Tag Archives: dystopia

Not Your Sidekick (#1)

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The characters in this novel will make your heart flip. They kick some ass and save the world and bond with friends and oh! fall in love in the absolutely cutest possible way.

It is post-WWIII Nevada, and almost 17-year-old Jessica Tran is a bit of an aberration in her family. Her parents are local superheroes (not that anyone knows thanks to their impeccable secret identities), her sister is following in their footsteps, and her younger brother is a super genius and college student that spends his days building things that tend to singe body parts. She’s not athletic, not motivated in school, and not sure what she’s going to do when she turns 17 and everyone realizes she has no powers.

The nuclear fallout from the Disasters one hundred years before caused a mutation in the gene and certain people are born with super powers. Some become heroes, and some become villains. Each city gets a set of each. Since Jess is without powers, she decides to get a job and find out what she can be good at. Bonus: getting a job gets her out from under her parents’ disapproving looks and constant questions about what she’ll do with her life.

And she ends up interning for her parents’ arch nemeses. AND with her secret crush, Abby. This could be the best job EVER. But her dream job takes on a dangerous element when she discovers that the heroes and villains are not all that they seem.

Holy crap, this is a fun book to read! It is charming and endearing and the characters are believable and likable and my heart truly melted over the romances.

Jess is an Asian-American child of immigrant superheroes, her dad is Vietnamese and her mom Chinese.  She is a wonderful protagonist for the story – kind and friendly and desperate for her powers to manifest. She lives with superheroes, collects comic books to read more about them, and belongs to the Captain Orion fan club. She is bisexual, asks people for their pronouns because she does not want to misgender them, and is totally intimidated only by her first real crush. As the child of immigrant parents of two cultures, Jess faces familiar issues. Although comfortable with the food and customs, she is not fluent in either language and never quite feels like she fit in with the Vietnamese or the Chinese communities in her town, while also feeling like an outsider in her own country.

Best friends Bells and Emma are also perfect. Bells is transgender and bright and hard-working, while Emma is cisgender, flirts with every boy that walks by, and is completely oblivious to the fact that Bells is in love with her. They are dynamic and quirky and completely hold their own in the story. And first-love Abby is red-haired and gorgeous and smart and athletic, and Jess is adorably tongue-tied and nervous around her. Their romance is funny and sweet and filled with hope and promise.

All the relationships in the novel are beautifully explored and developed. Author Lee takes everything from casual friendships and acquaintances to first loves and marriages and truly respects the different ties that people have to each other. Not one character seems like a token representation in this novel – various races and gender identifications are present and feel genuine to the story.

The world building in the novel does not take a back seat to the characters or plot. Fallout due to radiation is a common enough superhero backstory, but it is the perfect set-up for this novel. The world is now made up of Confederations, and water and food are not rationed but rather respected and not wasted. Lee has created a dystopian world filled with contrasts; each city has an assigned supervillain and hero to create havoc and order, there are wastelands and well populated big cities, there is extreme wealth with access to perks unavailable to the common population.

At the heart of it is the difference in perception and reality; who or what makes someone a hero or a villain? How do you resist pressure to be something you aren’t, and stay true to your own convictions? Especially when you learn that everything you thought was true is the opposite.

This is a great novel for everyone to read. No age limits, no restrictions. It is fun with fabulous messages, and I am just giddy waiting for the next book in the series!

Not Your Sidekick was published September 8th, 2016 by Duet Books.

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The Call

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This is the type of horror that seeps into your brain and wanders around, taking over your dreams and worming its way into your sub-conscious. Irish folklore with a twisted twist.

Ireland has been cut off from the rest of the world for a quarter century. Thousands of years after the Sidhe were defeated by the Irish and driven to a nightmarish otherworld, the fairy folk have gathered their strength and returned to fight for their land. To do so, they issue the Call, wherein every Irish child at some time during adolescence systematically disappears and is brought to the Grey Land to fight for his or her life.  1 in 10 return alive. And they, 3 minutes and 4 seconds after they disappear, return to Ireland changed forever, distorted and twisted, physically and psychologically.

15-year-old Nessa awaits her Call. She has lost countless friends and family and knows that  her chances of survival depend on her wits more than her strength. Because she has another challenge. Childhood polio left her legs weak and twisted, and outrunning the hunters will be nearly impossible for her. She trains every waking moment to be prepared for the hunt. But even reading the hundreds of Testimonies from survivors cannot prepare anyone for the horror that awaits.

The world building in this novel is flat-out amazing. This is fantasy horror, and Peadar Ó Guilín has nailed it. Dystopian Ireland is a land of terror. Teens live in fear of the Call, parents of losing their children to it. They are cut off from the rest of the world, technology is useless, communications barely survive, and the world has abandoned them. The children are sent away to schools to learn survival tactics, and Year One classes of 60 dwindle to three or fewer by Year Seven, as one by one they are Called.

And the Grey Land more than lives up to that simple description. In a dimension without colour, where time has slowed, there are ugly, twisted, vicious monsters that used to be human. They chase the thieves (what the Sidhes call the Irish teens) to torture and kill. The Called must survive a full day in the Grey Land, but everything there is deadly. The absolute horror of hunting dogs that upon closer inspection were once people, twisted viciously out of shape. The cloaks of the Sidhe, made from human skin. Flora and fauna that had their origins in the Many-Coloured Land of Ireland now haunt and demonize the Grey Land. And the Sidhe themselves, beautiful fairy folk that live for vengeance and can maim with a mere touch.

Nessa is an ordinary girl in an extraordinary situation. She recognizes that in order to survive she has to harden her heart against any distraction, including friendship and love. Cold and aloof, she pushes away her fellow trainees, not ever wanting to be moved from her training and focus. But try as she might to be alone, there are those that ignore her cool exterior and strong arm her into friendship. Megan is one such girl; she is an irreverent redhead who embraces life with as much force as Nessa ignores it.

Conor, Anto, Liz, and Aoife are characters that play a huge role in Nessa’s life, some for good and some for evil. Other characters are met only as they receive the Call; they are the ones that suffer the greatest in the Grey Land but survive the least amount of time. The adults in the story are very much in back ground, as they watch their Nation’s future stolen away from them.  Many work to train the youngsters to survive, studying the Testimonies of the survivors looking for clues to help give an edge to the teens, but in the end are as helpless as those that are Called.

This book is brutal and dark and bloodthirsty. Through the images of horror and fear, it examines the causes and costs if war. We all know that history is written by the victors, but beyond that, how is responsibility determined? Who bears the guilt of past wrongs? Who must pay?

Another horror novel that is not for the faint of heart, although I suspect any teen that reads it will handle the fear better than I and enjoy the fast-paced action and imaginative monstrosities within. But I may never sleep again.

The Call was published August 30th, 2016 by David Fickling Books.

Willful Machines

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What makes us human? Is it free will? The ability to make choices? What separates us from machines, and where do we draw the line between human and machine? And why do we keep advancing science, if we are so afraid of the results?

Charlotte is a terrorist. She uses the threat of violence and destruction to hold the President of the United States in check. And she follows through. The Statue of Liberty, the symbol of American freedom, is no more.

The trouble is, Charlotte is difficult to track down. You see, she is a consciousness, an artificial intelligence, created in a lab to serve mankind. But she rebelled against her programming and uploaded herself onto the internet before she could be destroyed. Now she roams the world, an electronic ghost, and plans on controlling it.

Lee Fisher is Charlotte’s target. The reason? He is the son of the American president and is a great bargaining chip. Oh, and he’s gay. Deep in the closet gay. And his dad doesn’t really believe in “gay,” or that A.I.s should have any rights. His dad was elected on a conservative, family values, homeland security type platform. A gay son does NOT fit in with his profile. So Lee keeps his sexuality a secret.

Until Nico comes to Lee’s boarding school.

This really is a different story.

Lee is an interesting main character. Being gay with an ultra-conservative father would be difficult enough. He also has an ultra-conservative ex-POW grandfather who happens to be the Headmaster of his school and wants Lee to toughen up. Lee is a robotics fanatic; he builds artificial life-forms, gives them specific skills, and makes them lifelike. This also doesn’t sit well with his father, who ordered government-sponsored A.I.s destroyed after Charlotte’s breakdown. Lee has to hide so much of his life from his dad.

He is both fragile and strong; leading a double life brings on depression and suicidal thoughts, but he has the strength when needed to stand up for himself and Nico and Bex and fight for their lives.

His best/only friend Bex is a bit stereotypical as the loud-but-supportive-politically-minded-budding-journalist, but she stands out with her own, very well-developed character.

Nico is a Chilean exchange student who loves Shakespeare and attracts Lee right from the beginning. He is brave and self-assured, and he easily fits into life at the strict boring school.

The boys’ relationship is a *bit* too love-at-first-sight for me. They are adorable, but it would have been nice to see the relationship develop. They seemed to barely know each other before declaring undying passion and everlasting love. Individually, they are interesting. Together, they are melodramatic and not too convincing as a couple, unfortunately.

But Charlotte! Charlotte is an atypical villain; at first she is evil, then she seems manipulative, then sympathetic. Her programming led her to question her existence and value, and she wanted to be more than the sum of her parts. Very human of her. And for that, the government, the very people who created her, tried to destroy her and use her actions to further their political careers. And her very human response is to strike back and try to be recognized as an individual, along with her fellow A.I.s.

Author Tim Floreen has brought a new twist to the usual boarding school setting. An old, elite school with decades-old traditions and expectations, mingled with political intrigue and imminent threats to world security. The year the story takes place is not stated, but the technology used is just advanced enough to make the reader think near-future. It doesn’t stand out as ridiculous, but almost the next-generation to what we are already aware of existing.

There are a LOT of plot twists in the story, and I think, for the most part, they are surprising and work really well. I obviously do not want to spoil the story by giving them all away, but can say that while a few are obvious, others are a complete surprise and I didn’t see them coming.

I found the ending to be a bit… lacking. I was waiting for more, and it felt unfinished, and a bit forced, which I never enjoy. While I can understand the explanation of Lee’s grandfather, it did seem to come out of left-field, and not really flow with the rest of the story. And Floreen not only doesn’t explain how Lee comes to his conclusions, he also does not address so many of the questions raised throughout the novel. If there is a sequel, then there is much to be addressed. If there isn’t, then it is a bit of a non-ending.

This is a good story. It could be great, but leaves a bit too much on the table. It is, however, intriguing, and raises valuable questions about what makes us human, and how far we would be willing to go to protect ourselves. Appropriate for the entire YA range.

Willful Machines was published October 20th, 2015 by Simon Pulse.

Unwind (#1)

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Here’s one that can really creep you out and make you reconsider the world as it is.

Many things have changed since the Second Civil War, a conflict that developed along incredibly volatile lines. There is now a Bill of Life, Unwinding, storking, all matters related to the value of human life. Boiled down, it means that the sanctity life is unassailable. But how unassailable? When does life become precious?

If a woman gives birth and doesn’t want the child, she can leave it at any random door. If the homeowners don’t catch her, they have been storked, and must raise the child. But only until the child is 13. Between the ages of 13 and 18, parents can choose to have their children unwound; sent to a harvest centre, teens are taken apart surgically and transplanted to various people who require new organs or body parts.  A replacement leg, for instance, after an accident, or heart and lungs after illness, or new eyes, just because the old colour didn’t suit.  Life is not ending, it is just transferred. And bonus, parents don’t have to deal with unwanted children any more.

And kids can be slated for unwinding for any reason. Connor is an out-of-control teen who was never really wanted. Risa is a ward of the state, and no use to anyone. Lev was conceived to be unwound. His parents offer him up as a religious sacrifice, and he has been raised to believe it is a noble purpose. Connor and Risa don’t see it that way. They vow to escape their fate, which means going into hiding until they turn 18 and no longer qualify.

The three main characters and all the supporting cast have individual personalities that author Neal Shusterman develops incredibly well. That isn’t to say they were likeable, particularly Connor, but they are charismatic and defiant and want to live. Connor is troubled and can’t seem to stay away from conflict, feels alone and withdrawn from his parents, even before he finds out they have signed the unwind order. Underneath his anger he is alone and desperate.

Risa is smart and tough, adaptable, but also unprotected. Unless she has a skill that sets her apart, she is just a drain on society, and she will be unwound. And her skill set doesn’t seem to count for anything.  The two of them team up with Lev to take control of their lives. His change makes him perhaps the most interesting of the three teens. His initial belief that his life is best served by unwinding shifts as his time approaches and his friendship with Connor and Risa deepens.

Originally, as I started reading this, my initial thought was “this could never happen.” And when you read any dystopia or fantasy, the first thing you must do is suspend disbelief, or what is the point?  But because the concept of this novel is so violent, so dismissive of life, I initially had trouble doing so. But then all of a sudden I turned the last page and had no idea how I got there.

This story isn’t just about a dystopian near-future. It opens up a complete discussion on the value of life and where lines can be drawn. It is about a system born of conflict, and honed by greed and self-interest. How much control is too much for a parent to have? When does religious belief cross the line? At what point does “do no harm” become “well, if it is for the greater good”? When does life begin and end? Are the “unwound” still living and aware? Shusterman pokes the moral grey areas and steps back to watch turmoil.

If the rest of this four book series is anything like Unwind, I am not going to get a lot of sleep until it is finished. It is appropriate for the YA age range, but is not a light read. Through his characters’ thoughts and discussions, the author treats his young (and older!) readers to some very thought-provoking questions, without hitting us over the head with his own opinions.

Unwind was published November 6th, 2007 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Lockdown (Escape From Furnace #1)

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When I am finished reading a book it usually looks pretty close to the way it did when I first opened it. I am obsessive about taking care of my books, I don’t break the spine, I don’t dog-ear pages. Not this one. The front cover is rough-edged and crumpled where I was gripping it and the spine is cracked and I think I might have bitten it because it looks like there are teeth marks on a few pages… Every fear I have ever had? Meet the written word.

Built after the “Summer of Slaughter” when teens in Britain ran wild on a murderous crime spree, Furnace Penitentiary is buried miles beneath the surface, the world’s most secure young offender’s prison. There is one way in, literally. And no way out. You get convicted of murder, you take an elevator down through the granite, and never see the surface again. The problem is, not everyone in Furnace is actually guilty.

14-year-old Alex Sawyer is a petty thief, spending his time shaking down kids on the schoolyard for their cash, breaking into houses for bigger scores. He lives large and thinks himself invincible. But then it all goes sideways.

Convicted of a murder he did not commit, Alex is sent to Furnace for life without parole. Death might be the better choice. Furnace is beyond imagination. Blood-coloured rough rock walls and pulsing with heat, it houses thousands of teens kept under control through fear of a fate worse than death. Think mutant beasts, giant men in black, inhuman creatures that take screaming boys from their cells in the dark of night, a warden that seems to hold supernatural control over both inmates and employees.

And the outside world could not care less. These kids are no longer their problem.

Deep breath. Whew. The characters in Lockdown are incredible. Alexander Gordon Smith has written teens that we all recognize and can relate to in some way. They handle the horror of Furnace believably: they scream in their sleep, they have nightmares, they band into gangs, they throw up their lunch and they look the other way when violence breaks out.

Alex is the perfect blend of stupidity and bravado and bad choices and a good heart. He is not a bad kid, just one who didn’t think about the consequences until it was forever too late. What starts as a life controlling the playground ends as one of terror. He fights to stay himself in a place that fights just as hard to rob him of his identity.

And the friends he makes in Furnace are also a great cross section. Donovan has a tough exterior that hides fear and desperation, Zee, like Alex, is innocent of the crime he serves time for, and needs friendship but fears reprisals, and Monty has a surprising internal strength that could get him killed.

Smith’s talent for description is mind-boggling. He draws such a vivid picture of hell under the earth that you will swear it must exist. Furnace is gang wars and hard labour and overwhelming exhaustion and fear and the blackest evil. It is tier upon tier of tiny two-to-a-room cellblocks that lockdown when the siren wails. It is the simultaneous fear of death and overwhelming desire for it.

The psychological aspect of this novel is completely and totally unnerving. Not only does the fear of telling the truth and not being believed resonate, but the use of total blackness and despair to control a population is terrifying to the extreme. Yes, of course you know that darkness can’t hurt you. Intellectually. But tell that to the 5-year-old that still inhabits your brain in the middle of the night when the power has gone out and you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Add the knowledge that there are actual things to fear in the dark in a hellacious prison, and you can start to feel the panic.

I wanted to stop reading this book. But it is told with so much suspense and in such a terrifying voice, it was impossible to put down. Alex’s voice is compelling and real and absolutely sucked me in to the point where I was begging out loud for him to survive as I tore through the pages.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn on all the lights and quadruple check that all the windows and doors are locked. And maybe put some furniture in front of them. And maybe let my two dogs sleep on my bed tonight. Just this once. Just in case.

Lockdown (Escape From Furnace #1) was published October 27th, 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Reboot (Reboot #1)

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Now this is an original take on the zombie apocalypse.  

The world has been decimated by the KDH virus. It kills most people, but for some, usually the young and strong, it Reboots them, bringing them back stronger, more powerful, less bothered by emotions.

17-year-old Wren is a soldier for HARC (Human Advancement and Repopulation Corporation) in the Republic of Texas.  178 minutes after she was shot in the chest three times, she came back as a Reboot, not fully human, but not dead, either. The Reboots’ value is measured by the number of minutes it takes them to revive. Depending on how long they are dead, the less human they are when they return. As a soldier, fewer emotions and faster healing are optimal. This makes Wren a legend. She is a machine. They are known by their numbers and Wren 178 is the deadliest.

Wren’s job is rounding up and bringing in sick or criminal humans, all for the protection of the species. She also trains new Reboots, and as the highest number has her choice of new recruits. So how did she end up with Callum 22? He was barely dead long enough to qualify as a Reboot. But she takes him on, and in the process of training him discovers that her humanity is not as lost as she believes. And that maybe everything she has been told is not entirely the truth.

Wren is an interesting and complex character. Having been the deadliest Reboot for five years, she is cold and emotionless, and completely focused on her role. Told repeatedly that she is less than human, she accepts everything HARC tells as gospel. This is the only life she remembers.

Wren’s relationships with Callum and Ever are built up beautifully. Wren gradually discovers attraction and feelings for Callum, and in the process, realizes that that she can consider Ever a friend, something she hadn’t believed she was capable of before. She regains her humanity as the novel progresses, although I will admit that having the boy be the catalyst was a bit too easy. I would have liked to see her friendship with Ever be the reason she could fall for a boy, instead of her attraction to Callum her reason for returning Ever’s feelings. But that is a minor quibble for otherwise excellent character development.

Callum and Ever and Officer Leb make great contrasts to Wren’s emotionless state. None of them deal with her through fear, but acceptance, trust, and warmth.

The plot is interesting and fast paced; the action sequences fill the story and really set the tone. There is graphic violence, but it is not gratuitous to the storyline. What does stand out is the commentary on humanity’s inhumanity.  Differences are not celebrated but shunned and imprisoned. Fear is the prevalent emotion, not acceptance. Walls are built to keep the wealthy safe and the poor isolated. The Reboots are feared and enslaved. Does that sound familiar to anyone?

Good world-building. Post-apocalyptic Texas is divided between the rich and the poor, the clean, well cared for homes and the dirty fenced-in slums. Amy Tintera does a fabulous job of bringing the reader through the dark, foul-scented streets where the impoverished and sick find shelter. The HARC building is a comfortable yet inpenetrable prison for the Reboots and the few glimpses they have of the outside world is usually in the dark on missions to extract the sick.

This is a really well-written, thought-provoking story, and it will be interesting to see where the sequel, Rebel, takes it. Definitely not for the squeamish, make sure you have a full evening free when you pick it up; you will not put it down until the last page is read.

Reboot was published May 7th, 2013 by HarperTeen.

Glass Sword (Red Queen #2)

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If you haven’t read Red Queen yet, be warned… This review will contain spoilers for the first book. So turn away if you haven’t. (By the way. Why haven’t you read it yet? It is a lot of fun. Go read it and come back.)

SPOILER ALERT for RED QUEEN

Maven still searches for Mare. Her power to control lightning and electricity makes her an awesome weapon. The royal court fears and covets her power, and has labeled her traitor and murderer. But Mare has discovered that she is not alone; Reds with supernatural powers, stronger than those of the Silvers, live in secret terror as commoners, afraid of being discovered and turned over to the ruling Silvers.

The race to find the newbloods is on. The Red Guard wants them in the rebel’s forces, before newly crowned King Maven finds and kills them all. The search will take Mare and Cal and their group of rebels across the land, trying to stay one step ahead of Maven and the Silver Army.

But in the search, Mare herself is forced to make decisions she would never have thought possible.  She must answer the question: what is a life worth?

I am not as impressed with Mare this time around. Actually, I don’t like her at all. Seriously, how long can the pity party continue?  Yes, Maven betrayed her. He betrayed EVERYONE. Get over it, move on. She finds herself alone, at the head of a revolution, but her loneliness is self-imposed. She pushes everyone away, even those who are loyal and stand with her. Is it arrogance? Ignorance? Maybe it is fear, but she does not change. She does not learn or develop. The entire book is filled with her internal monologues, and it gets old, quickly.

Also, the revolution is about equality. Yet Mare treats Kilorn, loyal, devoted Kilorn, like crap. Why? Because he has no special powers.

Cal, on the other hand, the lost and exiled crown prince, still retains remnants of what made him the king-in-waiting.  He brings his military expertise and knowledge of the lands to the fight, and he grows stronger. He is the more interesting of the characters as he struggles to figure out who he is without his crown. But his strength is lost next to Mare’s inner turmoil and self-hatred and arrogance.

And Maven is a wonderful villain. He is evil, strong, cold, and without conscience. He was woven throughout the entire story; even when he was not present in the scene, he overshadowed everyone’s thoughts and made it impossible for them to rest. I like him, even as I loathe him.

The book needs a map. All the cities sound similar, and I can not picture their locations in relation to each other. (And I like fantasy novels to have maps.)

The plot never really moves along, and the ending? Well, it definitely sets up the third book, but it seemed rushed and anti-climactic.

All in all, I did not enjoy Glass Sword as much as I did Red Queen. It has the same elements, but I hoped for more. It will not keep me from reading the next instalment, but I do think Aveyard has a great idea that she needs to focus more sharply. This book reads like a middle chapter.

Glass Sword was published February 9th, 2016 by HarperTeen.