then common sense reasserts itself and I remember the vast number of children and teens whose ability to judge quality has not yet formed and who will therefore enjoy this vapid fantasy romance. Since no youngsters read these reviews there’s no damage done to sales projections. Indeed, out of perversity, teens reading my contempt may well be inspired to buy Silevethiel — the perfect ironic riposte to an old man’s opinion.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley

The Osiris Curse

The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley (Pyr, 2013) Tweed & Nightingale Adventure 2 should have a young adult health warning on the cover. In all innocence, I pick up the next book from the pile and discover myself cast adrift in a dumbed down science fantasy, patronisingly aimed at the young. This is Sherlock Holmes meets Hyperborean lizards from a Pellucidar underworld who threaten to destroy the human world because we have inadvertently been destroying the underground environment in our search for additional energy sources. Ah ha, another version of Sherlock Holmes and a story somewhat adjacent to the ingenious manga, anime and film series Dectective Conan by Gosho Aoyama (because someone thought this might be confused with that barbarian fellow, the series was renamed Case Closed to avoid distressing Robert E Howard fans who might not be able to understand the jacket artwork on the manga or the words used to describe the television and cinema versions). The hook for the Japanese story is that our brilliant amateur detective is forced to take an experimental poison but, instead of killing him, it reverts him to childhood stature which is actually a convenient “disguise” because it enables him to access places and talk to people who underestimate him. Note his dependence on Rachel Moore and, to some extent, Amy Yoshida — females of the species. In this book series, the mind of Sherlock Holmes is salvaged after his demise at Reichenbach Falls and relocated to a cloned body, then nine months old in chronological age. At that point in cranial development, the cloned body was not able to absorb Holmes’ memories, just most of his intellect, so the emergent young man is an erratic detective genius. He’s “adopted” by Barnaby Tweed, is christened Sebastian Tweed and partnered with Octavia Nightingale.

Paul Crilley

Paul Crilley

So our young detective with female sidekick takes on the role of defender of the British Empire which is full of stupid adults with the possible exception of Queen Victoria who puts in a cameo appearance at the end. The setting is very strongly located in a steampunk era. Under Queen Victoria’s benign rule, Babbage has perfected the difference engine, Tesla has done just wonderful things with electricity, and so on. Looking around the streets, we have both steam- and electric-powered conveyances. Large robots are slowly finding acceptance in heavy industry and on the docks to do the heavy dirty work, while “android” robots act as house servants. And in the air, ornithopters and hydrogen airships with electric engines driving turbines rule. There’s also a grey area in which spiritualism and a more general interest in the practical side of the medium’s experience has led to the capture and manipulation of “souls”. In Tweed’s case, the mind was placed into a cloned body, but they can also be placed in bottles and inserted into machinery. That gets around the programming problem since oral instructions can then be given. Even H G Wells comes into play as the inventor of an invisibility cloak (and time machine). There’s not a single original element on display nor, in the world building, is there any any sign of a unique version of Victorian steampunk emerging. It’s all very generic (as you might expect from a YA title — teen readers are not expected to know what else has been written in this field, nor to care for any particular logic in its execution).

There’s some minor angst from our young hero. He’s feeling like a cuckoo in the nest, like someone who doesn’t quite fit into this world (and who can blame him for that assessment of his situation). Naturally, there are romantic twinges in the relationship between our two heroes and some experimental osculation at the end as acceptance of the consequences of the male/female thing is completed. As to the plot, it’s a mishmash of espionage adventure tropes being forced into Edgar Rice Burroughs directions with a vague attempt at Sherlock Holmesian detective analysis thrown into the works. It’s all rather embarrassingly bad for someone like me to read. I suppose it might be acceptable for ten to twelve year-olds who have never read anything intelligent in the steampunk subgenre to start off their reading careers but, to be honest, I suspect The Osiris Curse is more likely to drive them away.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

August 6, 2013 3 comments

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2013) is a once-more-into-the-breach moment for me as I unwillingly read through a young adult title. This time, I’ve actually paid out my own coin in support of an author I like. As one might predict, the experience proved an unhappy balance between admiration for the inventiveness of the plot and endless horror at the ghastly way it’s written down for the YA market. Frankly, it’s deeply patronising to write like this when the target audience is presumably teenage. I refuse to believe the education services in English speaking countries have so dumbed down their children’s reading ages that the current crop of youngsters cannot yet be trusted with books written with adult sensibilities in mind. This book is permeated by endless drivel as our young man vaguely struggles towards something approximating intelligence while surrounded by adults as thick as two short planks.

So here we have a young boy who was unfortunately denied the test to see whether he had magical abilities because the church wall was leaking water and needed repair. Oh dear. It’s impossible to make a more clichéd start. A young boy, obviously destined to become the greatest magician of his age, is denied the formal training so, with the early help of his father (who mysteriously dies) and then something inside driving him as he’s given a free scholarship in a top school, he develops and hones his general understanding and skills. At last, he manages to come under the wing of Dumble. . . and meets up with highly compatible girl (his Hermione). This is the catalyst he needs to start to bring his magical abilities up to “slightly better than average”. No doubt as the series continues, he’ll become the wunderkind of his generation (traditionally someone under the age of eighteen) and save the world for the Muggles. This first exciting episode sees him showing the academic staff and the police how to investigate crimes of a magical nature, leading to a big fight with the first tier bad guy which he, his Hermione and the Professor manage to win. Yes, it really is that bad.

Brandon Sanderson — still the standout fantasy author of this century

Brandon Sanderson — still the standout fantasy author of this century

So why I am bothering to read such a book? The answer lies in the plot and the rather ingenious diagrams and illustrations by Ben McSweeney. To understand the idea, we need to go back to Victorian times and the novel Flatland by Edwin Abbott. This postulated a world in two dimensions — the men are polygons and the women line-segments — which is visited by a sphere. As you can imagine the two- and three-dimensional characters have great difficulty in perceiving each other. Rudy Rucker and others of a more mathematical or scientific bent have played with the idea. For example, if we postulate life as possible on a single sheet of paper, drawing a circle around a creature on the paper would represent a prison because, in that dimension, the creature can’t get out of the circle. Escape would only be possible by boring through the line forming the circle or moving in the third dimension and jumping over the line. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first full-length novel creating a fantasy adventure out of the idea (Spaceland by Rudy Rucker doesn’t count because that’s a commercial invasion from the fourth dimension). Essentially what we have is the two-dimensional beings breaking through into the three-dimensional world with hostile intent. To defend the world as we know it, some humans have developed the ability to draw lines and shapes in chalk that can interact with the two-dimensional creatures. These “magicians” work together with the military to corral the wild creatures in the area immediately around the point where they emerge into our dimension. Obviously there are casualties and the “magicians” are allowed to retire after a number of years in service. That’s the point of the school where our young sprog studies. It’s one of the places training the next generation of “magicians”. His failure to be tested excludes him from that training but, as is required in YA plots, he’s got the gift and can do it anyway.

More than any other feature of this book, it’s the interaction between the detailed work of the author and the interpretive work of the artist that save it from oblivion for an adult reader. Since the magic system postulated here depends on the ability of the “magicians” to draw both geometrically accurate shapes and interesting creatures to fight and defend those shapes, the visual representation of this skill is essential to an understanding of the magic. Frankly, there’s no-one better than designing magic systems around than Brandon Sanderson and this work with Ben McSweeney is an outstanding collaboration. It’s just a tragedy the result is then buried in this YA vehicle. This would make a sensationally good book if written for adults. As it stands, The Rithmatist is excruciating to read to get at the plot.

For reviews of other books by Brandon Sanderson, see:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
Warbreaker
The Way of Kings
The Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance

The Holders by Julianna Scott

June 24, 2013 4 comments

The Holders by Julianna Scott

Since my wife used to work in a building almost next door to their offices in Nottingham, I’ve been following the progress being made by Angry Robot Books. Not the most pressing of reasons, I know, but Angry Robot has been publishing some interesting titles making it worth watching their list. While I looked away, there were then developments. They added a young adult line called Strange Chemistry, followed by crime and thrillers with an imprint called Exhibit A. So here I go breaking another of my house rules and, despite my usual contempt for all things YA, I’m plunging into The Holders by Julianna Scott (Strange Chemistry, 2013) to see whether a dynamic British company can do better with the urban fantasy subgenre for teens (I’ve also got two of Exhibit A’s titles and will be reviewing them in the days to come). Having already declared by prejudices, I need to offer a brief definition of YA as a starting point for this review. In theory this is content aimed at those aged between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Since people of this tender age range are supposed by book packagers (and parents) to have undeveloped tastes and to be emotionally vulnerable, their tastes have to be guided away from adult fiction in the non-pornographic sense of the word, and persuaded to read fiction that’s safe and, in many ways, educational. That said, there’s actually evidence people up to the age of twenty-five buy YA without embarrassment. It seems some people’s level of reading skills and emotional development never progress beyond, say, seventeen.

Why pick the age of seventeen? Because the lead protagonist of this first-person narrative is a seventeen-year-old girl and she’s going through the usual rite of passage or coming of age experiences required in YA mode. Because this is also urban fantasy, our young heroine is also required to fall in love but, because this is to be emotionally safe (and not give young readers the wrong idea), she must be chaste. No matter how strong the attraction, she cannot go beyond hand-holding and the occasional kiss. This is unrealistic. UNICEF estimates that more than 80% of teens have sexual intercourse in Britain and the US. The teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in the US are the highest in the developed world. For books not to reflect this statistical reality is surprising if the books are in any way intended as a constructive influence on opinions and behaviour. Yet not just YA but also the majority of books in the urban fantasy subgenre are aimed at female readers who want romance with a supernatural edge. I have no problem with a concept that ring-fences fictional behaviour for educational purposes, i.e. which represents a discussion and commentary upon the behaviour and the downsides of stepping outside the fence. But it does seem problematic when the fence is uncritically presented as a social good, i.e. it becomes propaganda addressed to young minds which are more easily influenced.

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

This leads to a secondary question of why I’m harping on about YA having an educational purpose. Well this book is playing in a well-trodden sandpit for the purposes of offering conservatively framed guidance on how children should react when their parents split up. Our heroine was celebrating the arrival of a baby brother and looking forward to a move across country. Everything went well with the packing and her mother moved. Unfortunately, the father disappeared. This left mother and daughter devastated. So this theme is the main structure on which the story is based. When his son is ten, missing Daddy sends his minions to bring the sprog to a school in Ireland where he can be “safe”. Protective sister goes with him and must therefore reach some form of accommodation with her father. It’s all about forgiveness. Yet, of course, it’s not that straightforward. It turns out that Daddy has some super powers and it’s probable his son has inherited them. He’s being brought to Ireland for testing because, gulp, he may be the Chosen One mentioned in the Prophesy. There must always be prophesies when magic is involved. In this case, we’ve got a series of different types of power. Super Daddy is like Charles Xavier with mind reading and adjusting powers. Needless to say, there’s a counterbalancing mind-adjusting elder who’s out for world domination. That’s why the Prophesy calls for a hero to save the world.

Within five pages of the start, it’s obvious what the broad plot is going to be and what the authorial choices are. The way the plot then develops telegraphs the love interest and how the hero thing is going to work out, i.e. because this is written for the YA market, there can be no real surprises and it must be obvious how everything will be resolved. That way, the young reader can sit back and just savour the steady progress to true love and beating the immediate threat to safety. In fact, the threat comes into focus almost at the end making it all rather perfunctory. This leaves plenty of time to resolve separated parent issues and to work through an allegory about how relationships are formed. Think of it this way. Here’s a young woman who’s been dominant in protecting her younger brother. She meets a slightly older man and there’s a spark. Now how does this work? Does the more experienced and more physically powerful one take the lead, or should the roles reverse when she’s got a long track record of being the dominant one in a broken family? It’s actually socially constructive to discuss the nature of love and explain the different ways in which relationships can be formed and broken. To that extent, I think the book is quite useful, particularly because the love interest also comes from a broken family where he was abandoned by his adoptive parents. As a piece of urban fantasy, it’s completely gutless and anaemic. There’s never any real sense of threat or danger. It’s serene progress to the obligatory happy ending to the first book in an intended series. Of course, the evil one may prove more of a handful when he appears in later volumes, but I suspect this series will keep everything in the safe rather than the edgy zone. As an adult, I can see all the ways in which this could have been so much better, but authors writing for this artificially constructed YA market are not allowed to write anything dangerous. So The Holders has some good supernatural ideas (which are not properly developed) and might be useful for younger readers on dealing with divorce and separation issues, and how to make new relationships. From me, that’s high praise.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson

Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson

In the days of innocence, there used to be jokes that started, “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman. . .” That was before we got all wrapped up in what might or might not be politically correct and worried such jokes might be a form of racism in mocking the idiosyncrasies of each nationality. Well, in Hot Blooded by Amanda Carlson (Orbit, 2013) Jessica McCain Book 2, some werewolves, two vampires and a human go into the woods together. . . Now those of you who, by accident, have encountered the Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer, will know that this combination is fairly combustible as romantic love triangles complicate interspecies politics. This pursues the same basic idea but just on the adult side of the young adult (YA) divide. In other words, this is not strictly speaking YA but rather the kind of book you encourage YA readers to try. Hopefully it weans them off YA and moves them into reading books with more adult sensibilities. The marketers then say, “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?” or words to that effect and before you can say “Snap dragons are beautiful at this time of year!” these older readers have been moved on and are actually reading stuff meant for adults to read. To fill this interstitial role, this author has crafted a not quite “urban fantasy” because almost all the major action takes place in natural surroundings (forests and mountainous areas). But we have a youngish female heroine who’s just growing into her powers and her love interest who’s missing, held in captivity. Plus the mandatory human who’s just found out that all this supernatural shit is true. Ah, if only our heroine didn’t have a conscience, it would be so easy to kill off the human to protect the secret of her heritage. But fear of guilt makes werewolf people do foolish things. So they take him along on this campaign to kill Selene, the Lunar Goddess (and rescue the love interest).

Amanda Carlson

Amanda Carlson

Now as you probably know, Goddesses are pretty badass and damned difficult to kill. It’s going to take a lot of effort to drain enough of her immortality so she ceases to exist. Why take the human? Because the werewolves can’t leave him where he was being held captive and they can kill him if he gets in the way on their mission — assuming none of the assorted supernatural perils do for him on the way, of course. In the first book, our heroine made a deal with the Vampire Queen, so two vampire foot-soldiers who have some experience of the Goddess are sent along to help. That’s why this disparate group end up traipsing through the woods to get to the mountain and do battle. This would be relatively straightforward (insofar as anything ever is in fantasy novels), but then the Underworld decides to get involved and this upsets the natural order of things. And that brings us to the Prophesy. Yes, all books like this have to have a Prophesy and, in this instance, powers long ago predicted that population growth in the different supernatural species would lead to new tensions and conflict. In such a situation, there would have to be a peacekeeper, someone not directly involved who would see each side in the conflicts played fair. Yes, you guessed it. Our girl is the interspecies referee in the making.

So there you have it: this is a tag team contest between our heroine and her mixed cohorts against the Goddess and her backers from the Underworld. Everything happens at a good pace and there are twists and turns on the way to the set up for the next exciting instalment. It’s positive and upbeat with every challenge easily defeated as she explores and grows more confident in her powers (I suppose there will be some explanation of the source of these powers at some point but, for now, you just accept she can defeat all-comers without using anything like her full potential). In my opinion this makes the book suitable for the fourteen to sixteen age bracket in emotional development if not physical years. Those who are emotionally older will look for books which have protagonists face more real challenges without the assurance of success to keep their spirits up, i.e. books which deal with the uncertainties of life and death in the battle against “dark forces”. Parents can be reassured this book has no sex scenes. Just a tender clinch when the battle is over. All this makes Hot Blooded is a safe and unchallenging read.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Hunger Games (2012)

March 31, 2013 Comments off

HungerGamesPoster

More years ago than I care to remember, I was a classical scholar and something of an expert in not only the languages but also the cultures of the Ancient World. Amongst other things, this meant a basic familiarity with the mythology. Theseus was caught up in the dispute between Athens and Crete. Androgeus, the son of King Minos, had been assassinated in Athens. The price of peace was that, every year, Athens sent seven young men and women to Crete as tribute to be fed to the Minotaur. Coming forward in time, here’s a science fiction novel and now film. Ostensibly, this is a young adult post-apocalypse dystopian novel by Suzanne Collins where one young man and woman from each of twelve Districts is sent to the Capitol to participate in a televised fight to the death. The Hunger Games (2012) is the first in a projected series with the second being in production thanks to the massive amount of money made by this film both in the cinema and through DVD sales.

 

This has all the usual faults of a piece of science fiction aimed at young adults. To begin to understand the extent of these problems, let’s meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her love interest Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). They like to hunt in the forest around their District’s living area, hence our heroine’s expertise with the bow — there’s no large game, only squirrels and other small mammals. We immediately note the poverty of those in District 12. Later, this is juxtaposed with the high civilisation of the Capitol. It’s always interesting in dystopian contexts, to speculate on how the distribution of wealth and privilege could become so skewed. If, as shown in the historical newsreel, there was a nuclear civil war in which the twelve satellite states turned on the central state, the major population centres would have been levelled. Indeed, with twelve states shooting at one, it’s hard to see how the one could survive at all. Anyway, if this is the old USA, why were only twelve states involved? What happened to all the rest?

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence relax before the big event

 

Even if we accept this curiosity, why would the defeated survivors have agreed to rebuild only one? The idea that the defeated rebel states could have been coerced into this arrangement followed up by this tribute system is not convincingly explained. There’s always a delicate balance of power between the oppressors and the oppressed. In the parade, we’re told the Districts specialise in mining, power-generation, and so on. This would suggest rather smaller units, rather like a core city with suburbs, yet the train journey from District 12 obviously goes on for hours at high speed. So let’s say there’s a rebellion among the people who dig up the coal for the power-generation people to turn into electricity. If these people are the only miners, sending in troops to kill large numbers of them completely destabilises the interdependent supply system. The oppressive regime can try intimidation, but extermination is impossible until there are sufficient replacements prepared to take over as miners. More generally, has the land not been irradiated by nuclear fallout or perhaps chemical weaponry? Perhaps District 12 is the only area where it’s safe to dig. Worse, the downtrodden citizens in District 12 all look remarkably well fed with no sign of starvation, yet we see only a few pigs fed on reject bread and no obvious farming. Where is all the food coming from, not just in the Districts, but also to support the lavish lifestyle of the Capitol? There’s no way the Katniss we see on screen has been deprived of food even though we do see her apparently desperate for a crust of bread from Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More generally, how can anything grow if this was a widespread conflict involving the use of nuclear and/or chemical weapons? Surely the soil is irredeemably polluted?

 

Now let’s come to the tribute itself. Each year, there’s a ballot across the twelve Districts to pick the twenty-four victims who are sent to the Capitol. Why, you might ask, should there be a “winner”? If the Capitol simply wanted to intimidate the Districts, it could execute twenty-four young people randomly selected every year. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) explains the tribute is slightly more insidious by offering all participants the illusion of hope — an illusion for twenty-three since only one can survive. This is political nonsense. Surely the only real outcome is to depress eleven Districts who get to see their children killed on live television while the twelfth only gets back one child. Why do any of the victims have any hope? Why are the Districts not more angry? Finally, why must the winners go back to their Districts? Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who acts as mentor to Katniss and Peeta, is still in the Capitol after winning twenty years ago. Why was this drunken streak of misery privileged while everyone else was sent back to live in poverty?

 

If we look back in the cinema, films like Battle Royale, Death Race 2000, Rollerball and The Running Man have shown us dystopian futures in which mass entertainment is used to manipulate the mood of the people. It’s the old blood-and-circuses idea from Ancient Rome. So this film flirts with the Capitol being a new Rome as our carefully coiffed victims ride in in their chariots to be greeted by their adoring fans. This is reinforced by the naming system. The game’s manager is Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the interviewer and all-round television face is Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and stylist Cinna (Lennie Kravitz) (originally a long-serving consul of the Roman Republic).

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

The wounded Josh Hutcherson gets comfort from Jennifer Lawrence

 

When sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is selected as District 12’s female victim, it’s up to Katniss to volunteer in her place. The other ballot “winner” is Peeta. She receives moral support and image advice from Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna. As is required for a young adult heroine, Katniss ranges between surly and spunky in early scenes at the Capitol. Her display with the bow, however, breaks the ice and makes her a popular favorite. Peeta consolidates her star quality by confessing a long-time crush on her. In the end this battle is all about the ratings and she becomes dominant, a fact displeasing to President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who fears this spunky volunteer may incite riots among supporters in outlying Districts.

 

When we get to the games themselves, like The Truman Show, the managers of this closed environment can control the day/night cycle. More importantly, they can start fires and force the contestants out of safe hiding places and towards a confrontation with the others. Otherwise one or two could just sit out the contest until everyone else was dead or wounded. Of course, all kinds of outside interference are possible if the government or sponsors permit. But what seems to be achievable is pure fantasy not science fiction. The fires are absolutely controllable, complete with RPG balls that can be shot at people, plus trees that fall on command. At the press of a button, they are extinguished and there’s no sign of smoke damage or burned vegetation during the rest of the film. And then there are these genetically modified dogs. I suppose they must be kept in kennels somewhere and then uploaded. But how are they cleared away so quickly?

 

So where does this leave us? At 136 minutes (including the credits) it’s too long. This is not to say the individual parts are not interesting but, when put together, it’s excessive. The fatal game sequence has its moments and, in strictly technical terms, there’s a certain fascination in seeing how the numbers are whittled down and the final deaths occur. This being a film aimed at a young adult audience, there’s little or no blood shown. The necessary deaths are managed with taste and decorum — many out-of-shot. Similarly the game romance is suitably chaste. Just a peck or two on the cheeks and lips, and lying down together platonically to maintain body temperatures while “healing” takes place. All this is quite enjoyable. But the major failing of the film is to explain how the Hunger Games came to be and, more importantly, how they fit into the current political framework. It seems even the managers are not entirely sure of their roles. The result is snatched scenes of rioting with white, helmeted troops moving in to quell the disturbances but nothing is explained.

 

As a final question, is District 11 racially segregated? In writing this I’m not trying to reignite the racist tweeting over the casting of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) but, when we see shots of District 11, the majority of the inhabitants do seem to be African American. So is this the agriculture District where they grow the cotton? Although it’s good to see African Americans and a Nigerian in the cast, it seems we’re not post-racial in this post-apocalypse, i.e. we do not see a general ethnic and racial diversity across all parts of this state. We spend considerable time in District 12. Why is there no clear racial integration on display? If the film-makers had wanted to defuse suspicion of racism embedded in the structure of this fictional world, all they had to do was show a real mixture of races in District 12.

 

This leaves me thinking The Hunger Games is probably very entertaining for young adults but deeply frustrating for anyone with a fully developed brain.

 

A number of people have suggested that this film borrows a little too heavily from the two Battle Royale films. Here are the reviews: Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)
Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルII (2003)

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

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