Ready Player Two, by Ernest Cline

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Publication date – November 24, 2020


Days after winning OASIS founder James Halliday’s contest, Wade Watts makes a discovery that changes everything.

Hidden within Halliday’s vaults, waiting for his heir to find, lies a technological advancement that will once again change the world and make the OASIS a thousand times more wondrous—and addictive—than even Wade dreamed possible.

With it comes a new riddle, and a new quest—a last Easter egg from Halliday, hinting at a mysterious prize.

And an unexpected, impossibly powerful, and dangerous new rival awaits, one who’ll kill millions to get what he wants.

Wade’s life and the future of the OASIS are again at stake, but this time the fate of humanity also hangs in the balance.

Thoughts: I enjoyed Ready Player One a lot. It wasn’t until later, after reading some other opinions and giving the book a second look that I really started to see some serious problems with the pop culture glorification and the truly terrifying amounts of gatekeeping the characters embodied. I can see why there was gatekeeping, given who the characters were and what they were doing, but geek culture already had a huge problem with that, and Ready Player One seemed to say, “Yeah, okay, but what if making other people feel like they know less actually gets you cool things in the end?!”

Now we come to the sequel, Ready Player Two, and wow, there are just so many more problems! Where the first book was at least fun to read during many scenes, this one was mostly the opposite, I’m sad to say.

Strap in, friends, because this is not going to be a positive review. Nor a short one.

The premise of this novel is that new tech has been found that allows users of the OASIS, that gigantic MMORPG upon which 99% of human interaction and economy relies in Cline’s near-future world, to essentially port their very minds into the game, allowing for total immersion in a way that resembled a directed lucid dream. Only the once-founder of the OASIS, James Halliday, did the same thing at one point, leading to a faulty but autonomous NPC version of himself running around and demanding that since he once scanned the mind of his lifelong crush, Wade and his friends should set out on a quest to bring her to life, so to speak, as an NPC, so that he can have another chance to be with her. To ensure that everyone complies, he locks all of the mind-scanned users within the OASIS and won’t let them log out, holding millions of people hostage and giving the group a 12 hour window in which to solve all of the riddles and quests that will lead to his goal.

In other words, the characters from the previous novel have an even greater quest to accomplish with less time, fewer resources, higher stakes… and of course they manage, because what once took years now must obviously take less than a day because that’s just what the plot calls for.

It felt very much like a problem a lot of sequels have, though usually I see it in TV shows and movies rather than books. It’s not enough to meet and match what the first thing accomplished. There’s this assumption that one has to go even further beyond, to top the previous story or else nobody will be interested. Got to make things bigger, make the consequences or the quest more grand, or else nobody will care because they already saw this story.

The problem comes when you reach too far, and give the audience a higher-stakes plot that must be (and will be) fulfilled within a tighter time limit, despite it not making sense to do so. It could be argued that the characters have so many more resources at their disposal this time around, since they’re all in control of massive wealth and in-game power, but they had a significant amount of that by about the halfway point of the previous novel too, and the omnipotent powers that Wade gained for winning Halliday’s original east egg quest have been stripped from him in Ready Player Two, so you can’t even excuse it through that. The stakes might be higher and so the group might be more motivated, yes, but that doesn’t automatically mean they can actually accomplish everything in the given time period.

But the plot demanded it, and so…

Wade, for his part, comes off as initially a pretty terrible person in this book. It’s a case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” since he openly admits that he used his in-game god-powers to bankrupt and destroy the characters of people who so much as said mean things about him and his friends. And in a world where there are no second lives, are no backup accounts, killing a character means that characters starts over again with nothing. Since so much of out-of-game economics are tied to the game… Well, let’s just say it’s like whenever you die in a video game, the bank shows up at your door to repossess your house and all your belongings.

Yes, Wade does change from this mindset thanks to therapy and effort, but then you get to the part where he can stalk any account he chooses, and gives Aech and Shoto the benefit of respect and privacy, but decides he’s still so hung up on Art3mis that he has to keep tabs on her at all times, and oh yeah, this definitely presents him as a character I want to give a shit about for an entire other novel…

Cline’s writing throughout the book was fine, if a bit unbalanced at times. Some scenes rush by relatively quickly, others take for-freaking-ever to resolve, to the point where I legitimately considered skipping past large chunks of the whole “battle 7 versions of Prince” section because it was just a whole lot of running around, gathering items, and listening to Aech talk about how awesome Prince was. The characters themselves… Honestly did not quite feel the same as they were in Ready Player One, occasionally feeling like I was reading a tolerable but not-quite-there fanfic presentation of them. This was especially true in Shoto’s case, as he went from being rather formal in the first book to spouting English-language jokes and slang in this book. Perhaps that could be hand-waved because he was using translation software and it could be argued that’s the fault of the software… but that’s a lot of reading between the lines to do to explain some character degradation.

Though I will admit that the constant pop culture references got stale very very quickly here, and for the record, I didn’t find them stale in Ready Player One. Every character’s obsession with 80s pop culture made sense, given what they were working toward. But in Ready Player Two, the pop culture craze seems to still stay decently in the 80s but also occasionally skipping forward a few decades to reference popular things from later decades. But only up to current day. And sure, it can be argued that Cline doesn’t exactly know what media is going to be popular in 2025 and so can’t reference it, but it gives the peculiar impression that after a certain point, no new media was really made in Wade’s world. It’s all just stuff that was popular in the past, because something something reader nostalgia.

Yes, I’m being caustic here. But if you give me a reason for characters to talk in pop culture references from the 80s all the time, I will believe you and accept it, even when I don’t get the references. Give me no reason that they’re familiar The Matrix, though, and I call bullshit.

Which brings me to a very personal gripe about one reference… Art3mis mentions that putting your whole consciousness into a game is a bad idea, because hasn’t anyone ever seen Sword Art Online? And yeah, SAO does involve that. But you know what other anime involved that, which was before SAO’s time? Freaking .hack! You know, that series that had multiple anime seasons and spin-offs, multiple video games, manga adaptations, novels, and also involved people getting dangerously stuck in an MMO. A series which seems to have been largely forgotten in the wake of SAO’s popularity, to the point where it seems like many people have no idea that the concept of people getting stuck in a video game even existed before Sword Art Online was conceived. SAO is more popular now. But .hack had the Western stage first, and it bothers me a lot to see people continue to overlook it, especially in a novel where characters once argued constantly about how relevant obscure 80s movies were. Things like that made it seem as though Cline was writing not so much what the characters were likely to know, but what the book’s audience was likely to be interested in at the time of the book’s release.

This isn’t me gatekeeping. This isn’t me saying, “If you only know Sword Art Online but don’t know .hack, then you’re not a true fan of a very specific subgenre.” This is me saying that the characters probably had as much reason to know about both, but the author chose to reference only the one that the book’s audience was likely to know, despite throwing out all sorts of references to things the audience probably didn’t know in the previous novel.

But now I want to talk about the book’s serious moral quandary, and for that, I’m going to have to discuss some huge spoilers, so if you still plan on reading this and don’t want to book’s ending to be ruined, then feel free to not read the rest of this review.

Okay, so a thread that runs through the bulk of the novel is that Art3mis does not like this new brain-scan technology and refuses to use it, being the only holdout of the group. It contributes to the huge rift that has formed between her and Wade. She’s of the opinion that it hooks users too much into the game and prevents them from existing in the real world, which is something the group actively took pains to prevent at the end of Ready Player One, ensuring that players absolutely had to log off sometimes and go interact in meatspace. But at the end, when it allows for Og and Kira to be reunited as sentient NPCs even after their physical bodies have both died, she basically pulls a, “Oh Wade, you were right all along, this technology is so wonderful!” as though all of her other objections just don’t matter anymore.

(Plus their relationship just sort of starts up again almost randomly, without any resolution to their problems. They go through danger together, beat a great foe, and then it’s just sort of casually mentioned later that oh, they’re back together now. Readers didn’t even see them discuss getting back together. It just happened off the page and we have to take Wade’s declaration of it as fact, I guess.)

But there’s more. The reason that Kira is in the game as a sentient NPC to begin with is because Halliday ported her mind in there without her consent, an act which many characters are horrified over and think was despicable. But when push comes to shove, they make the decision to turn the minds of every brain-scanned OASIS user into sentient NPCs in a self-contained OASIS simulation without their knowledge or consent, to keep their self-contained OASIS simulation fresh and full of real minds during a long interstellar journey and to keep consenting sentient NPCs company, because getting informed consent would just be too tricky. They take the attitude of, “What people don’t know won’t hurt them,” even though they acknowledge it was a clear violation when someone did that to Kira.

And at that point, I was thankful the book was pretty much over, because the self-righteous hypocrisy made me very angry.

Ready Player Two isn’t a bad book, per se. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s reasonably entertaining. But it has a lot of problems, both moral and technical, and I found it considerably less enjoyable than its predecessor. It’s not one I regret reading, per se, because unless I absolutely hate a story or series, I tend to want to see if through to the end, even if I’m not always having the best time with it. But it is one that I’ll mostly end up remembering for all the issues I had with it, rather than the sort of exciting high-stakes adventure it was meant to be.

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 1, 2000

Summary: As a professional wizard, Harry Dresden knows firsthand that the “everyday” world is actually full of strange and magical things—and most of them don’t play well with humans. And those that do enjoy playing with humans far too much. He also knows he’s the best at what he does. Technically, he’s the only at what he does. But even though Harry is the only game in town, business—to put it mildly—stinks.

So when the Chicago P.D. bring him in to consult on a double homicide committed with black magic, Harry’s seeing dollar signs. But where there’s black magic, there’s a black mage behind it. And now that mage knows Harry’s name…

Thoughts: Over the years, I’d heard so many good things about this series. I mean, you don’t get to have over a dozen books in the same series published unless there’s something reasonably popular there, right? I figured it was about time I gave it a try, to satisfy my curiosity and to see what all the fuss was about.

I… did not come away with the most positive of impressions.

I’m aware that this particular novels is over 20 years old at this point, and that some things can be winced at but ultimately waved aside because yes, the very early 2000s were a different literary landscape when it came to SFF. I didn’t expect this book to be some sort of bastion of wokeness or anything.

But by the end of the second chapter, I was wondering whether or not it was worth it to push through the overwhelming misogyny and male-gaze, or to throw the book at a wall and move on.

Harry Dresden is a wizard, the sort that gets called when his contacts on the local police force encounter something they really can’t explain. This gets him an invite to consult on a very odd murder scene. By the end of chapter 2, he’s examined that murder scene, and the reader has learned several things about Harry that made me so very frustrated while reading.

1 – He takes pride in being “chivalrous,” doing things like opening doors for women and pulling their chair out at dinner, etc, even when they have expressly asked him not to do that because it bothers them.
2 – He states that women hate better than men and are generally just meaner.
3 – Since the book is written in the 1st person and from his perspective, he thinks lines to himself about how he “swallowed manfully” at the sight of mangled bodies, even though he was moments away from “crying like a little girl.”

That sort of stuff was cringe-worthy by modern standards, but okay, maybe I could grit my teeth and ignore the misogyny and just push on with the story. But then he gets to the crime scene and sees the bodies, both of which have their ribs pointing in the wrong directions after their hearts literally exploded in their chests.

And what does the text inform us of first? Not this very gory detail about bones now being on the outside, not the blood spray everywhere. No, we’re first informed about how the female victim’s body was straddling the male’s, the arch of her back, and the gentle curve of her naked breasts.

That was what made me want to chuck the book away. Argue all you like about how Harry Dresden is a red-blooded American man who likes him some pretty women, but so far as I’m concerned, when you describe a corpse’s breasts before you describe the very obvious thing that makes them a corpse (and which would likely ruin any “gentle curves”), I call bullshit. That’s not just the attitude of Joe Hetero. That’s the attitude of Joe Inappropriate-Male-Gaze.

I did push on, after asking some friends if the series gets better. Apparently it does, apparently Harry has some personal growth and stops being quite so much a douchenozzle after a while, which is heartening, but quite frankly, encountering all of that before I had finished chapter 2 really made an impression on me. And I’m not sure if I want to wade through what I’m told is a few more books like this in order to get to something better.

The story in Storm Front is, admittedly, pretty interesting. Not only does Harry have some backstory established from times prior to this novel, but the mystery the exploding hearts was something that did keep me reading, and I wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery and to learn more about the occult world that Harry deals with. Though even that interest came with a bit of a bitter realization, since I had to admit that the story was most interesting when Harry wasn’t thinking about or talking to women. Whenever women played a significant role in the story, they were usually trying to get with Harry (one under the accidental influence of a love potion, in a scene that I’m sure was trying to go for a hectic comedic edge to a life-threatening situation, but it kind of failed at that because magical roofies aren’t funny even when they’re accidental), or pawns in the greater mystery.

And I’m sure this review is going to piss off a load of Dresden Files fans, and possibly piss off even more people who think I’m just some virtue-signalling SJW bitch who wouldn’t know a good book if it bit them on the ass, but my opinion is my own here, and my experience was what it was. I’m still not sure if I’ll end up reading any more of the series, regardless of how good I’m told it is. There are books out there that deal with supernatural mysteries and investigations that don’t have a bunch of misogynistic content, I’m sure, and even if they might not be as popular, I may end up enjoying them more. I do enjoy a good supernatural mystery, if it’s done right, and I can overlook some problematic content in novels if the story draws me in enough, but there does come a point where the problematic content overwhelms my ability to deal with it, where it sours the experience and spoils what might have otherwise been a very enjoyable story had a few things just been toned down.

I can see why the series got a following, especially early on in its life, and I can see why people appreciate the storytelling and the mystery-building. But I think this isn’t the series for me. If the next few books have similar issues with women as the first one, there’ll be too much that I won’t enjoy to make it worth me reading them, well, for enjoyment. Reviewing is a hobby, I prefer to read books I like as opposed to ones I don’t, and from this awkward beginning, the Dresden Files series isn’t one that I feel particularly inspired to spend my time on. Shame, but them’s the breaks.

Heartwood, by Freya Robertson

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Publication date – October 29, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) A dying tree, a desperate quest, a love story, a last stand.

Chonrad, Lord of Barle, comes to the fortified temple of Heartwood for the Congressus peace talks, which Heartwood’s holy knights have called in an attempt to stave off war in Anguis. But the Arbor, Heartwood’s holy tree, is failing, and because the land and its people are one, it is imperative the nations try to make peace.

After the Veriditas, or annual Greening Ceremony, the Congressus takes place. The talks do not go well and tempers are rising when an army of warriors emerges from the river. After a fierce battle, the Heartwood knights discover that the water warriors have stolen the Arbor’s heart. For the first time in history, its leaves begin to fall…

The knights divide into seven groups and begin an epic quest to retrieve the Arbor, and save the land.

Thoughts: I wish I could say that I enjoyed this book more than I did. It had the potential to be something that was, if not revolutionary, at least something very good and something worth talking about in the fantasy genre. Instead, it largely fell flat, was formulaic and stiff, with very distanced narration that kept me separate from even the intense action scenes.

The world that Robertson creates is an interesting one, with many familiar elements pulled from British landmarks and mythology creating a kind of pastoral fantasy world that has a more centralized feel than many of the world-spanning fantasies out there. The central religion is that of Animus, and a part of that divinity is made manifest in the Arbor, a giant oak tree that the religious/military city of Heartwood is built around. But the Arbor has been slowly dying, crops have been failing, and the land’s people aren’t always capable of agreeing on what should be done. An unexpected attack by water elementals forces everyone’s hands and people of all lands must band together to embark upon quests to activate dormant focus sites around their countries, to revitalize the Arbor and stave off the coming war between humanity and the water elementals.

This book had all the earmarks of a slow but satisfying return to mythology-based fantasy tales, something often lost in the crush to come out with brand new completely original concepts. Sometimes what we crave in our reading material is a bit of nostalgic fare, and I thought that Heartwood was poised to be just that.

Unfortunately, instead of being merely slow, the pace was plodding. Characters were flat and devoid of emotion, and even though over half the cast dies by the end, I couldn’t really bring myself to care about them, with a mere one exception. Battles are going on, swords are being slung, flesh getting stabbed and sliced, and the writing style and pacing is exactly the same as when a scholar is explaining a previously-unknown bit of history, or when a group of characters were engaged in a barely-lukewarm political discussion. For a book with so much potential for passion of all kinds, it was remarkably devoid of it.

The amount of suspension of disbelief required was pretty high, too, which only added to the feel of distance. After the water elemental attack, a book is found that essentially turns their religion on its head, explains how the founder of it completely misunderstood previous oral traditions upon which he based the religion, and characters find out that the very nature of the world doesn’t function the way they’d assumed. A couple of people raised minor, “But how could that be?” objections, but this huge revelation is accepted by multiple diverse groups of people within a few paragraphs with little more fanfare than, “I guess nothing else explains what just happened.” Come on, people now end up breaking off into different denominations of Christianity based on whether they interpret a passage of the bible as meaning that Jesus drank wine or drank grape juice. The revelation in Heartwood was akin to someone finding a book here that claims Jesus said that Satan was God’s long-lost brother, they formed the universe together, and everyone’s been getting it wrong ever since and that’s why climate change is happening. You don’t greet that with a shrug and a proclamation of, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” I had to suspend my disbelief over every character essentially suspending their belief, and that never bodes well.

The book does get points for creating the military ideology of the Heartwood knights, who hold that males and females are equally able of standing up and being defenders of the faith, both spiritually and in battle. As such, multiple characters on the various quests are female knights, no less capable than their male counterparts. Rape did occur within the book’s pages, not as a half-assed form of character development, but as brutality and part of torture. Robertson broke the mold with this treatment, and even with all the rest of the book’s problems, it deserves praise for that.

Ultimately I have to say that I was disappointed by this book. It may seem a bit unfair to judge a book by what it wasn’t rather than what it was, but a good deal of my disappointment comes from the fact that I felt this book could have been so much more than what it was. It was a great idea and had good world-building that didn’t pay off in the end. Mostly it was the unemotional writing style that ruined it for me. I can forgive other things, but if I can’t connect to the characters nor feel any urgency when there’s a quest to save the world, even the positive parts of a book can’t salvage it for me. Sadly, not a book I feel comfortable in recommending.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Aberrant, by Ruth Silver

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Author’s website
Publication date – April 16, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReadsIn the future dystopian society of Cabal, the government instills equality for all and offers its citizens the perfect system. There is food, shelter and jobs for everyone. The one requirement is to follow the rules without question, including the government’s match in marriage and “The Day of the Chosen”, a lottery that randomly selects families to conceive children as natural means hasn’t existed in generations. Following her eighteenth birthday, Olivia Parker accepts her requirement to marry her childhood best friend, Joshua Warren, and is eager to start her work assignment and new life when it all comes abruptly to an end as she’s arrested and thrown in prison. The only crime committed, her existence. Olivia is unlike the rest of the world born not from “The Day of the Chosen.” The truth haunts the government and puts her life in grave danger as one simple fact would destroy the perfect system.

With Joshua’s help, Olivia breaks free of prison and is forced on the run. Together they set out to find the promised rebel town in search of a new home and new life together. Their situation seems less than promising as they reach the town of Haven. New rules and customs must be adhered to in order to stay. Leaving would mean most certain death in the large expanse of the Gravelands. Time is running out as the government mounts an attack to destroy Olivia and bury her secret with her. Thrown into a world unlike their own, they must quickly adapt to survive.

Thoughts: In a safe world where cities are the only refuge from harsh death at the hands of nature, where the government assigns your spouse and job and provides all you need, one dissatisfied young woman flees for her life and joins the rebel alliance in order to bring down the oppressive regime of the life she grew up in.

Sound familiar? Sound like a dozen and one YA dystopian novels on the shelves already? Welcome to Ruth Silver’s Aberrant.

The book follows the story of Olivia, recently turned 18 and newly assigned to her best friend Joshua as a spouse, and quite happily so. Until she’s arrested one night, freed, and then flees into the wasteland surrounding her city of Genesis, running across problems and secrets as she goes. For a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, this one’s fairly standard. Nothing surprising ever really happens, and the characters are bland enough that the reader can put any face they choose upon them. Nobody really stands out, and the main character herself would be fairly forgettable if she wasn’t the main character and everybody’s paying attention to her because of her assumed specialness.

I’m not saying that to be harsh. Really, everybody does assume she’s special. Females in the book are infertile, a side-effect of a vaccine that saved the human race from a great plague. Government intervention is needed for a woman to fall pregnant. Except that Olivia was conceived naturally, and so as her mother is now past child-bearing age, everyone’s turning to Olivia as the great savior of humanity, a figurehead to give people hope that they can rise above the government and no longer need their help simply to keep humanity going.

Enter plot problem 1. The assumption is that because Olivia was conceived naturally, she herself must be able to conceive naturally too. No tests are done to confirm this before everyone decides that she has to bear kids and be a figurehead. No mention of how her mother conceived naturally in the first place, and so maybe anybody can. Just that she did, and so they assume Olivia can too.

Plot problem 2: nobody in Genesis seems to understand about, well, how babies are made. The logic behind this is presented as if getting pregnant involves some mysterious governmental intervention, then nobody would sleep with anyone because there’s just no point. This ignores that vast majority of human sexuality and assumes that humans are, by default, asexual, and unless reproduction is a factor then nobody even feels any urges. At least in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, these urges were eliminated by medication. They weren’t just handwaved.

As with many dystopian stories that have a focus on population control, the math doesn’t add up. Families are chosen by the government by a lottery in order to get that intervention and produce a child. A single sentence indicates this happens once a month, to one woman. Assuming every pregnancy is carried to term, this means 12 children born each year. Any children past the first child are taken and given to other cities, for reasons that are never really explained. But that’s still pretty much a maximum of 12 children per year to any given city. But Olivia notes that there are 16 males and 16 females, 18 years old, being matched for spouses that year. Unless every spare child from every other city is given to Genesis, that math doesn’t really work.

Also the inherent problems with a “1 child per family” policy essentially halving the count of the next generation, which is only feasible if you’re already dealing with major overpopulation. Which they aren’t.

Aberrant tries to take the best parts of many other popular dystopias and combine them into one, and while that may be appealing to fans of the genre who are looking for more of the same, I find that it made for more of an unfocused story. Olivia gets arrested for being different, flees the city and falls into the hands of people who want to use her in a different ways, flees again and finds herself in a situation where she has to pass tests in order to gain a place in the society. Nothing is settled, nothing is sure, and very few characters get enough time or development for me to really want to care about any of them. Even Olivia and Joshua are fairly bland and uninteresting, with little to define them beyond, “These people are the main characters and are in love.”

As I said, for those who are looking for just another dystopian novel, you could do worse, and if genre standards are your thing then you may find yourself liking Aberrant. If you’re looking for a book that adds something to the genre, however, or really stands out, then you’d do best to look elsewhere.

(Provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White

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Steven Brust’s website | Skyler White’s website
Publication date – September 24, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Incrementalists—a secret society of two hundred people with an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations, races, and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how to do this is older than most of their individual memories.

Phil, whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has loved Celeste—and argued with her—for most of the last four hundred years. But now Celeste, recently dead, embittered, and very unstable, has changed the rules—not incrementally, and not for the better. Now the heart of the group must gather in Las Vegas to save the Incrementalists, and maybe the world.

Thoughts: I had such high hopes for this book. The plot sounded fascinating. A murder mystery, an odd kind of reincarnation, a secret society that had been influencing decisions in all cultures and locations pretty much since the people started to group together and form societies themselves. What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, the concept behind the book was roughly where it peaked for me. The story itself was, I admit, fairly interesting. The minds and memories of the people in this secret society are, upon death, collected and dumped into the mind of a willing participant. I won’t say volunteer because it’s so very easy for people to be influenced into doing something they may not otherwise do, so participant or host actually seem the most accurate. May the stronger personality win. And then these people go on to exert their influence over people, mostly in small ways, working for the improvement of humanity. But when one of them seems to be in multiple minds at once, and working to her own goals rather than group goals, things get violent, complex, and tricky to handle. Mix with Las Vegas and a little romance, and you should have a recipe for success.

Unfortunately, the success didn’t happen. While the story was interesting, it was hidden under piles of overly-complex actions and underdeveloped characters. About 4 characters got any development: the 2 main characters whose point of view we follow, the antagonist, and the possible romantic rival. That’s less than half of the named characters. The rest are mostly names with vague descriptions and even vaguer relevance to the story.

As I mentioned, the story was told from the viewpoints of Ren and Phil, switching off viewpoints at intervals as the story progresses. Both of these viewpoints are written in first person, with most of it being dialogue and very little narration. Given that the two characters are often in the same place at the same time, participating in the same conversation, it was very easy at times to forget just which “I” was saying something. Coupled with unmarked dialogue that would occasionally go on for pages at a time, it became very tedious to read.

The lack of narration, and thus description, made scenes very difficult to envision. People would be discussing things (endlessly) in hotel rooms, hotel restaurants, someone’s living room, someone else’s living room, and you have no idea what these places look like. I’m not asking for every detail to be explained, but some detail would be nice. An argument could be made for this being the limitation of a proper first-person viewpoint, because when we’re looking through our own eyes, we’re not thinking necessarily about the pattern on the curtains, the smell of cooking food, or if there are flowers in the yard, unless these things catch our attention. But the exclusion of so many details made for poor reading.

The romance was contrived, both in terms of actual plot and just the presentation. It was insta-love, which is one of my major turn-offs. There was a plot-related reason for this, at least; both of the main characters were manipulated to find each other attractive and so fall for each other quickly. But here’s the thing: there’s a difference between love and attraction. A very big difference. And there was no dividing line. Where the characters kept saying they loved each other, even after coming to know they’d been meddled with, it wasn’t believable. Attraction, I could see, but it was mostly physical, with some emotional elements mixed in. I felt no love. I barely felt affection. But I could see plenty of attraction, and it bothers me when that gets treated like love.

It’s a shame that there were so many stylistic problems with this book, because without them, I could have even tolerated the romantic situation and the complicated plot. But between the book’s 75% dialogue, the undeveloped cast of characters, and the constant discussions of poker (which might have been interesting to poker-playing readers, but it made little sense to me), I found myself struggling and ultimately couldn’t really enjoy this.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Son, by Lois Lowry

Son, by Lois Lowry  Buy from or

Author’s website
Publication date – October 2, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) They called her Water Claire. When she washed up on their shore, no one knew that she came from a society where emotions and colors didn’t exist. That she had become a Vessel at age thirteen. That she had carried a Product at age fourteen. That it had been stolen from her body. Claire had a son. But what became of him she never knew. What was his name? Was he even alive? She was supposed to forget him, but that was impossible. Now Claire will stop at nothing to find her child, even if it means making an unimaginable sacrifice.

Son thrusts readers once again into the chilling world of the Newbery Medal winning book, The Giver, as well as Gathering Blue and Messenger where a new hero emerges. In this thrilling series finale, the startling and long-awaited conclusion to Lois Lowry’s epic tale culminates in a final clash between good and evil.

Thoughts: The Giver was an amazing book that presented mature themes in a way that younger audiences could grasp. Gathering Blue tackled the issues of brutal societies and forced art. Messenger was occasionally baffling and unfocused and probably would have been better as a standalone novel rather than a continuation to The Giver, and was undoubtedly inferior to the previously two books.

Son just breaks the hell out of almost everything Lowry established in previous installments, with the exception of Messenger. Personally, I think that the only reason it made the bookshelves at all is because of its ties to The Giver. The bulk of the novel is about a young woman trying to get her son back after he was taken from her, and the loss she feels because of the situation. However, more often than not it seems like she’s a central figure to the story only because the story is going on around her. If Lowry meant to leave readers feeling distanced from the action and incapable of relating to Claire, then she certainly accomplished what she set out for. Otherwise…

We start the story in Jonas’s old community, and plenty of references are made to the events of The Giver to keep the reader centered. Unfortunately, this brings in the first major way that Lowry messed up her own continuity. She actually had characters refer to the Giver and the Receiver as separate people. It was previously established that there is the Receiver of Memory, and Jonas was his apprentive, but the title of Giver was something that seemed to be known only between the old man and Jonas themselves. He was still known as the Receiver to the rest of the community.

Later dissatisfied with her life as a Birthmother after her son was taken from her (post-partum depression, and given the community’s very ordered and structured methods, it’s surprising that there was no pre-existing way to deal with this), our protagonist leaves, develops amnesia, and is re-raised by a fishing village that is confined by large cliffs. She eventually regains a sense of purpose and climbs the cliffs to leave, and finds her way to the village that Jonas established and presides over. But not before she encounters a dark and sinister man (the Trademaster, who was so bafflingly introduced in Messenger) to whom she basically trades away her youth.

From here, the perspective switches to that of Gabe, the young child who left the community with Jonas in the first book. Claire is, from here on, pretty much an incidental figure, someone who happens to be there but doesn’t actually do anything. This is, above all else, what made me think that Lowry mostly wanted to do a story about post-partum depression and the loss a young mother can feel, but didn’t think it would sell well on its own. She shoe-horned it in with an existing story from The Giver‘s universe, and left the whole thing feeling like 2 separate short stories rather than one cohesive novel. Sadly, it weakened both stories.

Anyway, we get to see Gabe’s big destiny is to defeat the Trademaster once and for all, shrinking and eliminating the embodiment of evil with the power of mercy and goodness. For the ending of a kid’s speculative fiction novel, this wouldn’t normally be bad. Clear-cut divisions, an ultimate triumph. But when you take it in context with the universe it came from, it seems like a cop-out. In The Giver, there are some hard-hitting issues tackled. Euthanasia of children for the convenience of others. Restrictive dystopias. Freedom and uncertainty versus captivity and security. Things that actually make people think hard no matter what their age. To have all of that come down to nothing but a rather tame battle between good and evil felt like nothing so much as the author just wanting to wrap things up in a neat package. It wasn’t challenging. It wasn’t even that interesting.

It also didn’t explain anything that had confused me about the Trademaster from the previous novel. It was obvious there that he was pretty much an analogy for the devil, but his appearance seemed so random and unsuited to the setting that I felt like I was missing something vital every time he was mentioned. Go from hard-hitting issues to being careful what you wish for was a let-down, and I wasn’t exactly picked back up in the fourth and final novel of the series.

Ultimately, this book wasn’t a good one, either in context or out of it. From my own standpoint, The Giver and Gathering Blue were wonderful as standalone novels, and didn’t need to be tied together in what became a disappointing series with unsatisfying conclusions. This one is definitely worth passing over, even if you enjoyed the previos novels. Possibly especially if you enjoyed the previous novels.

Sad to see something so amazing fall to this.

Revealing Eden, by Victoria Foyt

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Author’s website
Publication date – January 10, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Eden Newman must mate before her 18th birthday in six months or she’ll be left outside to die in a burning world. But who will pick up her mate-option when she’s cursed with white skin and a tragically low mate-rate of 15%? In a post-apocalyptic, totalitarian, underground world where class and beauty are defined by resistance to an overheated environment, Eden’s coloring brands her as a member of the lowest class, a weak and ugly Pearl. If only she can mate with a dark-skinned Coal from the ruling class, she’ll be safe. Just maybe one Coal sees the Real Eden and will be her salvation her co-worker Jamal has begun secretly dating her. But when Eden unwittingly compromises her father’s secret biological experiment, she finds herself in the eye of a storm and thrown into the last area of rainforest, a strange and dangerous land. Eden must fight to save her father, who may be humanity’s last hope, while standing up to a powerful beast-man she believes is her enemy, despite her overwhelming attraction. Eden must change to survive but only if she can redefine her ideas of beauty and of love, along with a little help from her “adopted aunt” Emily Dickinson.

Thoughts: I was cautious about this book from the beginning, since it stood a high chance of having a strong dose of racefail, given that the premise of the novel is that the ruling class consists entire of dark-skinned people, and now caucasians are treated with disdain and have no rights. Tie that in with the series title, “Save the Pearls” (Pearls being the derogatory term for white-skinned folk), there was every chance that this could turn into a sod story about how poorly whites are treated and how unfair it was that poor whitey gets such a raw deal in life.

As it was, I didn’t have so much of a problem with that, but only because it was overshadowed by so many other problems. The plot itself was, on the surface, fairly interesting. Earth is no longer protected by the ozone layer, the population and life expectancy has dwindled, and scientists are secretly working on a plan to fiddle with the human genome in order to combine attributed from sun-resistant animal species in order to increase humanity’s chance for survival. As an antagonist, we get the Federation of Free People, a group who seem to have the destruction of all Pearls as their main agenda. The government keeps the population complacent with carefully-delivered information and doses of emotion-changing drugs and nutritional pills.

But there are a lot of problems that got in the way of me enjoying that plot. For starters, it’s established right at the beginning that mineral-related terms to reference different ethnicities is a racist thing, and thus we’re expected to see it as bad. But everybody uses them. Not just when they’re angry or attempting to be insulting. hey use them all the time. Casually. In reference to each other, and to themselves. They’re all but sanctioned code-names. But when Eden gets annoyed and calls someone a Coal, everyone acts as though she just dropped a nuclear n-bomb in the office.

The author also has a habit of throwing in scientific names for plants and animals. This would have been fine had the book been written in first-person, from Eden’s perspective, since she’s deeply involved in the scientific world, but it came across more as the author trying to show off that they know scientific terms. They weren’t appropriate to the plot, and appeared with such freqency that it got downright annoying.

There is a huge logical flaw in the government’s plan to keep humanity on top of things, too. Females are required to breed by 18, males by age 24, and if they don’t, the government cuts off all supplies of food and water to them. Eden is 6 months shy of her 18th birthday, and is paid a visit by a government representative to remind her that if she doesn’t breed soon and contribute to the continuation of the decimated human race, her supplies will soon end. But couples may only have one child. Essentially halving the population with each generation. This doesn’t increase humanity on the whole, but decreases it. Food and water supplies are limited, and this may be a good reason for the limitations on offspring, but that still doesn’t mean that one child per couple is a viable way to keep the population even stable.

Then there’s Eden herself. She was a whiny self-involved brat quite often, who seemed to engage others in emotional circular arguments that served little point. her reactions to Bramford were particularly annoying, and they amounted to frequent renditions of, “Ugh, I hate this guy so much, he’s so arrogant and annoying and so dark and sexy and I keep getting turned on when he looks at me but I hate that jerk so much.” Repeat ad nauseum. It drove me nuts, and was profoundly frustrating and boring.

This was one of those rare books where I couldn’t wait to reach the end, not because I was compelled to keep reading but because I couldn’t wait to stop reading it so that I could move on to something potentially better. I can’t recommend this book. Other people seem to have enjoyed it quite a bit, but I found it too flawed, too unrelatable, and too boring to be worth passing along to somebody else.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Nostalgia Friday: Black Dawn, by L J Smith

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Author’s website
Publication date – November 1, 1997

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) First he put her in a dungeon. Then he realized they were soulmates. Now he wants to make her a vampire princess. Maggie Neely is a short, spunky sixteen-year-old with auburn hair and an iron will. When her brother turns up missing, she’s determined to find him. But she never suspects that the trail will lead her into the most secret heart of the Night World, a kingdom where no outsider has stepped in five hundred years.
The kingdom is ruled by the young vampire prince Delos…who keeps all humans as slaves. When Delos falls in love with Maggie, he frees her and demands that she join him in his life of dark pleasure. He’s handsome, he’s romantic Maggie can hardly resist him. But did he kill Maggie’s brother? And who are the strange people searching the kingdom for a Wild Power? Maggie won’t give up until she learns the truth even if it means destroying Delos and his secret land. If he doesn’t destroy her first…

Thoughts: More and more when I read this series, I wonder what I found so fascinating and good about them when I was younger. As far as the storytelling goes, they’re fairly average, and while I can make some allowances because the author was writing in a time when YA novels were mostly confined to 200 very short pages or less instead of having the allowance of expanding the plot, but that grace can only go so far.

This book starts out with another example of a teenager — Maggie — making a ridiculous leap of logic that turns out to be right. She awakens to find her parents distraught as her brother’s girlfriend Sylvia informs them that Miles (said brother) has died. Maggie deduces that Sylvia must be lying about what happened because her display of grief is “too perfect” and so must be acting. Following her intuition, she sneaks out of the house to follow Sylvia and ends up getting kidnapped by a group of Night People who are intent on bringing human slaves to their kidden kingdom in the mountains.

Yeah, you read that right.

The story itself, while fairly simple, is interesting enough. Maggie finds other people who are kidnapped, living in the castle town as slaves, and sets out trying to free them. Along the way she meets Delos, the vampire prince, scornful and cold and yet still her soulmate, as is typical for the Night World books.

But this really fails when you throw in some logical scrutiny. Aside from the opening scene, which really just seemed like the author wrote herself into a corner very quickly and needed some way — any way! — to get Maggie to follow Sylvia so the real plot could start, I have a hard time suspending my disbelief when it comes to the major end-of-the-world prophecy, specifically how it’s done here.

My biggest problem with it? Aside from the fact that the prophecy is translated into English and only one translation is ever mentioned anywhere ever, the kingdom in the mountains in relation to it is a major fail. The kingdom, with its sanitized medieval-style culture, was established around 600 years ago in an American mountain range, and yet they have the exact same version of the prophecy. Same translation, in modern English, in spite of only very recently (last couple of decades or so) having contact with the outside world. They all speak modern English there, in fact, and quite easily.

Then on top of it all, the “finding Miles” subplot that occasionally pokes its head up at random places in the story, gets wrapped up almost as an afterthought, like Smith had forgotten Maggie’s sporadically-driving goal until someone pointed it out, and then she just tacked on an ending that makes sense but still comes somewhat out of left field and doesn’t flow well with the rest of the scene.

I keep trying to tell myself that I’m being too hard on the book and the author, that most teens won’t catch that, but that really isn’t much of an excuse. Smith has made some other major gaffes in this series, including some incredibly ironic and hypocritical ones, and the more I read them, the more I notice them. And the more I wonder why I bought the rereleased books a few years back. They aren’t as good as I remember, and rereading them now has ripped away the shiny happy veneer that nostalgia once gave them. There are so many better YA urban fantasy novels worth reading, and if truth be told, I’m rather glad that this is the penultimate novel in the series (unless you count the as-yet-to-be-released final book that should have come out over 10 years ago but is still in progress) and I won’t have to keep reading them much longer.

Sometimes things are best left in the past.

Nostalgia Friday: The Chosen, by L J Smith

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Author’s website
Publication date – February 1997

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) She stalks the back alleys of Boston, seeking revenge on the vampires who killed her mother. Armed with a wooden stake, martial arts, and the will to resist mind control, she is killing the Night People one by one. But when she rescues Daphne Childs from certain death, she’s suddenly swept into the Night World Slave Trade, gateway to the vampires’ secret enclave.

Thoughts: Vampire hunter meets vampire, and they all live happily ever after.

Rashel decided to become a vampire hunter because when she was very young, she saw her mother and her friend (or possibly a kid her mother was babysitting; I don’t think the book was very clear on just who Timmy was in relation to Rashel) killed by a vampire, and decided some payback was in order. Then one night, on a mission, she runs into the vampire Quinn, and, true to the theme of this series, the two discover that they’re soulmates.

Now, I have to say that Smith did make a point of having Rashel deny the connection at first, refusing to believe she could be so bonded to something she despised so very much. But what really got to me was a scene in which Rashel and Quinn are mentally joined, and she senses darkness and fear in his mind so she (and I’m paraphrasing here) “dances through it kissing sunlight into the dark corners.”

Let me just point out that Rashel has spent over a decade at this point hating vampires with a passion, and being shuffled from foster family to foster family and refuses to form emotional connections, trying to cut herself off from others and keep her emotions cold, her mind removed. I understand that this is teen fantasy with an emphasis on romance, but honestly, I find it incredibly difficult to suspend my disbelief long enough to accept that “twu wuv” really heals all wounds in a heartbeat like that. It was trite, and horribly out of character, and it didn’t do anything but make me roll my eyes and wonder if Smith even understood the characters she was creating.

Nyala’s transition from mentally scarred to completely unhinged was also something that felt odd and out of place, like the author just needed a plot device to work in a little more tension.

Many parts of this book felt clumsily executed. Some scenes were powerful and touching, incredibly well done, but for every good scene there seemed to be one that was equally bad, and it made for a very poor experience. While this book wasn’t one of my favourites when I first read the series, my opinion on it has certainly dropped upon reading it again.

This novel also shows how dated it is by mentioning Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then adding that Rashel “missed the movie.” The vast majority of teens who read this book now will likely only know Buffy as the TV show, and may not even know that the multi-season show was based on and a continuation of a movie in the first place. It’s only a minor mention, but much like a previous book in the series mentioning Walkmans, it’s something that the audience doesn’t come across these days half as much as they used to. The stories are not timeless, and moments like this really underscore that.

Ultimately, I’d have been happier skipping over this book during my series reread, given all the problems I had with it. It needed serious work on the character development, the twist ending made only marginal sense, and it was far from the entertaining read I remember from my teenage years. Sadly, I came away rather disappointed.

Nostalgia Friday: Daughters of Darkness, by L J Smith

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Author’s website
Publication date – March 19, 1997

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Here is a vampire story with a twist, the bloodsucking ghouls are three beautiful teenage sisters who escape from the Night World and try to find a new life, and love, with humans in a small town.

Thoughts: This is probably my least favourite book in the whole series. Despite it being the second, I didn’t read it until long after I’d read all the other Night World books, but my distaste for it isn’t solely due to the fact that it can’t really compare to the novels that came after. This book not only can’t stand the test of time (do teenagers even know what a Walkman is anymore?), but had a good number of flaws that would have been evident even at the time of writing.

For example, there’s a scene quite early on in which two teenage boys start in on their attempt to rape three girls. When these girls reveal themselves to be vampires, one of them shouts, ” How the freak did you do that? What the freak are you?” Freak? Really? A guy who’s about to rape someone isn’t going to play by PG language rules. If you can’t have swearing in your story, don’t try for swearing. Toning it down and substituting words just makes the whole situation look absurd, and is rather insulting to the intelligence of the reader.

Second example I can think of is when characters are wondering who might be the killer they’re all looking for. They land on a character who was mentioned only once or twice before that, and in passing: Bunny Marten. They suspect Bunny because of her name; born-vampires tend to have names related to nature in some way. Bunny is obvious, of course, but one character then says, “And isn’t a marten a kind of weasel?” Yes, it is, but the spelling of her last name was never mentioned, and it’s not as though a more common spelling isn’t “Martin.” It may have the same root, but it’s one heck of a leap, and a leap that only makes sense if the character suggesting it knows the odd spelling. Which she doesn’t.

The story itself wasn’t particularly engaging, either. Standard whodunnit mystery involving the death of a vampire. The killer turns out to be a mad werewolf who doesn’t display any signs of actually being insane until he’s triggered by jealousy, but apparently he was unhinged all along.

The only thing I really liked about this novel was the way to romance between Mary-Lynette and Ash was handled. The two are soulmates, which means that they’re bound together whether they like it or not, and can’t be truly happy without each other. Problem is that they don’t get along, and outside of a few moments of teen lust, even admit that there’s no way they can handle each other. But rather than refusing to acknowledge that, they agree to spend some time apart until they’ve both matured and come to grips with themselves and each other before exploring their connection any further. It was a refreshingly mature approach to the soulmate concept, and I really enjoyed seeing it.

Aside from a brief mention of a few characters in a later book, this is one that can be skipped over without losing anything of the series as a whole, and I highly recommend doing so. You don’t miss much, and you get to spare yourself the trouble of reading a clumsy novel that was subpar even for a decade and a half ago. Overall, not really worth it.