Endgame

Gone are the days of pre-teens and teens reading The Baby Sitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High or even Flowers in the Attic.  Dystopian and apocalyptic fiction is a very popular genre for this market, but I can’t help compare the violence of this genre to popular books in previous eras.  I mean the darkness and sex in Flowers in the Attic was certainly scandalous, and discussed in hushed whispers by schoolgirls, but there wasn’t any violence of the sort found in the average apocalyptic book.   I am not saying apocalyptic books should not have violence in them, a world ending event by nature is going to be brutal, I am just wondering if there is any kind of ceiling on how far an author will take things.  I also realize that apocalyptic and dystopian novels also have lots of adult readers, people like me.

In the Ashfall series there was a high level of violence and gore.  Former upstanding citizens turning into violent cannibals for one, but somehow it was manageable because the protagonist, Alex, reminded me of a young Atticus Finch.  He had this real moral core even in the heart of darkness and therefore he balanced the violence of the story by providing hope.  I guess that’s my problem with Endgame by James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton, the story really doesn’t have anyone providing that strong moral center.

In this story generation after generation specific children from all over the world have been trained to be Players in case the Endgame happens in their generation.  They need to be prepared to play The Endgame, in which the world will end except for the Player who wins and their tribe.  Yes, in The Hunger Games, there were some counties?  Who had trained their representatives, but in most cases the participants were just the unlucky ones who were chosen by lottery.  The Players of Endgame are trained in violence and assassination since they were young, in fact, Players age out after their teens and a new Player fills their spot.  These kids know what their role is and some even seem to relish it.   It’s hard to find a sympathetic character as most of the Players have already killed prior to the start of Endgame, it kind of reminds me of pictures of young child soldiers in Africa.  Their weapons are the toys of their childhood and the stakes are higher than Katniss saving her sister, each Player knows that by winning the rest of the world will die and only their people will make it.

I think the authors tried to inject some humanity into these young killers by having some of them form alliances, but this is not Survivor, the stakes are much higher.   In the end even the ones who have worked together in an alliance will eventually have to kill their former partner.  The other technique the authors try to use to make the characters more palatable is by adding a couple of ‘love’ stories.  I use the term ‘love’ lightly as one couple consists of a bomb wielding psycho who kidnaps another Player who when she is around him cures his tics, and of course she falls in love with her captor and when she  gets away, leaves him her fingernails, ew.   The other relationship is of course a love triangle and the Player, Sarah Alopay, might be the only one who is relatable.  She was the All-American girl, waiting to age out of being a Player, so she can go off to college and stay in a relationship with her high school boyfriend.  Endgame finishes her fantasy of living a normal life and very quickly she gets involved with another Player, even while her faithful boyfriend follows her into hell.  I get that playing the game changes a person, but all the more reason for her to stick with the boyfriend who represents all the good things she is trying to save by playing, rather than migrate to someone who represents the violence of the game.

Usually I need to really care about a character(s) to keep reading, but at nearly 500 pages for the first book alone, it was already a significant investment of time.  Also, there is plenty of action and changes of scenery, and it’s not like the writing isn’t good, plus there are some mysteries to be solved and truths to be discovered.  So I will continue with this series, but I hope in the next book the authors will get more inside the heads of the characters and flashback to their childhoods.  What I think would be most interesting to explore is what it would be like to have the weight of this responsibility on such young shoulders.  That just at the age where most kids are being told there isn’t any such thing as monsters under the bed, what is it like to find out that you will need to BECOME the monster to help your people survive?

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Alive

Alive by Scott Sigler reminded me of being deliciously off-balance the way I was when I read the first book in the Maze Runner series.  In this case however, a girl, Em, wakes up in the last place you would want to wake up in.  That’s why I loved the first book, The Maze Runner, and hated the rest as once the initial ‘mystery’ was explained the next book was inferior and I never finished the series.

That’s not to say that by the end of Alive readers don’t have some answers, but with those answers that are given, new questions are raised, and that’s why I have hopes that the rest of this series will be able to sustain interest.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that Em has a strong case of girl power.  In other apocalyptic books that can be one-dimensional, that the girl is a tough ass-kicker.  While it’s true that Em fights her way out of the place she woke up in, it’s not about physical power with her.  It’s that she is a leader, and she likes it, and is reluctant to give that away to the boys who vie with her for the leadership spot.  She also uses her brain to think things through, though when circumstances call for it, she can be one tough cookie.  What makes her the best leader though, is her ability to recognize when she has made a mistake and her protective instincts towards the others who are in the same situation.

If I am being a little bit vague about the details of this story, it’s because I read the afterword by Scott Sigler.  I haven’t encountered a situation until now where an author asks those of us bloggers to not provide spoilers.  After thinking it over, he’s right, I should be careful to not ruin for other readers that sense of disorientation I had reading the first several chapters that drew me in to the story.  Too often I can guess what is happening in a story miles before the writer actually tells us, but since in this case it was not easy to guess what was going on, I will show due respect and try to write enough to entice people to read it without giving away the farm.  How to do that without saying too much is just a little tricky though.  I guess it’s kosher to provide some comparisons, so in addition to saying that if you liked the feeling of being off-balance in Maze Runner you might want to try this one, I will also say if you liked the world-building of Wool and the idea of tribes or cliques as in Quarantine and The Uprising then you will like this for those qualities.

Finally, while Em has fluttery feelings for a couple of the boys, it has not yet turned into some clichéd love triangle as in many dystopian tales.  No, Em seems to recognize that there are more important things going on than having a crush.  It’s up to her to figure out where they are, how they got there, and most importantly how to get the heck out.   This book answers the first, only brushes on the second leaving us wanting more and doesn’t even answer the last.  That’s enough to incentivize me to read the next one, is that enough for you to read the first?

In The Country of Ice Cream Star

In The Country of Ice Cream Star author Sandra Newman has broken some rules. First, in her post-apocalyptic tale most of the American survivors are black or Hispanic. Second, Ms. Newman doesn’t just build a world, but she builds a new language. Third, the book is nearly 600 pages.

It’s interesting that Sandra Newman, who is Caucasian, decided to create a situation where the survivors were minorities. Was she trying to make a political statement? Did she use this as a device to turn our ideas about the world upside down, the same way an apocalyptic event would flip everything we thought to be true about our world?   Ideas such as we can fight any threat either technologically or militarily? That disaster will bring out the best in people? That the young and vulnerable would perish in greater numbers than adults with skills and experience?

Probably one of the reasons Ms. Newman made this choice is that it allowed her to write the book in a new language of her invention. Maybe ‘new’ is not completely accurate as I was able to read the book without ever being exposed to this language before, but it wasn’t the English that I know. Instead, this is a form of English that has evolved, and more specifically it evolved as a language of youth and from current African American vernacular.  The fact that the heroine of the book is named Ice Cream Star already sets you on the path of buying into this invented language. You see in Ice Cream Star’s country, the former USA, the adults were killed off by WAKS a disease that seems something similar to the Black Plague or modern day Ebola. The disease reminded me of the Black Plague because one of the symptoms that appear when kids reach their eighteenth birthday is sores referred to as ‘posies’. The song lyrics ‘ring around the rosey, pocket full of posey’ that children sing on playgrounds now actually is about the Black Death, the ‘rosey’ being the sores and the ‘posey’ being flowers that people sniffed to avoid breathing in the smell of decaying bodies. The respiratory issues of WAKS are somewhat Ebola-like.

Ice Cream Star doesn’t have a reason to worry about WAKS yet, as she is only fifteen, until her brother, the leader of her people, the Sengles, approaches his eighteenth birthday. Besides Ice has plenty of other things to occupy her mind as the Sengles are petty thieves who steal to supplement what they hunt. Also, she is mother-figure to many of the Sengles who range in age from babies and up. Considering everyone’s short life span it doesn’t seem like a stretch that she would have such responsibilities. Yet, in other ways Ice Cream Star is exactly like a fifteen year old when it comes to her emotions, which include some complicated feelings for boys in and outside her community. The Sengles are not the only band of survivors in Massa (the former Massachusetts), there is a religious sect called the Christings and the Armies, a violent misogynistic tribe. Yet, it’s among the latter that Ice Cream has a romantic entanglement. I think that was the most frustrating, but also the best part of the book due to the challenge it gives readers. How can Ice with her bravery, leadership qualities and compassion be involved with someone from a group that rapes girls? Even after nearly 600 pages I was still asking that question.

That’s the other rule Ms. Newman broke, the story length. Usually with post-apocalyptic books there is so much action and violence that writing a lengthy book would be like a roller coaster ride for an hour. It’s too much, there’s a reason that any rollercoaster in the world is a short ride albeit an intense one. Usually, if an author in this genre has an extended story to tell they simply end the book at 200-350 pages and continue the story in a sequel. Based on the length of this book I thought it was just a one book story, but I have confirmed that there will be a sequel. I have to hope it will be released soon as after getting use to the new language of the book, it’s cadence feels more natural than when I started, but if I have to wait very long for the sequel, I will have to relearn the language.