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On Rachel Hartman’s “Shadow Scale” (Seraphina #2)

31 Mar

Shadow Scale [2015] by Rachel Hartman

Shadow Scale [2015] by Rachel Hartman

I am notoriously bad at finishing series. Fourteen-book Wheel of Time was no problem for me, but I generally take two to five years to finish a trilogy. There was no doubt in my mind, though, that I would be reading the sequel to award-winning young adult novel Seraphina. Rachel Hartman’s beefy Shadow Scale hit the shelves on March 10 and, while not with the fanfare of something like Twilight, thrilled a lot of readers who waited patiently (or not so patiently) for the continuation of the story of Seraphina Dombegh, the world’s favorite half-dragon girl. In book two of the Seraphina series, our hero confronts more of her own personal demons while trying to gather a force of others like her to save Goredd from an impending invasion of dragons. If Seraphina can’t come to terms with her own flaws in time, the land she knows and loves will be absolutely burninated.

In Seraphina [2012], the titular protagonist lived two lives: a public life as a court musician for the royalty of Goredd, and a private life as the progeny of human and dragon parents. While struggling to keep her taboo parentage a secret from her highly prejudiced countrymen, Seraphina finds herself wrapped up a murder investigation with the kind and bookish Prince Lucian Kiggs. Together, the unlikely pair must solve a mystery and navigate their way through increasingly hostile dragon-human relations in an era of fragile peace. But another discovery will change Seraphina’s life forever: the combination of dragon and human biology imbues her with extraordinary gifts … and she isn’t alone.

In Shadow Scale, Seraphina’s mixed race is out in the open. The people of Goredd struggle to come to terms with Seraphina’s birthright; the dragons must come to terms with the breakout of civil war between the conservative, racist Old Ard and the human-sympathizers; and Seraphina must come to terms with the fact that she isn’t the only person of mixed parentage. Her fast friends Kiggs and his betrothed Queen Glisselda hold down the proverbial fort while Seraphina ventures outside the realm of Goredd to search for the other half-dragons known as ityasaari. She plans to bind the ityasaari together to defend Goredd and her allies from the attacks of the genocidal Old Ard, but not all are willing to leave their respective hiding places–whether out of fear or hatred of the human society that rejected them for their biological makeup. As Seraphina crosses the plains of Ninys and the rainy mountain ranges of Samsam, she realizes she isn’t the only one trying to unite the ityasaari. Some strange force is bending the minds of Seraphina’s fellow half-dragons to an unknown and nefarious will. Can our hero be the savior of her people, defend Goredd, and fight this new mysterious power? Can she do all this without great and heartbreaking loss?

Mount Rainier

Seraphina searches out the other ityasaari through the mountainous terrain of Goredd’s neighboring countries. (Photo from “Ed Suominen“)

Hartman tackles a difficult topic in Shadow Scale that she had just barely touched the tip of in Seraphina: finding community. Seraphina grew up an outcast in her own home and survived adolescence by essentially closeting her identity. Now that she is outed, she wants nothing more than to find her true family by seeking out the ityasaari. The community she finds redefines her understanding of the meaning of belonging, but the relief she feels at finding it resonated with personal experiences of my own. Young people can expect to go through rough patches and sometimes feel utterly alone and misunderstood (that’s called hormones, kids), but there are some among us who feel extra alien, extra “other,” in a way that our traditional communities couldn’t possibly fathom. Seraphina addresses her otherness with a militant plan to unite ityasaari in forced communion. She might discover that people hate being bullied almost as much as they hate loneliness.

Not willing to pull any punches in her second book ever, Hartman also uses her fantasy realm of dragons and saints to comment on the power and folly of religion. Don’t get me wrong: Shadow Scale isn’t some didactic bludgeon of a book, but Seraphina comes across dangerous discoveries during her travels through the countryside, and some of those discoveries have her questioning the very foundations of her faith. The saints of Goredd are worshiped and served like deities but may not be all that they seem. Seraphina’s beliefs may waver if she can’t separate faith from religion.

The combination of Seraphina’s quest to reunite the ityasaari, the mystery of the Goreddi saints, the ongoing dragon civil war, the rivalry with the cloaked mind-controller, and a secret romance can overwhelm readers. The plot of Shadow Scale is overfull and not as tightly managed as its predecessor. I wonder if Hartman was unwilling to break the story up into two novels instead of one, wary of falling into the fantasy author syndrome of never-ending series. The author claims Seraphina’s story is a duology, but I’m hopeful we see more of the dragons and of Goredd, especially after all of the thorough world-building Hartman accomplished. Considering how she handled Shadow Scale‘s epic finale, Hartman proved to have cut her teeth and is ready for grander things.

The ityasaari aren't the only findings Seraphina comes across in her voyage. The truth of the ityasaari also poses a threat to the foundations of Goredd's saint-based religion.

The ityasaari aren’t the only findings Seraphina comes across in her voyage. The truth of the ityasaari also poses a threat to the foundations of Goredd’s saint-based religion. (Photo from “IBBoard“)

Read It: If you’re into the whole “half-dragon, half-human racial and social commentary set in a fantasy framework” thing, or if you’re just looking for entertainment with a fresh voice, you will want to read Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale. The series’ protagonist leads readers through an imaginative new world in which dragons and humans struggle to coexist, but Hartman’s accessible prose and wry humor keeps this fantasy story grounded. The Seraphina series connects readers of all ages with a character who is challenged to find a balance between two very different worlds and still find an identity all her own.

Don’t Read It: Don’t read Shadow Scale if you haven’t read the first book. That is literally the only reason I can think of not to read this book. In actuality, though, this novel is defined as a young adult novel, but some of the themes in both books of the Seraphina duology are a little heady for a younger child. Shadow Scale especially includes some rather dark trauma.

Similar Books: Thank God the young adult world is seeing its fare share of books with strong female heroines. If you’re looking for some more spunky, butt-kicking leading ladies, check out the Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword (the second in a series, but it stands alone), Malinda Lo’s Ash, Kay Kenyon’s A Thousand Perfect Things (even though this is not YA), or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. Of course, don’t forget to read the predecessor to this book, Seraphina.

Shadow Scale is only the second book Rachel Hartman has written, but it's as indicative as her debut that more great books are to come!

Shadow Scale is only the second book Rachel Hartman has written, but it’s as indicative as her debut that more great books are to come!

On Lee Kelly’s “City of Savages”

10 Mar

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

Katniss Everdeen is a household name and the Divergent film adaptations made a young star out of Shailene Woodley, all thanks to a rising subgenre among young adult readership. New author and resident New Yorker Lee Kelly is jumping aboard late on the post-apocalyptic YA funtimes wagon, but her debut novel City of Savages might be one of the better installations of this popular topic. (I’m not sure what it says about our youth today that this depressing, morbid genre is all the rage, but at least we’re past the “vampire-werewolf-love-triangle” genre, so I can’t complain.) Despite a few discrepancies in logic and some predictability in the plot, City of Savages tells a fantastic story about the grey areas between good and evil, and the strength of bonds between loved ones.

Two decades after World War III decimated New York City, sisters Skyler and Phoenix navigate the  wasteland of Manhattan with their mother Sarah. The entire island is a massive POW camp, regulated by the loose and distant hand of the Red Allies. The Miller family has the freedom to spend the warm summer months hunting wild peacocks and squirrels for their dinners and camping out in an abandoned penthouse overlooking Battery Park.

It's hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo by "Elizabeth Haslam")

It’s hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo from “Elizabeth Haslam“)

In the winter, the three women seek shelter in Central Park under the harsh but protective hand of the prison warden Rolladin. Rolladin is herself a prisoner, but as the Red Allies take less and less of an interest in the few hundred surviving residents of Manhattan, Rolladin assumes more and more power. She and her “overlords” keep residents in line and enforce strict schedules of manual labor to help the tight community survive.

The younger sister Phoenix, or “Phee,” seems to fit in with the survivor-mode lifestyle of the island, but her older sister Skyler immerses herself in books and the remnants of a previous culture, one where people weren’t forced to the limits of humanity and beyond to stay alive. Sky dreams of another world, a better one the the savage hierarchy enforced by the heartless Rolladin. Phee’s fighting skills and spunk earns her Rolladin’s attention, though, and the distance between sisters grows. When the girls discover their mother’s old journal, they steal chances to read it whenever they can, careful to keep it hidden from their secretive mother, and begin to unravel the truth of their ruined world and deeper, family secrets–secrets that threaten to tear sister from sister and child from mother. The final straw is the arrival of handful of strangers with strange accents–four men who claim they sailed in from the outside and come bearing news. The girls commit an act of treason to help the strangers evade the wrath of Rolladin, but their escape leads them through the subway tunnels, and the danger awaiting them there could be worse than anything Rolladin could cook up.

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you bet your ass I wouldn't love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly's "feeders." (Photo by "Genial 23")

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you can bet your rosy bottom I wouldn’t love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly’s “feeders.” (Photo from “Genial 23“)

The plot that ensues from there is nothing new in the literary world: familial bonds are tested by distrust, a little love triangle forms, things aren’t what they seem, conflict, climax, resolution. Kelly doesn’t stretch for the unfamiliar either in story line or setting, though that doesn’t stop her from creating a perfectly entertaining novel, thanks to the several fresh elements she uses throughout the book. Kelly creates well-paced, textured narrative by alternating chapters of the cocky, angst-ridden voice of Phoenix; the self-doubting, speculative voice of Skyler; and Sarah Miller’s journal, which slowly reveals the secrets of her past. The layers of the three narrative styles balances our slowly growing understanding of the past with the quickly moving actions of the characters’ present. Kelly also examines different forms of dictatorships: Rolladin’s power of brute force and rigid hierarchy, and the more subversive, covert power of theocracy. I have to believe that, were she not writing a young adult book, Kelly would have given the exploration of these methods a little more page time and maybe cut down on the time her two protagonists spend mooning over boys.

Phee and Skyler themselves are little better than formulaic female protagonists, representing two polar archetypes: the tough girl who cracks jokes and doesn’t care what people think about her, and the quiet, bookish one who doesn’t really know how beautiful she is. I appreciate the equal representation here, and I think young readers will benefit from knowing there’s no single way to be the kick-ass hero of the story. In fact, you could have two kick-ass heroes and they can be complete opposites of each other. But the real show-stealers here are the young Sarah Miller of the journal entries and the twisted, cold-hearted Rolladin, who comes with secrets of her own. Rolladin takes the crown when it comes to compelling charcters. She is a villain who inspires some wonderfully conflicted feelings because of what she represents: the cautionary tale of what happens when obsessive love turns into something ugly.

Through all the sloppy logic and predictability, City of Savages is a fine way to spend a few hours of your life and a stellar debut by an exciting new author on the young adult scene. You may think the post-apocalyptic genre is overdone and as saturated as a pre-teen’s Instagram stream, but this story of sisters, war, and tragic family secrets was nothing but a joy to read.

“I guess who needs a voice of reason when you have a partner in crime?”

And lord help the sister

And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.

Read It: Whether you’re an angsty teen looking for some new grey-scale, post-apocalyptic morbidity to gobble down or you’re a full-blown adult who just needs a little escapism that’s easy on the literary interpretation faculties, you will find City of Savages a pleasure to read. Lee Kelly succeeds at crafting an entertaining story in complex yet relatable landscape. The novel also contains a fun, queer subplot, so be on the look out!

Don’t Read It: All you sticklers out there–you critics of highly predictable plots or surveyors of plot holes–be warned. This is not the book for you. I have high hopes, though, since this is Kelly’s first novel, and she’s already planning another; these things will only improve! Some plot elements may be too intense for readers under 18. Not only are the scenes of physical brutality quite frequent, but themes of cannibalism and sexual abuse take large roles in this darkened setting. If you are a parent looking for something acceptable for your young one to read, make a note: if you wouldn’t let your child watch The Walking Dead then you may want to think twice before buying or checking out City of Savages.

Similar Books: Of course I’m going to tell you to go read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games for another book about a young female lead who is beyond capable in a depressing future America, but I hope to God you have already done that. You probably haven’t read the lovely novella Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I urge you to jump on that with both feet. Wild Girls is a short fantasy about two sisters navigating a world of slavery and harsh class structure. Le Guin’s writing blows me away every time I read it, and this short but powerful piece will convert you if you aren’t already an acolyte.

Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

On Rachel Hartman’s “Seraphina” (Seraphina #1)

18 Nov

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman takes readers to a world entirely believable and logical. It just happens to have dragons in it.

If there’s one thing pop culture needs more of, it’s dragons. And impressive female protagonists (who aren’t played by Katherine Heigl). So if there are two things that pop culture needs more of, it’s dragons and non-Katherine Heigl female protagonists, so thank the saints that Rachel Hartman has appeared gloriously on the scene with her epic young adult fantasy novel Seraphina. In a setting that feels like alternate reality Renaissance France, Seraphina, a young prodigious court musician, must navigate the prejudices and politics between humans and dragons. The land of Goredd is struggling with an uneasy 40-year peace treaty that bind the two species, but old habits die hard. Seraphina has her own secrets and troubles to worry about, but her curiosity, stubbornness, and compassion team up to embroil her in the middle of Goredd’s cold war with the dragons.

Dragons. They're so hot right now. Between games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and blockbuster hit shows like Game of Thrones, dragons have transcended the nerdy niche market they nested in, and are taking center stage in pop culture once again.

Dragons. They’re so hot right now. Between games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and blockbuster hit shows like Game of Thrones, dragons have transcended the nerdy niche market they nested in, and are taking center stage in pop culture once again.

Seraphina’s deep dark secret forms the foundation of the novel’s plot, and is an age-old, very human conflict: racism. Seraphina is a half-breed–her father, a human solicitor, married a dragon. She must hide her partially scaled body and her inhuman mental abilities from a world who would sooner stone her or drown her than accept such an abomination. As the assistant to the court musician, the task of remaining incognito is difficult enough, especially as her renown as a musical prodigy begins spreading, but when Seraphina gets wrapped up in a murder investigation lead by the headstrong Prince Lucian Kiggs, she finds it imperative but nearly impossible to keep her deadly secret hidden.

Seraphina’s dragon half gives her a logical strength Kiggs begins to find invaluable in his search for the cause of his uncle’s murder, but this half also brings nightmares–nightmares filled with grotesque, malformed beings–that nearly cripple Seraphina with their intensity. Facing her grotesques is the key to learning more about her own origins and learning how to reconcile her dual identity.

Music--combination of mathematics and passion

Seraphina’s dragon-like logic and human-like soulfulness makes her the best musician in all of Goredd. Think Mozart, but prettier and without the crazy.

Seraphina is not your run-of-the-mill spunky, female lead who doesn’t care what boys think, who kicks down doors, and takes on the world with her scathing, witty remarks. She’s not your Elizabeth Bennett protagonist. She’s your Fanny Price protagonist. She is ever in the background, trained since birth to stay out of the spotlight. Seraphina is unsure of herself, having never been told her abilities are outstanding, but she is undeniably logical and intelligent. In this first installation of Hartman’s fantasy series, one can only assume this is Seraphina’s coming-of-age story and that her unique, relatable character will only continue to grow. Right now, she is a fledgling hero who steps up into the role because she must. When she discovers a unique ability that ties her to other half-breeds like her, Seraphina knows she must put aside her insecurities to do something no one else in Goredd can do. It’s the greatest sacrifice for a shy, introverted outcast like her: to shirk her ignominy and take up the mantle of “hero.”

Speaking of dragons and unlikely heroes ... like San from Spirited Away, Seraphina's identity keeps her isolated from her peers, but her loyalty and unique inner strengths make her formidable.

Speaking of dragons and unlikely heroes … like San from Spirited Away, Seraphina’s identity keeps her isolated from her peers, but her loyalty and unique inner strengths make her formidable.

Read this book if … you’re looking for fantasy and/or young adult fiction that breaks molds. Seraphina is a protagonist I can get behind, someone to whom I can relate. She isn’t some world-class hero or unbelievable beauty–just a normal young person who steps up when forced into an impossible situation. My empathy for her and Hartman’s world-building ability makes Seraphina the perfect book for some intelligent escapism. And for the saints’ sake, we need something other than post-apocalyptic teen romances in the YA genre.

Don’t read this book if … you generally avoid high fantasy–with swords and princes, magic and arranged marriages–or if your version of fantasy is more along the George R.R. Martin blood-and-incest stories. Seraphina is definitely a young adult novel, though geared toward an older teen.

This book is like … the lovely novels of Diana Wynne Jones, but without all the silliness and snark, something I have started attributing to the unique qualities of British fantasy authors. Hartman’s Seraphina brings to mind all of my favorite girl protagonists, like Sabriel of Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series or Harry Crewe of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword or any lead from a Hayao Miyazaki film. If you’re looking for content with female protagonists, secret hybrid powers, and a bunch of dragons for an older demographic, check out J.A. Pitts’s Sarah Beauhall series: Black Blade Blues, Honeyed Words, and Forged in Fire.

Rachel Hartman's sequel to Seraphina is due to be released on March 10, 2015, and will be titled Shadow Scale.

Rachel Hartman‘s sequel to Seraphina will be titled Shadow Scale and is set to be released March 10, 2015. My horses are being held, but just barely.

On Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe”

8 Jul

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe [2013] by Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the Stonewall Book Award, the Honor Book, the Michael L. Printz Award, and Pura Belpré Author Award, but it's no big thing.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe [2013] by Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the Stonewall Book Award, the Honor Book, the Michael L. Printz Award, and Pura Belpré Author Award, but it’s no big thing.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s critically acclaimed young adult (YA) novel just scooped up a new award: the Longest Blog Title on LitBeetle Award. This title is so long that the abbreviation needs an abbreviation. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is an epically long title fit for its epically epic content.  The YA novels I grew up on were about eating worms on a dare or talking field mice who really liked their dandelion cordial, but AaDDtSotU (see how long that abbreviation is??) follows in the footsteps of many contemporary teen novels that have recently refused to shy away from tough issues.

Aristotle Mendoza is a 15-year-old in El Paso, Texas, and he’s experiencing all the confusing elements of limbo between childhood and manhood. Puberty, high school popularity, friction with his parents–all the usual teen trials–aren’t the extent of Aristotle’s troubles, though (for one, he has to deal with being named after an ancient Greek philosopher). Ari’s coming of age story begins in summer, and this novel is very much a summery novel. Ari’s summer is lonely, and he prefers it that way, but when another boy named Dante stumbles into Ari’s life, the unlikely duo begin a path of discovering the eponymous “secrets of the universe.” They also discover the meaning of friendship.


Sáenz writes from Ari’s perspective, so if you’re really interested in immersing yourself in the solipsistic, curse-filled existential crises of a teenage male, you’re in luck, because Sáenz does an admirable job of it:

“Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.”

Ari is incredibly thoughtful and self-aware for an adolescent, but he is still an adolescent. He experiences that singular inner turmoil of growing up and feels the compounding drama of becoming himself. Sáenz ends up creating a story that is true to the melodrama of one’s teenage years, but also gives beautiful portrayals of relationships. (OK, so “solipsism” was unfair of me.) Not only is Aristotle about the friendship between two young men, but it also presents beautiful, honest representations of parent-child relationships and healthy adult relationships between Ari’s and Dante’s respective parents. Young adult fiction so often falls into the ease of pitching “us against them” when it comes to parent-child interactions. Sáenz lets us know that it’s OK to be crazy about your mom and dad.

Aristotle is a story of summers, of love between friends and family members, and of desert storms. More than a tale about coming of age, it is a tale about navigating the tough stuff in life and learning to ask for help. It’s about learning to live as a person in relationship with other people. It’s a wonderfully simple concept featuring some lovely characters and written in Sáenz’s colloquial and often poetic style.

This is a novel about summer, deserts, and those rare storms that sweep across the American Southwest, changing the landscape and bringing sweet, terrifying relief to arid lands.

This is a novel about summer, deserts, and those rare storms that sweep across the American Southwest, changing the landscape and bringing sweet, terrifying relief to arid lands.

Read this book if … you could use an uplifting, easily accessible story. Aristotle is written with the easy language of young adults but with enough prosaic poise and mature themes to keep it enlightening for older readers, and despite those heavier themes, it is filled with hope, love of human nature, and the promise of happiness.

Don’t read this book if … you’re younger than 10 or 11 or are averse to some adult themes or adult language. Sáenz’s characters deal with everything from drinking to sex to crime and–like you would expect from a teenage boy–sometimes have the mouths of sailors.

This book is like … Going Bovine by Libba Bray, which tells the story of a young man who has contracted Mad Cow Disease. He has to learn to navigate his own coming of age while dealing with a deadly illness. Like Sáenz, Bray doesn’t shy away from tough issues like mortality and maturity. She uses her wit and singular humor to present a fantastic young adult alternative to a lot of frippery out there today.

Poet, novelist, theologian. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is closer than most to uncovering the secrets to the universe.

Poet, novelist, theologian. Benjamin Alire Sáenz is closer than most to uncovering the secrets to the universe.

What is your favorite book about friendship? Tell me in the comments below!

On Veronica Roth’s “Divergent”

20 Mar
Check out the non-movie cover version of Divergent by Veronica Roth. You only have four days to buy, receive, and read the book before the movie spoils the ending for you.

Check out the non-movie cover version of Divergent by Veronica Roth. You only have a few hours to buy, receive, and read the book before the movie spoils the ending for you.

J.K. Rowling made young adult literature a cult. Stephanie Meyer made it a racy cult. Suzanne Collins made it a racy but depressing cult. Now Veronica Roth, author of the rampantly popular series Divergent, is riding the tidal wave of this genre’s increasing hold on American readership. We (me included) simply can’t get enough of the new fad of scrappy young heroines–preferably when they live in desperate dystopias of the future. The future doesn’t get much more depressing than Divergent‘s eerie version of Chicago, where society is divided by its virtues into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, Erudite. Those who don’t belong live as the “factionless,” scraping out a living in slums. Beatrice, a girl on the verge of womanhood, is faced with a decision as she comes of age. Will she remain with her family in the faction of Abnegation–living solely for self-sacrifice and self-denial? Or will she leave behind her old ways, face her fears, and join Dauntless, her heart’s desire?

Well, it would be a boring book, indeed, if she answered yes to the first question. Beatrice and the rest of her pubescent peers subject themselves to a standardized government test, which is really some kind of mysterious acid trip, to discover which of the five virtues rules her personality. The results of the test will help inform their decisions to either stay with the faction they grew up in or forsake their families and move to new factions. Beatrice finds out instead that she is “divergent”–the test didn’t work on her, and she’s left to her own devices to make her decision. She chooses the alluringly adventurous life of the Dauntless.

Tris learns the true meaning of friendship: jumping off things while holding hands.

Tris learns the true meaning of friendship: jumping off things while holding hands. The movie adaptation (releasing tomorrow) will feature many exciting hand-holding scenes like this one.

As a Dauntless inductee, Beatrice renames herself to Tris as the first step to recreating herself. In typical teenage style, Tris makes alliances and enemies, excels in some new skills but struggles in others. Despite the fact that all this rings of Hogwartian houses and magical sorting hats, Roth still hits the nail when writing about relationships. Tris and her growing crew embody a lot of typical trials of young adulthood. They ride the roller coaster of egotistical highs to the lows of emotional uncertainty.  The protagonist makes mistakes and learns from them, has flaws and corrects them … sometimes. Tris exhibits a fun violent streak that gives her characters an edge that everyone but Suzanne Collins and a handful of others shy away from in the young adult genre.

Now, I know the romantic angle is what makes Divergent a crowd-pleaser. Just like Twilight, Roth’s book and subsequent movie adaptation is made mainly for middle age mothers suffering from sexual frustrations and a general lack of young muscle in their lives. Good thing Roth thought to include the dark, mysterious, hunky Four–Tris’s trainer in Dauntless and impending love interest. I’m obliged to write something about this. Something something romance, something kissing something muscles something, but something.


Something tattoos something.

Roth’s futuristic Chicago seems, at first, like a utopia. Murder and crime is unheard of, and power is held in a balance between the five factions. Each group upholds one virtue, disregarding the others, which creates a precarious balance that is just doomed to fail. Readers learn that Beatrice’s faction, Abnegation, is the brunt of brutal attacks from Erudite, the faction of knowledge and intelligence. The Erudite, unhindered by Candor’s allegiance to the truth, use false reports and fear-mongering to create volatile prejudices against Abnegation in an attempt at a political coup. The brief glimpse of utopia is replaced by horrifying truth. Tris, her courage newly found and cruelty newly honed, is the only one in position to end a potentially explosive revolution. Of course.

Read it if … you enjoy a fun time and really, really want to see the movie but can’t do it until you read the book. YA is popular among more than just teenagers, and Divergent definitely holds even an adult’s (at least this adult’s) attention.

Don’t read it if … you’re expecting some kind of grand and eloquent commentary on society. The sci-fi genre is good for two things: 1) Reflecting on the flaws of human society and commenting on them using allegory or cautionary tale; 2) Pure entertainment. Divergent is option number two. Roth’s vision for society’s turn toward an organization based on a monopoly of versions is bizarre, and would be laughable if not for some decent character development.

This book is similar to … all the references I made above. The factions remind me of Hogwarts, the setting reminds me of The Hunger Games, and the love interest reminds me of all the YA out there.

Make sure to look up Veronica Roth's blog, complete with movie updates!

Make sure to look up Veronica Roth’s blog, complete with movie updates!

On Michael S. Fedison’s “The Eye-Dancers”

6 Mar
For some new perspective in YA, check out Michael Fedison's The Eye-Dancers.

For some new perspective in YA, check out Michael Fedison’s The Eye-Dancers.

All kids have to grow up, find out what they’re made of, endure the freaky hormonal metamorphosis of puberty, test their limits. Most kids do all this without traveling to alternate dimensions through the ice blue eye of a mysterious ghost girl, but four friends–Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc–find themselves dealing with their growing pains while also dealing with a new reality and a dangerous kidnapper. Michael S. Fedison’s The Eye-Dancers takes readers on a wild coming-of-age adventure, a la The Goonies or His Dark MaterialsTED is a fun romp that explores age-old issues in a brand new context.

All four boys are facing the challenges of life and of young adulthood: Mitchell’s parents are going through a rough patch, he’s a loner, a compulsive liar, and has a speech impediment; Joe likes to fight to make up for his short stature and his borderline abusive older brother; Ryan uses humor to mask his feelings of inadequacy and cowardice; Marc suffers from extreme nerdiness. To preteen boys, these issues are world-ending, but there eyes are opened to a much bigger problem when they find themselves trapped in an alternate reality. There only way out? Save the kidnapped girl who has the powers to send them home again.

While writing about growing up is always a noble subject, Fedison doesn’t stretch beyond the obvious, easy stereotypes of young boys: the gawky outsider, the thug with a soft heart, the joker, the geek (complete with glasses!), and all the annoying siblings one can hope for. The dialogue sometimes slips into unbelievable triteness when the kids call each other archaic insults like “Einstein” and “rugrat.” I have my doubts that preteen boys use that kind of language any more (if they ever did).

We've seen famous foursomes before. Maybe it's time for a new dynamic.

We’ve seen famous foursomes before. Maybe it’s time for a new dynamic.

I do appreciate the way Fedison tries to humanize members of the alternate universe and even the kidnapper. As the protagonists entangle themselves in the ghost girl’s disappearance, they learn more about themselves, one another, and the people of the new universe. Those relationships help solidify the boys’ personalities, giving them form and warmth beyond the stereotypical molds they began as. The personal development they undergo is the highlight of this novel and will be a great influence on the young people who read it. There are a few missed opportunities here that keep from loving TED–namely, a lot of flat dialogue, some science-bashing throughout, and a neat little bow-tie-of-an-ending.

Read it if… you’re between the ages of 8 and 14. This is definitely for young adults. It’s also great for young people learning how to cope with their social anxiety, anger, or feelings of inadequacy. The characters in The Eye-Dancers encounter dangers and drama, but they also find positive ways to grow.

Don’t read it if … you’re not OK with heavy thematic elements. Some implied violence may make young children uncomfortable, and I didn’t see enough humor and/or depth to make this engaging for an older teen or adult. (Also, be forewarned that there are few female characters in the novel. Fedison does an excellent job writing the female characters that do show up, and it’s not a crime or a detriment to the story that this is about boys coming of age.)

This book is similar to … The Chronicles of Narnia, because of the dynamics of a group of children and because of the alternate dimensions, but don’t go expecting fantastical animals or preachy Christian allegories.

I imagine the boys' wild ride through the ghost girl's eyes went something like this. And who knows? Maybe they actually ended up on P3X-404 or something.

I imagine the boys’ wild ride through the ghost girl’s eyes went something like this. And who knows? Maybe they actually ended up on P3X-404 or something.

On Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” Series

19 Feb
The Golden Compass is the first (and best) of Philip Pullman's acclaimed series His Dark Materials.

The Golden Compass is the first (and best) of Philip Pullman’s acclaimed series His Dark Materials.

I’m obviously a terrible person and no true Sci-Fi/Fantasy fan for having never read Philip Pullman’s groundbreaking, genre-making young adult trilogy, His Dark Materials. But I have since rectified my error, so you can all breathe easily again. To be honest, I tried to start the first book, The Golden Compass, multiple times throughout the years and never felt myself pulled into Pullman’s world of naphtha lamps and daemons, but something clicked this time around and I couldn’t put the first novel down. In The Golden Compass, I finally saw the magic that launched Pullman into fame, but I was utterly disappointed in the evolution of the trilogy.

The Golden Compass begins a fantastical story in another world where every human is accompanied by their daemon, an expression of a person’s soul in the form of non-human animals. An orphaned girl named Lyra, along with her daemon Pantalaimon, gallivant across their version of Oxford. They pull pranks and avoid any attempts by the professors of Jordan College to tame her.  She and her Pan are having the time of their lives until Gobblers arrive in Oxford and children begin disappearing. So begins a wild plot of political intrigue, great battles in the icy North, talking warrior polar bears, and a dark secret that Church is desperately trying to cover up. Lyra uses a strange tool–an alethiometer–to guide her through an adult world of danger and intrigue. The alethiometer allows her to see truths, even predict possible futures, and Lyra possesses the rare and mysterious gift of being able to decipher it. It’s her child’s eyes and innocence that lend her this ability, in addition to wisdom and rambunctious leadership skills. As  the plot progresses, it quickly becomes clear that His Dark Materials drives toward one of the greatest philosophical and theological topics of the past 2,000 years: dualism. And Pullman tackles it with as much vigor as Plato, but arguably in a more digestible fashion.

The first book meets the hype: it’s engaging and introduces one of the most well written child characters (or just characters in general) I have ever read. Lyra is playful, mischievous, unbelievably intelligent, and realistically in touch with her emotions and motives. She thrives unapologetically on weaving lies and fantasies. It’s the gift that gets her dubbed with the nickname “Silvertongue.” It’s such a pleasure to read Lyra that I could almost do without the intensely exciting plot. Almost.

Fantastic illustration by Caitlin Rose Boyle on her blog Sad, Sad Kiddie

Fantastic illustration by Caitlin Rose Boyle on her blog Sad Sad Kiddie

The Subtle Knife takes Lyra and company to new worlds and new realities in the second installation of His Dark Materials.

The Subtle Knife takes Lyra and company to new worlds and new realities in the second installation of His Dark Materials.

The Subtle Knife

I took a small break between reading The Golden Compass and its sequel, The Subtle Knife, because I wanted to relish in the first book’s magic. I really felt pulled into Pullman’s universe and was ready to follow the wily Lyra Silvertongue anywhere she went. In The Subtle Knife, she leads readers into alternate realities through  a doorway opened by Lord Asriel’s actions at the end of book one. New world-trotter that she is, Lyra opens up the story to a much grander purpose. This is no longer a matter of missing children solved by a nifty golden compass. Our little hero gets wrapped up in a plot that will move Heaven and Earth, and joining her is a young boy from a world more familiar to readers. Will Parry joins the cast as Lyra’s counterpart. He comes from our world. In a jarring introduction, Pullman juxtaposes Lyra and her foreignness with Will and his familiarity. This is the point where Lyra starts changing, and the point where I started getting mad.

Lyra is called upon to take action, but ignores duty in favor of selfish motives. It’s her first mistake, and with it she loses her nerve, her verve, and everything that makes her a lovable, unique character. As a consequence, her relationship with Will turns sour–a former partnership that becomes imbalanced, with Lyra’s role as the apologetic, docile, decidedly female sidekick. She says to Will, “I’m only going to do what you ask, from now on.” The shift is so sudden and complete that I felt a sickening anger at what had become of this singular, strong-willed character. This sudden shift tainted the entire book for me. I’m of the opinion that The Subtle Knife falls well short of expectations set by The Golden Compass–in execution, in plot, in logic–but I don’t know if feel that way simply because of my bitterness. When reading the first book, I was thrilled I had found a character whose gender didn’t come into play in the least bit. Her role as daughter/girl/almost-woman didn’t matter. Lyra was a child and a person and a robust character. Suddenly, she is diminished to the flood of stereotypes and predispositions of femaleness as represented in literature. And now I have to stop writing about TSK, because I’m getting angry again.

I love this portrayal of Lyra and Will: the two of them as partners in crime (by the talented Lokelani).

I love this portrayal of Lyra and Will: the two of them as partners in crime. Here, they are depicted as equals, which is how I would like to remember them. (By the talented Lokelani).

The final book of the series, The Amber Spyglass, brings an unsurprising conclusion to the series.

The final book of the series, The Amber Spyglass, brings an unsurprising conclusion to the series.

The Amber Spyglass

In the third and final installation of His Dark Materials, Pullman’s epic story unravels even farther, before being tied up in weird, awkward little bow in the end. Gone is the tightly wound plot of The Golden Compass. I even missed the somewhat collected narrative of the second book. The Amber Spyglass introduces a multitude of new realities, one of which might be the end of our little heroes Lyra and Will. In the meantime, old characters reemerge to play crucial roles in a great battle against the Authority. Several new species are introduced to make the book feel like a hodgepodge of several different fantasy novels, and all the cost of losing touch with main characters and primary plot lines. It feels like Pullman would rather have written five more books of His Dark Materials, but his publishers told him to stop, so he just squeezed the abridged versions into TAS. It’s an example of a great story injured by epic scale.

In plenty of instances, I rode the waves of intensity and entertainment, and I was completely satisfied with how side characters developed. But that contentment was always interrupted by inconsistencies, subplots that never seemed to add up, and the ever-present egalitarian angst over Lyra’s devolving personality. One paragraph made me stop and actually put the book down in frustration (I apologize to anyone in that Caffe Ladro who had to endure my scoffs of indignation and heavy sighs of hopelessness):

“How lucky Will was that she was awake now to look after him! He was truly fearless, and she admired that beyond measure; but he wasn’t good at lying and betraying and cheating, which all came to her as naturally as breathing. When she thought of that, she felt warm and virtuous, because she did it for Will, never for herself.”

Now, to be fair, this would be fine if Lyra were some kind of parody of femininity–built to be a sacrifice for and foil of gender disparity–but she’s not. Rather, she begins as a compelling, intelligent, singular person, then steps back several decades into the land of gender norms of biblical proportions.

Lyra recovers some of her vibrancy and her strength toward the end of TAS, but she is ever the outsider, the alien, the Other (yep, I used the pretentious, postmodern, capitalized “O” word, but I only pull it out in emergencies like this one). Her character suffers drastic changes because of Will–who, possibly because of his maleness or his origins on Earth, is allowed to stay steadfast and true to himself.

Pullman should have quit while he was ahead, as far as his main character is concerned. I would have appreciated The Golden Compass as a stand-alone novel. It’s a brilliant young adult novel with a unique protagonist. But I don’t think I have ever been so disappointed in a book series this good–a book series that has changed lives, but could have changed so many more had not an admirable protagonist devolved into a servile, simpering caricature of archaic femininity.

The incredible John Howe illustrated one of the final scenes of The Amber Spyglass. Indeed, Pullman's images are magical and epic. His imagination alone earns him his reputation.

The incredible John Howe illustrated one of the final scenes of The Amber Spyglass. Indeed, Pullman’s images are magical and epic. His imagination alone earns him his reputation.

On Bray’s “Beauty Queens”

10 Dec

images“Miss Congeniality” meets “Mean Girls” meets “Lord of the Flies” in Bray’s newest young adult novel. An airplane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crash lands on a tropical island, and some expected oh-no-I-broke-a-nail-while-building-a-water-catching-trap comedy ensues. Bray introduces a pleasant variety of girls–some stereotypically ditsy, some overly ambitious, some resentful–but it’s her attempt to tackle the much more complicated issues of nascent womanhood that makes this novel worth reading.

The young adult genre has traditionally been wholesome, didactic fare safe enough for even the most conservative PTAs of our country, but it’s evolving thanks to authors like Bray. In “Beauty Queens,” characters deal with sexuality, gender identity, abusive childhoods, single-parent households, and love (obviously), not to mention guns, conspiracies, reality TV drama, and evil dictators.

This isn’t to say the book is all adolescent feelings and controversial teen sex. I haven’t laughed so hard reading a book since … well, since reading “Going Bovine.” This certainly isn’t great literature and may not be introduced into high school classroom curricula, but it’s entertaining, and I value that pretty highly among literary qualities. “Beauty Queens” also appreciates the complications of being a young woman in American society, and doesn’t shy away from difficult human issues that are hidden away from young women in particular.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys YA fiction or a good, easy laugh.