Friday, April 29, 2011

Review: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
Published: NEL UK, Bantam Spectra (1992)
Awards Won: Nebula, Hugo, Locus  SF
Nominations: Arthur C. Clarke Award, BSFA Award

The Book:

"For Kivrin, preparing an on-site study of one of the deadliest eras in humanity's history was as simple as receiving inoculations against the diseases of the fourteenth century and inventing an alibi for a woman traveling alone. For her instructors in the twenty-first century, it meant painstaking calculations and careful monitoring of the rendezvous location where Kivrin would be received.

But a crisis strangely linking past and future strands Kivrin in a bygone age as her fellows try desperately to rescue her. In a time of superstition and fear, Kivrin -- barely of age herself -- finds she has become an unlikely angel of hope during one of history's darkest hours." ~from

I'm reading Doomsday Book as a part of the 2011 Women in Science Fiction Book ClubDoomsday Book is a standalone novel, but it is also one of several that is set in the same time-traveling future Oxford, with some recurring characters.  Though I've read a fair amount of her short fiction, the only other Willis novel I've read was To Say Nothing of the Dog, another story set in her time-traveling future. To Say Nothing of the Dog is considerably more lighthearted, but I think that I prefer Doomsday Book.

My Thoughts:

There are two parallel stories that split near the beginning, with history student Kivrin's departure to the 14th century.  In 21st century Oxford, an epidemic breaks out, apparently starting with the tech who oversaw Kivrin's leap into the past.  As the tech collapses into incoherence and quarantine rules begin to be set in place, Kivrin's mentor Mr. Dunworthy is frustrated by his inability to ensure her safe retrieval, or even determine where and when she ended up.  Back in the 1300s, Kivrin is busy getting to know the 'contemps', who are tragically facing an epidemic of their own-- the Black Plague. 

I loved Kivrin's story, which was told both in third person and through some first person journal entries from the recorder embedded in her wrist.  I enjoyed the inclusion of the Middle English conversation near the beginning, though I had to read the sentences out loud a few times before I could get the sense of them.  Here's a nice example of the Middle English as Kivrin heard it:

"Wick londebay yae comen lawdayke awtreen godelae deynorm andoar sic straunguwlondes.  Spekefaw eek waenoot awfthy taloorbrede." [p.123]

...and I'm just gonna leave that there untranslated, in case I understood it incorrectly.  I particularly loved reading about the family and community that took in Kivrin.  While there was no way Kivrin could have been prepared for leaping into this completely foreign society, she sees that the people in the 14th century are just as human as those in the 21st.  I think the parallel epidemic stories emphasized this beautifully.  Though the ways we deal with illness have changed drastically from the 1300s to the 2000s, the emotional reaction of humans to disaster remains similar.  While people back then might have blamed the epidemic on travelers or God, people in the present blamed immigrants or science.  As Dr. Mary Ahrens of 21st century Oxford stated, "One never gets used to the idea that there is nothing one can do." [p.346].

Another thing that I appreciate about Doomsday Book, is its treatment of Christianity.  The church is a part of life in both storylines, but Willis has a refreshing lack of an agenda regarding religious beliefs.  Christianity, and Christians, are certainly not portrayed altogether favorably, but they're also not portrayed completely unfavorably.  There are those, like the overbearing Mrs. Gaddson, who think the best way to use a bible is to preach damnation to the suffering, but there are also people like the rural parish priest Father Roche, a genuinely good man who is unflinching in his duty to his community.  I really appreciated that, while the story had a lot of Christian presence, it was definitely not about religion.

Based on Doomsday Book and the other work I have read, I feel that Willis has a very distinct style of telling a story.  There’s definitely a lot going on, in the future and the past, but the narration often tends to focus on the minutiae of daily life, and the conflicts that arise from it.  As a result, what one might consider the main story progresses only slowly.  It can be incredibly frustrating when you want to get to a major plot point, only to have the protagonist delayed by failed phone calls, dealing with irritable people, navigating social pitfalls or coping with managerial duties. 

Many of these minor obstructions come in the form of one-note, running-joke side characters, particularly in the future story.  For instance, Dunworthy has to deal with crabby, self-important American bellringers, and an employee who seems incapable of handling the tiniest detail alone. There’s also Mrs. Gaddson, a pushy, overbearing mother, and her son, who spends his time alternately avoiding her and charming numerous young ladies.  There are tons of these side characters, all mostly defined by one concern or personality trait.  I actually enjoyed all of these rather shallow minor characters. I thought all of these acquaintances contributed to the whole, like they were each a single element that, taken together, formed the vast crowd of Dunworthy's community.

My Rating: 5/5

I found Doomsday Book to be a tragically fascinating read.  I was more interested in the 1300s story than the future-Oxford story, but I felt that the two narratives complemented each other well.  It is rather slow-paced, and I can see where some readers would find the one-note minor characters and intense focus on tiny, everyday annoyances aggravating.  While it definitely picks up momentum near the end, this is the kind of story that you just have to allow to unfold at its own pace. Though there is some humor in the novel, this is still the story of two epidemics.  The body count is rather high, and, overall, the story is really depressing. All in all, though, I found it to be a hauntingly tragic story of humanity, across the centuries, facing one of our most deadly enemies.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Summary: 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist

Congratulations to Lauren Beukes's Zoo City for winning the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award!

I've finished reading the six shortlisted novels for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke award, and I wanted to give a general summary of my thoughts before the winner is announced tomorrow.  For the convenience of anyone reading this, I'll edit this to indicate which novel won, once the announcement is made.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award is presented to the best science fiction novel published in the UK in the previous year, as decided by a panel of judges.  Based on the current selections, it seems that they're allowing the definition of SF to lean towards fantasy a little.  I certainly don't mind, since the shortlisted novels this year were all fantastic books worthy of the recognition. Rather than listing them from most favorite to least, I will tell which I think is most deserving of the prize, give the two that I would pick as runners-up, and then give general thoughts on the other three.

My Predicted Winner

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes - This was an amazing novel.  The style was refreshingly original, and the characters and locations were vividly painted.  It drew me in on the first page, and the fast-paced, exciting plot kept me enthralled through the end.  If I were on the panel of judges, Zoo City would get my vote. 

Other Frontrunners

Declare by Tim Powers - I thoroughly enjoyed this alternate history WWII/Cold War spy and dark fantasy novel.  The period detail was meticulous, and the supernatural elements were incredibly eerie.  I also thought the method was really intriguing; Powers kept all real, recorded history constant, and created his story in the 'gaps', crafting it to explain odd historic facts.  I'm not really a connoisseur of spy novels, so I was surprised at how entertaining I found Declare.

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald - This novel envisioned a future Istanbul full of mysteries and nanotechnology.  It ambitiously followed many different characters with many different stories over a crucial five day period in all of their lives.  The main connection between them was their association to the eponymous dervish house.  It was fun watching the different stories affect each other in direct and indirect ways, though they did not quite mesh as much as I would have preferred in the end.

Other Nominees

Richard Powers' Generosity took a lot of impressive narrative risks, but it's meta-fictional narration made me feel distanced and detached from the story.  Tricia Sullivan's Lightborn contained some very interesting uses of language, and the story ended up being creative and surprising.  However, it did take a while to really get going.  Patrick Ness's Monsters of Men, is the final book of a YA trilogy, and I don't think one could appreciate it without reading the first two.  It was a fast-paced, action-packed story, with loads of moral ambiguity. Somehow, though, I tended to side with the alien Spackle over the humans.

Review: Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
Published: Walker & Co./Candlewick Press (2010)
Series: Book 3 of Chaos Walking
Award Nominations: Arthur C. Clarke Award

Warning: This is the final book in the series, so the first and second books are spoiled in this review (and even in the blurb describing the plot).  If you have not read The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer, continue at your own risk.

The Book:

As a world-ending war surges around them, Todd and Viola face monstrous decisions. The indigenous Spackle, thinking and acting as one, have mobilized to avenge their murdered people. Ruthless human leaders prepare to defend their factions at all costs, even as a convoy of new settlers approaches. And as the ceaseless Noise lays all thoughts bare, the projected will of the few threatens to overwhelm the desperate desire of the many.

The consequences of each action, each word, are unspeakably vast: To follow a tyrant or a terrorist? To save the life of the one you love most, or thousands of strangers? To believe in redemption, or assume it is lost? Becoming adults amid the turmoil, Todd and Viola question all they have known, racing through horror and outrage toward a shocking finale.” ~from

This is the final book in my plan to read of the Arthur C. Clarke nominees.  I’m just in time, as the awards are going to be announced tomorrow! 

My Thoughts:

The title of this book come from the often-quoted saying in the trilogy, “War makes monsters of men.”  As one would guess, this final book in the trilogy is about war.  There’s war between the avenging Spackle (or the Land as they call themselves) and humans, but there’s also conflict between the different factions of humanity.  Mistress Coyle is still the head of “The Answer”, a female insurgent group opposed to the systematic murder of women, and Mayor Prentiss is still the head of the ruthless male army.  A small third human faction comes from the scout ship that appeared at the end of the previous book, a harbinger of the 5,000 new settlers to come.  Though there are only two people on board, their technology makes them a major player in the conflict.  Amid all this turmoil, Todd and Viola try to stay true to each other.

The narration between Todd and Viola switches off much more frequently in Monsters of Men, and they sometimes only get a few paragraphs at a time.  While this did keep up the suspense in the novel, I occasionally lost track of whose point of view it was at the moment.  They’re even more infatuated with each other than ever before, and they spend a large portion of their narration worrying about each other, to the exclusion of all else.

My favorite part of Monsters of Men was the addition of a third narrator, Spackle #1017.  Spackle #1017 has endured through slavery, having his voice stolen, forced labor, starvation, physical abuse, permanent branding, and the slaughter of his entire community.  He only escaped by literally crawling out of their pile of corpses.  What’s more, when he finally finds his way back to the main body of ‘the Land’, a kind of collective consciousness, he finds his experiences seem to have permanently separated him from others of his kind.  Understandably, he burns with grief and rage, and a desire to make humanity pay for its crimes.  His continuing struggle to accept and move past the horrific things that have been done to him and his loved ones was the most emotionally effective part of the novel for me.

With the inclusion of the Spackle point of view, Ness indicates his intention of fully addressing the moral complexity of the situation he has created in Monsters of Men.  While I did not always agree with the conclusions drawn in the story, I appreciated the fact that most of the problems were actively discussed.  For example, how do you go about achieving peace when both sides have good reasons to distrust (and hate) each other?  How do you strike a balance between the value of privacy and collectivism?  Is the use of force, or the threat of force, a legitimate tool to use in the pursuit of peace?  In what situations should criminals not be punished?  Is selfish love or grief a danger in wartime?  At what point is it necessary to think of the greater good over your loved ones, and are people (and Spackle) capable of actually doing it? 

On the subject of issues of morality, though, I want to address a problem I had with Todd.  Even in this book, they refer to him as the boy who can’t kill, despite the fact that he has killed, both directly and indirectly.  The general attitude seems to be that, since he feels really bad about it, he is still innocent.  I found that Spackle #1017 summed up my feelings about Todd rather well (aside from the pack animal comment):

He is worse than the others, I show. He is worse than all of them.
Because he knew he was doing wrong.  He felt the pain of his actions-
But he did not amend them, shows the Sky.
The rest are worth as much as their pack animals, I show, but worst is the one who knows better and does nothing.” [p.52]

This only became a major irritant to me because the idea of Todd’s essential goodness, his innocence, how much he hurt himself with his regret, was repeated over and over.  I’m of the school of thought that it is your decisions and your actions that shape who you are.  Not your unrealized intentions. 

My Rating: 3.5/5

Monsters of Men was, in the end, my favorite of the Chaos Walking series.  I have no doubt that the inclusion of 1017/The Return as a viewpoint narrator was a major contributor to my enjoyment.  I found the new viewpoint really refreshing, and I loved reading about how the Land/Spackle perceived and interacted with the world. The other narrators, Todd and Viola, have grown up a lot throughout this series, but I find that I am not very fond of the people they have become.  Ness raises many moral questions, some of which he attempts to answer, and some of which are left to the reader to ponder.  I disagreed with a lot of the conclusions drawn, most particularly in the case of Todd Hewitt’s innate innocence.  All the same, I admire Ness for bringing up a lot of thought-provoking ideas on some tough subjects.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Review: Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan

Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
Published: Orbit (2010)
Award Nominations: BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award
The Book:
Lightborn, better known as 'shine', is a mind-altering technology that has revolutionised the modern world. It is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment - beamed directly into the brain of anyone who can meet the asking price.

But in the city of Los Sombres, renegade shine has attacked the adult population, resulting in social chaos and widespread insanity in everyone past the age of puberty. The only solution has been to turn off the Field and isolate the city.

Trapped within the quarantine perimeter, fourteen-year-old Xavier just wants to find the drug that can keep his own physical maturity at bay until the army shuts down the shine. That's how he meets Roksana, mysteriously impervious to shine and devoted to helping the stricken.

As the military invades street by street, Xavier and Roksana discover that there could be hope for Los Sombres - but only if Xavier will allow a lightborn cure to enter his mind.

What he doesn't know is that the shine in question has a mind of its own ...” ~from

I’m reading this book as a part of my plan to read all of the books on the 2011Arthur C. Clarke Award Shortlist.  My first impression of this novel was that it sounded like Young Adult literature, due to the age of the protagonists and the incapacitation of the adults.  After reading it, I still think the story and accessible writing would fly well with the young adult crowd, but I don't think that it is exclusively targeted to that audience.

My Thoughts:

The story switches between the points of view of Roksana and Xavier. Both of them are trying to make the best of the disaster that their lives have become, and they both love and attempt to protect their shine-damaged parents.  I was highly impressed by their courage and familial loyalty. Despite these similarities, they have distinctly different ways of seeing and interacting with the world.  Part of this difference comes from their life experiences.  Roksana lives and works among the crazed ‘shinies’ of Los Sombres, and tries to hold the community together in the face of the US army’s aggression.  Xavier lives just outside the city, with a few benignly insane adults and a Native American healer who is trying to help them.  He sees Los Sombres as the threat, and the army’s actions as a necessary effort to contain it. 

Part of their difference might also come from their physical states.  Roksana is a sexually mature woman, while Xavier is trapped in a child’s body, knowing that the price of growing up will likely be his sanity.  Roksana seems comfortable with her own identity, while Xavier must be starting to feel a disconnect between his 14-year-old mind and his prepubescent body. I found both Xavier and Roksana to be highly intriguing characters, and I particularly liked the strong contrast between them.
Though Xavier and Roksana are certainly interesting, the plot and world of Lightborn seems at first to be constructed out of common elements.  A city of shine-crazed humans illustrates the folly of blindly trusting new technologies. As in many teen survival stories, Roksana and Xavier are forced to step up and shoulder responsibility after the failure of the adults.  Roksana appears to have been born with a unique brain that is naturally resistant to shine. Out on the perimeter, Xavier lives on a ranch where the shined are being treated by a Native American healer and horse trainer, Powaqa.  The US military has no interest in helping or understanding the plight of the citizens of Los Sombres, and responds to them only with force.  There’s a lot of talk about Roksana and/or Xavier being the ‘chosen one’ who will redeem all the shined of Los Sombres. 

But then, as the book progresses, everything becomes much more complicated and original than it might seem in the beginning.  Many of the common elements are subverted, disproved, or taken in a completely unexpected direction.  My only complaint is that this mostly starts to happen fairly late in the book, around the last third. I found myself wishing that the final part of the story could have been told in more detail, since that was where my interest in the plot picked up considerably.
As for the writing itself, Sullivan uses a terse style with short, choppy sentences used for emphasis.  Rather than dressing up Los Sombres in flowery words, she focuses her descriptions on the dirty, ugly and familiar modern elements (such as fast food restaurants).  I think this focus really helps to ground the reader in the reality of the situation.  There’s also a lot of cleverly descriptive figurative language that tends to revolve around common modern concepts or objects.  For example, at one point Roksana describes her sense of confusion by saying:

“I feel like a cardboard box, you know?  I just want someone to come along and put an arrow on me. This way up.” [p.363]

Late in the book, Sullivan’s style moves towards some very trippy imagery.  I found myself stopping to reread a lot of the writing in these segments—not because they were unclear, but because the way they were constructed was so creative.  

On one last note, I did appreciate the fact that Sullivan let readers cobble together their own understanding of lightborns, rather than going into any in-depth explanations.  However, the technology itself seems kind of implausible.  Information is coded into light, which then can be somehow distributed from any light source.  It also seemed to imply that you don’t necessarily have to look at the light to be affected, which doesn’t make all that much sense to me.  Furthermore, I can’t think of a realistic reason for why people would only be able to receive shine after puberty.  Shine is kind of described as affecting your brain chemistry, which is something I would think children would be more susceptible to than adults.  However, figuring out exactly how shine works is not really the point of the story. Lightborn is more concerned with the consequences of shine technology and how it might affect humanity.   

My Rating: 4/5

Though it seemed at first to be a pretty standard post-apocalyptic-type survival story with messianic leanings, Lightborn turned out to be much more complicated and interesting by the end.  The writing went from terse and modern to delightfully trippy and chaotic in some segments.  Xavier and Roksana were believable, well-developed main characters with a commendable sense of loyalty to their families.  The large secondary cast was much less developed, but they did add to the story in their own ways.  Lightborn technology seemed pretty implausible, but its workings were left vague enough that suspension of disbelief was not too difficult.  All in all, Lightborn is a book that I’m very happy to have read.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Review: Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest

Four and Twenty Blackbirds by Cherie Priest
Published: Tor Books (2005)
Series: Book 1 of the Eden Moore Series
The Book:
“Although she was orphaned at birth, Eden Moore is never alone. Three dead women watch from the shadows, bound to protect her from harm. But in the woods a gunman waits, convinced that Eden is destined to follow her wicked great-grandfather--an African magician with the power to curse the living and raise the dead.

Now Eden must decipher the secret of the ghostly trio before a new enemy more dangerous than the fanatical assassin destroys what is left of her family. She will sift through lies in a Georgian ante-bellum mansion and climb through the haunted ruins of a 19th century hospital, desperately seeking the truth that will save her beloved aunt from the curse that threatens her life.” ~from GoodReads

I’m reading Four and Twenty Blackbirds as a part of the 2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club.  I’ve never read anything by Cherie Priest before, so this novel, her first, seems like a great place to start. It's the first book of a series, but this Southern Gothic dark fantasy certainly stands on its own.
My Thoughts:
Cherie Priest has an impressive talent in describing scenery and generating an atmosphere.   Chattanooga is not too far off from my own home, and Priest evoked the sense of the area so clearly that it left me desperately homesick.  Whether she’s describing an ancient Georgian mansion, a sweltering swamp, or a local library, the place feels so lifelike that I can close my eyes and almost imagine I’m there.   Her skill with creating atmosphere shows in the many scenes with palpable tension and/or a strong sense of unease.  It is the manipulation of tension that seems to shift this novel more towards horror.  I’m a total coward, so I started reading only during the day after a particular scene from Eden’s youth kept me awake for a few hours one night.
The story is written in first person, but Eden’s a pretty sympathetic narrator.  She’s a physically tough, intelligent, biracial woman brimming with self-confidence.  While she does occasionally come off as a little too arrogant and unfeeling, I always got the sense that Eden-the-narrator uncomfortably acknowledges that she’s being a bit of a jerk.  Besides, I think her emotional shell is probably a pretty realistic development for a biracial girl growing up in the South.  Overall, Eden is a strong heroine whose personality makes the story even more engaging.
While the scenery, atmosphere, and characters are pretty awesome, I had a few minor complaints with the way the story unfolded.  Though I enjoyed learning more about Eden through the short stories from her childhood that opened the novel, they seemed almost beside the point in the context of the overall story.  I felt like many of those scenes could have been removed completely without altering the structure of the story at all.   As a result, the story seemed to wander aimlessly from short story to short story until Eden grew up and the main plot kicked in.  The childhood scenes were certainly well written and entertaining, but I wish they’d been more relevant to the rest of the book.
After the main mystery of the novel got started, I was a little bothered by how easy everything seemed.  For instance, Eden wants to find someone who doesn’t want to be found, so she looks her up in a phone book.  The first and only name Eden finds is the woman she’s seeking, and it even gives her address.  I don’t know about you, but if I wanted to vanish, I’d go unlisted.  At the very least, I wouldn’t list my address.  In the same way, basically every action Eden takes leads her closer to the resolution of the mystery.  She never seems to make any false steps, even when she’s just acting on a whim.  To its credit, though, the central mystery was pretty complicated and required a fair bit of unraveling, even with Eden’s amazing luck. 
There were a few other little things throughout the book that I found slightly annoying.  For example, the story seems to be set in 2005, but Eden doesn’t use cell phones or the Internet.  It’s implied later on that Eden’s kind of anti-technology, but the lack of modern gadgets really gave the book a 1990s feel to me.  Also, the villainous characters seemed a bit more cookie-cutter than I would have liked.  There was a homicidal religious fanatic that just wouldn’t die, a racist old rich lady, and a supernatural main villain that was pretty much pure evil.  The fanatic and the racist were somewhat more developed as characters than the evil magician, who I wish could have been a little less of a standard villain.
My Rating: 4/5
Altogether, Four and Twenty Blackbirds shaped up to be an entertaining book, and it establishes Cherie Priest in my mind as a writer whose work I will most likely enjoy reading.  The strong heroine, vivid locales, and complex plot definitely outweighed my gripes about the story’s construction and the mostly-flat villains. I don’t typically read many novels that lean this close to horror.  If you're like me, I’d recommend not reading Four and Twenty Blackbirds alone in an old apartment in the middle of the night.  I am curious to see where Eden’s story will go from here, but I think I might try out one of Cherie Priest’s steampunk novels before I continue the Eden Moore series.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Review: The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
Published: Walker & Co. (2009), Candlewick Press (2010)
Series: Book 2 of Chaos Walking

Warning: This is the second book in the series, so the first book is spoiled in this review (and even in the blurb describing the plot).  If you have not read The Knife of Never Letting Go, continue at your own risk.

The Book:

 “Reaching the end of their flight in THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, Todd and Viola did not find healing and hope in Haven. They found instead their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss, waiting to welcome them to New Prentisstown. There they are forced into separate lives: Todd to prison, and Viola to a house of healing where her wounds are treated. Soon Viola is swept into the ruthless activities of the Answer, while Todd faces impossible choices when forced to join the mayor’s oppressive new regime. In alternating narratives the two struggle to reconcile their own dubious actions with their deepest beliefs. Torn by confusion and compromise, suspicion and betrayal, can their trust in each other possibly survive?” ~From the Publisher

The Ask and the Answer picks up right where The Knife of Never Letting Go’s cliffhanger ending left off, and then carries the story forward to yet another cliffhanger.  This novel is the middle segment of the larger story of the Chaos Walking series, so reading the first book is necessary to appreciating this one.  

My Thoughts:

While The Knife of Never Letting Go was told solely from the point of view of Todd Hewitt, The Ask and the Answer switches between Todd and Viola.  Viola is the crash-landed scout from an approaching colonist spaceship who fled Prentisstown with Todd in the previous novel.  Todd’s narration is the same vaguely southern, illiterate stream of consciousness as in the previous book, but the new voice of Viola is much more orderly and grammatically correct.  Despite these differences, both of the narrators relate their stories in an informal, conversational manner.  I appreciated Ness’s decision to open up Viola’s mind to the reader in this way, since she was often inscrutable in the first book.  When the story was filtered solely through Todd, his early difficulties in understanding tone, facial expressions, and body language often left us with very little idea of what Viola felt and thought. Now that Viola’s thoughts are visible to the reader, however, it becomes clear that she is not actually any more intelligent than Todd.  Given Viola’s education and Todd’s lack of it, I had assumed (apparently unfairly) that she was the smarter of the two.   Throughout The Ask and the Answer, both Todd and Viola are constantly tricked and manipulated, and their own lack of foresight and understanding often gets them and those around them into deadly trouble.

Though Todd and Viola seemed infinitely gullible, they were still dynamic main characters. Both of them change drastically throughout the narrative, even though I do not particularly like the direction they’re going. Ness addresses many morally difficult ideas in this novel, such as the dangers of dehumanization and rationalization, and how societal pressure can cause people to do truly terrible things.  The Ask and the Answer paints an uncomfortably ugly picture of how far people will allow themselves to be pushed in exchange for personal safety.  For me, the picture was a little too ugly.  I completely lost all of my sympathy for Todd and Viola.  I wholly agree with the novel’s assertion that a person is defined by the decisions that they make.   Therefore, I became irritated every time the narrative hinted that Todd was ‘still innocent’ or ‘still a good person’, despite the actions he chose to take.   In my opinion, actions speak much louder than vague, private misgivings. 

The Ask and the Answer also has a bigger cast that the first installment of the series.  Since the first book was basically a long chase scene, there was little opportunity to get to know any of the secondary characters.  In the second novel, a lot of the action is psychological and political, so the reader has a chance to learn more about the strong supporting cast.  I was most surprised by the development of Mayor Prentiss’ son, Davy.  Davy was a cardboard villain in the previous book, but here we see his personal struggles as he hopelessly tries to make his father proud.   We also get to know a rebellious Spackle,  #1017, and the questionably moral healer and insurgent, Mistress Coyle.  In fact, the supporting cast was so compelling that I often found myself rooting for the secondary characters instead of Todd and Viola.

There are a few minor continuing problems that I have with this story, which I had hoped to see resolved in this second book.  For instance, why is Todd so special?  Viola is an important political asset in dealing with the coming colonist ship, but Todd is just a random kid.  Also, what are the motivations of the Prentisstown leaders?  I was really hoping for a more detailed explanation than Noise-induced insanity.  I dislike it when insanity is used as a motivator in fiction, because it often seems like a get-out-of-characterization-free card.  There is still one book to go, so I’m hoping Monsters of Men will answer all the questions I have left!

My Rating: 3/5

The second installment of the Chaos Walking series is just as strong as the first.  While the first book was an adrenaline-charged chase, the second is more contemplative.  The story of occupation, oppression, and rebellion gives an unapologetically harsh view of humanity that does not exclude the easily manipulated protagonists.  While other readers might still be on Todd and Viola’s side at the end, my sympathy for them dissolved somewhere midway through.  However, even without feeling any sympathy for the protagonists, the strong supporting cast kept me hooked until the end.  I’m looking forward to reading the final book of the trilogy!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Review: Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld by Larry Niven
Published: Ballantine Books, 1970
Series: The Ringworld Series: Book 1
Awards: Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Locus SF Award

The Book:

Pierson's puppeteers, strange, three-legged, two-headed aliens, have discovered an immense structure in a hitherto unexplored part of the universe. Frightened of meeting the builders of such a structure, the puppeteers set about assembling a team consisting of two humans, a puppeteer and a kzin, an alien not unlike an eight-foot-tall, red-furred cat, to explore it.

The artefact is a vast circular ribbon of matter, some 180 million miles across, with a sun at its centre - the Ringworld. But the expedition goes disastrously wrong when the ship crashlands and its motley crew faces a trek across thousands of miles of the Ringworld's surface.”

I’ve mostly only ever read short fiction by Larry Niven, and I think that Ringworld is the first of his novels that I’ve chosen to read.  This stand-alone novel, which won several prestigious awards, kicks off the famous Ringworld series.

My Thoughts:

Ringworld is a Big Dumb Object story, and the object in question is the Ringworld, a massive habitable ribbon-shaped structure circling a sun. Since its origins are unknown, and it appears to be a brilliant solution to the common problem of planetary overcrowding, a party sets out to investigate. Studying, exploring, and being amazed by this alien megastructure is the point of Ringworld, and things like character development and plot take a backseat to admiration of technology.
The story and cast of characters of Ringworld would be right at home in a role-playing game.  Nessus, the cowardly, bipolar puppeteer, is the instigator of the mission.  He convinces the others to join by offering them blueprints to an amazing spaceship.  The puppeteers have a high level of technology, and Nessus, as the intelligence-based party member, possesses all the critical gadgets and information for their quest. 

Nessus’ first recruit is Louis Wu, a 200-year-old human with the body (and libido) of a 20-year-old.  Louis is the wisdom-based character, due to his extensive experience as an explorer and survivor.  He also boasts an impressive understanding of the psychology of all of his companions.  Next is the strength-based character, a Kzin called Speaker-to-Animals.  The Kzinti are a powerful, warlike species that participated in a series of wars against humanity.  The last member of the party is the luck-based character, Teela Brown, a pretty, empty-headed, 20-year-old human woman.  She is the lucky rabbit’s foot of the party, and also Louis’ barely-legal lover. 

Once Nessus successfully gathers the party, they commence with the quest. They overcome various physical obstacles and intra-party bickering.  The characters are never really developed much past their initial descriptions, and the plot is basically a straightforward quest-completion story—they travel to the Ringworld, run into some difficulties, explore, and plan to report back.
Beyond the straightforward plot and flat characters, I was also disappointed with the treatment of gender. I am tempted to say every female character falls into Louis’ bed, but that isn’t entirely true. They leap into it with great force.  That, and a lack of intelligence are the defining personality traits of the only two named female characters.

Teela Brown, who is the product of a breeding program to select for luck (yes, really), has never had a bad experience in her life.  As a result, she can’t understand difficult concepts like danger or pain, and she constantly needs to be rescued from the consequences of her childish recklessness.  She has no real interest in technology or exploration, and comes along to the Ringworld out of a spontaneous romantic love for Louis.  The most significant decision she makes in the story is choosing which man she wants to be her protector.  The other main female character is a ship’s whore of the Ringworld Engineer species called Prill, who is easily enslaved by physical pleasure.  She is described as unintelligent, and she takes Teela’s place in Louis’ bed when Teela is not around. There were some troubling elements beyond the characterizations of Teela and Prill, such as the non-sentience of Kzinti females and the casual assumption that a woman on a spaceship must be a sex worker.  Any of these things individually might not have bothered me too much, but they seem to add up to a universe where females exist primarily as sex objects.     

My Rating: 2/5

The Ringworld itself is a fun idea, and I liked the fantastical technology of the story.  For me, that was not enough to make up for the simple plot and one-dimensional characters.  I was particularly disappointed in the portrayal of the female characters, and the consistent dismissive attitude towards women makes me hesitant to read other novels set in this universe.  I’d heard many positive things about the Ringworld series, so I was honestly expecting to enjoy it more than I did.  I guess, in the end, it just isn’t my cup of tea.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Review: The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald
Published: Pyr, 2010

Awards: BSFA Award, John W. Campbell Award
Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke Award, Hugo Award, Locus SF Award

The Book:

“It begins with an explosion. Another day, another bus bomb. Everyone it seems is after a piece of Turkey. But the shockwaves from this random act of 21st century pandemic terrorism will ripple further and resonate louder than just Enginsoy Square.

Welcome to the world of The Dervish House; the great, ancient, paradoxical city of Istanbul, divided like a human brain, in the great, ancient, equally paradoxical nation of Turkey. The year is 2027 and Turkey is about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of its accession to the European Union; a Europe that now runs from the Arran Islands to Ararat. Population pushing one hundred million, Istanbul swollen to fifteen million; Turkey is the largest, most populous and most diverse nation in the EU, but also one of the poorest and most socially divided. It's a boom economy, the sweatshop of Europe, the bazaar of central Asia, the key to the immense gas wealth of Russia and Central Asia.

The Dervish House is [five] days, six characters, three interconnected story strands, one central common core—the eponymous dervish house, a character in itself—that pins all these players together in a weave of intrigue, conflict, drama and a ticking clock of a thriller.”

I read The Dervish House as a part of my effort to read all of the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award Nominees

My Thoughts:

In some ways, this was a challenging book to read.  At first, there is very little in common between the many storylines, except that they all have some physical connection to the old dervish house at Adam Dede square.  Since the narrative skips constantly between each narrative thread, it is difficult, at first, to get any deep understanding of each story.  In addition, McDonald used a lot of Turkish and Islamic terms that were left unexplained, though they were often understandable through context.
The main characters are (and here I resort to bullet points):

  • A disgraced former economics professor, Georgios Ferentinou, who is a member of the tiny remaining Greek community of Istanbul
  • Nine year old ‘Boy Detective’ Can Durukan, who has a deadly heart disease, a lot of curiosity, and impressive toy ‘bots.
  • Country girl Leyla, who is trying to make a name for herself as a marketing expert
  • Slick businessman Adnan, who has a not-quite-legal scheme that could make him millions
  • Adnan’s wife Ayse, an antique religious art dealer searching for a mythical Mellified Man
  • Necdet Hasguler, who has been taken in by his brother’s newly formed Islamic shariat. Necdet started seeing djinn and the green saint Hizir after witnessing a tram bomb.

As you can see, that's quite a lot to introduce simultaneously.  Each of these characters’ plotlines interacts with the others, kind of like billiard balls on a table.  Sometimes they merely cross each other’s paths, sometimes they deflect each other, and sometimes they stick together for a time.  All of the threads don’t start to come together until near the end, and even then, I never really felt like they truly meshed into a coherent whole.

Even without a sense of coherence in the end, I did enjoy all of the individual stories.  While all of the main characters had their flaws, I was able to find something to appreciate in each of them.  There were also some scenes, mostly later in the book, that were particularly lyrical or emotionally effective.  The one that stands out the most in my mind is a pivotal scene for Adnan, where he shows through his actions exactly what kind of man he will allow himself to become in his pursuit of money.

Another strength of The Dervish House is McDonald’s vividly described near-future Istanbul.  I have never been to Turkey, so I have no idea if the Istanbul I have built up in my mind is anything like the one that actually exists. However, McDonald’s descriptions have left me with a very clear and detailed mental image of the physical city of Istanbul and its inhabitants. Beyond the physical presence of Istanbul, McDonald also presents a kind of ideological characterization of the city.  He illustrates a city both leaping into the future and bound to its past.  It’s a place that could be the birthplace of the Nanotech Revolution, the physical expression of the name of God, and the hiding place of the legendary honeyed corpse of a Mellified Man. This novel definitely gave me a desire to go and see the city for myself (maybe this summer—I hear short-term visas aren’t too hard to get). If the real Istanbul is anything like McDonald’s fictional representation, it must be a truly breathtaking place!

My Rating: 4.5/5

So much happens during the book that it’s hard to believe it all occurs within five days! However, since most of the plotlines are running in parallel, the action still sometimes seems to move slowly.  The many different storylines and characters made it initially hard to get into, but by the end I desperately wanted to know how everything worked out.  Once you get to know all of the characters, their distinct personalities and intricate, overlapping stories really drive the novel. The future city of Istanbul is also prominent in the story, and its society, along with its physical and ideological presence, influences the story significantly. While The Dervish House is a thoroughly entertaining read, the separate threads of story don’t mesh well enough into a coherent whole by the end to leave me completely satisfied.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer

Hominids by Robert J. Sawyer
Published: Tor, 2002
Series: Book 1 of the Neanderthal Parallax
Awards: Hugo Award
Nominated: John W. Campbell Memorial Award
The Book:
Hominids examines two unique species of people. We are one of those species; the other is the Neanderthals of a parallel world where they became the dominant intelligence. The Neanderthal civilization has reached heights of culture and science comparable to our own, but with radically different history, society and philosophy.

Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, accidentally pierces the barrier between worlds and is transferred to our universe. Almost immediately recognized as a Neanderthal, but only much later as a scientist, he is quarantined and studied, alone and bewildered, a stranger in a strange land. But Ponter is also befriended—by a doctor and a physicist who share his questing intelligence, and especially by Canadian geneticist Mary Vaughan, a woman with whom he develops a special rapport.

Ponter’s partner, Adikor Huld, finds himself with a messy lab, a missing body, suspicious people all around and an explosive murder trial. How can he possibly prove his innocence when he has no idea what actually happened to Ponter? “ ~from

Hominids is the first novel I’ve read by Robert J. Sawyer.  It stands on its own as a novel, but it pretty clearly leads into the sequel, Humans.

My Thoughts:
As a physicist myself, I was delighted when the story opened with the link between worlds appearing in the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, under the nose of the post-doc Louise Benoit.  Physics continues to play a prominent role in the story, but Sawyer quickly takes it from the realm of real science to the realm of wild speculation.  In addition to physics, Sawyer’s story also relies on anthropology, specifically concerning the differences between Neanderthals and Humans.  Of course, his anthropological information also moves way past actual science into the realm of conjecture, as Sawyer creates his own modern Neanderthal society. 
Sadly, he does not spend much time at all explaining how the impressive technology of the Neanderthals was developed.  For instance, all Neanderthals have a ‘companion’ implanted in their wrist, which records their entire life as viewed from a short distance away.  When the characters discuss the companions, they give no detailed suggestions as to how it could actually work.  I found myself occasionally frustrated by Sawyer’s minimal treatment of his futuristic technology, in addition to the artistic license he took with accepted sciences.
The two parallel plotlines follow Ponter, as he learns about the human world, and his man-mate Adikor, who is left behind to deal with Ponter’s disappearance.  My favorite of the two stories was definitely Adikor’s.  Sawyer created an interesting modern Neanderthal society, though I wish the book allowed us to see more of it.  I found Adikor to be an engaging protagonist.  He is intelligent, active, and has interesting internal conflicts as a result of his place in his society.
The Neanderthal world contains a hunter-gatherer society extrapolated forward into modern times. Neanderthals are typically bisexual, and most have a mate of each gender.  They tend to live with their same-gender mate, and meet with the opposite-gender mate for a brief period each month.  The stable two-partner system created some interesting webs of social connections, but I didn’t really accept that strict gender separation was necessarily a positive thing.  The Neanderthals also practice basic eugenics, and they monitor everyone for every second of their life.  Strangely, Sawyer portrays the constant surveillance, strict gender roles, and genetic culling as positive aspects of society.  Adikor’s story does illustrate some flaws in their community, but the novel still comes across as strongly in favor of this oppressive regime.
In Adikor’s story, Adikor and Ponter are conducting a science experiment in a nickel mine, deep underground, when Ponter vanishes. Their Companions were unable to send recordings to the central database, so some believe that Adikor lured his man-mate into the mines in order to kill him unobserved.  Adikor must find a way to prove his innocence, or he will suffer terrible consequences.  The secondary characters involved, such as Ponter’s daughter Jasmel and Adikor’s accuser Daklar Bolbay (Ponter’s deceased woman-mate’s woman mate), are reasonably fleshed out and necessary to the plot.  They don’t receive a huge amount of attention in the narrative, but they are believable as individuals with their own fears and desires.  Overall, I enjoyed watching the workings of Neanderthal society as Adikor tried to save both Ponter and himself.
Ponter’s story in the human world is considerably less active.  He becomes acquainted with the humans, particularly Mary Vaughan, and learns about the differences between the two worlds.  This plotline had a tendency to become fairly preachy.  It is understandable that Ponter would have a rose-colored view of his home world, since he is lonely and homesick.  To some extent, his idealized view of Neanderthal society is tempered by the less than ideal events of Adikor’s storyline.  The humans, however, seem strangely determined to represent our world in the worst possible light.  Ponter even has to convince them to lighten up occasionally, by pointing out remarkable things our civilization has accomplished.  I sometimes found myself mentally arguing with the book, as the humans harped on our world’s ‘terrible’ societies, beliefs, and history.
The characters in Ponter’s story seemed much flatter than in the other plotline.  The three Human companions (geneticist Mary Vaughan, physicist Louise Benoit, and doctor Reuben Montego) mostly exist as Ponter’s soundboard.  They are essentially just people plucked by chance out of their normal life to interact with a Neanderthal.  The one with the largest role is Mary Vaughan, who becomes Ponter’s love interest.  At the very beginning of the book, she is raped by a stranger in a dark alley.  I kept expecting this to be necessary to the plot somehow, but, in the end, it just seemed gratuitous.  As far as I could tell, she was raped so that there could be a rape victim character, in order to add emotional weight to the anti-human arguments.  This really bothered me.  Furthermore, Mary is the religious character, a Catholic, though she seems oddly ignorant of her own religion. In a way, Mary is set up as religion’s inadequate advocate, just as the others are set up as humanity’s inadequate defenders.  As a result, humanity comes off looking the worse in every conversation, not because of any particular points that were made, but because it has such a poor defense.  I would have liked to see more depth to the human characters, instead of just seeing them as people who react to Ponter.
My Rating: 2/5
I appreciated the bits of physics and anthropology described in Hominids, and I’m generally willing to overlook some questionable science for the sake of a story. I enjoyed reading about the Neanderthal society, even while I thought it was kind of horrifying, and I found Adikor’s story very entertaining.  However, Ponter’s story mostly killed my enjoyment of the book.  Very little seemed to happen, and their conversations had a tendency to devolve into anti-human preaching.  I never really believed the human characters as individuals, since they didn’t really seem to have much depth to their personalities.  Ultimately, from my point of view, the interesting premise of the book was crushed by the preachiness of Ponter’s storyline.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published: HarperCollins UK/Bantam Spectra (1993)
Series: Book 1 of the Mars Trilogy
Awards: British Science Fiction Association Award, Nebula Award
Nominated: Arthur C. Clarke, Hugo, and Locus SF Awards

The Book:
“For eons, sandstorms have swept the barren desolate landscape of the red planet. For centuries, Mars has beckoned to mankind to come and conquer its hostile climate. Now, in the year 2026, a group of one hundred colonists is about to fulfill that destiny.

John Boone, Maya Toitavna, Frank Chalmers, and Arkady Bogdanov lead a mission whose ultimate goal is the terraforming of Mars. For some, Mars will become a passion driving them to daring acts of courage and madness; for others it offers and opportunity to strip the planet of its riches. And for the genetic "alchemists, " Mars presents a chance to create a biomedical miracle, a breakthrough that could change all we know about life...and death.

The colonists place giant satellite mirrors in Martian orbit to reflect light to the planets surface. Black dust sprinkled on the polar caps will capture warmth and melt the ice. And massive tunnels, kilometers in depth, will be drilled into the Martian mantle to create stupendous vents of hot gases. Against this backdrop of epic upheaval, rivalries, loves, and friendships will form and fall to pieces--for there are those who will fight to the death to prevent Mars from ever being changed.”

I’ve been meaning to read the Mars Trilogy for quite a while, ever since I enjoyed Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt years ago.   Given the length of the trilogy, and the overpowering density of detail I expected from Robinson’s work, I somehow just kept putting it off.  Now, I’m finally doing it, and Red Mars is a wonderful first installment of the series.  I would personally say that it stands alone as a novel, but I have heard other opinions.  It certainly leads into the second novel, sort of like how the 20th century led right into the 21st.

My Thoughts:

I would say that, above all else, Red Mars is a hard SF novel. The focus of Red Mars is the process of colonization and the formation of a Martian society.  I’m sure a tremendous amount of research went into extrapolating how current technology could advance in such a way as to make the colonization possible.  Robinson is incredibly thorough, and he meticulously details everything, from the construction of the habitats, to the many different efforts towards terraforming, and so on.  I particularly enjoyed the terraforming discussions.  Robinson describes all the different ideas the scientists on Mars have for increasing the surface temperature, thickening the atmosphere, and increasing the oxygen content of the air.  Not everything is a success, and some of the plans backfire in interesting ways.  Robinson shows us the effects of the settlement and the terraforming on Mars through lengthy descriptions of the planet’s countryside and geography.  Whether or not all of the technology he describes could be real one day, almost all of it seems completely plausible. 

Beyond the physical effort of colonization, he also spends an immense amount of time detailing the sociological, political, and economical forces shaping the colonization.  The colonization begins with the First Hundred, carefully selected specialists that are sent to establish the first dwellings on the Martian surface.  Even among the First Hundred, there are many conflicting ideas of how Martian society should be shaped, what their relationship should be to the Earth, and to what extent Mars should be terraformed.  The situation becomes immensely further complicated when their past catches up with them in the form of governmental controls, transnational corporations with their eyes on profit, and desperate, culturally diverse immigrants from the crowded Earth.

The narrative is from the point of view of people from the First Hundred, and it shifts with each major segment of the book.  I enjoyed that, even though it was in third person, the narration felt distinctive for each character.  While none of the characters seemed universally sympathetic, they were all well-rounded and had interesting ways of seeing the world.  My personal favorite segment was that of the homesick French psychologist Michel Duval.  However, even while we’re following hard-working, cynical Frank’s bitterness, idealistic, Mars-loving Ann’s despair, or the drama queen Maya’s love triangle, the focus is always on Mars.  They are all just the human windows through which we are allowed to see the development of Martian history.

Though I was very entertained by Red Mars, I have to admit that, in my opinion, it was not a completely flawless book. It’s very slowly paced, and the human stories were often overshadowed by the huge amount of scientific, geographic, social, and political information that ran through the narrative.  Furthermore, some of Robinson’s guesses for the future were a little off, so the novel sometimes feels a little dated.  For instance, Robinson’s colonization of Mars is headed by the US and Russia in the 2020s.  I’m not sure who could head that kind of a multi-billion dollar project given today’s economy, but I doubt it would be US/Russian.  Also, his Earth is collapsing under a Malthusian population crisis, something that doesn’t really appear to be hanging over us at the moment (or maybe I just don’t see the signs!). 

One other element that bothered me was his most fanciful technological development—an immortality treatment.  I think he included it so that we could follow the same characters through a large swathe of Martian history, and so that Earth’s population problems would more quickly come to the breaking point.  However, compared to how much detail he lavished on the other technology of the novel, the DNA-repairing, anti-aging treatment seemed almost like a simple plot device.  Despite all of this, I think I can solidly recommend this novel to anyone who is interested in reading an in-depth description of Martian colonization.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Red Mars is an immersive, thorough, near-future account of the colonization of Mars and the subsequent development of Martian society.  It is terrific hard SF, with plenty of ecology, geography, physics, sociology, politics, engineering, and economics to keep your mind engaged.  It also features well-developed, if not completely likable, characters through which the reader watches the future unfold.  Though it is thick with information and slow-paced, it is a fascinating vision of the sort of future we could still be moving towards.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Published: Candlewick Press  (2009), Walker (2008)

Awards: Booktrust Teenage Prize, Guardian Award, James Tiptree, Jr. Award
Series: Book 1 of Chaos Walking

The Book:

“Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him — something so awful Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears too.

With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn't she killed by the germ like all the females on New World? Propelled by Todd's gritty narration, readers are in for a white-knuckle journey in which a boy on the cusp of manhood must unlearn everything he knows in order to figure out who he truly is.”

I’m reading this book in preparation for reading the Arthur C. Clarke award nominee Monsters of Men, which is the final book of the Chaos Walking trilogy.  I’m also reading it in order to participate in the 2011 Book Club over at the Calico Reaction book review blog. The novel does end on a cliffhanger that leads in to the second installment in the series, but the overall story was self-contained enough that it didn’t leave me feeling dissatisfied.

My Thoughts:

The New World was a very interesting setting for the story.  It’s an alien planet, colonized by a religious group that seems vaguely similar to the Amish.  The Noise germ is the main player that shapes human life on the New World.  Ness shows the tangle of men’s minds as word pictures throughout the book, and even the animals broadcast their simple thoughts.   Manchee, Todd’s dog, is surprisingly endearing with his adoring childish statements, and even the squirrels, gators, and more exotic alien animals can’t help leaking their intentions to the world.

While there is a lot of focus on the Noise in the book, there is actually somewhat less on the adaptations of New World societies to the mind-rending churn of thoughts pouring out of all the men.  It added an interesting snarl to gender relations, which is something I think that this series might continue to explore.  I enjoyed the occasional glimpse as to how different groups of people dealt with the problem, and I hope that the later installments will allow a closer inspection of the different types of settler communities. 

The plot of the novel is very straightforward.  Todd and the girl are fleeing the evil men of Todd’s hometown.  On the way, they learn more about the New World society, humanity’s place on the world, and what it means to ‘be a man’.  I get the feeling that this series is going to be a little like The Hunger Games in that the first installment has a very simple, straightforward story, but the sequels take on much more.  However, even with that feeling, there were times that the plot felt too implausible or contrived.  Frequently, insanity was used to explain people’s actions, or information was arbitrarily withheld from the reader simply because the narrator wasn’t very good at expressing himself.

The narrator in question is Todd Hewitt, an illiterate, adolescent, farm boy.  He has a highly unique manner of expression that stomps all over traditional English grammar and spelling.  It was a little difficult to get into at first, but the similarity to southern US speech patterns (My home!  I miss my home!) ended up endearing Todd to me, despite his many flaws.  I’m not sure how relatable Todd’s manner of telling the story would be to someone who lacks my nostalgia factor.  

One thing I could not get over, which I mentioned above, was Todd’s occasional inability to adequately communicate the story.  There were several major examples of this, all of them when important plot information is revealed to Todd.  It seemed like just a cheap way of putting off telling the reader key information.  I would have preferred that there be a better reason than just the poor descriptive ability of the narrator.

Even beyond his communication skills, Todd could sometimes be a pretty infuriating protagonist.  I think it was meant to be a reflection of his upbringing, but he was very rude and completely lacking in curiosity.  It simply never occurs to him that someone could be thinking or feeling something that is not communicated to him telepathically.  As a result, he has never had to learn to read body or facial cues, or even to put himself in other people’s shoes. 

On the same line of thought, he also doesn’t seek or assimilate information very well.  This does makes sense, when you consider that he’s spent his whole life trying to ignore the flood of information from others. Thanks to this flaw, the reader can pretty much figure anything out dozens of chapters before Todd, and it’s a little frustrating waiting for the little guy to catch up. As a more direct consequence, Todd sometimes makes really horrible decisions based on his inadequate information.  Todd does grow and change throughout the story, however, and I think overcoming his weaknesses is going to be as much a part of his maturation as learning the truth behind the world on which he lives.

My Rating: 3/5

Overall, I’m glad to have read this novel, and I intend to read the rest of the series over the next few weeks.   I enjoyed the world Ness has created, and I constantly fluctuated between caring about and being really annoyed with the characters.  The a-grammatical prose might be a hindrance to enjoyment for some readers, but it didn’t bother me very much past the first few chapters.  The world was fascinating enough to help me forgive the weaknesses in plot construction, and I look forward to learning more in the books to come!