uglies scott westerfeldIn Tally’s world, everyone is equal because everyone is equally pretty: at sixteen, they have their first major plastic surgery, making them the same height and shape, perfectly symmetrical with huge eyes and lips. Between puberty and their sixteenth birthday, everyone is equally ugly. The summer before she turns sixteen, Tally meets Shay and is introduced to some radical ideas: that not everyone wants to turn pretty, that it might be possible to live outside of the city, that it’s possibly to be beautiful without an operation to make you pretty. When Shay runs away, Tally is given a choice: find her and betray her, or live in the city without ever becoming pretty.

Unfortunately, it takes almost a quarter of the book to get to that point, and the hundred pages of exposition is tedious and at times preachy. Once Tally sets off to find Shay and the community of runaways (like there was any chance she wouldn’t go) it picks up significantly, both in terms of plot and in terms of Tally’s emotional development. A compelling dystopia, It raises some interesting issues of human nature and judgment. It also raises issues of medical consent and ethics; I’m not sure I agree with the characters’ conclusions—safety is not the only question—but it’s good to see them raised in fiction. Tally is an interesting, believable character, but her relationships aren’t particularly well done; jealousy, friendship, and romance occur, but all three are treated with an unfortunate superficiality.

It’s well written and has many entertaining touches—many realistic but divergent reactions to dehydrated spaghetti bolognaise—and ends in such a way that I will need to read the sequel.

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Uglies ~ Scott Westerfeld

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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

Leviathan Scott WesterfeldIn a Steampunk Austria-Hungary, Prince Aleksander sets off across Europe in a mechanical walker with his tutor, murderous countrymen on his heals. Meanwhile, in a Darwinpunk England, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the Royal Air Service and fly in a living airship—whale meets zeppelin. World War One ensues.

The world is well-developed and creative, especially the Darwinist living technology and the ways the two technology streams have clearly influenced one another. Seriously: it’s half Darwinpunk. That’s just awesome.

The main characters are unsurprising but believable and sympathetic, even if Alek is a bit daft sometimes. The minor characters are entertaining, particularly a lady scientist who is exactly the kind of character we’re programmed to like. And we do, mostly—but it’s no surprise that other characters find her incredibly annoying. The plot moves along briskly, without major twists but with plenty of small surprises and clever details to keep it interesting.

It’s the first in a series and doesn’t try to properly conclude, but it comes to a sensible stopping point; it’s generally a satisfying book, and Westerfeld has seeded plenty of fertile ground to explore in the next one.

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Leviathan ~ Scott Westerfeld

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel a sequel to Airborn and Skybreaker steampunk alternate history YA novelFollowing Airborn and SkybreakerStarclimber begins with our hero, Matt Cruse, piloting a construction airship² working on the Celestial Tower—the French’s attempt to build a tower to outer space—and trying to sneak as much time as possible with his ill-chaperoned Object of Affection, Kate de Vries. Soon enough, however, Matt and Kate are offered a chance to go to space themselves—in Matt’s case, he can go if he passes a rigorous training progam; in Kate’s case, she can go if she first becomes engaged to a wealthy upper-class eligible bachelor.

Now, if one is to write a steampunk novel about the first expedition to space, dealing heavily with the mechanics of this expedition, one must get one’s physics right. By and large, Oppel does an admirable job. The spaceship has every right to work, the difficulties maneuvering while weightless, all that works. Which makes it all the more jarring when he gets it wrong. One such moment: “Speed was virtually impossible to discern up here. With only the distant earth as a reference point it always seemed we were motionless.” So far, okay; at constant speed in a frictionless environment, that’s true. But then, “Only the pitch of the chip’s rollers told me we were moving at all—and right now, that we were decelerating from a hundred twenty auroknots.”³ Not so much; acceleration and deceleration produce an effect akin to gravity. If they’re decelerating (from downward motion), he should be pressed against the floor. Much more noticeable than something you see by looking out the window. In another case, one of the major crises does not make sense because the physics is not right. This makes me sad.

But if I only read sci-fi in which the science was impeccable, I would not read much sci-fi,4 and this one has a lot going for it. The first two books are lighter on the steampunk/sci-fi; this one flawlessly integrates those elements with the well-built alternate history and maintains their sense of whimsy and discovery. The writing is excellent, moving along at a fast pace through much adventure without losing sight of the emotional lives of his characters. And those characters? Fully human and fleshed-out. Kate is particularly well-done; she is discomfitingly ruthless—this girl would be a Slytherin—but she’s also sympathetic. As an aristocratic woman, she’s privileged but hemmed-in. She freely states her disdain for class distinctions, but demonstrates a thoughtless belief that people will—and ought to—do what she asks them to without question. A suffragette, she believes in fighting for women’s rights, but relies on Daddy to bail her out when she gets in trouble. She has had to fight for her right to go to university and is still fighting to be accepted by the scientific community, but she doesn’t always appreciate the struggles working-class Matt has had to go through to get where he is. She’s a complex, flawed character, and she’s in good company.

All that’s not going to make me forgive the bad physics, per se; but it will make me recommend the book in spite of the bad physics.

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¹ Both of which I read before I started this blog, so I haven’t reviewed them properly. That said, they’re excellent.
² Airship, not airplane; zeppelins are the default air transport in this alternate-history.
³ p. 335.
4Though I prefer it when it’s unapologetically, blatantly wrong to when it tries to be right and fails.

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Starclimber ~ Kenneth Oppel

the unnameables Medford has grown up on an island where everything Useful is Named – Herding Animals, Tanning Bark Trees, bowls, spoons. People are Carpenters, Carvers, Weavers. Anything Useless is Nameless and ignored – seabirds, shells, weeds. And then there’s Medford Runyuin, foundling, with a name that doesn’t mean anything. Apprenticed to a Carver, Medford wants nothing more than to become a Carver himself, respected on the Island. He doesn’t want to keep secretly carving things with no Use – a bowl with a squirrel curled up inside, a walking stick with a bird for a handle. Except, he kind of does want to keep carving them, Useless and Nameless though they are – and possibly even Unnameable and dangerous, capable of getting him banished from the Island.

The Unnameables is quite charming. It’s Medford’s coming of age story, it’s the story of a community adjusting and shifting, and it’s a story about art. It’s so gentle that it’s easy to see it as a happy story of acceptance, but it’s not quite. This model of community risks the tyranny of the majority, and is so isolated that the minority have no other options – there aren’t sub-communities and even their knowledge of the outside world is minimal. This threat is realized in the novel; Medford needs to fight for his right to carve what he wants and still be part of the only community he’s known. The novel presents its resolution as a happy ending, but I’m not satisfied; there will be dissent in the future, it will be as hidden as the carvings under Medford’s bed and make someone just as miserable as his secret carvings Medford, and even if it does come into the light, next time the community may not have the flexibility to find an accommodation. They deal with Medford’s situation, but they don’t think about the broader ramifications for their society.

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The Unnameables
Ellen Booraem ~ Ellen Booraem’s Blog, Freelance Ne’er-do-well