Tag Archives: dystopia

Warcross by Marie Lu

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Warcross by Marie Lu
Putnam, 2017.

I enjoyed Marie Lu’s Legend series and thought it was one of the better YA dystopian series. Warcross, the electrifying start of a new series, is set in a just-over-the-horizon future and toggles between a sort of Blade Runneresque Tokyo and a virtual reality game called Warcross that the world is obsessed with.

Emi Chen is scraping a living bounty hunting in New York, when she uses her hacking skills to exploit a glitch in Warcross. She is immediately invited to Tokyo by the young (and dishily charismatic, of course) designer of Warcross, Hideo Tanaka. He wants her to participate in the Warcross world championship to catch a hacker called Zero who seems to have nefarious ideas and Emi is chosen to be in the Phoenix Riders team to take part in the tournament.

The most exhilarating parts of the novel are set in the games themselves and it’s a little Hunger Gamesy, though apparently without the threat of imminent death. Ms Lu comes from a game design background and it shows in her wildly imaginative set-ups and fluent descriptions.

Emi is a feisty, thoughtful, and sympathetic protagonist. There are way too many undeveloped characters, at least initially, though as we progress into the world championships this settles down a bit. There is a notable diversity of skin tones, countries of origin, and physical ablebodiedness. Hideo himself, however, comes straight out of central casting as leading man with a tragic background.

There are a few glitches in the plotting – most notably in the revelation of Zero’s identity, which at this stage just doesn’t make sense (in fact, the person who I had tabbed for this fits soooo much better). Additionally, and this may be addressed in the next novel (did I say that this was a series? Well, of course, it’s a series), the novel doesn’t address why, or even how, Warcross is such a global phenomenon to the extent that apparently everyone, even old fogies like me play it or at least watch it. The ending sets us up for the sequel, albeit with a rather tedious dump of exposition.

But I’m mostly quibbling here – Ms Lu is a fine author and when she’s on her home territory she pulled me in and had me thrilled by her VR game.

Will I read the sequel? Past experience suggests that the stakes will be upped from personal to national or even global, which probably means less actual time in Warcross, so it’s probably a no for me, though I’ll take a view when it comes out.

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The Lost Compass by Joel Ross

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lost-compassThe Lost Compass by Joel Ross
Fog Diver; Bk. 2
HarperCollins, 2016.

This satisfying sequel to the Cybil-winning middle grade adventure The Fog Diver (2015), picks up immediately where the previous book left off. Following a brief introduction to get the reader up to speed the reader is plunged straight back into the post-apocalyptic world in which the Earth is covered by a sentient Fog made of nanites that are toxic to humans, and people can only survive on mountain tops and in the air above the Fog.

Chess, the fog diver, and his crew have escaped the economically stratified Rooftop and arrived at idyllic and more equitable Port Oro, where they discover that the only way to save the world from villainous Kodoc is for Chess to dive down again to find the mysterious Compass which controls the Fog. Naturally, Kodoc also wants to get his hands on the Compass and is prepared to do anything to achieve that.

It becomes apparent that the crew are more than just a serendipitously well-matched group. Hazel, the quick thinking leader, Swedish, the ingenious pilot, Bea, the preternaturally gifted mechanic, are there to support Chess as his affinity with the Fog means he could be the one to save the Earth. These four characters, plus brawling Loretta, continue to be the warm heart of the story. Though a few new characters are introduced, they pale in comparison and are more plot device than flesh and blood.

The plot is a judicious mix of action sequences and exploration of the world. Port Oro has plenty for the kids to discover and because it is a more fair and just society than that of the Rooftop, it gives Chess a reason to put himself in peril.

Once again there is some entertaining and clever word play on phrases from the old days. Norse is a tapping code used by the Vikings. The Amazons are fierce women warriors who fought battle and sold books. There is a long-running gag with Hazel keeping a Captain’s Log that begins each entry with Start-8. This is smart stuff that is perfectly pitched to be both witty and comprehensible.

The author has made the bold and cheer-inducing move of completing the series in only two books. This keeps the pace fast and the explanations brief, but at the same time doesn’t shortchange the reader. An excellent duology that I would recommend to any scifi or dystopian loving upper elementary or middle schooler.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow

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scorpion rulesThe Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2015.

400 years ago, the world collapsed into warring factions, and Talis, an Artificial Intelligence, imposed order by keeping the children of the political leaders hostage and under promise of death if their faction declared war. 16 year-old Greta is one of these Children of Peace, kept in a Prefecture in Saskatchewan. When a new alliance is formed that borders on her Federation, and their hostage Elian is brought to their Prefecture, Greta’s fear that she will soon be summoned to die for her mother’s decision seems about to be realized.

Bow (Plain Kate, Levine, 2010) has created an extraordinarily detailed and coherent world. Within a few pages, she answers all my ‘hang on, how does this work?’ questions, and though the logic of these hostages is quite horrible, it also actually makes sense. The decisions that Talis has taken on behalf of the world, in terms of peacekeeping, technology, and infrastructure, are brutally austere, and yet also something that could easily be in our future.

Greta is a challenging character and narrator. She is a rule abider, and follows what is expected of her as both a Princess (the world has gone rather feudal) and a Child of Peace. This makes her initially somewhat stiff and unlikeable, and it does appear that we are going to go down the well-trodden track of her only seeing the error of her ways when the defiant and rebellious Elian turns up. But Ms Bow is far too skilled a writer for that, and the second half of the book is full of thrilling twists and turns, as Greta takes hold of the power she did not realize she had.

The large cast of multicultural support characters, both human and AI, are vividly drawn and fit into the world with ease. Princess Xie, Greta’s roommate and best friend since she first arrived at the age of 5, is emotionally exquisite and is shown to have far greater understanding of the system than anybody else. And Talis, despite being the world-ruling AI, is also hilariously and scarily flippant about his power and decisions.

Talis’s rule is to ‘make it personal’, and Ms. Bow has written a very smart novel about the conviction and perception of those individuals who challenge the imposed solution despite the stupidity of the human race. This is the first book in a series, and fans of intelligent dystopian fiction will love it.

Replica by Lauren Oliver

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bookcover_replicaReplica by Lauren Oliver
HarperCollins, October 2016.

With this very enjoyable first book in her new duology, which takes on the big theme of what it means to be human, Lauren Oliver returns to the sci fi/dystopia genre of her splendid Delirium trilogy.

Lyra and Gemma are both connected with the mysterious Haven Institute which is situated on a remote Florida island. Lyra, or 24, is one of the many replicas (or clones) that live there. Gemma’s father was one of the founders of Haven. When a bomb goes off on the island, Lyra escapes and Gemma makes her way down to Florida – from their different perspectives, they both want to find out who they are and what Haven’s purpose really is.

Told from the perspectives of Lyra and Gemma, the author has taken the interesting if not entirely successful decision to write this as two novellas rather than the usual interleaved chapters. I applaud trying new things, but I feel maybe it would have worked better in the traditional way. In the intro, Ms Oliver talks about the Rashomon effect, but it is much harder to detect this when you are not reading the two accounts side by side, particularly in an eBook.

The created world is thought-provoking and cohesive, and, as she did with Delirium, the author gradually drops in new information to build a fuller picture, but does this without ever leaving the reader frustrated or confused. The science of what is going on at Haven comes in a couple of big information dumps and I found it a bit confusing, though I suspect it’s not essential to follow precisely. Suffice to say that the scientists at Haven are Up To No Good.

I really like the two narrators and the voices that Ms Oliver has created for them. Lyra is precise and a little cold. Ms Oliver is largely successful in creating a character that knows nothing about the outside world, except what she has occasionally seen on TV or overheard from the Haven staff, and then to convey her wonder and confusion as she encounters it. Gemma becomes more intriguing as we get to know her and her family background.

Both girls have love interests (and all main characters appear to be white). Lyra flees from Haven with hunky 72, who is of the silent brooding but “beautiful” type, and Gemma’s ride to Florida is Pete, who is of the fresh-faced, handsome, nice, and inexplicably drawn to the outcast girl type. Neither really develops much beyond that. As the young women dig deeper into who they are, their beaux’ responses add new dimensions when the idea of love as a marker of humanity is explored.

The plot rattles along, with twist following twist, and the two accounts add developments without being repetitious. Unfortunately, the novel just sort of ends on an incomplete note, so we’ll have to wait for the concluding sequel, though yay for dropping the treading water middle book of a trilogy!

Ms Oliver’s books are always worth reading, whether realistic or speculative. Fans of her previous novels won’t be disappointed, and Replica could well attract some new readers.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner; illustrated by Julian Crouch

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maggot moonMaggot Moon by Sally Gardner; illustrated by Julian Crouch
Candlewick, 2013

I got an email recently from Goodreads telling me that I was in the top 1% of reviewers (by quantity not necessarily quality!) and my most liked and commented on post was for Maggot Moon. So I thought I’d share my review, with some tweaks here:

What an amazing read! I re-read this as soon as I’d finished it – first time I’ve ever done that. This is like reading 1984 narrated by Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

It is set in a 1956 in which the Britain lost the war. It is not explicitly stated which dictatorship now rules England, but there are clues. One of the elite kids is called Hans, a teacher has a Hitler-style toothbrush mustache, and the flags are red, black and white, all suggesting a Nazi victory. However, the home of the ruling class is referred to as the Motherland, which suggests the USSR, rather than the Fatherland of Nazi Germany. Maybe Ms Gardner did not want to be specific, or maybe she wanted it to be an amalgam.

Standish Treadwell and his grandfather live in Zone Seven – where the ‘impure’ are sent. Standish is dyslexic (maybe, again never stated explicitly) and it is his use of language that makes this such an incredible read – he is not a ‘train track thinker’ and twists everyday adages which creates startling new images, “a hare’s breath” for example.The story is rooted in Standish’s beautifully evoked friendship with Hector, a new arrival to the area, and a mysterious spaceman they meet.

The illustrations of rats, flies and maggots, which run along the bottom of the pages like a flip cartoon, baffled me at first, but on the second reading I could see how they run as a harmony to the prose, as well as personifying (if that’s what it is with an animal) the corruption, decay and rot at the heart of the Motherland. In the text itself, there is some brutal violence which is made worse by the apparent everyday casualness of its occurrence – it is not Hollywood movie violence, but is imaginably and viscerally real.

This is a really short book – 100 chapters, some of which are only a paragraph long – and deceptively simple, but as the author does not spell everything out for the reader it is a densely rich,intense, and rewarding read.

Burning Nation by Trent Reedy

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burning nationBurning Nation by Trent Reedy
Levine, 2015.

In contrast to The Luck Uglies sequel, Trent Reedy’s Burning Nation is a pretty successful follow-up to Divided We Fall. I think the difference is that this sequel appears to have been planned – it flows organically from the first book, building on the situation while keeping the same thrilling pace and gripping storylines.

17 year-old Idaho National Guard Private Danny Wright and his unit are drawn deeper into the conflict between the newly established Republic of Idaho and the Federal Government. As it escalates into full blown Civil War, Danny’s old high school friends join the struggle, initially as support and later as fully committed combatants. Fractures across other states deepen the crisis, and a darker side of the Idaho resistance emerges.

The plotting in Burning Nation is spectacularly good: the author draws the reader along through the all too believable and inevitable breakdown of law, swiftly followed by the imposition of military governance. Danny is an engagingly committed, yet naïve, protagonist – that he is a key player in this battle feels unnervingly credible – and though he isn’t the most articulate fellow, he gives the reader an absolutely visceral feel of the realities of combat.

Reedy uses a similar structure to the first book, with interspersed news reports and social media commentary giving the reader a perspective on the war that Danny does not have. However, in Burning Nation, this seems to be less about balancing the argument – there’s not much airtime for opponents of the war – and more about showing the apparent inevitability of the collapse of the United States.

There is a lot (a lot!) of brutal violence including our young protagonist killing multiple “Feds” as well as being extensively tortured himself. Danny has something of a conscience about the rampant shootings, though frequently justifies it to himself because the Feds killed his mother. Even so, much of the killing still feels sadistic and like a “badass” videogame, and Cal Riccon is being set up as one who goes too far in this respect. There is explicit reference to Afghanistan and Iraq, and the idea of being perceived as an insurgent or rebel on the one hand, or a terrorist on the other is briefly touched on.

Character development is not Mr. Reedy’s strong point. I found the initial section, in particular, confusing as there are so many characters who are just names; it feels much more comfortable when the cast is whittled down mainly to Danny and his high school friends, though even they feel pretty interchangeable.  But I liked that Danny did at least comment on the absurdity of worrying about a love triangle when all is going to hell in a handbasket around him.

It looks like the next book, The Last Full Measure, will not be the closer. I feel that Mr. Reedy knows where he’s driving this series and if he keeps up this pace and the plotting, I’m happy to go along for the ride and I’m sure many teens will be too.

Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy

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divided we fallDivided We Fall by Trent Reedy
Levine, 2014.

Combining gun-toting action with moral ambiguity, this first book in a YA trilogy, set in a just over the horizon future, starts with an all too believable clash between the state of Idaho and the Federal Government, that rapidly escalates into a military standoff. In the center of this is 17-year-old Danny Wright, a private in the Idaho National Guard whose accidental shot seems to precipitate the crisis.

Danny is a typical high school senior in Freedom Lake, Idaho, who enjoys football, partying and rodeo, and he is also intensely proud of being a soldier as his now-dead father was before him. Danny’s confusion and testosterone driven choices feel real, and make him an unusual and well-developed protagonist. Other characters, both teen and soldiers, however, feel rather interchangeable and generic.

Reedy (Words in the Dust, 2011) sets up an intriguingly complex situation, with both sides of the conflict given airtime through snippets of news reportage and social media, though the constitutional issues are explicated rather clunkily, and unnecessarily, through a school civics class. The book doesn’t fall definitively on either political side, but Danny, again unusually, is definitely on the conservative/libertarian end of the spectrum. His girlfriend, JoBell, is initially the mouthpiece for the liberal argument, though later becomes more layered

Danny faces several moral dilemmas with no easy choices, and there are real consequences for his decisions that he cannot always justify. Once the rather slow set up is complete, the pace of the action rattles along, ending with a cliffhanger that will leave teen readers excited for the next installment.