The Glass Arrow

As a woman, the scariest dystopian books are about a future world where women have lost about 300 years of progress and are treated as chattel to be bought and sold.  Such is the case in The Glass Arrow by Kristen Simmons.

Aya has grown up isolated in the mountains with her mother, cousin and another woman and her children.  They are all in hiding outside the big city where all girls who are ‘pure’ and possibly fertile are put in a special dormitory in the city to await their turn at auction and Aya’s mother doesn’t want that to happen to her daughter.  It’s not just the idea that her daughter might become some man’s possession, but Aya’s mother knows first-hand that a girl not found to be ‘pure’ will have an X carved into her face with a knife and be given to the brothels.  Even girls who do attend and are bid on at the auction, have to face a ‘private meeting’ with their prospective buyer who sometimes take advantage of the girls, a rich pimp could bid on a girl at auction and make her his working girl.  Even if a ‘respectful businessman’ buys a girl, if he tires of her eventually, he could send her back to the dorm to be auctioned off again while he finds a new wife.

No, scraping a living out of the mountains is a better life in Aya’s mom’s mind and Aya agrees.  Brought up free and strong, she knows she is so much more than anyone’s piece of property.  However, the fresh air and food she consumes outside of polluted city make her a prime target as it means she is fertile enough to bear children, especially the male ones wanted by the city.  Just like what still happens in many countries today, girl babies are sometimes killed as they lack value.  They live when the female count is low.

Things weren’t always like this, Aya’s mom has told her stories of a time when all women walked proud and free until the Red Wars when men turned on women similar to the Salem Witch Trials and killed most women and enslaved the remainder.  These tales told deep in the mountains have always been scary for Aya to hear, but they are not near as scary as the day Trackers invade her family’s mountain home.   Freedom is never more precious than to those who have lived it and now may lose it.

Red Rising

Usually when people talk about books you hear how they ‘couldn’t put it down.’ My experience with Red Rising by Pierce Brown was the opposite; I ‘couldn’t pick it up.’ I wasn’t really very interested in the book for a number of reasons. First, I thought it had been mislabeled; it appeared to be a sci fi book, not a dystopian book. No offense to fans of sci fi, but that’s not my jam. I think there are enough potential interesting stories to be told about this planet without going farther out. I like how dystopian and apocalyptic books build a world in our own backyard and because the stories are here, we can still recognize and relate to them despite the constructs of a dystopian society or the aftermath of an apocalypse. Red Rising takes place on Luna, what we would call Mars and it starts off slow, a sort of Grapes of Wrath interplanetary style. Don’t get me wrong, the latter book is a classic, so I didn’t think setting it on another planet would add much to something that has already been done. Also, I have gotten used to the kick ass, take no prisoners type of main character in these books and Darrow seemed a reluctant protagonist far too willing to compromise and concede while his family and his love suffered. I didn’t want a Joad, I wanted a Norma Rae! However, maybe the best heroes are the reluctant ones, the ones who are conflicted about the part they will or must play.
Also, far from the book being about an alien culture, it turns out that Darrow and his people were originally from our own planet Earth. His ancestors were sent to Mars to mine a substance that will make the planet inhabitable for future generations, so his labor under poor living conditions comes off as noble more than apathetic. Darrow lives with his perpetually hungry family, minus the father who was hung for a non-violent protest of the conditions they live in. He works as a helldiver in the mines, a position both respected as well as dangerous, and comes home every night to Eo, his childhood friend grown into his love and wife. What happens to Eo is the catalyst that expels Darrow out of his family, his tribe, and his home to fulfill her dream.

Up until that crossroads I kept pushing this book aside to read other books and was truly at the point of giving up on it, something I almost never do. The same book that I reluctantly would pick up and force myself to read a couple pages of suddenly became a book I could not put down. Yes, it takes place on a another planet, and yes there are technologies and even some creatures not of this earth, but those more sci fi elements stopped bothering me when I discovered the dystopian story within. It turns out that Darrow’s world was much bigger than he or his people knew and his mission becomes much bigger than his own tragedies. In fact, he wrestles with his own desires and whether they will help or hinder him in his new role. Is he motivated by love, anger, revenge, or a higher purpose? He continually shifts among these motivators as he makes his way through a world where he is an interloper, a world he must embrace in order to succeed in his mission, at the same time that he loathes it. That becomes a cornerstone of his struggle, when does pretending to feel a certain way become an actual emotion? When does an enemy you pretend is a comrade become a true friend? Can he convince others that he is someone he is not, without becoming that person?

I wasn’t 100% certain whether this was a standalone book, or if it was a series, so I checked it out online. At that point I came across a heated discussion about how he ‘stole’ from The Hunger Games, which stole from Battle Royale, etc. Frankly, I don’t care, after all isn’t there a line about ‘ there is nothing new under the sun’? Maybe I would care if a work was very similar to something else AND poorly done. However, I thought this book had as much in common with The Testing series as it did The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Flies and dozens of other stories. That’s only because it shares universal story telling elements such as man vs. man, man vs. society and man vs. himself, and it does it in such an exciting and thoughtful way that I am glad I didn’t stop reading it.

Shattered

Wow

It was tempting to leave this review at that one word. Here’s why this Slated Trilogy by Teri Terry justifies a wow:

• This is one of the few series where the middle book in the trilogy wasn’t weaker than the first or last book and that is truly rare. Even in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (yes it’s outside this genre), one of my faves, I did feel a little let down by The Two Towers compared to The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King.

• Usually all the good characterization and stuff is reserved for the one or two, sometimes even three main characters. Not the case in Shattered. The supporting characters don’t just fill in the spaces around our main character Kyla/Rain/Lucy, but they are fully drawn themselves. They may get less words, but even in the limited lines I can completely imagine how they look, sound, and move. Moreover, I find them just as interesting and can see them taking a main role in another story, I find them as hard to say goodbye to as the main character herself. Plus, when I say supporting characters I am not talking about just one or two sidekick types. There’s Finley and Madison, Len, Stella, Florence, Gianelli, Dr. Lysander, Gregory, Sandra-Armstrong Davis, Cora, Mrs. Medway…..

• Pacing – I am sure it’s a tricky balance for authors in the dystopian/apocalyptic genre to balance characterization with action and Shattered walks that fine line nicely. In this story Kyla is trying to figure out her identity and I don’t just mean her history and genetics, she is trying to figure out the kind of person she really is. She has the training of an AGT assassin, she hasn’t fully committed to MIA and when a woman and child are snatched by Lorders in front of her she questions her own morals as she chose self-preservation over speaking out. She struggles to figure out her parental and romantic relationships and how they fit into her life. Yet all her inner monologue and searching are accompanies by lots of action and tension as she is trying to do all this while on the run or in hiding.

• Raising the bigger questions – I especially enjoy books of this genre that don’t just describe someone surviving in this type of society, but looks at the deeper questions of our humanity. I was struck how often Kayla repeated the refrain of if people collectively just stood up, they could put a stop to something bad, in this case the Lorders disappearing people. However, it did remind me much of studying the Holocaust and how people would look away when seeing neighbors and friends hauled off by the Nazis. It also reminds me of current times, the deep anger and disappoint with our government (both parties) and yet I read a recent article that basically said despite their low rating, incumbents continue to be voted back in across the board. If everyone voted out the current gov’t employees by finding a new candidate or third party candidate, what would happen next?

• The ‘love triangle’. I have a friend who even though she respects my recommendations hasn’t read any dystopian books lately as she says she is sick of the focus on romance, especially love triangles, in these dysfunctional worlds and how they are handled. Yes, I suppose you could say there is a slight love triangle, though Ben and Aiden came into Kyla’s life at different times without a lot of overlap. However, the romance(s) haven’t distracted Kyla from her goals as in many other books of this ilk. She isn’t some moony teen who is putting her personal life above what’s most important and she isn’t letting any relationship shape or subsume her.

Spoiler Alert: Don’t read this last bit if you have not finished the series!
How the relationship with Ben plays out is handled with a real maturity by Teri Terry in Shattered. To take the Romeo and Juliet situation and have Juliet not end up with Romeo was a risk. There isn’t any sense that the author did this for shock value, such as the death of Tris in Divergent. She simply shows an understanding and sensitivity to real relationships as well as her main character. Kyla is strong enough to survive the outfall of the Ben situation and she grows from it. I also liked how the author didn’t have her fall directly and immediately into Aiden’s arms either. Kyla’s situation mirrors that of the world she sacrificed to save, for just as society and government in the UK will take time to change and the citizens will need to absorb the pain of the past and adjust to the new way of life, so does our heroine. As in life, there aren’t any fairy tale endings, just people living their lives.

XVI

A book about a dystopian society that controls people through sex was a first for me. In the world created by author Julia Karr in XVI, the government has created a number of ways of controlling its citizens. Citizens are divided into different class tiers that control the kind of jobs and housing they have. All conversations can be listened in on unless they take place in a dead zone where there isn’t any surveillance. At sixteen girls are tattooed with XVI to indicate they can legally have sex and verts, an even more intrusive form of advertising are all geared toward encouraging female teens to want and have sex, that tattoo is insidious as it marks girls as bait.

Nina is one of the few girls who doesn’t seem to be looking forward to her sixteenth birthday, unlike her best friend Sandy who is counting down the days. Nina has more on her mind, like her mom’s abusive married boyfriend and looking out for her little sister Dee. She has never understood how her Mom, who was madly in love with her first husband who died when Nina was born, hooked up with a loser like Ed. Then again, there’s a lot about her mom’s life that doesn’t make sense to Nina, such as her giving up her good job and status as a Level 5, to take a cafeteria job and move to the countryside living as a Level One. Also, her mom’s insistence that FeLS, the organization that her friend Sandy is hoping desperately to be picked to join, where teen girls can move up tier status and trained as Female Liaison Specialists, a glamorous government program.

After Nina’s mom is killed, she and Dee move back to the city to live with her loving Gran and Pops, her father’s parents. Before she passed away Nina’s mom told her not to let her quasi stepdad Ed near Dee and most shocking of all told her that he father is still alive and that she has left answer’s in her little sister’s baby book.   As she tries to figure out what’s real, she has to contend with government agents and burglaries, Ed, and her growing feelings for Sal, the latter just the type of thing she has wanted to avoid all her life.

While I enjoy the way dystopian books extrapolate from our current issues and concerns into how these can worsen in the future, I felt that this book was trying too hard to deliver a ‘message’ about our potential or current ills regarding freedom of speech, inequality, reproductive rights, spying on private conversations, etc. The book came across as unsophisticated and ‘preachy’ but maybe that’s because I am not a teen. This book was one of the shrinking pool of YA dystopian fiction actually written specifically for the YA market.   Even the male/female relationships were immature and predictable.  Perhaps the same idea, written by a stronger author such as Ilsa J. Blick, Mindy McGinnis, or Joelle Charbonneau may have become something entirely more intense and powerful as it did contain a novel approach to the idea of exactly how personal government control can become. It could have been a YA version of The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, now that would have been something indeed…

Three

Do you know how you get those little cups of sorbet as a ‘palate cleanser’ during a multicourse meal? Well Kristen Simmons’ Three, the last book in the Article 5 series was a palate cleanser for me. Lately it seemed that I was reading a lot of dystopian/apocalyptic novels that had fantasy elements or just simply too many general elements incorporated into them to really be able to focus on the main aspect of the story. Three is a good, old-fashioned, stripped down tale of an authoritarian government which tells its citizens how to live.

For all that we in the U.S. call ourselves a democracy, this book seems timely. Isn’t the role of a democratic government to be representative of its people? Does anyone feel that this concept holds true today?

Ember Miller‘s life was irrevocably changed when she was designated to be an Article Five violator. Simply by being the child of an unwed union she was sent to a ‘rehabilitation center’ and her mother was arrested, tortured, and finally killed by Tucker, a soldier she now has a complicated alliance with. After breaking out with the help of her childhood sweetheart, Chase, the pair have been on the run, and the second book ended with finding the safehouse where they thought they could stop running, destroyed.

As the story begins, Ember, Chase, and old and new friends are trying to track the survivors of the safehouse. When they catch up to them, old friends are reunited and complicated alliances ensue. After hints in the earlier stories, the now enlarged group finds the base of Three, the mysterious rebel shadow organization that has been trying to undermine the current totalitarian government, but are there methods any better than the government they are trying to destroy? It’s this question that Ember has to ponder throughout the story, that and the idea that even if the people prevail, what does her own future hold? Chase appears to be irreparably damaged by the violence he has both endured and inflicted, and her own conscience is troubled by her uneasy alliance with her mother’s killer.

Ember is Everyman, or should I say Everywoman. She does not have super powers, she isn’t a ninja, and she struggles with doing the right thing. She is the proverbial ‘girl-next-door’ who is thrust into a situation that tests who she is, what she will do, and ultimately what she thinks is right for her loved ones, her country, and ultimately herself. Sometimes that’s exactly the kind of hero you want to read about, an average person who manages to make an impact.

Independent Study

I have to admit I was a little on the fence about Joelle Charbonneau’s first book in the series, The Testing, not because it wasn’t a strong story and well written, but because I have a strong attachment to a similar book, The Hunger Games and it almost felt disloyal to that series to fall in love with this one.  Any doubts I had were thoroughly erased by the second book in the trilogy, Independent Study.

Cia is now studying for her university entrance exams.  As all Testing candidates have their memories wiped of the Testing process to ensure the integrity of the original test, she doesn’t remember her Testing experience.  All she knows is that she loves Tomas, and she enjoys her friendships with Stacia and Will and is determined to work hard to make it into the University where she hopes to study Mechanical Engineering.  Everything is rosy until she discovers something on her older brother Zeen’s device, apparently the device is capable of recording, and she is shocked when she starts to listen to it and hears her own voice.  It’s her voice, but a stranger who describes unspeakable acts, some of them taken by the people she cares the most about, can they possibly be true?   What really happened during The Testing?  How can she spend time with the very people she now has doubts about?  She is torn between studying for her entrance exams so she can get the education she needs to help her nation, and trying to determine the truth in the recordings.

If the recordings are true, how can she be in love with Tomas?  And if they are true, then she is in grave danger, but she is on her own.  As with all Testing candidates she doesn’t get to talk to her family, and everyone else is suspect.  When one of the university candidates doesn’t do well on the entry exam, he is Redirected, and Cia decides to follow him and the officials to try to find out what being Redirected really means, whether he is being taken to work in the Colonies, or something worse. 

As she begins to investigate, she must also contend with the influx of Tonsu City students.  They were raised in the Capitol, and were not part of The Testing that the colony students were.  Despite the fact that they are the children of wealthy privileged officials, they seem to be very competitive, and Cia can’t trust them any more than she can trust her own colony friends.  Cia races through a cat-and-mouse game to figure out what’s really going on before it’s too late.  

In many books of this genre, the protagonist usually has a sidekick or confidante that they can trust, but in this case Cia is an island and doesn’t get the relief of sharing her greatest fears with anyone, and that tension, isolation, and sense of paranoia are what make the book exquisitely taut.  There is less physical action than the first book, but I enjoy the mental ‘games’ here even more than the physical ones, for it’s a thrill to see a character tiptoe up to the line that we all have that we think should not be crossed, and the questions of ethics and morality that are raised on the approach to that line in the sand.  I raced through this book and cannot wait for the next.

 

 

Champion

Champion is the final book in Marie Lu’s Legend trilogy told in alternating chapters by June and Day. In the first book June got to be a kick ass female in the style of Katniss, Buffy, Tris and others who paved the way, but in this book the battles she fights are all political or emotional and I miss the old June. The same problem exists with Day in this story. Granted, the former experimentation performed on him has left him weak, perhaps fatally so, and he has been separated from June for nearly a year seeking treatment for himself and his brother Eden, one of the Republic’s last experiments. It just doesn’t seem true to character that June wouldn’t hunt down her man and that Day would be able to survive so long without her in his life.

When a plague virus is the cause of the Colonies declaring war on the Republic, Anden and June reach out to Day, the people’s hero for help, but what they ask of him is too big a sacrifice and Anden and June head to Antarctica to request help. June is shocked to discover their superior technology, how their society works and how backward and isolated the Republic is now compared to other nations.
Returning unsuccessful in their mission, the pair arrive back to find they are under attack from enemies within and without. Captain Jameson and Thomas who were due to shortly be executed have escaped and the Colonies have attacked saying they won’t stop unless a cure for the plague is handed over by the Republic. Surprising support comes from Tess and the remnants of the former Patriots who have decided that even a flawed Republic is better than none at all.

Day’s part in fighting against the Colonies just doesn’t ring true; he goes from episodes where he is hovering on the verge of death, to taking part in his old shenanigans, whilst June uses almost none of her superior fighting skills, strange for someone referred to as the Prodigy. I just felt that this final book was waaaay too Harlequin Romance novels for my taste…the romantic triangle between June, Anden and Day, the stoic suffering of Day, and June’s overdramatic sacrifice near the end of the story. I am not against a little emotion or romance in this genre, but it just felt like it was the whole focus of this story and has been done better or more realistically in other books. For example, the attraction between Anden and June wasn’t as strongly developed as the Chemical Garden series where Rhine feels something for Linden despite her love for Gabriel, the love triangle was more developed in the Matched trilogy, and the heartbreak and maturation worked better in Dust & Decay.

None of this is to say that this wasn’t a good read, I just wasn’t comfortable with the change in direction this book took from the previous and the drawn out angst over action. Still, I will keep an eye out for further books from Ms. Lu to follow how her work as an author develops with her next stories.

Fractured

You know those nested Russian matryoshka  dolls?  You open up one and inside is another, then another, and yet another.  That sums up the character of Kayla whom readers first met in Slated by Teri Terry, but it’s in the next book Fractured that we begin to see all the layers of this character.  Who is she really?  Is she Lucy, the happy child from the Lake District, Kayla the Slated who struggles with memory loss and nightmares, or Rain who has the skills of a terrorist?  That is the question Kayla is desperately trying to answer. 

To add to the mystery within a mystery are a number of plot twists introducing new characters which for Kayla complicates life even more.  She was already wary about whom to trust in Slated, wondering whether her sister Amy and her adoptive mom really care about her?  Why hadn’t Dr. Lysander reported the fact that she is starting to remember some of her past?  What ultimately happened to Ben?

In Fractured, in addition to the mysterious Nico, other people pop up from her past and recent history.  Tori who considered herself to be Ben’s girlfriend, and Katran, someone she knew from the time before she was slated.  Then there’s Cam, the friendly new next-door-neighbor who takes away her focus on Ben.

For every stop forward Kayla takes in trying to figure out her past, another secret confronts her.  Teri Terry does a great job of describing what it’s like to someone who’s mind is fractured and can almost grasp the truth of her past, but whenever she sees the pieces out of the corner of her eye, they disappear.   However, Kayla struggles equally as much with the ultimate question of who she is and what she believes in, not just her name and identity.  She has understandable rage toward the Lorders, who Slate teens like her and have created a totalitarian society where people who ask the wrong questions are bundled into black vans and taken away, but do their actions justify the methods of Free UK, the guerilla group who fight the Lorders?

The pacing of this book is intense.  In every chapter there is either violence, a piece of the puzzle revealed or a plot twist.  Some dystopian and apocalyptic novels fixate too much on physical action and danger, but this book has the right balance of action and heart as Kayla tries to figure out her place in this mixed up world she inhabits, and is surprised by which people really are on her side.

 

The Forsaken

The Forsaken by Lisa M. Stasse will appeal to people who enjoyed The Maze Runner, Quarantine, Variant, and Lockdown.    The Forsaken has similar Lord of the Flies aspects and even elements of the TV series Lost with its mysterious island and unnatural enemies. 

Alenna Shawcross is only ten when her parents are snatched in the night by the secret police of the UNA and orphaned.  Even before their abduction, Alenna’s world has been turned upside down.  The UNA, or United Northern Alliance was formed just a few years earlier uniting Canada, the U.S. and Mexico after a global economic meltdown caused food shortages and violent crime waves in an effort to restore order.  However, the citizens of the united countries were not happy about the alliance resulting in first demonstrations, then riots, then armed rebellions until a four-star general appointed himself prime minister for life and closed the national borders and snatched away all freedoms including cell phones, computers and the Internet.

All high school juniors must take the GPPT, a test that determines potential future criminals, people with a propensity for violence and psychopaths.  Anyone who fails is designated an “unanchored soul” and shipped to a desolate prison island where the average life expectancy is only eighteen years of age.

The day before her test, Alenna’s class visits a museum where the students can view live footage of the island via cameras placed there.  When a blue-eyed boy appears desperately trying to communicate, Alenna feels a strange connection to him before he is attacked by a monstrous hooded figure and the camera malfunctions.

Confident that she has obeyed all rules, studied hard and doesn’t stand out in any way from her peers, Alenna takes her test – and fails, waking up on the island near a boy named David from her city.  Attacked by drones, the island psychopaths, a warrior girl appears to help them, though only Alenna and the girl manage to get away from the drones.  Alenna is taken to the girl’s village where she learns more about how the island is divided into sectors, which includes the mysterious gray sector that just might hold the key to getting off the island IF she can survive the drone attacks and the mysterious sickness affecting many of the teens.

 

Reached

Although The Hunger Games was the book that truly set me on the path as a fan of dystopian YA fiction, Ally Condie’s Matched was the next book I read, so I am sad today to be writing a book review of Reached, the final book in the Matched Trilogy.   Reaching the end of a series is like saying goodbye to a dear friend and I think that the author Ally herself felt that way as there is a rather melancholy bittersweet undertone to this final book in the series.  It’s that feeling you get when you leave high school, when you are grown up and leave friends and loved ones behind as you go forward into a new life.  The characters of the trilogy have been tempered by trouble and have matured into adulthood.

Cassia and Ky have returned to the Society to play a role for the Uprising. Xander who had remained in the Society in Crossed, has become an Official, though he too belongs to the Uprising.  Once again the three are separated from each other and all must walk their own path to the future.

Xander, a physic attends the Welcome Ceremony for a newborn; he and other members of the Uprising have been giving all children the Rising immunizations, rather than the Society’s which means that the new generation will grow up immune to the red tablet so that the Society can’t take their memories of the truth.  It’s during this particular ceremony that Xander sees the sign that the rebellion won’t wait for the children to grow into a new uncontrolled generation.

Cassia has been sent to Capital to continue her work as a sorter, but she also works on the side as a trader with the Archivists, the only way she can pay to send messages to her family and the two most important men in her life. 

Ky, along with pal Indie from Crossed, has become a pilot for the Uprising, though the only reason he is doing that is for Cassia.  He isn’t sure he can believe in or trust the Pilot, the leader of the Uprising. 

The story is alternatively narrated by each of the three characters.  While a love triangle in other books is usually not very successful as the balance is always tipped towards one of the participants, Condie does a good job of balancing out the strengths and weaknesses of both Ky and Xander as suitors for Cassia.  In fact, this triangle rounds out the characters as three-dimensional as the feelings they have about each other and the situation are complicated and painful.  There is a maturity to the romance that is missing in most other YA books. 

An outbreak of disease is the catalyst for the Uprising to supplant the Society, as the Uprising are able to provide people with a cure, but the means, motives and leadership behind the Uprising are more muddied than expected and each of the main characters are pulled into a situation that begins to spiral out of control.  Ky flys the cure into the infected cities, Cassia had started a Gallery to give people the freedom to share art, songs and poems and Xander has been curing the victims of the disease until some patients present new symptoms which bring the three heroes together in a race to save civilization. 

Ally Condie is speaking as much to herself as her readers when she says, “…even though all cannot be as everyone would wish, there is satisfaction in knowing that something good and right and true was part of you…There is ebb and flow.  Leaving and coming.  Fight and fall.  Sing and silent. Reaching and reached.”  Goodspeed Cassia, Ky and Xander.