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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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

Donna Jo Napoli HushIn a Norse saga, there’s a mention of an Irishwoman captured and sold as a slave, Melorka. In Hush, Donna Jo Napoli takes Melkorka and gives her a book of her own.

Melkorka’s a spoiled teenager, firmly convinced of her royal superiority over the ordinary people and slaves, firm in her hatred of Vikings, and not very good at thinking before she speaks. Then comes her kidnapping, and her enslavement. Remembering her sister and her mother, she refuses to speak to her captors; listening to a fellow slave, she resolves to not speak to anyone. Her silence, flimsy though it is, becomes the only power she has.

It’s told in a first-person, present-tense narrative that works. Melkorka’s inner monologue reveals what she doesn’t say and lets us watch her adjust to her situation – and adjust again when it changes again. We see the helplessness of slaver, but also how the slave comes to have more strength than the princess ever did. It’s surprisingly gentle for a slave narrative, I think in part because it’s present-tense, but that gentleness is actually quite revealing. When Melkorka is experiencing something she can’t deal with, she thinks about it only obliquely, and that sideways experience is what we’re given.

The end is rushed and trite. Looking back on it, the beginning seems tacked-on, not really part of the story. But in many ways that’s part of Melkorka’s story; the experiences she has make her no longer the person she was. It’s a powerful book, which makes no excuses for the cruelties of the world but gives us a woman who can’t escape them, but can survive them.

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Hush ~ Donna Jo Napoli

Peter’s mad at his dad. Kate’s annoyed that she has to spend part of her weekend with Peter, but she wants to show off, so she has her dad take the two of them to his laboratory to look at Nifty Science Machines. An accident happens, and off they are whisked to 1769. There, they are unusually bad at resisting the time-traveler’s urge to talk about the future, meet some amazingly kind and generous people, and, of course, meet a few villains.

It lost points early on for improper description of the effects of a Van de Graaf generator. And even if one ignores the bad science – and I have a problem doing that – it just never rises above being an okay book. While it’s purportedly about Peter and Kate, Kate really falls to the background, and it’s not just because eighteenth century skirts make it hard to chase highwaymen and the like. In many small ways, I felt that gender stereotypes were being reinforced – girls cry easily, have weak stomachs, and are closer to anything emotional/spiritual/metaphysical. Kate expresses frustration about her skirts and about Peter’s thoughtlessness when he doesn’t question eighteenth-century gender roles, but the smaller, more insidious things slip frustratingly past.

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Gideon the Cutpurse

miriam newman ya lit ya literatureThe Moorchild is the story of a half-human/half-fairy changeling and the unrelated human family who unwittingly adopt her. Saaski’s an odd, difficult baby and a flighty child, forever running to the forbidden moor and refusing to do certain chores, like collecting rowan or anything to do with cold iron. Still, her family loves her – even her wise-woman grandmother, who figured out long ago what Saaski is – and life goes on apace, with chores and her grandfather’s bagpipes and generally avoiding the village children. Nonetheless, the freaky-odd child is a perfect scapegoat when things go wrong, and drastic measure must be taken, both by the frightened villagers and the equally-frightened Saaski.

A well-written and evenly-paced book, The Moorchild‘s great strengths are its characters caught in the middle. Though Saaski’s parents deny it at first, they know there’s something unusual about her, but they refuse to throw her out and, in fact, defend her staunchly against all comers – including Old Bess, Saaski’s mother’s mother and the village wise-woman. When Old Bess first knew that Saaski was not the human baby she delivered, she advocated trying to get the fairies to swap it back, though nearly all the methods for doing so involve putting the changeling in mortal peril – and, if she were wrong, killing the child. Even so, as Saaski grows, Old Bess becomes closer to her than anyone else, truly loving her and mentoring her, and quietly deals with the guilt of what she’d said when Saaski was a babe. And secondly there’s Saaski’s herself, neither fairy nor human, with the fecklessness and music of her fairy kin, but the love and loyalty of humans, as well. Saaski’s life in the village forces them all to walk a tightrope, and it’s done well.

If you think there’s only room in your life for one book of fairies and changelings, go read The Last of the High Kings by Kate Thompson. If, however, you have the sense to read as many such books as are good, go ahead and read them both.

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The Moorchild

Miriam Newman Young Adult Literature YA Lit for Adult Readers

There are two things about Unwind of which I am certain: it is extremely well written, and its premise has some holes. The holes don’t prevent it from being provocative and fascinating, though the brilliant writing does give an impression of better-developed characters than actually exist.

But I should explain.

In the near future, the United States undergoes an all-out civil war between the pro-lifers on the one hand, the pro-choicers on the other, and the remains of the army trying to restoring order on the third hand. (Don’t like having three hands? Keep reading.) The eventual settlement: life is sacred, but a pregnancy could be retroactively terminated once the result reached the age of reason – thirteen, though once they become an adult at eighteen, they cannot be unwound. The unwanted is the taken apart – Unwound – and at least 99.44% (you have to take into account things like the appendix) of the body being used for transplants – kept alive in a divided state, or so the reasoning goes.

Our protagonists are three Unwinds – Connor has gotten into a few too many fights, Risa is a ward of the state whom the state has decided is no longer useful, and Lev is a tithe: the tenth child of a religious family, conceived and raised for the purpose of being Unwound. The three take us on a whirlwind tour of tithing parties, kicking-AWOL, the underground Unwind railroad, and, finally, a Harvesting Camp. (Yes, he goes there. For four pages, he breaks from the dark, twisted dystopian writing for in favor of out-and-out horror. In his defense, the book he was writing didn’t give him much choice. And for all its flaws, I do think it was a book worth writing.)

The writing is tight and fast, keeping you enthralled, but it’s a better book while you’re reading it than after you’re finished. As I thought back on it, I started to notice that the characters weren’t really fleshed out or developed; the main three had just enough personality to keep them from caricature, and (almost) everyone else had such a brief appearance that I didn’t notice till afterwards that they had all been catalysts or plot points, rather than people. Likewise, while I was willing to suspend disbelief for the premise as a whole – and he does a better job of making that possible than I expected – afterward, I started wondering about practicalities, like, is there really equal demand for every part of the body (minus the appendix)? There seem to be more male Unwinds than female; really? is that throwing off the genderbalance of the adult population? What are the depression rates like in this world, both for teenagers and for parents who signed unwinding orders?

Unwind has moments of striking profundity – and I do mean that as a compliment this time – and moments of surprising gentleness. It asks rarely-asked questions about life, the soul, and morality. Unfortunately, impressions of the horror linger longer than they do, and the questions which replace that are of a far more mundane variety.