Nailer is a slum rat, a ship breaker who spends his days crawling through ducts on dead oil-burning ships, stripping out the precious copper wire. On the beach, loyalty is almost everything, second only to large quantities of money; you trust your crew, sworn by blood, but you try not to make them choose between you and a lucky strike. After a City Killer hurricane, he finds a lucky strike–an elegant modern ship, containing more gold, silver, and general Stuff Worth Money than he’s seen in his life, but before he can trade in the scavenge for money, he also finds a girl. Alive, and promising more wealth if he keeps her alive than if he lets her die.

The worldbuilding is fantastic. It’s imaginative, but flows logically from our own world and decisions. City Killers and the wreckage of several cities where New Orleans once stood, shipping routes across the now-liquid North Pole, the greater disparity between rich and poor and the lack of mobility caused by running out of fossil fuels . . . Bacigalupi crafted a world rich in detail, and it’s frighteningly plausible. Ship Breaker doesn’t feel didactic, though; it’s a warning, not a sermon.

The plot is serviceable, but not much more. It gets Nailer to explore his world, and we get to come along for the ride. Much of the conflict revolves around company squabbles between the family of Nita, the wealthy girl he rescued, and rivals within their shipping company; Nailer doesn’t understand the nuances of the conflict, and neither do we. He’s in it because he became friends with Nita, not because he cares who rules the company. That’s believable and fits his character, but makes it less compelling to the reader. We know which side we’re on, but we don’t know why it’s the right side. Other than that Nailer’s brutal, drug-addled, violent father is on the other side, so they must be bad. Towards the end, it takes a turn for the swashbuckling, which changes feel significantly from the gritty dystopia that opened the novel. Personally, I liked the dystopia better than the swashbuckling.

The characters are a mixed bag. Nailer is great; well-developed, compelling, and interesting. Observant, unsatisfied with his world, and courageous, he’s a good focal point. Several other characters left me wishing for more.. A halfman–genetically modified, combining human, dog, and tiger DNA–enriches our understanding of the world, particularly in his interactions with other halfmen, but he never explains the differences between him and the other halfmen. Nailer’s best friend’s mother is similarly interesting, hinting at complexity of character and the world, but she gets little page-time. And the rest of the characters are means to an end, rather than people. Nita is particularly underdeveloped; she is crucial to the plot and nearly always present, but has little in the way of independent personality. She knows what the plot needs her to know and can do what the plot needs her to do, but we never get a sense that she knows and does because she wants or needs to.

It’s still a compelling, gripping book. The worldbuilding is worth the read, and if the plot and characters pale a little beside the rich world, they’re enough to lead us along on the exploration of the world.

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Ship Breaker ~ Paolo Bacigalupi

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

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

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

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

When You Reach Me Rebecca SteadThe 1978-1979 school year is perfectly normal for Miranda. Except that her best friend stopped speaking to her, there’s an apparently crazy man who sleeps with his head under the mailbox on her corner, a naked man is seen running by her school on several occasions, and weird things keep happening. Like her spare house key goes missing and three days later she finds a note asking her to write a letter in which she mentions the location of her spare house key.

When You Reach Me is very good. The writing is excellent and the eye for detail is amazing. The mystery aspects, mysterious and mundane—what’s the deal with the strange notes Mira gets? Why did Marcus punch Sal? What’s up with Annemarie and Julia?—are dealt with well, with excellent pacing and delicacy. It doesn’t just balance the ordinary life and the time travel elements; it melds them. I found the discourse on time-travel a bit tedious, especially as Mira was stubbornly not getting it, though it did serve to establish how time travel works in this narrative.

This was almost a one-sitting book for me. It wasn’t, partly because airplane turbulence plus fasting (it was Yom Kippur) does not equal happy reading time, and partly because I was enjoying it so much I didn’t want to be done with it. That said, had there not been jostling to disrupt my reading, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull myself out of the book and pace myself.

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When You Reach Me ~ Rebecca Stead ~ Rebecca Stead’s Blog

midnight charter david whitleyAgora is a city of capitalism on crack. All transactions are barter, regulated by signed and sealed contracts. An orphanage sells Lily to a bookbinder’s when she’s six years old; Mark is eleven when his father sells him for medicine. Emotions are bought and sold, as are voices. Debtors eke out miserable lives in the streets, or are thrown in jail. Largely alone in the city, Lily and Mark try to make their own ways in the complicated economy and politics of Agora.

For a book clearly intended to show the Evils of Capitalism Run Amok, it’s surprisingly light-handed. Mark and Lily are well done, and the cast of scarred humanity around them are also convincing. Everyone has responded differently to the traumas laid upon them by life and the city, clinging to addictions, a safe haven, childhood, extreme pragmatism, or extreme idealism. The writing is quite solid overall, though marred by three two-page interludes—intended, I believe, to heighten the tension and the sense that this is about more than just two kids—written in unfortunately florid prose. I think it would be better without them, but those six pages over the course of the book only annoy, they don’t detract much from the book as a whole.

It reads like the first in a trilogy, though I haven’t seen any confimation of that; it does have a complete narrative arc, but Lily and Mark’s story is clearly far from done. I’ll be interested in seeing where Whitley takes them next.

September 2009

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The Midnight Charter