Reviews

Review: Bumped

Today’s post is a guest entry from a UF undergraduate student currently enrolled in Rebekah’s Fitzsimmons’s class called Teenage Wastelands: American Dystopian Young Adult Fiction.

By Kenna Galloway

The popularity of dystopian young adult literature is clear by spending only a few minutes in the teen section of the bookstore. Many of these novels show us the threat of a possible future based off exaggerated circumstances and issues that we face as a society today. A serious tone is common in this genre, something the author often breaks up through the use of a snarky secondary character, a subplot of romance, or both. Megan McCafferty’s Bumped, however, does not fit this stereotype. That is not to say that its underlying issues are not serious or that there is no romance, but you can tell from reading only the first few chapters this book is much different than Lauren Oliver’s Delirium or Veronica Roth’s Divergent. The tone of Bumped is most like M.T. Anderson’s Feed, in its use of satirical situations and language, although in this humble reviewer’s opinion, less intelligently and with much less challenge for the reader.

Bumped is full of vibrant characters. Perhaps, too vibrant. The novel is just over three hundred pages and with upwards of twelve quasi-main characters that you must keep track of, it is clear that McCafferty had to make a few sacrifices to erase some of the difficulty of keeping them all straight and separate. Often in real life people are not so starkly different against each other, but in only three hundred pages characters sometimes have to so that the reader can see them as different and the author can achieve progress in the story quickly. However, the sacrifices that McCafferty made in character development and depth seriously hurt the reader’s ability to relate to them.

Melody and Harmony are twins separated at birth and each raised by vastly different families (Melody’s- a young couple obsessed with raising the perfect daughter to make them money with the perfect pregg, Harmony’s- the environment of a religious town called Goodside, that promotes marriage and fosters feelings of community and the shame of sin). The chapters told from their alternating viewpoints make it very clear to the reader the differences between them. Because we are “in their heads,” the reader is able to identify more depth, complexity, and growth (even though it feels like it takes forever), and therefore they are the closest to fully developed that the reader meets. Other characters, such as Zen (Melody’s best friend), Jondoe (Handsome tempter who is a professional “bumper”), and Ram (Harmony’s fiancé from Goodside), have basically only one level for most of the novel and one “ah ha!” moment where their “true” self, or some secret about them, is revealed or self discovered. Having one “surprise” level to a character that is told outside of the author’s first paragraph description of them does not reach development, and because of this, McCafferty’s characters are at times hard to relate to feel empathy for.

Like mentioned earlier, Bumped handles serious issues in a deceptively light tone. We wade through a world full of pregnant children with main track storyline worries such as “Will Harmony steal Melody’s pregg?” or “Why did Harmony really leave Goodside?”. Unlike other dystopian novels, our main characters do not face, or fight, really, the issue of the dystopian society. Their society has of course contributed to the circumstances that they find themselves in, but their drama is a simply heightened case of high school–type drama. Melody is not secretly part of a resistance to pregging and Harmony comes to “save” Melody for ulterior motives. No one except Zen, who barely even says much outright until the very end, proclaims that their society has issues at its foundation, and that pregging so young is wrong, and so is the consumer-product culture that has evolved around it.

Bumped leaves much to be desired. Its plot is obvious; its twists and turns the stuff of soap operas. McCafferty fails to leave the reader anything to connect on his or her own. Even the idea that bumping goes against maternal instincts is laid out to use through the use of the character Malia (who truly should have been edited out of the novel). We never meet Malia, but her character functions to show us that pregging is not the same as having a baby, and that maternal behavior in the world of Bumped is not something that is welcome. It may have been more compelling if this situation had happened to one of the main characters, such as Melody’s pregnant best friend Shoko, or even Melody or Harmony. But instead we were given an unnecessary mystery as a fable of sorts, to identify how this society is wrong. McCafferty does not leave any puzzle pieces under the table for the reader to find for himself or herself, as it were. Instead she neatly lies out the pieces, in order, so that all the reader must do is click them into spot robotically and without much thought.

Overall, Bumped seemed unfinished. It seemed like a draft or sketch, something to be filled in and fleshed out at a later time. McCafferty’s dystopian world was fresh and compelling, but its characters fell flat and far from their potential.

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Categories: Reviews

A Review in 3 Parts: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

The Ugly (part 3 of 3)

This is the third and last in my series of review posts on Scott Westerfeld’s series, including Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras.  Please see the first two posts here and here.  As always: spoiler alert.

My biggest concern in the series was what I found to be a glorification of plastic surgery and self-mutilation.  This begins in the first two books with a constant emphasis on physical appearance and the continual assertion that the only way to be beautiful was to undergo radical physical alteration at the hands of plastic surgeons.  The “Pretty-making” surgery is granted to every citizen when they turn 16 and it enhances their physical beauty as well as their muscular and immune systems. Over and over we are told that this enhancement is based on evolutionary science, ensuring that those operated on are truly irresistible, even powerful over those non-altered individuals.  The major conspiracy point of the novel revolves around the secret fact that, along with making the population pretty, this surgery also dulls the intellect, drive, and desires of the population at large, rendering them “bubbleheads” who rarely question authority or seek out more than a good time.

There are, of course, moments in the text where the characters pay lip service to the idea of finding beauty in yourself without these surgeries.  In Pretties, Shay and Tally play with the computer simulation software, making up possible faces for themselves, but Shay claims that she doesn’t want to change herself at all (Tally is aghast at the possibility).  Shay asserts that one can be beautiful without the surgery and that it is all propaganda that makes the uglies believe that they need the surgery.  Shay runs away to The Smoke in part to prove that she doesn’t want the surgery, and Tally is driven to follow her by Special Circumstances, who threaten to withhold the Pretty surgery from her unless she helps them track down David and The Smoke.  Despite their objections to the surgery based on what they experience in The Smoke, Shay and Tally both end up transformed, first into Pretties, then into Specials.

As the books progress, there is great outrage and rebellion against the idea of brain modification done without the knowledge or permission of the citizenry, and the reader is encouraged to see this kind of modification as a violation.  However, the practice of “surge” and the celebration of the ways in which physical and surgical alterations can express one’s personality, group affiliations, and popularity is celebrated even after the “mind-rain” saves everyone from their mental muzzles.  In Specials, Diego, the city of sanctuary for all mind-free individuals does not abandon plastic surgery, but loosens the “beauty regulations” and allows, even encourages, its population to alter themselves in any way they like.  The unnamed Asian city in Extras, likewise allows individuals to surge or not to surge based on their preferences, but one of the first things Frizz notices about Aya is her unsurged nose and claims he thought it “brave” for someone to walk around with “a nose like that.”  It is clear that unsurged people are considered abnormal, meaning there is city-wide peer pressure to alter one’s looks via surgery.  Fritz even embraces his own form of brain muzzling, in his Radical Honesty surge, though he objects whenever someone calls him a “bubblehead.”  Frizz sees a distinction between his elective brain modification and the bubblehead surgery done in secret, but Tally and others see any brain modification as a part of the same evil.  By the end of Extras, we have only a couple of characters who have chosen not to enhance themselves surgically: David, who was born free of the city influence and Aya, who promises Tally that she will not add more surgeries on top of her feed implants. However, Tally, the character held up through all 4 novels as the hero and moral compass for the reader is the most surgically enhanced individual, who refused to decommission her “Special” qualities out of a desire to keep people from “rewriting” her for a 3rd time.

What is even more disturbing is the glorification of self-mutilation at the end of Pretties and throughout Specials.  In order to defeat the “bubblehead” legions that cause the pretty population to be docile and moronic, the Crims attempt daring and dangerous tricks that serve the adrenaline-pumping “bubbly” feeling that they associate with their brains working around the legions.  However, Shay creates her own clique based around the idea that cutting themselves or causing other injuries can also help them to escape from the bubblehead phenomenon.

Special Circumstances, always on the look out for young people who are able to resist the treatments, recruits Shay and her cult of friends to be a new kind of Special, nicknamed “The Cutters.”  While specific members of the Cutters cease cutting themselves, they remain known by this celebratory, special name throughout the rest of Specials and into Extras.  To me, the glorification of the feeling that comes from self-mutilation and the way it allowed Shay to escape being a Pretty and allow her to advance to the head of a group of Specials is disturbing.  Granted, Tally eventually rebels against the idea of cutting herself, but until they are “cured” by the New Smoke, none of the other Cutters comment on the problem or even swear off the practice.  The glorification and normalization of this dangerous practice in a popular book for young adults is troubling.

Partly, it is Westerfeld’s excellent writing abilities that are to blame here: the descriptions of the way Tally feels when, as a Special, she cuts herself and feels a flood of positive and exhilarating emotions, are so vivid and convincing that no amount of backtracking later in the novel can undo the impression he has created.  It is fine for Tally to swear off the cutting as a means of escaping her Special modifications that keep her under the power of Dr. Cable, but even as she resists, she pines powerfully to feel the way cutting herself makes her feel.   As one of the grown-ups reading this novel, I can objectively note the message Westerfeld is attempting to send: that this cutting is monstrous and wrong.  But as a young adult, caught up in the emotions of being a teen-ager, one might grasp onto the raw emotion and effect of Shay and Tally’s cutting as something to be tried.

With all of that said, I still think the Uglies series is worth a read.  The books are popular for their dystopian elements, the action sequences and the strong female protagonist of Tally.  It is just important for teens to be able to differentiate between the celebration of plastic surgery, brain modifications and self-mutilation and the intended critiques of those practices.

Rebekah is a PhD student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

A Review in 3 Parts: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

The Bad (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of my review of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series.  For part 1, click here. Also, be forewarned, spoilers for the series abound.

While, as I mentioned in my previous post, I really enjoyed the Uglies series, that does not mean that the books are perfect.  There were a couple of things that, for me, could have been improved, or took away from the story at large.  These problems were by no means enough to cause me to put the books down, but I felt they should be noted.

First, the pacing of all four novels was a bit uneven.  There were large swaths of chapters in each book in which very little happened.  Tally sat around and sulked in Uglyville and Shay taught her to ride a hoverboard.  Tally sat around, hung over, and Shay got her into the Crim clique in New Pretty Town.  Tally and Shay worked for the Specials hunting the New Smoke, then Tally tailed some Crims down the coast for a REALLY LONG TIME.  To be fair, this was where Westerfeld painted his background and laid the world-building groundwork for the rest of the novel, but these sections still went by very, very slowly.  Then, all of a sudden, action, action, action, action. Then, more sulking.  Lots of talking.  Then a final flurry of action to wrap up some of the story lines and set up the plot of the next book.  From an analytical point of view, I understand that not every chapter can be action packed, but as a reader, it was jarring to switch pace so abruptly and to such extremes.

The weakest parts of the novels, for me, were the love triangles.  They often felt tedious and by the time we reached the plot of Specials, I felt myself shouting at Shay, “Just get over it already!”  To break it down for you: Tally arrives at The Smoke and David quickly falls in love with her, making Shay feel rejected by her crush and jealous of her best friend.  Then the Specials raid the Smoke and Shay figures out that it is Tally’s fault.  Once Shay and Tally are made into Pretties, they forget all about David, but a tension remains between them.  Tally falls for the leader of the Crims, Zane, making it clear that she is attracted to men in positions of power who are also slightly anti-social.  When Tally first kisses Zane, it makes her so “bubbly” (or clear headed) that she sighs David’s name.  But Zane is totally cool with it, because he was also thinking of David (um, what?)  Zane and Tally find the cure the Smokies have left for her and decide to split the two pills, not realizing that they were meant to be taken together.  Shay gets jealous of Tally’s “bubbly” new attitude and her newfound fame and starts searching out her own way to become more bubbly: cutting herself with knives (see post 3 for more on this.) In becoming bubbly, she remembers the ways Tally “stole” David, (oh and how Tally betrayed Smokies to the Specials) and so she hates Tally again.   The pill Zane took makes him quite sick, so Tally and Zane run away to the New Smoke, where David is waiting.  Jealous, David is convinced that Tally will choose Zane over him because Zane is more attractive.  Shay, picked up by Special Circumstances and transformed into one of their own, arrives at The New Smoke to arrest the members and is full of venom, jealousy and latent anger for Tally stealing David and then rejecting him, so to get revenge, she makes sure Tally is turned into a special so they can be friends again.

The back and forth between Shane and Tally continues for the rest of the series: it seems that no matter what happens, Shane and Tally remain friends out of habit and circumstance, while deep down, they seem to hate one another.  Their relationship is complex but at times the tension feels forced, like an editor kept telling Westerfeld “we need more love triangle stuff in here!”  With all that has passed between them and all the terrible things they have done to one another, either by accident or on purpose, the fact that the fight always seems to come back down to “Tally stole David from Shay” seems a little silly and unfair.  These girls repeatedly free themselves from the powerful forces that have mind-wiped an entire civilization for generations, but they can’t get over a little teenage boy trouble?  Isn’t it possible for two young women to have differences of opinions or a difficult relationship centered around more than a boy?  For me, the story would have been much more interesting if Shay and Tally had disagreed about, say, how to save the world or how to distribute the cure, rather than “you stole my kinda-boyfriend!”

While the love stories/conflicts were not exactly my cup of tea, I could very much understand why teens and adults would enjoy the series so much. The evils of story were evils that I think many people can relate to.  Tally is constantly feeling like she doesn’t quite belong, because she thinks a little differently.  She is skeptical of anyone who can buy into an ethos or a clique completely, without questions and in the world of the bubbleheads, there is no one to question at all.  For years, we have heard about the dangers of peer pressure and the media, especially on young women, to make them do drastic things to themselves in the name of beauty and fitting in.  In proper dystopian fashion, the Uglies series takes these concerns and builds an entire world around them.

Finally, I think there are a lot of people who recognize that our current society consumes and expands at a rate that is unsustainable, but also recognize that changing these facts will mean changing our way of life and sacrificing some of the things we have come to take for granted.  This series explores what those sacrifices might look like and pushes the idea to a terrifying extreme.  Even Tally notes that even as The Smoke fights to save the citizens of the city, their way of life, living in the woods, burning trees, is not sustainable for the larger populations.  So even though the Uglies series is not perfect, it does address some massive concerns through its dystopian form.

Stay tuned for my last post: the ugly of The Uglies

Rebekah is a PhD student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

A Review in 3 Parts: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Series

By Rebekah Fitzsimmons

The Good (Part 1 of 3)

Scott Westerfeld’s YA series, Uglies, consists of a trilogy of books: Uglies, Pretties and Specials and a fourth book: Extras, that still belongs to the same universe as the first three books, but features significantly different characters, location and moves ahead significantly in time.  I felt that I needed to break up my review of Scott Westerfeld’s series in part because the four books really need to be reviewed as a whole and in part because I had so many thoughts and things to say about the series.  Overall, I really enjoyed the series and I can see why these books are so popular with young adults (and even the occasional adult, if recent surveys are to be believed!)  From here on out be warned, spoilers abound!

First off, the world that Westerfeld creates is spectacular.  The reader experiences this futuristic, high-tech world through Tally, a 15-year old girl who is miffed because all of her friends have already turned 16 and crossed the river into New Pretty Town, leaving her alone and ugly.  These designations of attractiveness, the reader soon discovers, are not personal judgments, but reflect status and place in society granted by a mandatory surgery given to every individual at the age of 16.  This surgery enhances an individual’s personal attractiveness, based on scientific values (like large, vulnerable eyes, symmetrical facial features, standard height, weight and skin tone) and a standardized range of possible differences.  Thus, uglies like Tally await their turn to be transformed from their natural ugly state into Pretties so they can cross the river and join the unending parties and hedonistic lifestyle that is associated with being a new pretty.  (These new pretties eventually grow up, become Middle Pretties with jobs and responsibilities, then move to the suburbs, have kids and become Crumblies).

It is Shay, a fellow Ugly, who disrupts Tally’s plans.  Shay is likewise alone in the Ugly dorms, but her friends did not all go to New Pretty Town: some of them disappeared into the wilderness.  Shay has been in touch with this group of people who live outside of the cities, in a mysterious settlement called The Smoke. These people know that the pretty-making surgery is unnatural and encourage uglies to run away before they can undergo the operation.  When Shay disappears before her surgery, Tally is pulled into a complex web of politics and conspiracy.  She is brought before the head of Special Circumstances (a surgically and genetically enhanced secret police force) and given a choice: follow the coded directions Shay left her, find The Smoke, and activate a beacon so the Specials can destroy The Smoke for good, or remain an ugly for the rest of her life.  Special Circumstances leader Dr. Cable makes it clear to Tally that she believes Shay has been misled and brainwashed by this group who are determined to destroy their way of life.  Tally sets off reluctantly, hoping to save Shay and herself from these mysterious outsiders and a life of being ugly.

Westerfeld is a master of establishing a mythology and builds a world that feels utterly real while being completely foreign and estranging to the reader.  The cities recycle everything, skyscrapers are built on hoverstruts to conserve building materials and space and even the walls can talk.  The characters constantly refer to the “Rusties” which is code for the reader, indicating contemporary 21st century society.  The Rusties were ultimately destroyed by a petroleum-based virus that destroyed all the cities.  All of the restrictions on travel, education and population are held in place to prevent Tally’s society from becoming just as bad as the Rusties, who consumed the wilderness, burned trees and almost destroyed the planet.  The ecology and conservationist undertone of the novels remains consistent, even as it feels at odds with the rampant consumerism and consumption of the New Pretties.

Once in The Smoke, David (the guy who ultimately comes between Shay and Tally) reveals that the Pretty operation is more sinister than it first appears: while the patient is asleep, the doctors manipulate his or her brain, creating lesions in the areas of their brain that allow for complex planning, cognition and rebellion.  The cities, in an attempt to prevent the human race from devolving back into Rusties has brainwashed an entire civilization. The Smoke was founded by David’s parents, two neuroscientists who discovered the lesions and understood what they meant.  Maddy, David’s mother, has been working on a cure, but fears it is unethical to test it on an actual Pretty, because, in her mind, they can not give informed consent in their brain-altered state.  After the Specials raid the Smoke and capture Shay, Tally decides to sacrifice herself to the Specials and allow herself to be made into a Pretty, so that she can test the cure.

Westerfeld also proves himself to be a master when it comes to creating his villains: the Specials.  They are one part science-fiction freaks, one part master race, with a leader in Doctor Cable who is power-hungry and self-deluded in the most evil of ways.  The way he describes their surgically altered features, like hawks and other birds of prey, and paints their abilities of speed, reflex, strength and balance is terrifying.  The reader eventually discovers that even the Specials are given special brain modifications: the bubblehead lesions are removed and replaced with modifications that make the Specials quick to anger and feelings of ecstasy and force them to look down upon those who are not special.  A genetically engineered super race, bent on keeping those below them blind and dumb makes the rest of the beautiful and desirable world that Westerfeld paints terrifying and sinister.  The fact that most Pretties have never seen a Special and disbelieve their very existence makes their presence in the novels even more sinister.

For me, the strength of the trilogy and its fourth companion book was its emphasis on consequences.  The Specials are clearly the bad guys, and the brain modifications used to keep the population docile clearly terrible.  Yet, Tally and David rightly worry about what will happen once the population is freed from these constraints: will they tear up the wilderness the way the Rusties did?  Tally agrees to betray The Smoke to the Specials, but then backs out on her promise.  The Specials find them anyway, after Tally accidentally sets off their locator beacon, leaving Tally to explain her place in the conspiracy as David’s home is destroyed and his parents captured, along with Shay.  To make up for her betrayal, Tally bravely offers to become a Pretty then test the cure, but while a Pretty, she falls in love with Zane and betrays David all over again.  Unlike other YA novels, there are no perfectly good sides, even the heroes act irrationally and emotionally and what looks like a victory often reveals even more obstacles.  The complexity and ambiguity woven throughout the story makes it riveting to read and helps to explain why the series has been so popular and widely read.  I certainly enjoyed it.

Stay tuned for the next installment of the review: The Bad.

Rebekah is a PhD student.

Categories: Critical Conversations, Reviews

Review: Unspoken

By Casey Wilson

It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard and as fast and as completely for a book as I did this week with Sarah Rees Brennan’s Unspoken. So know that up front: this is a brilliant book, one that I already can’t wait to reread.

As Rees Brennan said over at John Scalzi’s The Big Idea, Unspoken is a mash up of a gothic novel and a girl detective novel – a combination that works incredibly well, as the girl detective is very keen on figuring out exactly what’s up with that weird Gothic manor and the people who live in it. But this is also a book about friendship, identity, and how much of ourselves we can share with someone else…and a number of other important and heavy ideas, all buried under a landslide of humor.

Kami Glass is the aforementioned girl detective. When we first meet her, she’s typing an article about her determination to find the secrets of her little village, because she’s sure they exist. Kami is quirky and funny and part Japanese and maybe not the prettiest of her friends, all of which factor significantly into her identity and outlook on the world. As does the imaginary friend she talks to in her head – the one who might not be so imaginary, after all.

The characters who surround Kami are also fully realized with depths beyond their surface descriptors: Jared, the “imaginary” friend with a bad attitude who trusts and needs Kami above all else; Ash, Jared’s cousin, the good-looking new boy who joins in Kami’s school newspaper crew; Angela, Kami’s best friend who hates people and loves to nap; and Holly, the pretty girl who none of the other girls seem to like. Even more minor characters like Kami’s brothers are drawn with care and warmth. I could go on at length about characters not even mentioned in the above list (Rusty! Kami’s dad!) which, to me, is always a good sign.

As the mysteries begin to unravel, Kami’s life gets more and more complicated. Nearly everyone in this book has a secret, big or small, and that only adds to the atmosphere of the novel. I’ve seen a lot of talk – on Twitter and elsewhere – about the way the book ends, and while I won’t give anything specific away, I will say that the ending is deeply emotional and intensely earned.

There are two more books to come in The Lynburn Legacy trilogy. But don’t wait – read this one now. It’s quite possibly my favorite book of the year so far.

Casey is a PhD student who looks forward to being able to teach this book someday.

Categories: Reviews

Review: Adaptation

By Casey Wilson

Reese is in an airport when news of the first – and the second, and the third – airplane crash hits the news. Instead of waiting for flights to start again to get home, she, her debate partner David, and their coach opt to rent a car and make the drive themselves. They quickly realize that the plane crashes have inspired panic across the country, and the drive is full of strange, upsetting and dangerous events that have the potential to change all of their lives.

That’s where Malinda Lo’s Adaptation begins, but the story goes far beyond that ill-fated road trip. The book is full of conspiracy theories, cover ups, men in suits, and strange dreams and stranger technology, all of which work together to create an atmosphere of tension from beginning to end. I’m being intentionally vague here, because there are secrets and plot twists scattered throughout the book that I have no wish to give away, but suffice it to say that both Reese and the reader have questions right up until the end.

If you only know Lo from her debut novel Ash – a beautiful retelling of Cinderella that has, as her About the Author states, “a lesbian twist” – and its companion novel Huntress, this sci-fi novel might seem a little bit out of left field. But despite the genre shift, Lo’s best features remain on display. In particular, the romance(s) play out with passion and fear and excitement and doubt, and the love triangle being set up – Reese develops relationships to varying degrees with David and with a girl named Amber – looks like it could be nicely complicated in the sequel.

And it is the sequel that I’m most looking forward to. I greatly enjoyed Adaptation on its own merits, reading it in essentially one sitting, but I think the sequel has a chance to be explosive now that all the pieces are in place. Reese spends much of her time in Adaptation reacting (in very smart and interesting ways, mind), but I suspect she’ll be able to be more proactive as the story develops.

Adaptation officially releases on September 18; Amazon has begun shipping orders early, hence the early review.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Reviews

Review: Throne of Glass

By Casey Wilson

“Promise of the premise.” That’s a phrase I first heard used by John Rogers, co-creator of TNT’s Leverage, in relation to what an audience can fairly expect from a given scenario. If you don’t fulfill the promise of the premise, the audience will leave unsatisfied.

I couldn’t help but think about that phrase as I read Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. The premise is this: Celaena Sardothien, the kingdom’s most talented assassin, is retrieved from the labor camp where she has been for the past year after her capture and is presented with a proposal. If she becomes the King’s Champion, she will be given her freedom after a few years of service. But in order to obtain that title, she has to win a competition against other assassins, soldiers, killers, and thieves. (It’s not quite as The Hunger Games as you might expect – the competition often seems to be an afterthought to the other threads of the plot.)

The promise, for me, was that we would see Celaena Sardothien, master assassin, in action. And to some extent, we do. She has many skills that we are allowed to glimpse throughout the book – there’s not a weapon she can’t handle. But – and there are a few (significant) spoilers in the rest of this paragraph, so skip to the next if you don’t want to know anything about how it all plays out – we never actually get to see her as an assassin. Other than events briefly referenced in her memories, and one demon creature that comes after her, she never actually kills anyone. She is not even allowed to kill her biggest enemy throughout the book – someone else has that responsibility. Perhaps I’m bloodthirsty, I don’t know. But for me, if you’re going to promise a master assassin, she has to actually assassinate someone. Show, don’t tell, and all. (For the record, I think there’s a very interesting story that could be told about Celaena’s year in the camps changing her and pushing her away from the life she led before, but that’s not really where the book’s interest is.)

Anyway, on to more spoiler-free topics! There is, as so often happens, a love triangle in the novel. Although I, like many people, can easily grow weary of the who-will-she-choose angle, I actually think that there is real potential in this love triangle, if it is executed well throughout the rest of the series. All three people involved have duties and responsibilities, both to the king and to each other, and those responsibilities weigh heavily on their relationships.

And there is one scene, toward the end, that I found extremely effective – to the point that it almost single-handedly invested me in everything that had happened thus far. (In lieu of describing it – at a risk of spoiling the context – I’ll say that it involves the phrase “Get up.”) Maas has, I think, a talent for small moments that read large, and that’s one of them.

I will admit that the novel revealed one pet peeve I didn’t know I had – there are a lot of exclamation points in the narration, and I thought few to none of them were actually necessary. But they either lessened as the book went on or I stopped noticing them, so either way it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the story too much.

What I will say for the novel overall is this: don’t get too attached to the promise of the premise. The book has a lot more going on than its description would have you think, and you’ll be more likely to leave satisfied if you allow for that from the start. I’ve grown to like the book more the longer time I take away from it, largely because I went in expecting more assassin and less court intrigue and magic. But I think if you take the book on its own terms, it is a reasonably successful and engaging story.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Reviews

Review: Fathomless

By Casey Wilson

Fathomless is the third book in Jackson Pearce’s fairy tale series. The series began with Sisters Red, a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and continued with Sweetly, a take on Hansel and Gretel. Now it concludes with her spin on The Little Mermaid – a spin that hews much closer to Hans Christian Anderson than Disney, thankfully. (Mild spoilers ahead!)

Like the previous two books, Fathomless is told from alternating perspectives. The first is Lo, a mermaid – or mermaid-like creature, at least – who knows she has a past on the land but who has given herself over to the water, waiting for the “angels” to come take her into the sky. Then there is Naida, the girl who Lo used to be who wants nothing more than to return to the life that was taken from her when she was turned into the mermaid. Lo and Naida battle for precedence over the body they share throughout the novel, sometimes switching control mid-sentence.

The third perspective is Celia, one of a set of triplets with special powers. Her two sisters can, with a single touch, see someone’s present and future, respectively, while Celia can see someone’s past. She finds her power to be the least useful and most horrifying, as she knows secrets she doesn’t want to know. But when she meets Naida as they work together to rescue a drowning boy named Jude, she begins to realize that her powers can be used to help Naida remember who she used to be.

As one can imagine, this opens the novel up to complicated questions of identity and agency: are we our present or our past? Can a person be truly independent when she shares so much (looks and powers, in Celia’s case, a body, in Lo and Naida’s) with someone else? Who can you trust, when you can’t trust yourself? For the most part, Pearce takes the time to address all of these questions, allowing for small moments of insight that offer food for thought, if not answers. The book itself clocks in at less than 300 pages, however, and I can’t help but wonder if she might not have had more room to explore and complicate these notions if the book had been longer. I felt particularly unsatisfied with the treatment of Celia’s relationship with her sisters as the novel wore on – it was ripe for complexity, but for me, at least, it never quite arrived there.

I can’t speak to Fathomless as a conclusion to the trilogy as a whole, at least not in detail, because it has been so long since I’ve read Sisters Red and Sweetly that I fear my doing so would be unfair to the series. But I will say that I appreciate the fact that the books can be read separately, if one chooses, because it ensures that each book has a story and a weight of its own. And I’ve also come to appreciate the choice Pearce made with the conclusion to Fathomless as it relates to the “bad guys” – although since I have no wish to give away the ending here, so I will say no more.

I probably, on the whole, enjoyed Sisters Red the most of the three books, but Fathomless is a good entry in the series and a strong contribution to the world of fairy tale retellings that we all now live it. Fathomless officially releases on September 4 (Amazon shipped pre-orders early), so you have time to catch up before it’s release, if you so choose!

Casey is a PhD student who will be teaching “Writing About the YA Bestseller” this fall.

Categories: Reviews

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

By Casey Wilson

As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

The above quote comes a little over halfway through Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, one of my favorite reads of recent weeks. I read it in the context of a summer book club with some of my fellow children’s lit grads – including Rebekah, who lovingly compared it to The Phantom Tollbooth – which I appreciate, because I might have missed out on it otherwise.

The story follows a girl named September who flies off with The Green Wind and finds herself in Fairyland. When presented with a choice of directions to follow, she chooses the path that promises she will lose her heart – but she’s still a child, so she doesn’t have much of a heart to lose in the first place. Rebekah’s comparison to The Phantom Tollbooth is apt, I think, because Valente is writing in a well-worn tradition of whip-smart fairy tales: Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, The Back of the North Wind, among others. This novel revels in wordplay and cleverness, which can understandably be off-putting for some readers, but I think it is always counterbalanced with genuine heart.

Consider, for instance, one of the first friends September makes in the novel. A-Through-L is a wyvern of very peculiar parentage: his father, he believes, is a library. This lets Valente have her jokes – he can provide information on any subject from the front half of the alphabet but is useless for anything from the back half – and there are indeed plenty of jokes to be had from it. But A-Through-L’s story is oddly touching, as well, because when faced with the prospect of meeting the library he believes to have sired him he becomes reluctant. Perhaps the library will reject him, or perhaps the library isn’t his father at all. Neither option is ideal for our dear wyvern, and by letting those possibilities sit in the air throughout the novel Valente avoids cleverness for cleverness’ sake.

I laughed aloud many times while reading The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and I spent an equal amount of time smiling wistfully at the lovely images Valente’s writing conjures. But I think I would have enjoyed it only a fraction as much without a good backing in the many, many classics she references and riffs off of even as she crafts her own version of fairyland. And that pleases me, because it makes me think that the classics are as relevant as they’ve always been, and that happy little texts like Valente’s can help give them new life.

Casey is a PhD student.

Categories: Reviews

Review: Team Human

By Casey Wilson

When you start a novel that aims to tease and parody the spate of YA vampire novels on the shelves these days, you don’t expect it to make you cry. I don’t, at least. And yet, that’s exactly what happened with Team Human, the recently released novel co-written by Justine Larbalestier and Sarah Rees Brennan.

Mel lives in New Whitby, a town in Maine founded by vampires. But she doesn’t really know any vampires, because humans and vampires usually keep to their own parts of town. That all changes the day a vampire shows up at their high school – as must happen, in any good vampire romance. The twist here, such as it is, is that Mel wants nothing to do with him – it’s her best friend Cathy, quiet and studious, who falls hard for the gallant vampire named Francis.

What follows is a story in which Mel must confront her prejudices, unravel a mystery, and figure out what brought Francis to their school, all while trying to convince Cathy that dating a vampire is, like, a totally bad idea. Brennan and Larbalestier write with affection for their genre; when a chapter title refers to the irresistible allure of a vampire in the lunch room, it’s clear that they mock because they love. And it probably does help to be a reader who shares that love when encountering Team Human. While I think that the novel would be enjoyable even to those that usually avoid vampire fiction, having a familiarity with the tropes of the genre will certainly make the humor shine brighter.

And there is a lot of humor to be found in the novel. Brennan’s The Demon’s Lexicon and the subsequent books in the trilogy are among the funniest books I’ve encountered in recent years, and that humor comes out to play here, too. Kit, a human boy raised by vampires whom Mel eventually meets, is always good for a one-liner, and if you’re at all like me, that will make him one of the most interesting and engaging characters in the book. For reasons explained in the novel, the vampires of Team Human don’t laugh, which gives extra weight to the jokes Kit loves to tell. It’s a lovely way to force characters – and readers – to confront the question of just how much laughter means to us. Could eternity be worth it, if that’s the cost?

Which brings me back to the tears that I mentioned at the start of this post. This is not, by any definition, a sad novel. But while I sometimes wished that we had a little more time with Mel and Cathy to truly experience the depth of their friendship before the vampire interloper showed up, on the day I read the book, I found that the choices each girl makes at the end of the novel hit me in an unexpectedly real way. All the jokes and satire that bring the book to life fade into the background, and we’re left with a story of real friendship. Which is, I suspect, what the authors were after all along.

Consider me Team Team Human.

Casey is a PhD student who will teach “Writing About the YA Bestseller” in the fall.

Categories: Reviews

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