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: The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare August 3, 2011
Titles: City of Bones, City of Ashes, and City of Glass
Release Dates: July 2, 2007; March 25, 2008; March 24, 2009
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry
Series: The Mortal Instruments
Rating: Idea 3★; Execution 2★
Clary lives as normal and uncomplicated a life as anyone can in NYC—bohemian mom, quiet best friend Simon, father-like family friend Luke… There is nothing more to Clary’s world than the everyday—until reality comes crashing through the thin veil of her mind late one night in a sketch downtown club. One glimpse and Clary’s mundane life becomes utterly complex: mother’s missing; Simon’s hopelessly in love with her; angels exist, so do demons, werewolves, and vampires (aka “downworlders”); and the only person who seems to know what’s going on is the single most arrogant, cold, and freakishly HOT guy Clary has ever seen. His name is Jace, and he calls himself a Nephalim—half human, half angel.
Before she can even remember to object, Clary is thrown headlong into a serious interspecies conflict led by a rogue Nephalim—Valentine—whose very name inspires the shivers. As the whole shadow world struggles to decide whether to combine forces and stop Valentine from claiming the 3 powerful Mortal Instruments or to give in and allow him to fulfill his diabolical plans, it slowly becomes apparent that Clary is the unsuspecting lynchpin.
In order to stop him, she must face a host of challenges—physical, psychological, and romantic—before confronting the ultimate choice to sacrifice what matters to her most, or live with the devastating consequences.
(I won’t give away whole storylines, but will hint at things that aren’t revealed until bk 3.)
I knew that sooner or later it’d have to come along: my first negative review. However, please bear in mind that I’m not saying not to read these books. Though I got frustrated and sometimes put them down (for the reasons outlined below), I wouldn’t have not finished them. Hence the 3 stars (where I was tempted to give 2). I don’t think that I will pick up the new *surprise* book 4, City of Fallen Angels though…and I don’t really think back on the ones I did read…at all.
That’s because this trilogy falls firmly into the group I’d call “cotton candy”: look pretty, smell pretty, melt in your mouth and are gone. They are, seemingly without remorse, a very cheap thrill—a la Twilight & Co.—and for that reason, very hard to put down. I found myself alternatively groaning with gusto and sighing with teen fever.
If you’re interested to know the details of why I wasn’t so keen on them, keep reading. If not, skip to the next set of stars.
* * * * *
In particular, these 4 things bothered me:
1) Simon. Love triangles are common enough that I’ve devoted an entire category to them here. But, some are achieved more or less annoyingly than others. This was not in that group. Simon, Clary’s friend-turned-gaggy-crush, doesn’t stand a chance—he’s a clear 2nd best to the cold, heroic heartthrob, Jace. Although, there is one “turn off” about Jace that is supposed to make us doubt his destiny to be with Clary, it was so un-deftly played that I never bit. As a result, Simon ended up looking even dorkier than intended, and, well, just grated on my every last nerve.
2) Incessant Foreshadowing. A literary device full of potential, it became something of a dead horse in these books. I knew the answers to the “burning” questions (and was 100% confident about them) some 500 pages before they were answered. This was, in part, because the narrative was a little too transparent, but also partly because the author spent so much energy trying to keep the questions burning that she smoked the answers out. I like a little more cleverness to my mysteries—otherwise, what motivation do you have to keep reading a not-particularly-well-written 1500-page series?
3) Reckless Manslaughter. Like George in HP, a sibling of a supporting character dies in the final book. However, this series wasn’t brave about it: the character is so minor to the plot as to be useless; its removal more of a hiccup than heartstop—and the motive such an obvious attempt at evoking pathos that I almost laughed…then got angry (see Tweet proof). The poor kid’s role—who, unlike George, we never get to know and love—is reduced to something like a cute puppy who gets bopped on the head to make softhearted girls go “awww!” Truly, this piece of the narrative was ridiculously clumsily pulled off (enough to deserve two –ly adverbs!). If the writing’s good, it will evoke tears through its art—not by stabbing the reader in the hand with a fork.
4) Clamoring Clichés…and a lot of familiar motifs. There is a chunkton of rather unoriginal material in this series. I don’t necessarily mean the demon/angel/etc lore—but in actual motifs of the storyline. (Those spoilers I told you about hit most here.)
- Brother-sister a(ttra)ction (Starwars)
- Sociopathic, racist villain whose name begins with “V”—every mention of which name strikes fear—whom the adults of the book went to school with and knew as a “less than purely evil young man,” and who plans the purification of the world from inferior races by means of 3 magical artifacts…(Need I go on? Of course, I do mean Voldemort.)
- A triumvirate of mystical objects, which, when combined, achieve world-changing ends. (Harry Potter series; His Dark Materials trilogy)
- Heroine who has the power to write or read magical runes/glyphs/letters that alter reality. (the Dreamdark series; His Dark Materials trilogy)
- Protagonist who discovers they have a powerful parent they’ve never known when they go off to a haven for their “like kind.” (Percy Jackson series; His Dark Materials trilogy; Fever Crumb series)
- Heroine who is small/weak, and needs protecting by the tall, cold, quiet heartthrob. (Twilight series)
- Tall, cold, quiet heartthrob with burning golden eyes and slightly jealous siblings. (Twilight series)
- World with a somewhat malevolent group of special-powered rulers, sitting in a remote European corner of the globe, unbeknownst to the rest of society. (Twilight series; Harry Potter Series; Percy Jackson series; Vampire Academy series…)
- Death of a supporting character’s sibling. (Harry Potter series)
Now, I’m not saying I believe much (if any) of our contemporary literature can claim full originality—it’s just not possible, nor would it be much fun. The art of storytelling for the entire history of man has coincided with the art of borrowing. (That was, actually, my masters thesis in a nutshell.) And, J. K. Rowling is a primary example—her work is a virtual collage of borrowed mythic and literary artifacts. However, her story is also extraordinarily complex and subtly original in its own right. The Mortal Instruments books, however, don’t have the same complexity by far, and thus their recycling comes across as rather obvious and forced than intriguing, clever, or allusive.
* * * * *
All in all, if you are looking for an easy, fast, rollercoaster ride through romantic conflict and paranormalcy, I do recommend this trilogy. The love story (and hunka-hunka hero) was enough to pull me through. And, pull me it did, I must admit. I was dying to know what happened to Clary and Jace at the end (…even though I already knew…). But, if you find yourself groaning at the obsessive hint-dropping, see-through emotional triggers, and overall mundaneness of style, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
* * * * *
Nothing in particular against him, but he just DOES NOT fit my image of Jace. Not substantial enough. Not symmetrical enough. Overall? Just not HOT enough to be Jace! (Sorry, Bonnie! It’s just true.)
(If you’ve ever seen him in the Camelot series, you know what I mean…)