Shards and Ashes, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong

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Armstrong’s website / Marr’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 19, 2013

Summary: Gripping original stories of dystopian worlds from nine New York Times bestselling authors, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong.

The world is gone, destroyed by human, ecological, or supernatural causes. Survivors dodge chemical warfare and cruel gods; they travel the reaches of space and inhabit underground caverns. Their enemies are disease, corrupt corporations, and one another; their resources are few, and their courage is tested.

Powerful original dystopian tales from nine bestselling authors offer bleak insight, prophetic visions, and precious glimmers of light among the shards and ashes of a ruined world.

Review: In every dystopian novel, there are countless characters who do things that aren’t worthy of a full book, but are no less interesting to read about. Sometimes authors come up with dystopian settings or concepts they’d like to play with but that can’t really be expanded into a full world as is. And quite frankly, I think an anthology of dystopian stories is a great idea. As burned out as I can get on YA dystopian fiction, I admit that part of that burnout is due to the stories often being transparent until they get ridiculously convoluted. Or else being an idea that is interesting in its own right but when stretched out to novel-length, becomes tedious and pondering. Short stories are a great way to get around this, and even people who feel that the genre is on its way out can find a fair bit to enjoy within a book that takes us to multiple different dystopian worlds to explore multiple different ideas.

Of course, as with any anthology, stories can run the gamut between meh and amazing. So it is with this one too, unsurprisingly. But there were still a few memorably stories in here that I feel are worth pointing out.

Veronica Roth’s Hearken takes place in a world where not only is bio-terrorism a sadly common occurrence, but also certain people can hear songs of life and death with the aid of a special implant. Everybody has such a song, from the moment they’re born until they die, as we all have life and death in our existence. These musically-inclined individuals can play and record the song of someone’s life or death, as requested, a sort of musical record of some of the most existential concepts we really have. The story focuses on Darya, her difficult childhood, and her life leading up to her decision as to whether she wants to focus on songs of life or songs of death. It’s an interesting concept that Roth played with here, and as I mentioned earlier, I doubt it’s one that could fill an entire novel, but it certainly made for a decent short story.

Margaret Stohl’s Necklace of Raindrops was one that I have mixed feelings about, if I’m being honest. The story takes place in a world where life is measured by beads on a necklace. The more beads, the longer your life will be. But people “spend” beads for memorable experiences, like skydiving, or trips to interesting places. A person’s life is a balance between being long and being interesting. You can live for a long time if you don’t spend your beads, but the question is whether such an uninteresting life is really worth it. Taken literally, there are so many logical problems with this story that I don’t even know where to begin. Who decided this? How does the bead system work? Do the spent beads go to someone, who redistributes them? Who decides what experience is worth what cost? And so on. But taken symbolically, it’s a lot more interesting. Stohl writes a metaphor come to life, and to hell with the logistical conundrums! While I like knowing the ins and outs of how a dystopian world is supposed to function, sometimes those details get in the way of a good story, and I commend Stohl for experimenting like this.

Carrie Ryan’s Miasma is set in a world filled with sickness and death, and medicine as we know it has failed. To keep contagion from getting out of hand, there are old-fashioned plague doctors wandering the streets, their bird-like masks hiding more than just their faces but some deeper agenda. They bring with them animals that can sniff out disease like prey. The protagonist, Frankie, knows her younger sister is sick but uses tricks to keep her from being taken away, like bathing in scented water to mask the smell of illness. Pleasant smells, after all, are believed to keep away the evil disease-causing miasma, similar to very old European theories on disease. Of all the stories in this anthology, this was the one I most wanted to see more of. More of the world, more of the characters, more of the deeper plot that’s hinted at as the story goes on. A lot of the others were one-shot short stories, but this one feels like there could be so much more to it, and I’d love to read that.

The other stories in the collection were okay, but none of them really made an impression on me the way these three did. There were plenty of big name authors here to catch your attention if you’re a fan of YA novels (Melissa Marr, in addition to co-editing this collection, also wrote a story for it, as did Kelley Armstrong), but I’ve read surprisingly few of those authors myself, so that wasn’t what pulled me in. I was looking for a quick read and some interesting ideas. This book certainly was a quick read, and there were some interesting ideas indeed, but there were also a number of pretty predictable ones. Definitely fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I think I went into this book expecting something else. It wasn’t bad, not at all, but it also wasn’t something that made a particularly deep impression on me, aside from a few of the stories. As I said, if you’re a fan of the authors whose stories are included here, or you’re a fan of YA dystopian stories in general, then this anthology might be right up your alley, and I encourage you to check it out if you’re able to. But if you don’t fall into those categories, I don’t think you’ll find too much here that will appeal to you. So, mostly for YA and YA dystopia fans, I think.

 

Meritropolis, by Joel Ohman

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 8, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The year is AE3, 3 years after the Event. Within the walls of Meritropolis, 50,000 inhabitants live in fear, ruled by the brutal System that assigns each citizen a merit score that dictates whether they live or die. Those with the highest scores thrive, while those with the lowest are subject to the most unforgiving punishment–to be thrust outside the city gates, thrown to the terrifying hybrid creatures that exist beyond.

But for one High Score, conforming to the System just isn’t an option. Seventeen-year-old Charley has a brother to avenge. And nothing–not even a totalitarian military or dangerous science–is going to stop him.

Where humankind has pushed nature and morals to the extreme, Charley is amongst the chosen few tasked with exploring the boundaries, forcing him to look deep into his very being to discern right from wrong. But as he and his friends learn more about the frightening forces that threaten destruction both without and within the gates, Meritropolis reveals complexities they couldn’t possibly have bargained for…

Thoughts: This was one of those books that drew me to it out of rage-induced curiosity. The idea that on a weekly basis, people would be evaluated for their use to society, assigned a number based on that, and if they were deemed to be too useless, their score would be ‘zeroed’ and they were be turned out beyond the city’s protective walls, left to the mercy of the elements and the dangerous beasts that roamed at night. This brutal regime is the only way to keep the city’s population in check with their limited resources. It was an idea that hit home due to the sheer number of times I’ve felt that I’m utterly replaceable. I do no job that couldn’t really be done by anyone else. I have made no real contributions to society. I’ve affected nobody in a really significant way. I probably would have been zeroed long ago, if the world I live in worked in such a way. So I had to take a look and see what the book was all about.

Unfortunately, there were a few questions that didn’t really get answered that made me think the system was full of holes. First off, use is relative; a baby is utterly useless within those terms, especially if there’s a population problem, so enforced sterility would have worked better for controlling things. Most children are similarly useless. The system did have a bit of a sliding scale, allowing children to be graded on a bit of a curve relative to their peers and developmental milestones, but there was a case of a young girl who developed mobility problems, who was zeroed because of them. The system was painfully ablist, unless there are literally no useful jobs a person could do while sitting or lying down, this girl could still have had a use. No real mention was made of training outside of what High Scores get; many people feel pretty useless until they find something that really resonates with them and they get the training in it, and then they go on to be amazing.

All of that could be argued against by saying that there was no merit to wasting time and resources on someone who might grow up to be useful to society later, and the reveal at the end shows that the whole thing was meant to be a short-lived project anyway, but therein lies my second problem. Short-lived regimes like that don’t work without every inhabitant being brutally beaten down or given no other choice. The first generation to really be born and raised in Meritropolis (for that’s the city’s actual name) is just coming to age as the book takes place, which requires adults of many ages to have willingly and without a fuss consented to the whole system in the first place. I see this problem a lot in near-future dystopias, the idea that such a regime could crop up almost overnight and go entirely without a hitch until the protagonist comes along. People may have felt forced into Meritropolis because they didn’t think they had anywhere else to go, but that doesn’t mean they would have just lain down and accepted every single rule without question. People don’t even do that now and here, and the laws we live by here are much more permissive!

As for the protagonist, Charley, well, he’s a golden boy, the kind of do-no-wrong character that gets himself into all the right kinds of trouble in the name of justice. Disgusted with the system for zeroing his brother, he aims to get his revenge, to stand up for the wronged, and in doing so catches the attention of the city’s ruler and highest-scoring citizen, Commander Orson. Orson decides to fast-track Charley and put him in a dangerous position, raising his Score in doing so, as a sort of back-handed reward. Charley excels at this (further proving my point that some people may seem useless until put into the right situation or given the right training), and without any real experience with fighting, manages to do things like pole-vaulting over the head of a charging boar-hybrid, as well as seeing his Score skyrocket until he, not Orson, is the highest Score in the city. If mistakes happened, things would always come out perfectly in the end. He may drop his toast, but it will always land butter side up.

I found the characters to be fairly flat and uninspired. Charley is a hothead with little regard for consequence, which makes him a surprisingly boring protagonist to ride on the shoulder of as the story progresses. Meritropolis’s criminal kingpin, Chappy, shows more foresight and restraint and ability to plan than Charley does, and when the criminals are doing it better than the revolutionary hero, there’s a problem. Charley gets random spots of info from Orson’s incredibly attractive girlfriend, who gets said secret intel from Orson without problem and then, because it makes her unhappy, she just must tell someone and it just happens to be the person trying to overthrow the system. So few characters played major roles but had sparse motivation, or were just straight-up caricatures of humanity.

I think, when all is said and done, that the ideas explored in this book were fantastic and compelling but suffered from poor delivery. Too many unanswered questions and too few explored motivations made a lot of the story ring hollow, and it felt a lot like every event was set up just so Charley could show off how awesome he was destined to be. It was a hero story, a story of triumph against all odds, but an unrealistic one, and I feel that there were numerous missed opportunities for character development. The foundation on which the whole story was built was complex but ultimately unstable.

A lot of people really seem to enjoy this book. It’s been getting a lot of positive reviews, so this may simply be a case of Your Mileage May Vary. For my part, Charley was a rather unappealing character. Others who enjoy seeing someone act the hero and ignore consequences in his pursuit of personal justice may resonate better with him and find fewer problems with the story because of it. But it’s not a series I plan to continue with, because all the problems mounted up by the end and even the initial interest I had fizzled away after Meritropolis fell, so there’s not much for me to feel compelled to go back to.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 28, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. Yet he spends his life willingly, knowing that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children. But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and sprawling parks spread across the planet. Darrow– and Reds like him– are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class. Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’ s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’ s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies . . . even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.

Thoughts: It’s not a concept that hasn’t been done time and again with the currently modern dystopian craze. A rags-to-riches tale combined with the overthrow of the ruling class, with teenagers as actors on the stage. I could give that bare-bones description and you could name me half a dozen dystopian novels that have been published over the past 5 years. When you get right down to it, the skeleton is pretty much the same on every one of them.

Which is why it’s so noticeable when one comes along that does more with the story that just let the skeleton support it. Brown slaps new muscle and mind onto the frame, creates a very intelligent story that stands apart from many others within the dystopian subgenre, and packs in enough action and development to keep readers interested and invested in the plot.

It starts at the bottom, as so many stories do, with Darrow, a Red miner on Mars whose life is going to be short and hard and that’s just his lot in life because he was born a Red, the lower caste in the colour-coded hierarchy of the future, and his duty is to mine Mars for the stuff that’s needed to terraform the planet for the higher (and “softer”) Colours. The seeds of rebellion are planted in his community, though he tries to avoid them when he can because he wants to provide for his wife rather than die a martyr. But circumstances beyond his control result in tragedy, and in Darrow being shoved from his red world into a Gold one, transformed into someone of the highest Colour so that he can infiltrate their Society and bring things down from the inside.

Brown gets serious love from me for the sheer amount of social and political commentary that runs throughout Red Rising. It’s obvious stuff, but rarely is it so blatant that you feel like you’re being beaten over the head with it. There’s the biting condemnation of capitalism, the way that the labouring class risk much to work to support their families and provide profit for those above them, while their bosses throw about propaganda about how society couldn’t function without standing on the backs of the strong ones at the bottom; the way those at the bottom often don’t dare rebel because rebellion means suffering for those they care about most. The majority of the book, the ‘game’ at the Institute, that parallels man’s cultural evolution from those with few resources and tribal mentalities to conquerors who eventually rise up against silent gods. I can’t count the amount of times I had to stop reading for a moment to really contemplate the implications of what Brown was writing. It’s thought-provoking stuff, excellent for those who enjoy the dystopian subgenre but want something with a bit more meat o sink their teeth into.

It does, however, suffer from many of the same limitations I find in a lot of dystopian novels. Not inherent to dystopian fiction, specifically, but more in the way that such stories tend to be told. The first-person narrative throws the reader into the thick of the action (and believe me, there’s plenty of it), but it lessens the impact of the scenes where Darrow is expected to die. The first such scene made me wonder if I hadn’t been reading a sort of extended prologue and the rest of the book was going to centre around a different character. The second of Darrow’s death scenes just didn’t impress me much; you knew he was going to live, because there’s the rest of the book to deal with.

In fairness, though, neither of those scenes were really about tension and action, even though the second came after a fight scene. They were about emotion, about loss and betrayal, and for that the first-person viewpoint worked extremely well. To see a man in Darrow’s situation encounter and sink into death was powerful, a transformative event, and while there was no tension and wondering if he’ll make it out of that situation, I found the scenes quite memorable. Though really, two death scenes in a single novel is one too many. One is poignant. Two is just kind of cheap.

Many have compared this novel to a sort of darker version of The Hunger Games. I can see that comparison. The book actually got less interesting for me as it went on. What the survivalist warfare represented was very interesting, certainly, but the longer it pressed on, the more I started to feel like what had really hooked me on this book to begin with, Darrow’s early life as a Red and the tragedy of his wife, was just a long prelude to all this fighting, necessary set-up to what Brown really wanted to write. Which is fine if that’s also what you want to read, and it would be hard to shorten that section of the book without skipping over key events, but I wanted to get back to Darrow’s growth, not his strategies. Personal opinion, though, and your mileage may vary.

I want to read more. I want to revisit this future that Brown has set up, and I want to see more of how it will all play out, and I want to dive deeper into the allegory and metaphor that Brown so masterfully created in Red Rising. The most interesting aspects of the story were not what was happening, but what they represented, and it’s hard to find YA dystopias that dip beneath the surface of things like that. I was very much impressed with this book, far more so than I expected, and I know already that it’s going to be a book I’ll read again, probably with pen and paper in hand so I can make some notes as I go. It’s intelligent, it’s full of action, plenty of intensity with a relatively diverse cast of characters, and there are plenty of hints dropped throughout that things are far more complex than they appear on the surface (and things already seem decently complex). I highly recommend Red Rising to those who are burned out on YA dystopias, because it’s the kind of book that will revitalize things and make you reconsider what the genre really has to offer.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Allegiant, by Veronica Roth

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Author’s website
Publication date – October 22, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered—fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she’s known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris’s new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature—and of herself—while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love.

Told from a riveting dual perspective, Allegiant, by #1 New York Times best-selling author Veronica Roth, brings the Divergent series to a powerful conclusion while revealing the secrets of the dystopian world that has captivated millions of readers in Divergent and Insurgent.

Thoughts: Veronica Roth’s Divergent series comes to a close with the third and final novel, Allegiant, a book which comes in with a bang and leaves with a whimper. Not in the sense that the ending is disappointing, but, well, it’s more than a little sad, with a bittersweet feeling that you don’t find in too many YA books of that genre.

The city lies in chaos as the Factionless revolt and demand equal treatment, and this is bad because… Honestly, this is where I did have a problem with the book, because the reactions of many of the characters at this point seemed very “plight of the middle class.” Their secure positions in society were destabilized, and now those in command were demanding that everyone takes a share of the lousy work that was previously done by the Factionless. I can understand the anxiety and even anger at the world you knew tearing apart at the seams, but I found it very hard to feel much sympathy for anyone who was disgruntled at having to do dirty work that was previously done by the society’s outcasts. It felt a lot like anger at no longer being special, no longer having a Faction’s superiority to cling to, and the Allegiant, those loyal to the ideas of Factions and were thus fighting to restore the previous order, just made me angry.

The story was told from alternating viewpoints, both Tris and Tobias getting first-person time in the spotlight. The voices were similar but still distinct enough to tell them apart without much trouble, and I loved reading Tobias’s narrative because his thoughts flowed in a way similar to my own, expansive and thoughtful compared to Tris’s energetic emotionally-charged viewpoint. I’ve seen books do this where it really hasn’t worked, or where it seemed like they were trying to show two too-similar viewpoints with too-similar voices, and it just made a mess. This, happily, wasn’t the case here, and I think the different viewpoints added to the experience.

Nature versus nurture was possible the strong theme running through this book, with the issue of genetic damage enhancing one characteristic at the expense of another, and that being what led to the experiment in forming the Factions. It was an interesting idea to play with, especially in that there was no final determination as to which played a larger part in a character’s personality. Genetic predisposition combined with upbringing as well as the general essence of a person all combined, and those who tried to insist that one side or the other won out were pretty quickly shot down. I liked that, since there’s a tendency to try for hard-and-fast explanations in most futuristic fiction, and those rigid explanations rarely stand up to scrutiny.

Ultimately this was a powerful end to a powerful series, and I was glad to see it through even when my interest in dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction started to wane. If more books could be like this, I would be much more satisfied with YA genre books.

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 Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – June 4, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReadsKeep your friends close and your enemies closer. Isn’t that what they say? But how close is too close when they may be one in the same?

The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a charred wasteland. The future belongs to the next generation’s chosen few who must rebuild it. But to enter this elite group, candidates must first pass The Testing—their one chance at a college education and a rewarding career.

Cia Vale is honored to be chosen as a Testing candidate; eager to prove her worthiness as a University student and future leader of the United Commonwealth. But on the eve of her departure, her father’s advice hints at a darker side to her upcoming studies–trust no one.

But surely she can trust Tomas, her handsome childhood friend who offers an alliance? Tomas, who seems to care more about her with the passing of every grueling (and deadly) day of the Testing. To survive, Cia must choose: love without truth or life without trust.

Thoughts: The setting is a post-apocalyptic world with a limited population, polluted air and ground and water, and a struggle for life and civilization. When Cia is chosen as a potential university candidate and thus must undergo the Testing, she and her family undergo mixed pride and fear. Pride, because university is even more exclusive than it is now, only the best are chosen to even be tested for it, and the education she would receive their would pretty much set her up for life. Fear, because the Testing process is rigorous and whether or not she passes or fails, she will likely never see her family again, as university graduates are never assigned to the same town in which their families live.

But she and a handful of others from her colony are chosen and go off to the capital city of Tosu (I kept getting the feeling that I was supposed to be able to recognize the origin of this name, since all the colony names are based on previous cities or counties in the US, but annoyingly nothing would come to mind), and start the Testing process. Which is quickly revealed to be brutal, as in short order one of the candidates commits suicide from stress.

And that’s just the beginning.

The tagline for this novel says that it’s good for fans of The Hunger Games, and I agree. Mostly because this book is so very like The Hunger Games that you may as well call it The Hunger Games 2.0. The biggest difference is that almost nobody considers getting chosen to be a bad thing. But other than that, it’s incredibly similar. The early training process, the competitiveness, the large chunk of the book dedicated to a survival situation in which the winners barely make it back alive. Right down to Cia’s mentions of almost everything she eats, which mirrored Katniss’s impression of the luxury food items she ate on the way to the Capitol.

Charbonneau’s pacing is good, but her writing lacks distinction. In a very literal sense, I mean; she doesn’t have a written voice that I can pick out from any other writer. It could have been anybody writing this book and I wouldn’t have known better; in fact there were times when I might have been more likely to believe that this book was actually written by Suzanne Collins, wanting to relive the early glory days of the first Hunger Games novel. Her characters are fine, but they too mostly lack distinction. There are a good dozen characters presented to us, and the reason we remember Cia, Tomas, and Will at the end is because we just spent about half the book focusing on them. With few exceptions, none of the other characters are memorable. Zandri was an artist. Gill was Will’s twin. And sadly, I’ve forgotten the name of Cia’s best friend from her colony. Daileen, I think? Yeah, I related to her because she was very shy, the kind of person who sunk into the background if given the chance and who avoided people by nature. I could relate a lot to her. For the brief moment she appeared on the pages, I felt closer to her than anyone else. And wave goodbye, because there she goes.

The problem with this book isn’t that it’s a bad book. The writing’s okay, the story’s okay. The problem is that this is just one more book in a saturated genre, derivative of everything that came before it, bringing nothing new. It seems almost custom-written for people who want to reread The Hunger Games but who want a few different characters names in the story. It has a few interesting plot points, but it gives me nothing I haven’t already experienced, and sadly, that was its major downfall with me. I didn’t go into it expecting to be wowed, but I did expect a book that could hold its own in the genre, and sadly, that wasn’t what I found in The Testing‘s pages.

If you’re a fan of the YA dystopian genre and read all you can get your hands on, then absolutely, read this book. If you closed Mockingjay thinking, “If only there were more books exactly like this series,” then you’re probably going to really enjoy The Testing. But if you’re looking for something new, an interesting twist, a different take on things, then this isn’t the book for you.

Son, by Lois Lowry

Son, by Lois Lowry  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

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.

Saga, by Conor Kostick

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 11, 2009

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The breathtaking sequel to the multistarred Epic! Ghost is part of a street hacker airboard gang who lives to break rules. When they realize that their world—Saga—is being periodically invaded by strange human beings, they don’t know what to do. That is, until they learn the complicated truth: Saga is not just their world. It is a sentient computer game, the replacement to Epic on New Earth, and it’s addictive. The Dark Queen who controls Saga is trying to enslave both its people and the people of New Earth. And she’ll succeed unless Ghost and her friends—and Erik, from Epic, and his friends—figure out what to do.

Thoughts: After rereading the first book of the series, Epic to prepare myself for Saga, I still was unprepared for the dramatic shift in tone and setting between the two different novels. Where Epic took place primarily in a fantasy MMORPG crossed with a developing hardscrabble world, Saga takes place in a cyberpunk game that blurs the boundaries between real and virtual, and explores the concepts of artificial intelligence and self-awareness.

Not a bad idea, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting after Epic.

Within the gameworld of Saga, inhabitants are unaware that their world was created as a game for humans. There are a few who are aware of this fact, but most go about their lives believing that their world is the only world. Until they meet players from the outside, the same players who used to make use of Epic, as Saga has been forcibly put on all of New Earth’s computers after the deletion of Epic at the end of the previous book. The result is a mental expansion for all involved, as the players realize that the NPCs of Saga are as developed and diverse as they themselves are, and the NPCs come to grips with the origin of their existence and what it means to be self-aware in a programmed world.

Definitely interesting concepts to tackle, and I have no problem with how it was done. Fascinating philosophical concepts, and it was interesting to see how they were handled.

But I don’t think it was done particularly well within the context of the story. Erik and BE and a couple of other characters from New Earth make cameos, and Erik – still playing Cindella, due to the fact that when Saga took over her old character file was unable to be deleted – is the catalyst for major change in the world, but for the most part, the world and people of New Earth are relatively unimportant to the tale and the more interesting parts of the story’s concept. Sadly, this doesn’t come across very well, as it’s established that Saga’s ruler has planted addicted in the minds of millions of New Earth players, as a bargaining chip for getting parts of Saga reprogrammed to her satisfaction. A major even like that shouldn’t have come across like the afterthought that it felt like, especially when it was the motivation for Erik to start an overthrow of Saga’s government. Cindella played a big role without playing a big role, if you follow, and it didn’t make for the best reading. I was far more interested in Ghost and her gang within the virtual world, and happily more than half the story was devoted to them, but for all they did and for all the important events that revolved around them, it felt like the author was still trying to get the story to ride on Cindella’s shoulders.

It didn’t work out that way. Often, it felt as though Kostick threw Erik and BE in the story simply for a way to connect to the previous novel, to ride on its successes instead of having Saga work as a standalone novel. In my opinion, it would have worked far better as a standalone, and things would have worked far more smoothly that way. It could be notable as a standalone. Here it’s just an okay follow-up.

I’m hoping that this was just a case of Second Book Syndrome, an aberration, so that the third book will be far more entertaining and make more sense in context. I will read it, but I can’t help but feel really let down after this one, which has made me feel like I need a real break from the trilogy before I take on the final book.

Insurgent, by Veronica Roth

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Author’s website
Publication date – May 1, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) One choice can transform you–or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves–and herself–while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.

Tris’s initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable–and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.

Thoughts: This was a strong follow-up to the previous book in the trilogy, Divergent (review here), one that really worked hard to expend on the very concept of what Divergence really was. The first book introduced Divergence almost as a combination of brain chemistry and personality type, one that fit outside the normal bounds of personality division within Tris’s world, something odd and undesirable. Here, it becomes the main focus of the war, a freedom from mind-controlling drugs and simulations, and a deadly and dangerous thing to have associated with you.

More detail is also given about the Factionless, who were only briefly touched on in the first book. Society’s untouchables, people without a Faction to call home. Divergent did mention  that not everybody makes it through their Faction’s equivalent of boot camp, but it wasn’t completely clear on what happens to those who, for one reason or another, leave their Faction. The Factionless are an incredibly large yet mostly unseen presence in society, who stand poised on the edge, able to make a difference for one side of the war or the other.

The book picks up almost immediately after the closing of the previous installment. While this can make for seamless reading, the large cast of characters (especially characters who played roles in the past but who are not playing roles now) makes it hard to remember just who’s who and what they did unless you’ve very recently read (or reread) Divergent. While I’m not always fond of books that feel the need to recap the situation at the beginning of each new novel, I have to admit that a couple of friendly reminders about who Random Person 1 was might have been beneficial.

Roth tackles some really interesting dystopian concepts in this novel. The largest one, the war and the division and unification of factions, is the obvious one, but there are more subtle explorations peppered throughout the pages, too. One that comes immediately to mind is the way that the Amity faction keeps people happy and friendly through the addition of mood-altering drugs in the food. It’s a scary vision of the future in which not even friendly people are friendly of their own volition, and this sort of behaviour is preferable in order to keep the peace and social harmony. At least when Candor forces truth serum on you, they’re being up-front about it!

Character development is also key in this book, though admittedly, sometimes it got a little tedious. From everything that’s happened to her, from all the people she’s seen die and all the high-stress frantic situations she’s been forced into, Trist has very understandable PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). It’s not a pretty picture, and she withdraws and goes introspective quite often, cutting herself off from others and alternately takes crazy risks and then seems unable to do anything at all. While I can’t deny that this is realistic, it does become hard to read after a while. When a book is written from a first-person perspective,  it’s hard to read the umpteenth repetition of a person’s insecurities, no matter how genuine they may be.

This is a dystopian series that is really making waves, and for good reasons. It’s smart, it’s insightful, it has some gorgeous prose and some truly hard-hitting events that make for a fascinating and mature read. The romance is good, believable and deep without being all-consuming. People deceive, are selfish, and have their own reasons for fighting on the side that they do. There is more pain, death, and nightmare-fuel just willing to be consumed by the reader. It suffers very few of the hallmarks of Second Book Syndrome, and is definitely something that the author should be proud of accomplishing. I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion of the trilogy, and I highly recommend it to fans of dystopian fiction, and/or fans of YA fiction who are looking for a gritty and mature read.

Tankborn, by Karen Sandler

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Author’s website
Publication date – September 15, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Best friends Kayla and Mishalla know they will be separated for their Assignments. They are GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, and in their strict caste system, GENs are at the bottom rung of society. GENs are gestated in a tank and sent to work as slaves as soon as they reach age fifteen.

When Kayla is Assigned to care for Zul Manel, the patriarch of a trueborn family, she finds secrets and surprises; not least of which is her unexpected friendship with Zul’s great-grandson. Meanwhile, the children that Mishalla is Assigned to care for are being stolen in the middle of the night.

After weeks of toiling in their Assignments, mystifying circumstances enable Kayla and Mishalla to reunite. Together they hatch a plan to save the disappearing children. Yet can GENs really trust humans? Both girls must put their lives and hearts at risk to crack open a sinister conspiracy, revealing secrets no one is ready to face.

Thoughts: There are a multitude of themes in this YA novel, all of them worth paying attention to. From racism, caste systems, the effects of bioengineering, slavery, corruption wihin the government, religious differences (and the issue of man creating god instead of the other way around), and more, this book has many of the earmarks of a typical dystopian tale without actually being typical. Tankborn feels new and fresh, not another copy of an oft-retold story in a new pretty package.

First off all, the vast majority of characters have dark skin tones. Second, rather than society having strong Western overtones, many of the cultural and societal traits demonstrated here bear a strong Indian influence, which alone would set it apart from a vast majority of other novels of its genre even if its plot didn’t show enough creativity to impress the reader. Which it does.

Central to the plot are the GENs, Genetically Engineered Non-humans, who are essentially slaves to the upper class. Created to have specific skillsets that would benefit them in their later roles, GENs make up a rich and complex culture of their own, having their own religion (the belief that their god created them to serve and so serving is the only way to achieve paradise after death) and linguistic terms that we see them use that are not typically used by the upper classes. GENs are supposed to have rights and limited freedoms under the law, but it comes as no surprise to discover that those rights are frequently ignored by those in power. Of course, unsurprisingly, the origin and purpose of the GENs is not what in initially appears to be, though there are some definite twists thrown in that I didn’t quite expect, when all was finally revealed.

The majority of the plot revolves around two GEN girls. Kayla, assigned to serve an aging man in an incredibly important family, is bitter about her life and her role in the world, and comes to find kindness in places she didn’t expect. Mishalla, kidnapped from her original assignment and forced to play caretaker to frightened babies and toddlers, falls in love outside of her class, and ends up in the middle of a illegal plot to give the upper classes yet more power and control. The two of them find themselves drawn into a plot for revolution and equality that neither of them could have predicted.

Sandler does an excellent job of putting the reader in the mindset of the downtrodden lower class as well as showing the viewpoint of the privileged upper class, giving us a good way to compare and contrast and to form our own opinions instead of having opinions forced down our throats. The writing style is smooth and easy to follow, the pacing is fantastic, and the story engaging and very creative. For fans of dystopian fiction who want something that isn’t “white-bread”, this is the book to have.

(Book received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)