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

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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

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

Dreamdark Blackbring Laini TaylorMagpie is a bit of a feral faerie-child: having left the Dreamdark, a cradle of faerie civilization, at a very young age, she has spent her childhood travelling, first with her parents and then with a murder of crows. Once a theatre troop, the cheroot-smoking, foul-mouthed birds are now Magpie’s couterie, helping her track down the devils humans are forever releasing from their prisons in bottles, cast into the sea. A rumor of a new devil brings them to an abandoned ship; instead of the blood and gore that usually characterize a devilish crime scene, this one contains nothing but the abandoned bottle, sealed with the mark of the great djinn, and four pairs of empty shoes.

The world is brilliantly crafted, and in decline: the faeries have lost much of their magic, knowledge, and awareness of the natural world; the great djinns who wove the world are long asleep, uncaring about the world they created; the humans evolved without the djinn’s input and are wreaking havoc, what with the cutting-down of trees, digging-up of gold, killing of dragons, and unleashing of devils. It’s nice to have a faerie book in which humans are, at most, peripheral: it gives the book a pleasant independence and sets us in our place a bit. It deals with prophesy and destiny better than many; Magpie was born for a reason and with great power, and was the given gifts of further power by all the animals, but her free will is unimpinged. Even better, her birth caused a bit of a spillover into similarly-timed and -located faerie births, so at least a few faeries her age have hints of her gift. They, too, can help rejuvenate the faerie world.

The writing is beautiful and the book swept me away. I can’t say that it made a six-hour stay in the airport pleasant, exactly, but it certainly helped.

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Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer ~ Laini Taylor ~ The Journal of Laini Taylor
My review of Silksinger

Nick doesn’t like Mrs. Starch, his biology teacher; she’s strict, a tough grader, and likes to use homework for both punishment and humiliation. Nonetheless, he’s worried when she disappears: a fire breaks out during a field-trip to the everglades, she goes back for a student’s dropped asthma inhaler, and never returns. The school insists she’s taking a leave of absence to deal with family matters, but it doesn’t make sense to Nick. With his friend Marta, Nick decides to investigate, even if he’s a little afraid of the number one suspect: a classmate recently antagonized by Mrs. Starch and with a history of arson.

Carl Hiaasen’s books are always fun: a dose of environmentalism, a dose of mystery, a dose of adventure, and leavened by his rather twisted sense of humor. Unfortunately, he’s getting a touch predictable, especially in his children’s books; having read both of his early kid’s books and about half of his adult books, I enjoyed Scat but the main plot never surprised me or held me in suspense.

The secondary plot, on the other hand, had me on the edge of my seat. Nick’s father is just returning from a tour of service in Iraq, and not entirely intact. Nick and his parents’ struggle to adjust and Nick’s father’s medical setbacks are masterfully portrayed, particularly as Nick fights for a sense of control over a situation in which really, he has no control.

And the rest of the time it’s running around the everglades saving panthers and defeating greedy oilmen, in true Carl Hiaasen tradition.

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Scat ~ Carl Hiaasen

Firestorm Caretaker Trilogy David KlassJack Danielson has lived an ordinary life – pointedly so, in fact; his father reins him in every time he risks getting grades too good, winning sports too much, or otherwise calling attention to himself. When he ignores his father’s well-meant advice and breaks a league record in football, he’s suddenly on the run, with a telepathic dog for company. A few mysterious and dangerous women pop in from time to time, plus some monsters and visions, as Jack slowly learns that he has to save the Earth from humans before we completely destroy the environment.

It begins: “Halloween week in Hadley-by-Hudson. Senior year of high school. Nine in the evening. Had enough sentence fragments? My English teacher said they are a weakness of mine.”¹

I’ve got to agree with his English teacher: they are annoying. As is his habit of saying “Look that one up in the dictionary, my friend”² every time he uses a word of four syllables of more. He clearly thinks this highlights his vocabulary and extensive SAT prep; really, it would be more impressive if he wasn’t saying, basically, “I learned this word special!” Plus, it makes him come off as a pompous asshole. Which is pretty accurate, but did create some extra distance between me and the book. I cared about Jack’s mission; I neither liked nor cared about Jack.

Obnoxious narrator aside, it’s a pretty good book. A lot happens, but everything gets enough time. Similarly, it’s the first in a planned trilogy; the ending leaves no doubt that there’s more to come, but it isn’t a jarring stop. The environmentalism is dealt with well; it shows the damage we’re doing to the Earth, rather than preaching. It also recognizes that most people are not willfully contributing to the damage, but do accept the status quo without asking difficult questions. Personally, between Firestorm and Mark Bittman’s recent article on finding fish one can buy ethically,³ I’m rather glad to be vegetarian. Makes life simpler.

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¹p. 3
²p. 4; variations abound throughout the text.
³conveniently published the day after I finished Firestorm. Clearly, the universe really wants me to get this point.

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Firestorm ~ David Klass (Wikipedia)