Series Review: Incarceron / Sapphique by Catherin Fisher November 4, 2011
Release Date: January 26, 2010; December 28, 2010
Age Group: YA (utterly gratuitous mature language; mild graphic violence)
Pages: 448; 480
Rating: Idea 5★; Execution 2★
Genre: dystopia, sci-fi, & (some) fantasy with overtones of steampunk
Claudia lives in The Realm—a place where an Era of Victorianesque habit and aesthetic is enforced by a malevolent monarchy. She dreams only of escape from the life that has been planned for her. Her only solace is her tutor, Jared, who has been more of a father to her than her own morose parent, John Arlexa the Warden of Incarceron. At least she is Outside.
Inside, Finn lives, and has lived for the three long years of his life that he is able to remember. He, too, longs to Escape from the miserable existence within the great sentient, malevolent Prison to which he—and all others deemed undesirable or superfluous by the aristocracy—have been sentenced.
All too quickly, as age-old plots and schemes come to fruition, Finn and Claudia’s fates are thrust together. The future of both worlds, it seems, depends on their ability to unlock the secrets that lie deep within.
As I tweeted the other night, I have rarely been as frustrated or disillusioned by a book or series as I was when I closed the cover on this one.
The idea is magnificent—something like The Matrix, something like The Scarlet Pimpernel, and still something like Mad Max and Blade Runner.
However, the idea’s execution in writing was deplorable, cheap, and utterly unsatisfying. You know how it was with Lost? Where the opening was fairly explosive and mysterious, but as the seasons dragged on it slowly became apparent that the writers had no long-term plan for the plot? No real ingenious answer to the mystery?
And everyone remained hopeful, despite being dragged on for eons by endlessly convenient twists, turns, and dramatic fluff, because they thought there surely would be some masterfully big reveal to tie it all together in the end?
Well, that was exactly my experience with these books, except without the hunky actors and special effects to tide a girl over. Full of fluff; unartful writing; and bad, see-through dialogue; impromptu/incongruous twists when the plot looked sure to dead-end; flat characters who neither were fully explained nor grew a millimeter over the course of 928 pages, and were often self-contradictory…
And, then, like the Lost finale, no questions answered. If anything, more were introduced, as if to cover the tracks of an MIA direction—yet again.
I am almost angry at myself for reading it. I knew at the end of Incarceron (bk. 1) that the execution was shoddy (I even tweeted my feelings), but was so curious about how the idea would come together that I convinced myself to keep going. I remained hopeful to the very end—past elements that didn’t really work in the world (the “Incarceron” beast; the “chain gang,” children born—as opposed to healed or reconstructed—with metal parts), or with the characters (Keiro’s fickleness; the Queen’s pseudo-evilness; the Warden’s loss of the key vs. the trio’s ability to keep the glove; the Prison’s simultaneous omnipotence and impotence, whichever suited the moment; etc), but were instead just convenient to the goose-chase of a plot.
I even clung on through the last few pages when things got really weird, and it seemed impossible that it could ever be satisfactorily pulled together, all the while thinking, Surely; surely no one would have published an idea this ambitious without a real, clever, mind-blowing ending.
This book has gotten lots of buzz. Taylor Lautner is starring in the movie, for goodness sake. Surely they wouldn’t…
But they did.
I think—if someone figures out how to salvage the plot/ending—it will be a truly wicked movie. But, as a book?
There are so many good, strong, dystopian/steampunk novels out there—The Hunger Games (bk 1), Birthmarked, Fever Crumb, etc. I would normally never do this—I am a book champion—but I suggest spending your reading time on the above and waiting to see Incarceron on screen.
Finding the Comic in Today’s Dystopia October 13, 2011
[Let me preface this by saying that this will not be a 5-paragraph essay with a very structured body or a
repetitive intro and conclusion. What I started out writing has turned into anything but!]
Today while I was watching The Avengers trailer below, courtesy of @YABookNerd‘s Trailer Thursday post, something dawned on me that I, at least, find really intriguing.
I usually don’t think of superhero comics as having particularly strong ties to the PLAYA movement (Paranormal Literature Addicts Young & Adult – yes, I just coined that, and yes it is totally awesome), though I know that the audience is similar if not the same: people of all ages who revel in thinking outside the box of the everyday, thrive on a good shot of adrenaline, and aren’t concerned with what anyone else might think of their literary/film preferences.
In other words, people who know what they like and they know that it ROCKS.
But, maybe because I was utterly lost in @CaraghMOBrien‘s uhhhmmm-azing book Birthmarked this morning on the train, or because I just read a rock-on article in this month’s @VOYAMagazine (go to pp. 48-49 to find Tough Girls Don’t Accept &$%!# From Anyone by Rebecca A. Hill)…or both, I started thinking, well, what are the differences? What separates dystopia from the comic-born superhero story?
My conclusion? Not much.
The primary differences I find between, say, Katniss’ tale and that of Batman or Captain America are that 1) the latter’s “powers” are magnified and embellished, and 2) that the superhero’s actions are usually preventative, while the dystopian protagonist’s tend toward the revolutionary.
I think that second point is the more significant: Superman, Spider Man, Wonder Woman, and the like are fighting to stave off an impending-but-not-yet-fully-realized takeover by the dictatorially-minded villain. Gaia, Deuce, Meg, Tally, and Titus, on the other hand, awaken to injustice from within an already established regime, and have to fight their way out.
Some might also cite natural disasters as a difference, since they are usually the cause for the negative setting of a dystopian universe, but isn’t that what the Green Goblin (lab accident), Poison Ivy (attempted murder), and Magneto (mutation/racial discrimination and violent) are? Of course, there are exceptions, but in general, I think that all of those things can be summed up as a similarity: human-caused disasters.
And, the more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued by such similarities.
First, if you think about it, many of the paranormal (outside of the everyday) elements in comics are close to those in the alternate realities of dystopian fiction. Really, what separates a Pretty or a Special from Captain America? Or an anti-gravity suit from a dress that catches on fire and flakes away without burning anybody? Then, in both genres, there are also genetic advancements/alterations occurring in people (Peter Parker; the Scriven) and/or animals (tracker jackers; Ninja Turtles). There are advanced forms of weaponry, transportation, and medicine/science in both genres as well. Etc.
However, above and beyond such decorative items, there’s also the deeper plot lines and themes, which are almost identical:
A) these are all narrative stories
B) set in an adjacent though somehow different (whether ahead of, behind, or alternatively developed) version of our world,
C) in which said world is threatened (or overtaken) by seemingly insurmountable, evil forces of a paranormal (not of everyday experience) nature, which have some totalitarian motivation,
D) to which a (somewhat) ordinary citizen takes a disliking, decides to stand against,
E) and, by some unforeseen force of nature (be it simple or extraordinary, human or extraterrestrial, mutant or constant, mental or physical), manages to overcome,
F) thus securing the equitable, harmonious, and enjoyable future of their (and by implication, our) civilization.
Once I had collected these different points in my head, the next question for me was, What does this mean? Why are we creating these very similar stories right now, and why are they so popular? Huge questions, I know, but the items that seem to answer this for me are C and D, which in turn linked back to a problem I’ve had with the academic world. We PLAYAs and our beloved literature have been accused of and marginalized in “literary” society because of many things, but probably most notably on account of our supposed unwillingness to live within the confines of reality. Just for the record, this is something that I readily admit to (a different conversation altogether), but I would argue that it’s not a complete picture.
What I saw in the trailer for The Avengers today – the element that got me started thinking about how it is, in its way, a form of dystopia – was a deeply rooted love for our reality, a fervent desire to keep it the way it is by thinking of all the ways it could be destroyed. From oil-virus crises that lead to plastic-surgery-based communism, to homicidal environmentalist redheads, we are constantly thinking about the ways in which our (very earthly, very human) thoughts and actions could (will?) affect our (very earthly, very quantifiable) world. And, just as importantly, we’re thinking about the strengths we have within us to combat that negative potential.
It seems to me that, whether it does so via a poor, scrawny huntress, or a roid-raging, genetically-empowered green dude, or a mixture of the two (dare I suggest Harry Potter?), paranormal literature is at heart very similarly focused right now. (I purposefully avoided throwing sci-fi and fantasy into the mix, but you can probably pick out for yourselves that, underneath the very superficial differences, the same parallels are present.)
We’re not escaping to enter a “better” reality somewhere “out there.” We’re doing it to bring one back home.
Much of human art can actually be boiled down to the same motivation. If so, you might ask, what’s my point in all of this?
Just that, well, perhaps we’re not all so different after all.
Looks pretty sweet, btw – out May 4, 2012. Enjoy!
Book Review: Restoring Harmony, by Joëlle Anthony September 26, 2011
Release Date: May 13, 2010
It’s the year 2141, but Molly’s world looks anything but futuristic: living on a farm; raising crops, livestock, and siblings; and playing her fiddle “Jewels,” keep her too occupied to really notice that the civilized world is – well – not so civilized anymore. Since 2031, when the unchecked shortages of oil caused world economies and governments to irrevocably collapse, her family has lived in relative comfort. They were lucky enough to be insulated from the worst of the crisis by the water that surrounds their small Canadian island.
But, all of that changes when they receive a frightening letter from Molly’s grandparents in Oregon, and no one but Molly can be spared to go and find out if they are still alive. Armed with nothing but her fiddle, she sets out on a journey that will change her forever.
I enjoyed this book on one level: it provided a dystopian perspective that I really haven’t seen before. For once, the protagonist’s family lives comfortably apart from the disaster because of their foresight, planning, and agricultural skill. In a way, the book contains both a warning about what might come to pass in our world if we continue to consume resources at the current rate, and a practical solution to the problem for those concerned enough to listen. I found this intriguing.
However, the narrative itself was otherwise unremarkable. The attempt was made to recreate mid-depression America – where liquor is scarce, the farmers are better off than the doctors, and organized crime has replaced a debilitated and absentee government – but those elements were regrettably “told” and not at all “shown.” Too much time was spent with the minutia of Molly’s days inside her grandparents home (of which I never could get a very clear picture) and not enough on the rest of the world, including the love interest. Complications, perils, and various other twists and surprises jumped out at every corner, but were not very believable. I became quickly jaded to them, and was never able to fully emotionally invest.
The heroine was fairly spunky and likable, but completely flat. Her fiddle, which could have been an interesting prop, got rather annoying by mid-book – mostly because it was named. Hearing “Jewels” over and over again, juxtaposed to rather old-fashioned song titles like “Turkey in the Straw,” just didn’t appeal to me. There’s so much modern folk music being created (I know, I’m a fan and go to festivals and other such geeky stuff), and I wish the titles had given the impression of more sophisticated music. As it was, I felt like I was back in kindergarten, listening to a “Wee Sing” album.
Still, it could have been worse. I appreciate the attempt to harken back to a simpler time and place (as well as the LACK of love triangle), and I did like the closed, feel-good ending to what I hope was a stand-alone title.
Book Review: Enclave by Ann Aguirre August 19, 2011
Release Date: April 12, 2010
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
It’s dark, but you can just see the outline of the tunnel walls ahead, curving on in their endless arc. It’s all you have ever known, the Enclave of youths you were born into, the only human contact you have ever had…until now.
Something shuffles to your left—it’s rotting stench is overwhelming. But survival of the fittest doesn’t leave much room for the squeamish. Besides, you are a Huntress. This is your purpose. So, you end him in a warm spurt of blood. His companions will finish him off. They’re hungry. They aren’t squeamish either.
There are stories of others like you up there, but you would never venture topside. Enclave elders say it’s all scorched and toxic. And, despite what your new hunting partner thinks—or the warm shivers his nearness gives you—you believe what they say. Well, most of it anyway. Their laws are harsh, but they keep you fed and safe…
Except. Maybe…no. You shouldn’t even consider it. The Freaks aren’t a threat. They’re just crazed animals in human form…rotting bodies with razor sharp teeth. They don’t think. And they certainly don’t organize. They don’t. Really. They just don’t.
If they did, we wouldn’t survive.
I knew this story was going to be quite unique from page one—which prompted my attempt at an unusual summary above. (Pardons if it’s ghastly!)
The narrator lets on that her world is not the same as the reader’s. There’s been a second holocaust, she says, one that razed human civilization…leaving behind a few ragtag groups to fend for themselves using what vestiges of human culture can be salvaged…underground.
The book really does an excellent job of keeping the reader, too, in the dark—both literally and figuratively. The more you read of the tight, gloomy post-apocalyptic underworld, the less it seems you can remember the feel of the sun on your face. The instinct for survival is visceral, as is the sinking realization that this could be our world, if the right thing goes wrong.
Similarly, until the last 10 pages, it’s never revealed exactly where in relationship to the present day world you have been —or why it’s the way it is—which I appreciated immensely. (I really thought it quite a shame on those bloggers who let the cat out of the bag in the first few lines of their review!) Even the fact that the question goes unspoken (because, absolutely true to her circumstances, the heroine doesn’t even know it can be asked) really adds to the close, musty murkiness of it all: it’s as if the world as we know it has truly ceased to exist. Serious props to the author—it was mightily well pulled off.
I do have to confess that I wasn’t quite as pleased with the 2nd half of the book (into which there was a significant shift) for three reasons. First, I had a lot of questions unanswered about the people/places/things in the 1st half that I thought were rather abruptly (& ergo cheaply) dismissed. However, I have hope they will be revisited/answered in the sequel, so I won’t belabor that just yet. And, relatedly, there was a certain thinness to the latter half: too much happens in too few pages. You don’t really have time to get attached to anyone or anything—despite the passage of book-months. In the rapid-fire beginning, this thinness serves to underscore the transience of life as it has become, but in the end results in a kind of “weak tea” effect. Finally, a half-hearted attempt at a love triangle left a fairly sour taste in my mouth. (They always do…)
However, I won’t reveal any more detail than that—though I’m longing to (maybe a hidden post?)—because this is one book where I strongly feel that the experience of reading blind is a huge draw—and one of the book’s greatest achievements. The concept, the setting, the world, they’re all fresh, as far as books go. We’ve seen the same thing in films before, but reading it is really a different and intriguing experience. I also love that it’s inspired and/or influenced by George MacDonald’s “The Day Boy and the Night Girl” story…but I’ll write more on that later…
Let me know if you agree.
P.S. DON’T watch the book trailer. DO NOT. I’m warning you. It really doesn’t do the book ½ ounce of justice…