Tag Archives: scifi

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic, 2020.

Suzanne Collins revisits Panem in this very successful prequel set 64 years before The Hunger Games. Coriolanus Snow is a senior at the prestigious Academy, but is only there because of his family’s name – they are dirt poor in reality though do their very best to keep up appearances. The Hunger Games were set up 10 years ago at the conclusion of the Capitol’s victory over the rebellious Districts and they are very different in style, if not in purpose, to the ones that Katniss Everdeen participates in: the Tributes (a boy and girl from each District) are just slung into an arena with some weapons. But for the 10th anniversary, it has been decided to give each Tribute a mentor from the students at the Academy and Coriolanus feels the slight of being awarded the girl from District 12, particularly as the mentors are to be rewarded for the performance of their Tributes. But it turns out that Lucy Gray Baird is special and may well be able to beat the odds.

As well as the basic Hunger Games plot, there is also some clues about how the Games developed into the spectacle that we know from the original trilogy. And, of course, we see the beginning of the evolution of Coriolanus Snow from proud and conflicted teen into what he later becomes.

I enjoyed this book as much as The Hunger Games as it goes back to the personal and individual (while there is a plethora of characters with 24 Tributes and 24 mentors, most are little more than a name), though it does lack the visceral shock I felt when I first read a book in which children kill other children. Of course, Coriolanus is a much more ambivalent character than Katniss, but the author captures his charisma and opportunistic intelligence while keeping him mostly sympathetic.

My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi

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My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich by Ibi Zoboi
Dutton, 2019.

My second novel review about a space-obsessed middle grade girl set in the 1980’s! 

Zoboi’s (Pride, 2018) middle-grade debut is set in Summer 1984 when 12 year-old Ebony-Grace Norfleet has been sent from Huntsville Alabama by her mother to stay in Harlem with the father she hardly knows. It’s never made very clear why Ebony-Grace is sent, but there are hints that her grandfather is in some sort of trouble.

Encouraged by her Grandaddy, a pioneering black engineer for NASA, Ebony-Grace spends most of her time in her “imagination location,” living out Space stories inspired by Star Wars, Star Trek, and superheroes. In these stories, he is the heroic Captain Fleet, she is Space Cadet E-Grace Starfleet, and they have intergalactic adventures in the Mothership Uhura.

But this “crazy” behavior has isolated her in her hometown and now threatens to do the same here, even with her friend Bianca who had been a willing game participant three years ago. Bianca is now a rapper and breakdancer with the ice cream-themed 9 Flavas girl crew and when Ebony-Grace tries to behave like a “regular and normal” kid and fit in with them, they dismiss her as a “plain ol’ ice cream sandwich! Chocolate on the outside, vanilla on the inside.” The alien environment of Harlem with its graffiti, loud music, crowds of fast-talking people, breakdancing, and double Dutch pushes her further back into her comfort fantasy zone. Ebony-Grace presents as neurodiverse, though this is never made explicit, and her social struggles feel overwhelming and unresolvable, though the ending suggests that she may be on the road to change. 

Though I found the plot confusing and muddled and the resolution to be problematic, the author does effectively evoke the spirit of mid-80’s Harlem with many musical, cultural, and news references. Readers who enjoyed Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer (2010) may appreciate the period feel of this book too.

Review based on an ARC.

Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw

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Outwalkers by Fiona Shaw
Scholastic, 2019

I really enjoy British dystopias – they are so much grungier than American ones – so I was excited to see this novel (originally published in the UK in 2018) on the review table. It reminded me a little of Maggot Moon, which I adored, and also of the communist East German regime which I was immersed in recently on a holiday in Berlin.

In a near-future England, the Coalition has brought in Brexit on steroids: nobody is allowed in or out of the country. The Coalition looks after you from cradle to grave and for your safety (of course!) they want to know where you are at all times, so all citizens have a chip embedded in their necks.

12 year-old Jake had led a happy and unremarkable life with his parents who were scientists for the Coalition, but when they both die in a car accident he is taken away to a Home Academy – a boarding school/prison for parentless children. But his parents had made him promise that if anything happened to them, he would make his way to his grandparents in Scotland accompanied by his dog, Jet.

Jake manages to escape from the Home and rescue Jet from his neighbors, but he can’t shake the pursuing “hub police” because of his chip. Just in time, he is rescued by a group of outwalkers: teens and children who have removed their chips and want to escape over the New Wall to Scotland. This motley group of seven, all white except dark-skinned Poacher, are richly characterized and are the heart of the novel.

As they crisscross England avoiding capture, the plot crackles along at a high intensity pace with occasional, welcome moments of slack. The group has its harsh rules for survival: no technology, be outside, be hidden, and obedience to the gang; any infractions and you’re out. Jake is initially uncomfortable with the outwalkers, and the feeling is mutual, but they gradually let him into their motley family.

However, the kids do seem to be unfeasibly lucky in getting out of apparently no exit situations and a late turn of the plot adds in a new character. This takes the focus from the personal and sets up an unnecessary sequel, a development of which you just know I’m not a fan. 

The author has used current events and attitudes and turned up the jets of speculation to create a grim but very plausible world. The Coalition’s promotion of jingoistic nationalism, its manipulation of the media and the narrative, the social hierarchy based on wealth and privilege, and the restricted access to healthcare will feel as familiar to American readers as it does to British ones.

I’ve seen some criticism of this book – Poacher, the only black character is the only one whose speech is written in dialect, one of the other characters uses “throws like a girl” as an insult – and these are fair objections. Nonetheless, I found myself thoroughly gripped and invested in the quest for belonging made by these characters and would recommend it to teen readers who enjoy bleak speculative fiction.

Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

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Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff
Aurora Cycle _01
Knopf, 2019.

The authors of The Illuminae Files kick off a new action-packed sci-fi series in which a squad of teen “legionnaires” protect a girl recovered from a spacecraft that went missing back in the early days of Earth’s expansion into space.

Legion Squad 312 consists of straight arrow leader, dishy blond Tyler, his persuasive diplomat sister Scarlett, tattooed ace pilot Cat, genius but socially awkward dark brown-skinned Zila, along with two “aliens” geeky Betraskan Finian and noble Sydralthi warrior Kal. Added to this mix is “half-Chinese” mystery “girl out of time” Aurora who has visions and gradually emerging powers. 

Surprises and twists abound as this group of misfits come together with much snarky banter while learning to rely on each other’s individual strengths as they are pursued across space by the menacing Global Intelligence Agency who are determined to capture Aurora. 

The narration of the seven teens as well as pages from an iPad-like “uniglass” all add to the world-building. Set in 2380, it seems that some things have changed – there are now 475 known civilizations, though most of them seem to be variations of humans but with different numbers of appendages and different color skin – and some things haven’t – humans still want to colonize, refugees are still despised, economic disparity persists, and nerdy boys still think they have a chance with hot girls. 

High energy and tautly plotted all the way through, as the squad eventually uncovers the fearsome threat to all life in the universe and Aurora’s role is revealed, the authors leave us gasping for the sequel. 

Wilder Girls by Rory Power

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Wilder Girls by Rory Power
Delacorte, 2019

An eye-catching cover and intriguing premise is sure to bring readers to this YA speculative thriller, reminiscent of Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

18 months ago, the Tox hit Raxter School for Girls on a remote Maine island. Most of the teachers went mad and killed themselves, some girls lost or gained body parts, others mutated in different ways, and the flora and fauna on the island has grown larger and wilder. Narrator Hetty has lost an eye, her friend Byatt has grown a second spine and the hand of her other friend Reese has turned to silver scales.

With the CDC and Navy promising a cure, the school is quarantined behind a secure fence and cut off from all communications, but this precarious balance is blown when narrator Hetty joins the “Boat Shift” – the group that leaves the school to collect supplies – and when Byatt disappears. 

In the first part of the book Power leisurely builds the world with a few brief glimpses of life before the Tox. Character development does not seem to be a priority (main characters all default white) and even Hetty is not much more than a stereotypical YA dystopian protagonist. Her unresolved sexuality and out of the blue attraction to Reese provide some relief from the disease-driven plot, but the novel remains one-note overwrought, with life-threatening crises from page to page.

The arc of the story follows a familiar pattern as Hetty and friends start to search for explanations and unravel a potential conspiracy (Maze Runner fans might have some ideas) and the plot picks up momentum, with fast-paced, occasionally gruesome, action and horror. 

An environmental theme is introduced late in the novel and with many questions unanswered a sequel is sure to follow. 

Thanks to Delacorte and Netgalley for the digital review copy.

 

Gamer Army by Trent Reedy

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Gamer Army by Trent Reedy
Scholastic, 2018.

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.

Autonomous by Andy Marino

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Autonomous by Andy Marino
Freeform, 2018

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.

Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu

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Batman: Nightwalker by Marie Lu
DC Icons series
Random House, January 2018.

This solid second entry in the DC Icons series which looks at the teenage years of superheroes is set in a bleak crime-ridden Gotham City in which the megarich are being murdered and their funds taken to finance an anti-capitalist operation called the Nightwalkers. The police manage to capture one, Asian American teen Madeline Wallace and she is kept in top security Arkham Asylum where 18 year-old Bruce Wayne is doing community service after a run in with the law.

Ms Lu has definitely opted for the bleaker Christopher Nolan Dark Knight vibe rather than the more campy alternative, and while atmospheric, it did make the book a bit of a trudge for me. However, Ms Lu does action well, and the writing really lifts off in those scenes, particularly in the climax when Bruce takes on the Nightwalkers, clad in a prototype batsuit.

Bruce is a smart and earnest protagonist, still haunted by the murder of his parents when he was younger, and he falls hard for the far more complicated and gorgeous Madeline. Though the Nightwalkers are new villains, there are several characters that will be familiar to those who know the Batman comic books and movies.

As with Leigh Bardugo’s Wonder Woman, the superhero name is only in the title, and in this younger Bruce we can clearly see the upstanding and thoughtful citizen and skillful fighter that he will later become in his role of guardian of Gotham City.

The novel works equally well for those who are familiar with Gotham City and those who are new to it, and, with its high interest main character and top notch YA author, it is a must have for all libraries serving teens.

Thanks to Random House for the review copy.

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston
Dutton, 2017

This quirkily appealing alternate history imagines that the sun never set on the British Empire because Queen Victoria’s descendants married into the colonies, ensuring a “cosmopolitan, multiracial mosaic.” Now, two centuries on, a debut ball in Toronto brings together quiet and pragmatic white Helena, her Irish-Hong Kong Chinese unspoken intended August, and Margaret, with “brown skin, epicanthal folds” and a “curly dark mass” of hair.

Each of the three has a secret that will shape their futures: Margaret is actually the heir to the throne; August has got himself into legal and financial trouble; Helena learns that she has an XY chromosome and is intersex. How these three learn each other’s secrets and what they do with them makes for an entertaining and charming novel. However, I thought that Helena’s Big Reveal was somewhat muffled and its significance isn’t explained till much later.

The world the author has created is an intriguingly odd mash up of Victorian era dress and manners, present day technology, and scifi genetic matching and it is explicated through snippets of history at the start of chapters. I found the role of genetics, which is somehow under the purview of the Church, to be a little confusing and it was never entirely clear to me what connection Helena’s mother had with all of this.

Nonetheless, the author’s three lead characters are very well-crafted and it is their story and the unexpected ways in which their relationships develop that form the beating heart of the novel and while the setting is smart it takes a backseat to that. While I spent most of the novel assuming it was going to be a series because of the leisurely pace, a surprisingly quick and complete wrap-up suggests otherwise though I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel.

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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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