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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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

David Sun, along with many of his peers—wealthy, constantly internet-connected, often drunk high school students—calmly watched, via webcam, as one of their fellows committed suicide. This worries his parents and the school shrink. His parents are too busy to actually, y’know, parent, so when the school shrink suggests that they invest in the latest gadget designed to help “disassociated” teenage boys learn to form health relationships, they go right ahead and buy their son a hot female robot. Er, “companion.” She comes with a built in Intimacy Clock; he only gets to snog the hot female robot after a designated amount of healthy social non-sexual bonding. If he tries to jump the gun, he gets an electric shock. Basically, they’re trying to use the promise of robot-nookie to train teenage boys to behave better. It’s a completely half-baked, insulting-to-women idea… and, therefore, frightening plausible.

Anyway, when David can’t get what he wants from his personal hot female robot—Rose—she ends up turning to Charlie, a lonely, depressed social misfit with abandonment issues. She helps him get some confidence and sense of companionship; he helps her gain some independence and a sense of personhood. (She’s a very advanced robot. (Incidentally, she’s significantly more advanced, emotionally and mentally, than the other companions we come across in the novel. This is noted but never explained.))

The novel is largely a meditation on the suckiness of breakups, and at that it succeeds pretty marvelously. The characters’ pain is palpable, but the plot moves along at a good clip and protects it from descending into melodrama. Rose tends to be over the top, but in a believable way; she’s learning how to be human, how to have feelings, how to think—there’s some trial and error, and it feels natural for her to overdo it.

It’s also an uncomfortable book. The male culture David inhabits is, without recognizing it, extremely sexist. Women, even those who aren’t robotic, are reduced to bodies, and even their bodies are reduced to, well, their girl parts. In groups, if girls are present, they’re mostly there to be witnesses to the supposed coolness of the guys—and the girls know it. And, of course, the book raises all sorts of sex issuess: are the companions just objects and no more need to consent than does a vibrator, or are they feeling beings? If they’re feeling beings, are they capable of giving informed consent, or are they like children and animals? For that matter, are the boys able to give informed consent? Are the parents participating in their sons’ sex lives by purchasing their bots? If a bot experiences the desire to kiss her assigned boy but the Intimacy Clock prevents it, is she being denied her sexual agency by her makers or by her body?

The actual writing about sex is mixed; the scenes of female masturbation and of awkward, not-very-good sex are very well done, but the scene of supposedly mind-blowing sex is painfully corny and overwritten.

Overall, though, it’s an interesting idea-driven book with a strong emotional core.

August 2010.

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Girl Parts ~ John M. Cusick

Foundling Monster Blood Tattoo Book 1 D M CornishMonster Blood Tattoo, Book 1

Rossamünd was abandoned as an infant and grew up in a foundlingery, never an easy place but worse for a rather small boy saddled with a name more commonly associated with girls. Nonetheless, he’s been looked after carefully by a dormitory master and a parlor maid, and he’s made it through twelve years or so at the foundlingery with his sweetness and innocence intact, ready to be hired away—preferably by the navy—and live his life in the wide, monster-infested world. Maybe, if he’s brave enough, he’ll even earn a monster-blood tattoo, inked with the blood of a monster he’s slain. Instead, he’s hired to be a Lamplighter.

Rossamünd is a bit of an idiot—among other things, he thinks being a Lamplighter sounds unexciting, despite the fact that his almanac shows the relevant road to cut through sparsely-inhabited, and therefore likely monstrous, territory—so he finds his first and second adventures on his journey to the Lamplighters’ headquarters, and those adventures make up this volume. It also hints on several occasions after something strange about Rossamünd, but though the details remain unclear, it’s entirely too easy to guess the outline but never properly revealed in this book.

Despite these frustrations, it’s an enjoyable book. The world is incredibly detailed—the area in which the entire book takes place is only a very tiny portion of the full map included in the frontmatter, and there are about a hundred pages of glossary in the back—and generally interesting, complete with magic/technology riddled with limitations and side effects, a wide variety of monsters—in temperament and intelligence as well as in physicality. Rossamünd is sweet and has a decided capacity to learn, so by the end of the book he’s much less naive and daft than he started. It’s slow-paced, but aside from the ending—which comes forty pages or so too late—that’s not problematic; their world is slow-paced in such a way that the pace and the language really fits.

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Foundling ~ Monster Blood Tattoo

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

the ask and the answer patrick nessThis is book two in the Chaos Walking series, following The Knife of Never Letting Go. This review does not contain spoilers for The Ask and the Answer, but it does contain spoilers for The Knife of Never Letting Go. You have been warned.

Things start out pretty grim: Todd, an illiterate native of New World, and Viola, the lone survivor of a scout ship sent ahead of several thousands of new colonists approaching on sleeper ships, have reached Haven, the biggest city on New World. Unfortunately, the cruel Mayor who killed all the women in his town thirteen years before, has beaten them to it, and the city has surrendered without a fight. Oh, and Viola’s been shot and Todd’s been captured. And then the Mayor starts with the manipulation and emotional abuse.

It’s a very dark book, even more so than the first. There’s quite a bit of torture, emotional and physical (he manages to stop just shy of the point where I would give up on a book every time). There’s terrorism, questions of acceptable methods of warfare, devils you know and devils you don’t. There are manipulative, charismatic leaders. It’s actually quite reminiscent of The Kestrel, the middle—and best—volume of Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy. However, where Alexander took his gentle man to ungentle, dehumanizing places without dehumanizing the reader, Ness’s work threatens to do just that. As an author, he’s as manipulative as the leaders he portrays. Perhaps this is a strength, but I’m not sure.

Like The Knife of Never Letting Go, it’s a gripping read, completely absorbing once it gets into your head. The characters are compelling, and their shifting emotional states and loyalties are painfully, beautifully real. I found myself meeting the (many) betrayals not with surprise or expectation, but with a sinking heart; like the characters, each betrayal made sense, and deepened the experience of reading the book. The stylistic annoyances of the first book are still present, though lessened and therefore less of a distraction; there are many fewer misspellings, and he’s toned down the habit of narrating exciting sections—
like this—
to give a sense of—
breathless—
anticipation—
though he does slip a few times. Including during sections narrated by Viola; what is annoying but understandable if it’s supposed to represent the way Todd thinks is less understandable if it’s divorced from a particular character’s voice.

The ending lost me a bit; after five hundred pages of the story hurtling along it abruptly loses focus and tries to go three places at once without resolving anything. Too much changed too quickly, and I was hard put to keep caring.

But for those first five hundred pages, I really cared. It is significantly flawed, but The Ask and the Answer is a very powerful book.

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The Ask and the Answer ~ Patrick Ness
My review of The Knife of Never Letting Go

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