Tag Archives: speculative

Dreamfall by Amy Plum

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Dreamfall by Amy Plum
HarperTeen, May 2017

I was really enjoying this imaginative and gripping scifi horror thriller, but then I started to get this little niggle: there wasn’t much left to read and there seemed a fair bit of plot to squeeze in. And then, oh crap, I realized it’s the first book in a series. Why, why, why? It felt like another 50 pages would have been quite sufficient to tie up all the ends and give us a satisfying resolution. But, oh no, Ms Plum, who has written other series, wants to keep it going. Still, on the basis of reviewing what’s in front of me and not what I wish it was, here goes….

After an experimental treatment for severe insomnia goes wrong, seven teens are stuck together in a place they call Dreamfall, which throws them alternately between one of their nightmares and a white waiting room-like void. The nightmares are various degrees of chilling and originality, including monsters, clowns, and zombie monks, and the author ratchets up the tension as the teens race to out of each nightmare and back to the Void.

The Dreamfall teens are mixed in age, ethnicity and social class and two of them, 16 year old Catalina and 18 year old Fergus narrate these sections. Initially it’s all a bit of a jumble with seven characters, but they do gradually shake out into at least two-dimensions. A third narrator, Jaime, is a medical student who was observing the treatment in the lab and this allows the reader to see the doctors’ reactions, improbable as they sometimes are, as well as allowing us to peek at the subjects’ files and find out the differing reasons for their insomnia.

The plot rattles along at a breakneck pace, only to come to an abrupt cliff-hangerish sort of ending. No real resolution is reached, just further twists thrown in along with a bunch of other loose ends. It’s not clear where the author is going to take this, or if this is going to be a trilogy or duology. For my money, this should have been a one and done, but teens who like series may disagree.

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Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth

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Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2017.

Set in a galaxy far far away, this speculative novel, first in a duology, has some familiar and some new elements from brand name author Veronica Roth of the Divergent series. The world building is far more complex than she has attempted before, which makes the initial chapters are rather laborious and confusing as a plethora of characters, cultures, and political and religious systems are thrown at the reader. Once the novel gets into its rhythm, however, this all makes more sense and there’s some intriguing ideas around “the current” – the major force in this universe – and the currentgifts that each individual develops at puberty.

We are also in familiar star-cross’d lovers territory with the two leads coming from different nations living on the same planet. White Akos is the younger son of a high-ranking Thuvhesit family who is kidnapped by the cruel and ruthless Shotet leader, Ryzek, to be an aide to his sister “medium brown, almost golden” Cyra. The novel is a split narrative, and Cyra’s first person account is much more immersive than Akos’s third person point of view. Despite Akos and Cyra coming from the opposite sides of a planetary civil war, what do you think might happen?

As with Divergent, there are themes of identity, destiny, and how an individual can change and determine these. While high-ranking family members each have a foretold fate, these are ambiguous enough that their apparently obvious meaning may be twisted in a way that makes for a satisfying plot. Despite coming in at 468 pages, the pacing and plot will keep the reader engaged, and looking forward to the completing novel. With more sadism and more complex worldbuilding than her previous series, Carve the Mark will work best for older YA readers.

Horizon by Scott Westerfeld

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Horizon by Scott Westerfeld
Scholastic, 2017

Prolific author Westerfeld opens up a new multi-author seven part upper elementary/middle grade scifi series. On a flight between New York and Tokyo, the plane crashes leaving only eight survivors – all kids. But nothing makes sense: the other passengers have all just disappeared and instead of being in the Arctic, they are in a tropical jungle, inhabited by unfamiliar and malevolent creatures.

This book is in many ways a set-up for the series and linked online game, so the characters are distinguished by the skills that they bring to the group and, for some of them, a little background family information is broadly sketched in. Dark-skinned Molly is a natural leader and the others look to her for direction. Blonde Anna has trouble filtering what she says, but sometimes the others need her honesty. Biracial Yoshi is the most analytical and creative thinker, making intellectual leaps that the others haven’t. Dark-skinned Javi, white Caleb, young Japanese sisters Kira and Akiko, and young white Oliver make up the octet.

The plot moves along quickly, with plenty of action and intrigue. There’s age appropriate thrills and scares as they encounter the strange flora and fauna and there’s some humor to be had in the names the kids give to them including “pukeberries” and the “dreadful duck of doom.”

By the end of the book, the kids have answered the where part of the mystery, and that leaves the why, who, and how for subsequent books. With Jennifer A. Nielsen up for book 2, this is clearly a series that Scholastic are investing in and Westerfeld gives it a solid start.

Polaris by Michael Northrop

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Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017

Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.

On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.

The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.

The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.

Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy

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Still Life with Tornado by A. S. King

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still-life-with-tornadoStill Life with Tornado by A. S. King
Dutton, 2016.

As I’m reading a bit less at the moment due to work commitments, I’m having a real struggle choosing between reading new authors, and ones I already know and love. Much as I want to expand my repertoire, there are certain authors that I just can’t pass up. Next week’s review is by one, the always edgy Marcus Sedgwick, and today’s is about a book by another author who just keeps coming up with extraordinary novels, A. S. King.

White 16 year-old Sarah is having an “existential crisis” after an incident in art class and stops going to school. But it is only when she meets up with her 10 year-old and 23 year-old selves that she can begin to understand that there is a much deeper root to her troubles.

The author has a great knack of taking what is a fairly prosaic and unoriginal story – in this case, a highly creative and smart teen girl dealing with the fallout of her dysfunctional family – and adding in a wildly original fantasy element that spectacularly illuminates the main plot.

Sarah has all the self-absorption of her age, and the main thread of the story follows her on her wanderings around Philadelphia. Woven into that is the detailed recollection of a family holiday in Mexico when she was 10, which was a pivotal point for them all,  particularly for her older brother Bruce. The third element is the backstory to the family’s dysfunction, told from her mother’s perspective.

Sarah frequently and thought-provokingly threshes through the question of what art is, and what originality is. Whether she’s following a local homeless man, going to school in her head, or eating out of trash cans, Sarah is an engaging and intelligent narrator. The tornado of the title is a metaphor for all that is contained inside the emotions whirling around inside of Sarah (and the cover rather clunkily explicates that).

Though smaller and more intimate than Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future (2014), King beautifully blends Sarah’s rooted-in-reality breakdown with the freshness and creativity of the doppelgangers.

A. S. King is something of an acquired taste, and her straight-faced mix of reality and fantasy is certainly not for everyone; I’ve heard her books described as “weird” in not always a complimentary way. However, sophisticated teens with an eye out for a new angle on an old story may well enjoy this.

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The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

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creeping-shadowThe Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. Book 4
Disney Hyperion, 2015

This middle grade series just keeps getting better. Lucy Carlyle is now out fighting ghosts on her own, away from the comfort and protection of Lockwood and Co. She’s doing alright, after all she has the Bartimaeus-style snarky skull to keep her company, and she’s making a living as a freelancer. But, and you’ll have noticed the name of the series, she’s soon back happily working with charismatic Anthony Lockwood, nerdy George Cubbins, and even last book’s newcomer and love rival, the elegant Holly Munro.

There is an overarching grand conspiracy going on, that seems to revolve around the two original agencies founded to solve the Problem, Fittes and Rotwell, and once again, Lockwood and Co. is all wrapped up in it. This time it starts when Lucy discovers that someone is stealing powerful Sources which should be destroyed, and leads to a very haunted village.

Stroud does a magnificent job of keeping this series fresh, building on the familiar characters and world, as well as introducing new elements. Coming into the familiar mix of humor, chills, and mystery is a more somber note, a trepidatious twang of foreboding: Lockwood’s dark side and live fast die young attitude comes more into focus, even as he gets closer to Lucy.

Each novel in this series can stand alone, with an episodic structure that builds to a dramatic climax. But the reader would be best to start at the beginning to get the full rich umami of the stew that the author keeps cooking up for us.

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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.