Predictable dystopian

The Fight for Power and The Will to Survive are books #2 and 3 in the trilogy that begins with The Rule of Three, by Eric Walters. I read and reviewed the first book here, and then solicited the other two books from the library, so I waited to read them until they became available. (I wasn’t going to spend money on them, even on Kindle.)

I decided to finish the trilogy, even though I was less than impressed with #1. Book #2 was more of the same—literally, since it begins in the middle of the scene in which the first one ended—and Book #3 repeats that process.

Again, I enjoyed the flying scenes and some of the ingenuity used by the survivors in achieving their goals, and again, I thought that what could have been a much more exciting tale of dystopia was rendered somewhat mundane by the laborious writing style. A couple of moral dilemmas gave some spice to both volumes, but ultimately the fate of everyone involved was pretty much foreseeable from space! You don’t want your dystopian fiction to be this predictable.

It’s not horrible by any means, and I think might even be quite enjoyable for a certain type of kid of about middle-school age, but this series is never going to be mentioned in the same breath with The Hunger Games, Legend, or even The Maze Runner, which I heartily disliked for its inconsistencies and ridiculous plot while admiring its ability to mobilize fans. If you just can’t resist any dystopian tale, check it out from the library like I did and save your dollars for better fiction.

Three is too many

I tend to love dystopian and post-apocalyptic stuff. I don’t think it’s because I’m a worst-case-scenario kind of person, it’s that I love the ingenuity and creativeness with which the author has created the world, and also the way the characters rise (or don’t) to the occasion.

I picked up The Rule of Three, by Eric Walters, with the expectation of enjoying it, and I did…to a certain extent. The initial premise, which is basically the end of technology, was a familiar one (although the obvious conclusion—electro-magnetic pulse—is never mentioned). Suddenly, everything dies—computers, cell phones, electricity, all late-model cars run by computer—and all anyone can think of is to return to their homes to regroup, check on their families, and figure out what will happen next.

The apocalypse is set in present day, with the disaster happening now, to people like us, and it’s done plausibly, making it relateable. But…there are some major flaws.

The book is set in a suburban community with a small police force, and the protagonist’s mother is the police chief. Next door to Adam and his mother and siblings lives a somewhat mysterious retired guy, Herb, who quickly becomes the driving force behind finding and keeping security and promoting survival in their immediate neighborhood of about 1600 people. Herb’s extensive life experience in international covert operations (we assume he was CIA) makes him the oracle, and Adam is his willing disciple.

The good thing about this novel is the way it lays out the likely progression from unease to panic to lawlessness in the event of a catastrophe so overwhelming. The bad thing about it is that it does so with much less sense of drama and suspense than it should. In some cases it feels more like a survivalist handbook than a story. There are a lot of ingenious ideas and solutions to problems that would naturally arise from such a situation, but they are revealed without impact, as if anybody could think of them. Obviously the writer has done his research, but the delivery is too matter-of-fact for
this kind of story.

Each time a challenge arises, whether it’s looters at the grocery store, a valuable tanker full of gasoline that needs protecting, or bigger decisions about how to bring the community together, Herb has an answer. He is depicted as the chess master, always eight steps ahead, and the police chief and everyone else—including the supposedly “bad” people—are content to follow his lead once he speaks up in his soft and reasonable voice and simply explains the facts. Dissenters are rapidly brought around to his point of view.

The idea that people would respond positively to a person with natural leadership qualities isn’t surprising; but the supposition that this one man has all the answers, has plotted out the logical progression, and rises to meet every occasion and deflect the worst that could happen is a little god-like. Not to mention the fact that his basement might as well contain a lamp with a subservient genie in it, bringing upstairs all good things—canned food, hand grenades—in the nick of time.

Large parts of the book are obviously written for teens, giving Adam’s inner thoughts about his friends, the girl he likes, his worries about his missing dad (he’s a pilot, stranded by the emergency in Chicago—they all hope). But there is a lack of spontaneity in the writing that causes Adam to come across as stiff and awkward and makes the scenes of friendship and love unexciting in the same way that the serial problems are solved too easily.

For me, the best part about the book was Adam’s love of flight and his adventures piloting his ultralight in pursuit of information for the community. I probably enjoyed that so much because in my 20s I was a typesetter for three aviation magazines, including one exclusively about ultralights, so I recognized a lot of the jargon and enjoyed the depiction of soaring over the countryside in what is basically a glorified lawnmower with seats and wings. (In all the time I worked for the aviation mags, I was never persuaded into the air in one of the homebuilt aircraft they featured.) But these scenes were not enough to redeem the rest of the tale from its somewhat wooden tone.

This is a three-part story, with the first book ending after one big challenge to the community’s autonomy, with the promise of fallout to be revealed in the next book. I will probably read book #2, just for closure, but I’m not sure I’ll stick it out through a third one, and if I had read a few of the reviews on Goodreads I might not have gotten involved with book #1 in the first place. I appreciated the chapter appended at the end with the details of what one should have on hand to survive such an eventuality more than I did the book preceding it.

If this sounds like the kind of book you might enjoy, my recommendation would be to instead seek out an oldie but goodie, Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, for a similar story with a lot more human interest and a starkly realistic resolution to replace the somewhat pat answers offered by this one. You would also appreciate Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 629 pages of disaster-driven excitement.

2020 Faves

I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.

Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
that way.

YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES

Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).

The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.

The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.

The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!

I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.

These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.

ADULT FICTION

As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.

Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.

And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.

Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.

Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.

Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.

Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.

The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.

The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.

These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?

Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.

Dystopia 4 Kids, cont.

I mentioned about five or six posts ago that I had begun Charlie Higson’s young adult dystopian series The Enemy (review here) but would probably stretch out the reading of the entire thing by interspersing it with other books, which I have done. But this week I jumped back into it and quickly made my way through books #2, #3, and now I’m midway through #4. Finally, in this book, there has come a hint (no more so far) of how this whole thing started, which is certainly incentive to keep going.

And I do need a certain amount of incentive. On the one hand, I am still in awe of Higson’s abilities to write compelling characters about whose fate you come to care within a very short time of “meeting” them; but on the other hand, I’m wondering when I’m going to hit my personal limit for unmitigated gore. Because this is such a good story, my tolerance seems broader and more sustained than I would have expected, but after 3+ books of it I am getting as glazed in the eye as the kids who are encountering it and either going catatonic or becoming inured to its effects!

Lest anyone be either unduly impressed or put off by the size of the books, which are listed as 400+ pages apiece, keep in mind that this is a young adult series, and page count is not nearly as significant in terms of density. These are smaller-than-usual books, the typeface is several points larger than in an adult novel, and both the page margins and the leading (the space between lines) is generous. I’m finding it possible to zip through one of these in about two days, and that’s with reading only a couple of hours per day. So if you are intrigued by the reviews, by all means pick up the first one and see what you think. But one suggestion I would make is that if you don’t have a strong stomach, then don’t read these during meals!

Dystopia 4 kids

As a teen librarian, I have been recommending Charlie Higson’s “Young James Bond” books for years to kids of a certain age, but in all that time I never really registered his other series, although we stocked it. Recently, I saw the first book offered at a discount and picked up a copy of The Enemy, his first in a series of six dystopian/zombie books.

“Zombie” is a little bit of a misnomer for the villains in these books: Some kind of plague washed over the City of London (or the world? nobody in this first story knows for sure), and everyone over the age of 14 caught it. They first got sick, and then they lost their minds; some of them died, but the rest went around indiscriminately trying to eat anything that wasn’t nailed down, including their own families. So all the kids 14 and below are on their own, figuring out how to survive and having to fight off the grownups or, as some poignantly call them as they shamble around the city, the “moms and dads.”

The story opens on a crew of about 50 kids who are living in an abandoned Waitrose supermarket building, which two of their number who are good with mechanics have secured with the previously existing metal shutters and some other nifty reinforcements. They’ve been doing okay up to now, but since the food in the supermarket ran out, they have had to forage farther afield to feed everyone, and have had to accept things to eat that they wouldn’t previously have considered. So when they check out the underground swimming pool at the local rec center and see an untouched vending machine full of Mars bars and Cokes, they could be forgiven for not being as careful as they should have been with their scouting efforts before jumping into the pool to retrieve the booty. This is the first graphic incident in which we see the ruthlessness of the enemy they are up against, and this is when Higson lets the reader know not to get too fond of anyone, because everyone is disposable!

The writing is so atmospheric, almost like a script in the way it sets up and delivers scenes to the reader. It’s also (be warned) bloody, graphic, and gruesome, almost to the level of The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey, which is saying something! But to alleviate that atmosphere, there are strong friendships and alliances, distinctive characters, witty banter, and a powerful narrative voice.

This series couldn’t help but bring to mind the equally gory Gone books by Michael Grant, in which a strange translucent dome comes down over a beach town and all the adults are magically transported elsewhere, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. I believe both authors drew on the classic Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, and Higson also cites I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson, as his inspiration. I enjoyed Grant’s first book but honestly felt that by book three he had jumped the shark; I hold out much higher hopes for Higson’s tale of horror.

Higson says in an interview (at the back of the book) that his two “wants” were to write a book where the kids were in charge and supposedly free to do whatever they wanted (on your own in London! Wheee!), but also a book that was truly scary because they were impeded by a serious problem. One of his readers confided in Higson that he felt safe reading the James Bond books because the protagonist does grow up to be, well, James Bond, so he’s never going to get seriously hurt or killed off. Higson accepted that as a challenge for this series, and says that he would purposefully write his characters to be endearing in some way to the reader before deciding to eliminate them, and also that he would read his pages to his son before bed to see if they were scary enough to give him nightmares. (Note to Social Services: Don’t give Higson custody of any more kids.)

The book is scary, and also gripping as the kids are approached by an envoy from another group, whose members have taken over and are living in Buckingham Palace and want the Waitrose kids and another group from the same Holloway neighborhood to join up with them. They claim the neighborhood is much more secure there, as are the grounds and buildings of the Palace, and that they are growing their own food to provide for themselves, so they need the help. The Waitrose kids wonder: Is it salvation, or is it a trap?

Because everything in life is always a little too good to be true, there are of course things they are not being told by their prospective hosts. They also run into some serious hiccups in getting across town to the Palace, and begin to notice disturbing new behavior from some of the grownups, who seem to be becoming both more aware and more organized. Then there are the hidden dangers from zoo animals in the park, evil people living in the tube stations…you name it, there are perils on every side.

The brilliance and also the frustration of this series is that the first book begins well after the main action has already transpired, and because you only have the children’s perspectives, you don’t know what happened: Was it really a plague, some kind of biological weapon gone wrong, or something else? No one knows or even wonders much any more—it happened, life changed forever, and at this point, it just is. The big question on everyone’s mind who is old enough to speculate: What happens when their oldest members
turn 14?

On Goodreads I discovered that book #2 jumps back in time and is a sort of prequel to fill you in on some of what has gone before. I can’t wait to find out.

My experience with series is that I am always on a seesaw trying to decide whether I hope to love it or hope to hate it; for one that has seven books in it, I dip a little more towards “hope to hate” because taking a time-out from my headlong rush to read everything in one big eclectic mashup in order to pursue one series by one author makes me feel a bit stalled in my tracks. On the other hand, if it’s a good series, there’s the payoff. I don’t think I will read #2 immediately (I have 12 books in the queue ahead of it), but it won’t be that long from now that it persuades me to take it up again. That’s saying a lot, because I am neither a horror nor a zombie aficionado. But I like good writing, good story-telling, and engaging characters, and this series has it all.

Dystopian fantasy

I just finished the first two books in what I hope will be a longer series by Charlaine Harris, the author best known for her Sookie Stackhouse vampire books later immortalized as the TV show True Blood.

Harris has had a checquered history for me, with some of her books striking a major chord while others just struck out. I hated her cozy mystery series featuring Aurora Teagarden—I don’t know why, but I found the protagonist irritating and the plots excessively weird. I liked the vampire novels a lot for about the first five, and then they became increasingly silly and kind of desperate. I liked the Lily Bard mysteries that take place in Shakespeare, Arkansas, but they are grim and dark for recreational reading. The Midnight, Texas books are only okay, although I have a soft spot for the protagonist, psychic Manfred Bernardo. I tried a couple of her stand-alone novels from her early writing days but couldn’t get through them.

My favorites up until now have been a four-book series about Harper Connelly, a young woman who was struck by lightning as a teenager and survived it, only to discover that it had given her the power to know how people had died. She couldn’t see who killed them, but she could stand on her grave and reliably tell you if your wife accidentally drowned in the bathtub or if someone had pulled her under. Having no other skills that would earn her a living, she and her step-brother, Tolliver, team up (he acts as her manager) and hire her out to police departments and individuals who want or need to know cause of death. It’s an interesting lifestyle, to say the least, and the most enjoyable part of it is the sheer banality of their daily existence contrasted with the use of Harper’s particular gift. I have read the series three times.

EasyDeathI say they are my favorites up until now because they may have just been aced out by some “new” books I didn’t even know she was writing. The first Gunnie Rose book, An Easy Death, was published in October of 2018, and the second, A Longer Fall, came out this past January. There is a Goodreads note for a third one on the way, no date indicated.

Although I shouldn’t be surprised at the extent of Harris’s imagination (especially after the cast she developed for the Sookie Stackhouse novels), I was so taken with the concept for this book. Perhaps it is conditioning from all the dystopian teen fiction I have read during my 10-year career as a teen librarian, but I do love an alternate history, and this one really delivers.

The setting is the former United States, but one event—the assassination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has significantly altered the history of the country. Without Roosevelt’s guiding hand during the Great Depression, the crippled country fractures, and various states were either absorbed into surrounding countries, taken over by former rulers, or banded together to form small nations. The original 13 Colonies pledged fealty to the British Empire; a few of the “top” border states became part of Canada; the south-eastern states are now “Dixie” while Texas and Oklahoma and a few others formed “Texoma”; the “flyover” states remained “New” American territory; the rest of the southwest was annexed by Mexico; and the biggest surprise was California/the Pacific Northwest, which was taken over—by a combination of invitation, treaty, advantageous marriages, and magic—by the tsar Nicholas and the remains of the Holy Russian Empire, which is now its new name.

tsar_nicholas_ii_1898_by-a-a-pasetti-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commonsYes, magic is what I said: This dystopia is not only an alternate history, but also includes wizardry, mastered primarily by the Russians, who value it, and the British, who don’t, so many British wizards have migrated to the new HRE on the Pacific coast, inter-
mingling with their Russian counterparts to maintain the rule of the Romanovs. Readers of history will remember that the Romanovs had a fatal flaw in the male bloodline—hemophilia—and it is this flaw around which Harris has built this first story about Gunnie Rose.

It seems that only the blood of Rasputin (and his descendents) can keep Nicolai’s heir, Alexei, alive, and now that Rasputin is deceased, the hunt is on to find the descendents who can help the Russians maintain their hold. Two wizards travel to Lizbeth “Gunnie” Rose’s home in Texoma, seeking an illegitimate granddaughter rumored to live in the state, and hire Gunnie to protect them while they make their search. Gunnie Rose is between jobs and desperate for cash, so she packs up her arsenal and takes them up on their offer, despite her distrust of Russia and wizardry. But Gunnie is nothing if not brave, and she has ample opportunities to prove this as people intent on preventing the wizards’ mission keep trying to take them out.

longerfallThis series is pure delight, from the elaborate world-building to the laconic Western flavor of Texoma, and the characters are so alive they could step off the page. Harris has written this with just the amount of detail you crave, without drowning you in either description or explanation, and the pace of this mystery/adventure story is perfect. The minute I finished the first book, I jumped without hesitation into the second one.

The second book takes Gunnie Rose and the reader on a train trip into Dixie with a crew new to her, guarding a crate with mysterious contents and not even knowing its ultimate recipient. The mission is quite literally derailed, along with the train, and Gunnie is left, once again, with most of her crew dead or disabled, wondering what could be so important that the people who wanted the crate’s contents would kill that many people by blowing up the train to get it. When her former partner and lover, Eli the grigori wizard, shows up, she begins to winkle out some answers, but the truth is stranger than anyone could imagine.

What a fun and imaginative read. I hope she doesn’t take too long to produce the third volume.

(I loved the cover on this one, showing Gunnie Rose basically sulking because in Dixie she has to appear ladylike by wearing blouses and skirts and petticoats and stockings—and foregoing her gunbelt—in order to fit in. I greatly sympathized with her sigh of relief when she could finally resume the jeans and boots of her everyday wear.)

 

The Testaments

The Handmaid’s Tale is everything you would expect from the dystopian genre. It is at once spare and low-key and at the same time terrifying. It is a beautifully written piece of literature, sufficient to itself, leaving the reader with ambiguity about the fate of the individual characters but with a satisfyingly clear picture of the narrow and punitive theocratic world it depicts.

I was, therefore, quite ambivalent about a sequel, especially one coming out 30 years later and after the equally dynamic and engaging (although horrifying) visual depiction of the Hulu television series.

The publishers amped up anticipation for this book by making some promises:

“In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades. When the van door slammed on Offred’s future at the end of The Handmaid’s Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death. With The Testaments, the wait is over.”

testamentsFor the most part, I would say that these promises are not kept. Offred is not present in this book, except for some oblique references by people who don’t know her. Neither the beginnings nor the ending of Gilead are sufficiently detailed as to give the reader significant new insights into the rise and fall of this so-called religious obscenity of a government, although the theme of fascism—and the fact that it’s the low-level enablers who keep the system going, and not necessarily those at the top—is well documented. Apart from acknowledging that there is a resistance, and noting some of the actions of individual members, there is no cohesive picture of how it began, who is in it or runs it, or how they operate, beyond a few specific examples that still leave you wondering about the organization as a whole. If you have watched the television show, then you are unsurprised by the venality and corruption of the leaders of the republic, and even if you have not, if you are an astute reader with an imagination, you could easily extrapolate.

As far as the objective quality of the book and the story, I was disappointed to some extent. This book doesn’t speak with the same voice, take the same tone, or carry the same weight as the original. It reads more like a mainstream, action-driven novel, highly accessible, and thus may appeal to more readers. But it also suffers from something I doubt Atwood anticipated: The fact that two of the three narrators are young girls gives it a quality of immaturity that makes the book occasionally come off like a well written Young Adult novel. You can’t fault the writer for this, since the truth of Gilead is that they raise ’em “right” and push them into their roles as women while they are still barely nubile girls, so that there is less chance of self-awareness or rebellion. But the result for the narrative is that the girls occasionally present as typical whiney teenagers, which sometimes doesn’t seem right for the context. Furthermore, because one girl’s point of view is from the comparatively privileged space of a Commander’s daughter while the other’s is as an outsider raised in Canada, neither the narrative nor the sense of the plight of the women so ill-used by the hierarchy—the Handmaids, the Marthas, the Jezebels—is nearly as dramatic. Despite some sacrifices, the girls are more focused on self-interest and their personal lives than on the big picture of bringing down the government.

The saving grace of the novel is the third narrator, the nefarious Aunt Lydia who has become so prominent a figure in the Hulu series. Most of the material written from her perspective does give the promised insights into the underpinnings and back-door deals of the corrupt government underlying Gilead’s sanctity, and the two-faced, manipulative, passive-aggressive way she goes about achieving her objectives is positively Machiavellian, as is the long game she is playing. Her portion of the novel is truly a delight, but can’t quite carry the rest. I also disliked the ending.

My reaction, upon turning the last page, was to feel a little flat. I subconsciously expected lyrically written prose with a subtle plot, some substantial heroines, and a more revealing take on the Republic of Gilead. Instead, I discovered a fairly straightforward, occasionally witty thriller that gave me a bit more information, and added somewhat to social commentary. Perhaps that will be enough, or even preferable, for some readers. You will have to judge for yourself.

Fresh look: old books

In the realm of science fiction writing, it mostly seems like the guys get all the love, so for this foray into older reads, I’m going to focus on some interesting and talented women writers, those who specifically address the interaction between humans and “aliens,” or between races of people, with a psychological, cultural, religious, and/or philosophical bent. The fact that these books, some of them decades old, are also completely relevant to many of our current circumstances is the mark of a good speculative fiction writer…

sparrowFirst up are two books by Mary Doria RussellThe Sparrow, and Children of God. Russell has a background as a paleoanthropologist, and she makes excellent use of it in this two-book tale of humans’ first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. The action in the first book jumps back and forth between 2016, when an expedition is being put together in response to the discovery of extraterrestrial life (obviously a 2016 more advanced than our own!), and 2059, when the leader of that expedition, a charismatic Catholic priest and linguist who is its sole survivor, is being examined by the Vatican in search of an explanation for how first contact could have gone so horribly wrong. In the second book, Father Emilio Sandoz is forced to return with a second expedition to discover all the ways in which the impact of the first mission has shifted the cultures of the dominant and submissive races on the planet. Russell writes a good story, but also explores sociological, spiritual, and scientific aspects of the situation she has postulated, resulting in a compelling read.

Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my favorite authors ever. She wrote the entire spectrum from fantasy to hardcore science fiction, but all from a philosophical, sociological, and anthropological viewpoint that makes them particularly fascinating answers to “what if?” (Her father was an anthropologist and her mother was a writer.)

earthseaOn the fantasy end of the spectrum are the Earthsea books, which started out as a trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore), but then got added to with a book of short stories (Tales from Earthsea) and two more sequels (Tehanu and The Other Wind). I point that out because while the original trilogy is completely satisfying, you wouldn’t want to miss the other two books; and the short stories add depth to the world she created, a world that is deceptively simple but that contains timeless and sophisticated themes.

dispoAmong Le Guin’s many other books, my favorites are The Dispossessed—about a group of utopians who left their planet’s surface 100 years ago to settle on the moon so they could pursue their chosen lifestyle, and what happens when a physicist on the moon decides that he will break the forbidden silence between the two planets—and The Left Hand of Darkness—about a planet that is being considered by an Envoy (a person who travels to new civilizations to check them out) for membership in a vast intergalactic association. The sentient species on this planet is both male and female, and can switch genders, depending on various environmental and emotional factors, so that one person can be both a mother and a father in the course of their lives. The Envoy is the only person on the entire planet who is one-gendered, and it’s a strange experience for him, needless to say. LeGuin was always “fashion forward” in terms of the themes of her books, so for her to explore gender issues so thoroughly before the rest of us took notice is no surprise.

Next on my list is Sheri S. Tepper, who had a varied career as an executive director of Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in Colorado, a guest ranch owner in Santa Fe and, later in life, a prolific science fiction author.

famtreeMy favorite is The Family Tree. Police officer Dora Henry is looking into the murders of three geneticists who were working on a secret project. But while she is conducting her investigation, bizarre things start to occur: Plants start taking over the city, and dictating where people can and can’t drive by blocking the roads with trees. The weirdest part is that Dora can somehow communicate with the plants. Dora comes to realize (through an agency that I can’t reveal because it’s such a spoiler) that there is the potential for a civilization-ending catastrophe that she may be a key figure in averting. This is such a quirky and entertaining read, not to mention environmentally relevant for all of us in this particular moment.

Tepper has her own entry in the “alien contact” trope, and it’s a good one. It’s called The Fresco, and it starts out with a hilarious sequence in which Benita Alvarez-Shipton, the abused wife of an alcoholic loser, runs into two aliens in a remote wooded area of the New Mexico mountains, and they designate her, despite her protests that she’s “not anybody,” to take their message to her leader. So she hops on a plane to Washington, D.C. and tries to explain it all to her congressman. She thinks that’s an end to her involvement, but the aliens have more in mind for her to do. The book is a vehicle for cultural, political, and religious issues, and Tepper does, to be fair, have a particular agenda. But since I mostly agreed with her agenda, I enjoyed the book! You might, too. It’s wickedly humorous, as well.

snowAnother great sci fi writer is Joan D. Vinge. Her epic series is contained in three volumes: The Snow Queen, World’s End, and The Summer Queen, which are about a backwards little planet called Tiamat that happens to be a key transition point at the core of a galaxy, and the so-called primitives whose quaint society is maintained without change by the powers-that-be on other planets, simply to keep the transition point open for their trade ships, none of which stop at this planet. Every 150 years the “star-gate” closes, and then the primitives reign, but this time there are political moves being made to maintain the status quo. The theme of exploitation of a native people to maintain use of their natural resources lifts this trilogy beyond simple fantasy.

5thA classic book about what can happen when natural resources are treated with respect and what will happen when they are not is The Fifth Sacred Thing, by ecofeminist and permaculture teacher Starhawk. A group of spiritually and politically enlightened old women start a radical movement in the streets of San Francisco designed to result in a utopia in which water runs freely, everyone has enough to eat, and perfect equality is more than just a goal. By contrast, Los Angeles has adhered to the old ways, in which the people in power are privileged and everyone else is starving. What happens when these two cultures clash, the one an advocate of nonviolent resistance, the other a society with drug-reliant soldiers enslaved and trained to destroy? Walking to Mercury and City of Refuge are the sequels.

irustanFinally, although I’ve mentioned it here before, I’d like to remind readers of a particular book by Louise Marley, The Terrorists of Irustan. The book is set on a planet that was settled by humans long ago, but where the Second Book of the Prophet reigns, where men maintain their dominant male culture and women are not seen outside the home without being wrapped head to foot in veils. The only women who maintain a tiny portion of independence are those who are trained as medicants, the poor excuse for doctors on this planet. (The men find the profession of medicine distasteful.) These women treat the colonists injured in the rhodium mines, and also minister to any others who are sick and injured. One such medicant, Zahra IbSada, makes a controversial personal decision in the course of her duties that will have unexpectedly wide ramifications for the women
on her world.

This concludes our tour of some powerful speculative fiction writers and their tantalizing works. I hope you will consider them when you are in the mood to be entertained but also want something of substance to occupy your mind.

 

Fresh look: old book

Another entry for this occasional feature, looking back to favorite reads…

Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites:

glassharmThe Glass Harmonica has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), and it is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story.

 

irustanThe Terrorists of Irustan is set in the future on another planet, giving it a science fiction classification, but the society on Irustan mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil, and her co-conspirator, Jing-Li, is perpetuating a fraud that could mean death were it discovered. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid’s Tale sort of dystopia.

 

Ew, zombies

girlgiftsAs I have mentioned before, I am neither a horror fan nor (specifically) particularly tolerant of gore, so that I would choose to read a zombie book (without prompting from my teen book club) seems unlikely. I actually picked up the book thinking it was a different young adult novel (and now I don’t know which one that was—it was about a girl whose parents locked her in the garage every night because she had scary abilities), and when I realized what The Girl with All the Gifts was, I almost put it down. But the protagonist immediately caught at my imagination, and I had to keep going. I’m glad I did.

I came late to this one (the book came out in 2014 and the movie apparently premiered in January of 2017 only to sink like a stone—I never heard of it, despite the inclusion of Glenn Close as Dr. Caldwell!), but I agree with author Maggie Stiefvater‘s analysis:

The most sure-footed novel I’ve read all year. A dystopian thriller with a real, beating heart. Recommend. Recommend. Recommend.

So many zombie books are basically action/adventure/gross-out, with people constantly trying to figure out ways to escape being eaten and/or turned. This one, on the other hand, is more of a philosophical analysis of what constitutes a human being, who is worth saving, and what acts are justified in the cause of scientific inquiry and the hope for a “cure.” That makes it sound pedantic and slow; be advised that it is also filled with action, chase scenes, creeping horror, and unbearable poignancy.

The book opens with a bunch of kids who are locked into wheelchairs to attend school. The viewpoint is Melanie’s, arguably the brightest girl in her class, who comments on the variety of teachers and subjects, her interactions with other personnel (including doctors, soldiers, and the other children), and the weekly routine, an undeniably bleak and peculiar one to be imposed on children. The reader gradually comes to realize what’s going on in this cell block locked away from the wider world (the setting is England), just in time for this routine to shift utterly and eject certain of the characters out into that world, following them to see how they fare.

The science—the kind of fungal infection that could plausibly mutate into a zombie-type disease—felt new and interesting. The characters who persist throughout the story are thoroughly developed, with an understanding of their motivations and aspirations. The dystopian world is horrifyingly bleak, and definitely conveys the feelings of the last few people in a dying apocalypse. But for all that, the book is fresh, the story is moving, and the conclusion both beautiful and terrifying.

BoyBridgeThere is a second book, The Boy on the Bridge. I initially thought I wouldn’t read it, because the ending of this one is so satisfying I didn’t feel the need; but that book turns out to be a prequel to this, answering some questions about things taken for granted in The Girl with All the Gifts, and I may have to go for it, distaste for zombies notwithstanding!

Although I believe the author wrote these books for adults, because of the age of the protagonists one could also consider them high on teen appeal. From my slightly squeamish position regardingly the sometimes excessively graphic detail, however, I don’t think I would recommend them to teens under the age of 16!