He’s a spoiled rich kid, she’s a slum rat. More specifically, he—Colbert—is the grandson and heir of the Supreme Commander, meant to lead the Worldshaker, a giant ship that travels on water or land, constantly roving and collecting resources for the betterment of its people. She—Riff—is not considered “people;” she’s just a filthy, locked in the bowels of the ship doing the worst of the grunt work. One thing—an escape—leads to another—an accident—and before you know it, there’s a full scale revolution on the Worldshaker.

Worldshaker is strikingly similar in premise to Mortal Engines, and, like Mortal Engines, disappointed despite my love of both dystopias and steampunk. In this case, the writing is perfectly fine and both Colbert’s stepwise enlightenment and the actions of his sister provided enough interest to keep me reading, but not enough to counteract the overall lack of distinction and two frustrating strange choices.

Strange Choice Number One:
Every single person involved in Colbert’s upper-class, best-available education is completely inane. The people of the Worldshaker have lost awareness and knowledge of their history and they are obsessed with their superiority over the filthies and with cleanliness of mind and body—these are important points to convey for worldbuilding and to forward the plot, but it does not require the education of the ruling classes—through schools and tutors—to be utterly nonsensical and pointless. In fact, it would be much scarier and more believable if the teachers were intelligent and their arguments basically logical; then we could see this as a plausible world, a frightening possibility that maintains itself through manipulation and propaganda. Instead, it’s just inane.

Strange Choice Number Two:
The filthies have one major strategic advantage over the upper decks, and they don’t use it.
Spoilers abound for the rest of this section
The Filthies’ stated purpose on the ship is to keep the boilers going and, by implication, keep the big engines and machines running. That’s why they’re still fed and a sufficient population kept alive. (A small percentage of Filthies are modified into Menials, speechless servants with their brains surgically limited who work on the upper decks). That means they have control over the boilers and the big machines. They could hold the movement, and thus the survival, of the Worldshaker hostage. They could threaten to destroy the engines and strand the ship forever. They could stop the ship and take advantage of everyone freaking out to attack the upper decks. They do none of these things. It’s not even acknowledged that they have this advantage! And then one of the upper decks people threatens to destroy the ship by overheating the boilers and making them explode, and no one, including the leaders of the Filthies, thinks to have them stop stoking the boilers, or dampen them, or open release valve, or a number of other things they could presumably do. Their entire reason for existence is just forgotten.
Enough spoilers! No more below

In general, it’s an okay book with a few interesting characters, but it’s nothing special.

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Worldshaker ~ Worldshaker

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Book One

On Cassia’s seventeenth birthday, she is excited but nervous about her Match Banquet—nothing out of the ordinary, Society has determined that 93% of Matchees are nervous—where she will see the face of the man Society has determined to be her perfect mate, as calculated by genetics and temperament. Instead of the screen showing her the face of a boy in another city or region, she is shown someone in the same Banquet, someone from her block—Xander, her lifelong best friend. Excited—Xander is perfect, and perfect for her, after all—but a little let down—unlike most Matchees, she won’t be anxiously studying the microcard she’s given to learn about her match, because she already knows him— she goes home and puts the datachip into the screen anyway. There’s Xander’s face, but for a minute it’s replaced by a different face: that of Ky, another boy from their borough, a friend but not someone to whom anyone she knows is really close. Startled, Cassia begins to pay attention to Ky in a way she never has before. As she notices Ky’s quiet, careful life, and as she’s shocked by her grandfather’s deathbed rebellion, Cassia begins to notice the cracks in her comfortable, easy, supposedly perfect world.

It’s a well-crafted dystopia, gently but firmly ruled by white-coated Officials who always seem to have your best interest at heart. Your meals are delivered to you, specially calibrated to contain the right amount and kind of nutrition for your body. You have schooling, if you’re young, then a blend of schooling and work, also suited to your needs and abilities, and designed to both train you and test you so you can be given your permanent work assignment: your perfect job. Your perfect mate, to produce your perfect children. A pill container on you at all times, with a blue pill that has enough nutrition to sustain you for several days in an emergency, a green pill that calms you in times of stress, and a red pill that you’re only to take under the guidance of the Officials.

Though well-crafted and well-executed, the world itself is nothing we haven’t seen before, really, and it’s a bit heavy-handed in its use of poetry as a motivational force. The characters, however, make it special. Cassia is a good narrator, observant and intelligent but invested in the world and narrative in which she was raised. Her confusion and uncertainty are strong enough to ring true, but not so strong that they annoy the reader, who comes to the book automatically distrustful of the society. Though there is a love triangle between Cassia, Xander, and Ky, it’s not melodramatic or overdone; she’s never really dating either of them and is generally truthful, so it’s more a tension between possibilities than between attachments. Behind and beyond the romance, they are both her friends, and good ones at that.

And everyone’s just so nice. Cassia’s parents and grandparents knew and know the flaws of the system, but they are nice, loving, caring people, who just want what’s best for everyone. They make the choices they do deliberately, to protect and provide for their children. There is a villain in the story and she is an official, but she is outnumbered by officials who are just doing their jobs and keeping society comfortable and safe. She is also clearly reacting to the situation in front of her, and we as readers never fully know what that situation is.

The book suffers primarily from its vagueness in describing what’s going on outside the central territories. We know there is conflict between the society and people at the edges of the territories it controls, but it’s never entirely clear what either the citizens believe is going on, or what is actually going on. The epilogue indicates that we’ll learn more about the situation in fact in the next book(s), but it lacks the perspective that the propaganda would have provided. Nonetheless, it is an extremely well-written and enjoyable book, with a number of sympathetic characters who are trapped by the world they have perpetuated.

With all its focus on mate selection, it’s also a very odd book to read while traveling to go to a couple of weddings.

November 2010

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Matched ~ Ally Condie

The Agency Book 1: A Spy in the House A Mary Quinn MysteryThe Agency, Book 1, A Mary Quinn Mystery1

At age twelve, Mary Lang is convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to hang. This is Victorian London; she would hardly be the first nor the last orphan to meet such a fate. Instead, she is abducted on her way to the gallows and brought to the Academy, a school for girls that trains its pupils, many of them charity cases, in the usual subjects and a bonus in ambition and independent thought. Five years later, Mary—now Quinn, having reverted to her mother’s maiden name—is restless, unhappy with any of the traditional feminine options. Her mentors at the Academy provide an unexpected one: to join the Agency, an organization of female spies who take advantage of the general populace’s tendency to overlook and underestimate women. Soon, Mary is undercover in a wealthy merchant’s house, the secondary agent on a case of smuggled South Asian artifacts.

It’s exceedingly fun. The writing is smooth and engaging. Mary is a compelling heroine; accomplished, gutsy, and likable, but also fallible and liable to act on a whim. The case itself doesn’t stand out, but it’s certainly serviceable. The depth of the book comes from the social realities it portrays, from the negotiations and investigations behind society marriages to the limited livelihoods available to widows. The capricious debutante, the invalid mother, and the businessman father aren’t as simple as their tropes imply—and in keeping with the book’s theme, the women are particularly interesting, and particularly underappreciated by the men in their lives. Racism and the lives of Asian sailors in Victorian London are painted with accurately but without sensationalizing, and not only from the majority point of view. The potential romance is fine; didn’t really do much for me, but didn’t detract from the story or frustrate me. It make total sense that these two characters would have the hots for each other and it doesn’t take over the story.

The ending is frustrating, though in ways which are hard to discuss in a spoiler-free way. Suffice it to say Mary does something daft for the sole reason that this will let the author jerk us, and her, around at the end by denying us, and her, shiny knowledge. Which she does. I suspect this knowledge will come out in a future book, but if there’s a way for her to do so without it being an annoying deus ex machina, I don’t see it. Hopefully she has better plot-vision than I do, eh?

We’ll find out, because this book was highly entertaining and I’ll be on the lookout for the second book (coming in August!)

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1Yes, it says both of these on the cover. How many names does a series need?

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A Spy in the House ~ Y.S. Lee

The Chosen OneAlmost-fourteen-year-old Kyra lives on a polygamist compound with her father, his three wives, and twenty siblings. She sneaks out to get books from the Bookmobile from the nearest library that drives by once a week, secretly meets a boy her own age to steal kisses, and her mothers speak longingly of their own childhoods—when they were allowed to leave the compound freely and non-Bible books weren’t burned—but generally, her life is happy, surrounded by family she loves. Then the Prophet announces that she’s been Chosen as the seventh wife of her fifty-year-old uncle.

It’s a very short, very intense book. Kyra’s pain, confusion, and wavering determination are palpable in the first-person narration. The violence, manipulation, sexual violence, and misogyny inherent in this sort of fundamentalist compound life are vividly but simply portrayed, but it doesn’t make demons of everyone who lives there; Kyra’s family, though obedient believers, are loving, well-intentioned people who stand by each other and try to protect Kyra as far as they are able. If that isn’t nearly as far as we would like, the past trauma of Kyra’s parents—including her father’s other wives— helps explain why they have such limitations.

The narration suffers a bit from ill-defined flashbacks; it’s sometimes hard to keep track of whether you’re reading about now or then. The flashbacks establishing Kyra’s relationship with the Bookmobile and the man who drives it are compelling and help establish how Kyra has developed her worldview; those featuring her romance with a boy her own age are less compelling and less interesting. Happily, they’re short enough and few enough to be mere blips in an otherwise powerful novel.

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The Chosen One

Salt Maurice GeeOur heroes are a boy from the slums and a girl from a ruling family running from an unwanted arranged marriage (because we’ve never seen that before). From the slums is dark-skinned Hari; his father has just been enslaved by the ruling Company and sent to Deep Salt, a mysterious mine from which none ever return. From the mansions of the Company Compound is blonde, blue-eyed Pearl, aided by her maid, Tealeaf, who is a Dweller: another species, three-fingered and cat-eyed, capable of speaking mind-to-mind and even of controlling animals and humans (whether or not a strong-willed Dweller can control a weak-willed Dweller is never explored). Both Hari and Pearl can also speak mind-to-mind, Pearl taught by Tealeaf and Hari taught by an old man who had taught himself. Their paths cross, as such paths are wont to do, and lead them to Weapons of Mass Destruction and the midst of a civil war.

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff in Salt, but it has far more potential than it reaches. The morality and temptation of using WMDs and biological weapons are explored, but the morality and temptation of controlling people’s thoughts and actions is not. The cyclical nature of war and risks of charismatic leaders are dealt with, but the Dwellers act as noble savages, lacking enough substance to really balance out the conflict-ridden society of the humans. The book is at its best when dealing with Hari’s father; it uses him to delve into mob mentality, the political expediency of lies and betrayal, the affect slavery and oppression have on the mind, and the way hatred is generalized over a group of people. Hari and Pearl are as much of a mixed bag as the book; they do come to realize that many of their assumptions are groundless and they do mature, but it felt rushed. And then they get together for no other reason than the assumption that if there are opposite-gendered protagonists, they must have romance. Or at least (off-page) sex; it’s not really well enough developed to be romance. They have no chemistry and there is no buildup, and then all of a sudden they are together. With the very heavy implication that they are a perfect pair and will be together forever. My eyes rolled.

The first in a trilogy, Salt does something that seems to be a novelty these days: it ends. No abruptly cliffhanger, no introducing new twists in the last ten pages, no looming sense of running out of time as the pages dwindle. Just, this part of their lives is ending; they’re moving on to a new one. I have no idea in what direction he’s going to take books two and three1 and that’s refreshing.

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1 Okay, maybe I would have an idea if I had read the first chapter of the sequel, conveniently included at the back of this volume. But I was basking in the resolution and didn’t want to turn that page just yet.

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Salt ~ Maurice Gee

Incarceron Catherine FisherFinn is a Prisoner in Incarceron: a giant, self-contained prison, sealed 160 years previously, in which lives the descendants of criminals and a few of the Sapienti, a clan of intellectuals who volunteered to be incarcerated to guide and offer wisdom to the inmates. Incarceron is a nightmare: violent, cutthroat, low on resources, subject to periodic lockdowns, everything taking place under the red glare of Incarceron’s Eyes.

Meanwhile, Outside, Claudia is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron. She is caught up in court intrigue and an arranged engagement to a rather unpleasant prince. They are trapped by Protocol that requires them to live as if it is an earlier (but frustratingly vague) Era.

Then Finn finds a strange crystal Key bearing the same symbol that is mysteriously tattooed on his wrist; separately, Claudia breaks into her father’s study and finds an identical key.

I found the pacing to be off. I figured out a major reveal very early, and then got a bit bored as the same hint was dropped over and over again. Towards the end I had the opposite problem: things moved a bit too fast and with too many abrupt shifts—yes, they can get out! no, they can’t! Yes, they can! Jerk me around too many times and I will stop caring. Guaranteed. Incarceron didn’t hit that point, but it was a close call.

The world is interesting, though Outside is a bit underdeveloped: I wanted to be able to picture what Outside looks like, with its Era clothing, buildings, and transportation; to understand how their advanced tech fit around the edges of Protocol and the Era, and how their advanced tech is maintained; and, as we’re dealing with an upper-class arranged marriage, what the society’s gender dynamic is like. None of these details are really there. Incarceron is better developed and more creative, with vastly different societies and appearance in different areas. Tidbits of folklore and history are given as epigraphs preceding each chapter, offering tantalizing glimpses into the of depth to the world. Hopefully, the sequel will smooth out some of this volume’s kinks and delve deeper into the world she’s created—inside and outside of Incarceron.

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Incarceron

Silver PhoenixAi Ling at sixteen is educated–unusual for Xian girls–and has been rejected by the families of several potential husbands. This is embarrassing enough, though a bit of a relief, before her father leaves on an unprecedented trip to the imperial palace. After he’s gone several months longer than anticipated, however, it gets worse; Ai Ling and her mother are threatened by heavy debt unless Ai Ling become the fourth wife to a rather unpleasant business man. Rather than suffer this fate, Ai Ling runs away, going to seek her father. Of course, she finds herself pursued by demons and foul creatures, meets a few handsome men, and turns out to have been born for a Purpose.

Silver Phoenix is anchored in Chinese culture, and that is its great strength. The overall idea of the plot is fairly common in fantasy, but the because the details are based on Chinese rather than Euro-American culture, it does stand out. The descriptions of food and use of hair to establish class and status are particularly well done, though perhaps we don’t need the hairstyle of servant girls described every time we see it. (The first time is great. After that, however, it’s fine to just say “her hair marked her as a servant” and we’ll get the picture, or “her hair was in two braids coiled around her ears” and we’ll get her status).

The writing generally fails to instill excitement or tension. It’s often sloppy, over-describing in some places and under-describing in others. There are also odd contradictions: “I’ve tried to kill you many times . . . . You surprised me each time you managed to live. . . . I always knew that only I could finish this task.”¹ Well, which is it, villain? If you always knew you had to finish it yourself, why were you surprised each time the demons you sent failed to finish her off? Or, if you’re burning a body on a funeral pyre and “she gently laid a yellow cloth over [dead character]’s face” before lighting it, why would you immediate say that the flames “crackled, spread, and illuminated [dead character]’s face, making him appear lifelike again.”²? If is face is covered, no one can see it.

The strengths and the weaknesses: it’s all in the details.

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¹p. 261.
²p. 196.

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Silver Phoenix ~ Cindy Pon ~ Cindy Pon’s Blog