Gamer Army by Trent Reedy
Reedy (The Last Full Measure series) mixes up a rather bland middle grade scifi stew of Ready Player One and Enders Game when five 12-year old gamers are invited to take part in a virtual reality Laser Viper tournament.
In an unspecified future, much of life, including gaming, is conducted in Virtual City, created by William J. Culum, the CEO of Atomic Frontiers. So when white Rogan, Shay, and Brett, along with brown-skinned Jackie, and Asian American Takehashi arrive at the Atomic Frontiers specially constructed game arena they are initially beguiled by William J. Culum. But as the gamers play competitive missions and contestants are eliminated, the remaining ones start to have some disquiet about how the game is really working.
Despite this potentially exciting set up, the game sequences lack the expected fizz and despite the cinematic style of the writing, they drag, not helped by the clunking acronyms and ‘gamer-speak.’ The characters are two-dimensional, even the main protagonist Rogan who at least has been given some family background, and their relationships lack chemistry and are workmanlike at best.
Trent Reedy has written some really good novels – the first two novels in The Last Full Measure series, Words in the Dust – so he clearly has talent. But this novel feels like the start of a series that has been commissioned to appeal to kids who are more interested in video games than books and just falls flat.
Race to the Bottom of the Sea by Lindsay Eager
11 year-old Fidelia Quail, bereft from the death of her parents for which she blames herself, is captured by a pirate, Merrick the Monstrous, in order to help him reclaim his treasure which is buried in a cave at the bottom of the sea.
Eager does a great job with the main characters. Fidelia is a curious, inventive, persistent, and confident girl. She takes some major emotional knocks but keeps going. Her parents’ passion was marine biology and Fidelia shares that with them but adds her prowess at invention to aid the study of the underwater world. Her “water-eaters” should give her the ability to stay under water long enough to get Merrick’s treasure, if only they’d work. Merrick is more than just a arrrr-spouting pirate: he has an interestingly complicated backstory and fatalistic view on his future. There’s more even to Fidelia’s guardian, Aunt Julia, than the stereotypical librarian she presents to the world.
I found the setting a little confusing. It seems to be in the Caribbean in a vaguely Victorian steampunky era, but all main characters are white and some of the technology that Fidelia is working with seems supermodern.
What I really liked about this book is that it defies expectations. I spent a good chunk of the novel assuming that Fidelia parents weren’t really dead but guess what (sorry, spoiler) they are! There is a genuine sense of loss in this story that is rare for middle grade novels as everything is not alright in the end, just like life.</span
Middle graders looking for a pirate adventure might be surprised by some of the twists, but will be rewarded by the story of a feisty girl who overcomes many obstacles.
The Turnkey of Highgate Cemetery by Allison Rushby
In this middle-grade historical fantasy, set in World War II, the ghosts of London attempt to foil a Nazi plot. Throw in a little Indiana Jones and you have a rather jumbled but sweet tale set during the Blitz.
12 year old Flossie died 16 years ago and is now the turnkey, or protector of the dead, in Highgate Cemetery – one of London’s “Magnificent Seven”. On her wanderings around London she sees a mysterious ghost in an SS uniform who seems to be able to do things that the dead aren’t usually able to. She investigates further and with the aid of the other turnkeys and several Chelsea Pensioners (retired veterans of the British army) she starts to find out what the Nazi has planned. There is also an affecting secondary plot about a young girl whose house is bombed and who hovers between life and death.
Rushby has created an interesting world, though its one in which the rules seem to be made up to suit the plot and coincidences abound. The kindly and gentle characters, all dead and white, seem to come from a nostalgic past in which stiff upper lips and the Blitz spirit were the norm, with the exception, of course, of the irredeemably evil Nazis. The Mayan crystal skull that the SS officer is using has more than a whiff of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Although clearly a labor of love for the author who weaves in many of her personal passions, this feels like it could have been written in the 1950’s and seems like it will have little appeal to American kids.
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
Delacorte Press, September 2018.
Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old gothic horror Frankenstein story is given a YA feminist update in this stirring retelling from the point of view of 17-year-old Elizabeth Lavenza, a minor character in the original tale. White (And I Darken series) largely hews to the original tale, albeit told through a lens in which smart women are suppressed and trapped by contemporary norms, but deftly twists the ending to bring a whole new light to our understanding of the characters.
At the age of five the orphan Elizabeth is brought into the Frankenstein household to befriend and, it emerges, to help socialize the out of control genius Victor. Elizabeth sees this as a way of assuring a safe future for herself and makes herself look “fragile and sweet, incapable of harm and deceit” while chafing at being forced into this subservient and dependent role. Years later when Victor cuts off all contact with them while he is studying at Ingolstadt, Elizabeth pursues him there, scared that he has abandoned her, but is horrified at what she discovers.
Elizabeth reveals far more perception, emotion, and intelligence than her society allows her and her narration has the elegant formality of the 19th century while flowing swiftly, moving between the past and present. Though the reader will probably be aware of the monstrous experiments that Victor is undertaking, Elizabeth’s dawning realization is artfully drawn.
This novel happily stands alone for those who have never read the original; however, those who have read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece (or have read the Wikipedia précis like I did) will thrill to the subtle and profound changes the author has made.
Reviewed from an ARC.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Balzer + Bray, 2018
The author creates an extraordinary world in this genre-mixing alternate history set after the Civil War.
After the battle of Gettysburg, the dead started rising and attacking the living, so the war between the states turned into the war against the restless dead. The country has turned into autonomous walled city states on the East coast and defended homes and towns elsewhere. The ruling Survivalist party believes that the reason for the dead rising is that the Civil War changed the “natural order” and that only by having White Christian men at the top and everyone else knowing their place would America be made “safe again”.
This means that the “Negroes” (the official term, less official words used are “darkies” and “coons”) though enfranchised have been forcibly put through combat training school and made to work protecting individuals and cities. Seen as disposable, like animals, and often poorly equipped, they are slaves in another guise, while being told they should be grateful for being taught.
Our protagonist, 17-year-old Jane McKeene is about to graduate from the presitigious Miss Preston’s combat academy. She is dark-skinned and a typical feisty YA heroine who acts before she thinks and is thoughtful, smart, resourceful, and curious. She has her own code of loyalty and self-protection, and while it leads her into some difficult scrapes, the reader is always on her side. Of course she gets into trouble and she, her classmate and nemesis Katherine, a light-skinned beauty, and multiracial Jackson are forcibly sent to Summerland, a new model town which is being built as a model for shambler-free (ie undead-free) settlements everywhere. There are some dark secrets in Summerland and Jane is just the person to uncover them, all the while battling the ever-evolving restless dead.
The characters are all vividly and generously dimensional and there is plenty of thought-provoking parallels to contemporary American society wrapped up in an exciting adventure punctuated with some horrific zombie (though that word is never used) slaying. As the book ends, Jane and her companions are headed off on a new quest and, presumably, for a sequel.
Autonomous by Andy Marino
In this thought-provoking present day YA scific thriller, high school graduating senior William Mackler wins a top of the line Autonomous self-driving car prototype and also the chance to take his three best friends on the road trip to end all road trips before they go their separate ways.
The four kids in the car are the archetypal team from any number of action and heist movies: Melissa is the fixer, Daniel is the muscle, Christina the tech genius, and William is the wildcard (all the teens appear to be white with the exception of Guatemalan American Christina). They jokingly assign the role of brains to Otto little realizing how sophisticated its AI really is.
Each teen cultivates an image on social media and for each other, but they all have secrets and never show their real selves and the reader only sees this through their individual chapters, written from a third person POV.
The tech behind Otto and Christina’s hacking is fictional but credible, and as Otto mines his passengers every online communication he takes them at face value without understanding the nuances of their behaviors and interactions. This leads to revelations and potentially catastrophic events as they wind their way cross country from the top of New York State to the Moonshadow festival in Arizona.
Will appeal to readers looking for character-driven (no pun intended!) speculative fiction.
Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter
In this rousing fast-paced middle grade thriller, two teens battle the elements, terrorists and each other.
Six years ago, some Russian terrorists failed in their attempt to kidnap the First Lady – an attempt that was seen by her ten year old son Logan and his best friend Maddie, daughter of the head of the secret service. Now Maddie and her Dad live alone in the wilds of Alaska and Maddie has learnt survival skills while Logan has spent the ensuing years ignoring her and overenthusiastically enjoying the social perks of his position. When the President sends Logan to stay with Maddie to cool off, a Russian swoops in again and Logan is abducted – luckily Maddie is on their trail!
Maddie is a somewhat endearingly odd mix of wilderness “badassery”, including skills with knives and hatchets, and simpering girliness as she worries about her complexion and whether she finds Logan attractive (what do you think?). Logan is the sort of dreamy bad boy who comes with convenient skills such as understanding Russian and having a photographic memory. The Russian kidnapper who starts out as an unfeeling monster is turned into a more sympathetic character further in as it suits the plot.
Author Carter (the Gallagher Girls series) keeps the book short and breezy with characterization, dialogue, and setting all in efficient service of the plot and, though there is some wild implausibility – Logan manages to unlock his own handcuffs while walking over a broken rope bridge in a raging storm for example – it’s mostly a thrilling romp as the two teens face and overcome one obstacle after another to outwit their captor.