Blackout

I had such a stretch of reading great dystopian/apocalyptic books that I was lulled into thinking it was hard NOT to write a good one since they contain some of the best storytelling elements…action, danger, emotions, heroics, etc.   I was starting to worry that people would think I don’t have a critical eye when it comes to this kind of literature because most of my reviews are pretty positive and I am always in awe of author’s who can imagine the dire conditions and consequences of these stories.  So in a way I am grateful to Robison Wells for his book, Blackout because I didn’t like it very much. 

 Before I go further, I should say I respect anyone who has the discipline to sit down and finish writing a book and then hustles to get it published.  However, I don’t have to like the results.  Also, I will say that I liked Robison Wells’ other book Variant, though I thought the sequel Feedback fell off the rails.

This book is about teens with special powers.   Some of them are terrorists who were injected with something that gave them their powers and they were raised in sleeper cells to become terrorists.  Others are teens who have accidentally developed these powers without knowing why.  When the former ones successfully target and destroy power plants, bridges and American landmarks, all teens are rounded up by the government and tested to see which ones have powers. 

Trailer trash Aubrey was always overlooked until popular girl Nicole discovers her ability to be invisible and cuts a deal to make her popular in exchange for her using her skills to spy on their classmates.  Aubrey abandons her former  best friend Jack to become part of the inner circle, however it’s Jack who is there when during a high school dance the military surrounds the school and Aubrey’s date morphs into something she has never seen and is killed.  They go on the run to escape the roundups, but once they are caught and interned they come into contact with the other type of teens with superpowers.

Although they are the main characters and the good guys, neither Aubrey or Jack are very compelling and their relationship is a bad teen cliché.  You also have to suspend belief to think that the families of the taken teens wouldn’t be trying harder to rail against their being taken away.  Even the kids who test negative for powers are still kept locked up.  Then there are the terrorist teens, little is explained about where they really came from and what their cause is.   The book read more like a bad CW show, you know teen characters, romance, action but not much substance.  I also tend to have problems with anything that includes superpowers, it’s just too neat a way to always get out of bad situations, really if anyone had these kinds of superpowers they would be essentially invincible, so it’s hard to believe that the military could round them up and keep them locked up.  There was nothing exciting or unexpected or thought provoking in this book, with the latter being one of the reasons I typically like the dystopian and post apocalyptic genres.  I am not even sure this book can truly be classified as either one.  In this case although the military does take them, they are just trying to protect the U.S. and are only acting as that institution would in a state of emergency, they are not the typical dystopian power hungry totalitarian government.  

There’s a sequel, but I will cut my losses with this series.

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Inhuman

It feels like I have been reading a lot of books this year about viruses that have accidentally or deliberately been released which has resulted in zombie type creatures.  Nothing wrong with that, there have been some great books written from various angles on this theme.  At first I thought that Inhuman by Kat Falls was another of the same type.  The West has been walled off from the Eastern half of the country where an infection started that caused people to go ‘feral’ and bite and infect others.  Most of the infected died pretty quickly, but some survived, though the infection caused some interesting mutations to develop.

Lane McEvoy doesn’t know about those special survivors though.  In fact, she has led a very sheltered life behind the Wall.  She has friends, goes to school and attends parties pretty much like all the other teens she knows.  Her mother died several years ago and she lives with her art dealer father, though he is often away on business trips buying art, or so she has always believed until an incident happens and she is confronted with the knowledge that she there is much she doesn’t really know about her Dad and his business, though she loves him deeply.

It’s that love that will find her crossing the Wall on a desperate mission where she will find the characters that were part of her Dad’s regular bedtime stories aren’t make believe.  Lane’s trip into the unknown is a bit reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz as she is joined by some fantastical companions on the way.  This is where the book crosses over from a post-apocalyptic genre to one mashed with a bit of sci-fi, which is normally not my taste, but Kat Falls makes it work.  It works because it includes the elements of a good story, a quest, heroes and heroines, action and a love triangle.  Yes, you can guess at some of the upcoming plot points from a mile off, but that’s OK as it’s still an entertaining read.  Yes, there are also a number of clichés too.  However, it does also does raise some deeper classic questions such as the good of the many vs. the few, do the ends justify the means and what does it mean to be human, although those questions are explored in a more brief and unsophisticated way than in books like the Rot & Ruin series .  My only warning is that this is the first book and it may be awhile before the next one is finished for those who chafe when they have to wait to find out what has happened to the characters to which they have become attached.

Monsters

First, let me say that Monsters, the final book in the Ashes trilogy by Ilsa J. Bick is a true monster of a book at 671 pages.  Normally it would thrill me that one of my favorite book series, and the last one, is nice and thick full of juicy action and characterization.  A friend of mine who doesn’t like zombie books or anything gory has read the first book, Ashes, based on how highly I rated it on Goodreads.  Now I feel a little responsible for the time she has invested because frankly I found Monsters to be inferior to the first two books.

One of the reasons the book is so lengthy is that the finale to the story is told in the voice many different characters.  I don’t mind the technique of switching between narrators as it creates variety and allows for deeper characterization.  There are too many books that only focus on the one or two main characters and the rest are on the periphery, too often used to move the action or story along and not developed with the same thoroughness.  I also find this technique interesting in the way it can give a different perspective on the action because the same people can have different reactions and views of an event, just look at how witnesses to a crime have been known to give disparate descriptions, times, etc.

 The problem with the way the technique is used here is that Bick is giving almost every character a voice.  It gets confusing, sort of like being in a room where everyone is talking at once.   Also, it might have been less disorienting to have each character narrate a few chapters in a row before switching to another character.  Instead, every chapter alternates and it takes a lot of focus to keep up with everything.  This also means that there are several chapters to wade through before the narrative circles back again to the strongest character, Alex.  In fact, I find it strange that the focus of this final book is really on Chris and Peter.  I do find Chris to be a fairly strong character, though Peter was not a very fleshed out character until now.  I just think that this being the last chance to experience these characters, that the focus needs to be on Alex, and Tom too as he was part of things from the beginning.  The other character I would have chosen to spend more time on is Wolf.  Granted, the fact that he is a changed and can’t speak would seem to be a hindrance in having some chapters be based around him, but actually that could have been an interesting exercise, show events from the point of view of a Changed since we really don’t know how they think or feel.  That’s what makes the Changed different than zombies in other books, most zombies are mindless creatures that only focus on hunger and don’t appear to think, have the ability to open doors, use weapons, etc. which is very different from the Changed in the Ashes trilogy.  Therefore, it stands to reason that it would be possible to tell some of the story from Wolf’s perspective and I think that would be very satisfying for readers to learn more about him in this final book.

The other danger with the way the story is laid out is that the author then has to come up with a plausible way to tie all the characters and the action back together for the climax of the story, some of which felt too coincidental.   At one point I felt like I needed to check a character key as I started getting certain characters mixed up. Even the author appears to be aware of how confusing the shuffling narrative is as she has added a character key to the back that I don’t recall being in the earlier books.  It seems to me if you put a key like that in, you know there’s a problem, and wouldn’t it be better to rewrite the book in a way where a key would not be necessary?

Lest it sound like I completely hate this book, I don’t, I am just disappointed because after reading the first two I had high expectations.  I still love Alex’s spirit and the way her tumor is characterized as a monster, one wonder if the title refers more to that, the Changed as monsters, or humans like Finn as the monsters?

There is also plenty of action, though maybe too much?  With some of the major characters getting seriously wounded in these action scenes it stretches credulity to think that they are quickly back on their feet and able to fight in further scenes.  Most of all, I disliked the ending intensely.  The way it was written made think there was actually another book coming, but since everything I have found refers to this as a trilogy, it seems not.  Yes, I am sure some will argue that such an ending lets the reader imagine, blah blah blah, but to me it left a whole new possibility for a continued story and really wrecked the whole Tom is the hero thing.  Curious what others think….

 

Fire & Ash

What do you when the last book in a beloved series is published?  Do you wait to get it to draw out that last read?  Do you start reading but only allow yourself one chapter per day to stretch out the experience as long as possible?  Or do you tear through it because you have to know what happened to the characters you have grown to love?

In the case of Fire & Ash, the final book in the Rot & Ruin series by Jonathan Maberry, I took the last route.  That’s unlike me; usually in other aspects of my life I am pretty disciplined and am able to delay always going for instant gratification, well when it comes to material things I want.  However, I have to know what ultimately happens to Benny, Nix, Lilah and Chang. 

We have all heard that “children are the future.”  Well, I can tell you as a former teacher that was not a comforting thought.  I saw a lot of immaturity, a lot of self-absorption rather than empathy, and much weakness rather than strength of character, and this was years ago well before the age of ‘helicopter parenting.’   Benny Imura is the kind of young adult character that post-apocalypse you would hope is out there. 

The whole series is a beautifully written story about the transformation from youth to adulthood. It is rare for a YA author to capture the blend of change, its complexity, as well as the grief of leaving childhood and innocence behind so movingly and realistically. In the first book of the series, the hero appeared to be Benny’s older brother Tom, who despite being Japanese and known for his skill with a katana, was very much reminiscent of the type of hero in the book and movie Shane.  However, Benny manages to surpass even his brother in bravery, loyalty and ultimately selflessness and wisdom in this final story.  He is also not the only character who grows in this way.  Nix, Benny’s childhood friend and first love displays all the complexities of women in one character.  Their maturation is the real story here, so for anyone who has ever thought zombie books are not for them, I would challenge you to read just this series. 

Yes, of course this is a zombie book in the sense that Benny, Nix, Lilah, Chang and newest character Riot have made it to Sanctuary.  A refuge staffed by monks, scientists and military types such as Captain Joe Ledger, a real life GI Joe.  Sanctuary doesn’t quite live up to its name though as the scientists interrogate Benny and his friends from behind the compound’s walls, Benny’s best friend Chang has almost fully transitioned to a zombie and Dr. McCready’s important research is missing; research that could not only help Chang but possibly save the world.  Even scarier than the zombies themselves are the fanatic self-named Saint John and his followers, the savage reapers who have formed a religion that preaches all of the survivors are sinners, and must join them in their quest to kill all the remaining survivors or themselves die. Saint John has not forgotten about Benny and his friends and how that enmity plays out leads to the climax of the story.

When an author has written a truly epic tale, it’s an incredible task to write a fitting ending.  In many cases I have been disappointed in how a series has been completed.  However, I think Mr. Maberry has achieved that and my hat is off to him.