Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Divergent by Veronica Roth

        Set in the distant future of Chicago, Divergant is a dystopian young adult novel that focuses around the life journey of sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior and how her one choice drastically shapes her future. The world of Divergent is separated into five factions; Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. Each faction formed in the aftermath of a great conflict, and were designed to exclude the traits that they felt were responsible for human conflict and highlight the traits that they hoped would bring peace and balance. Erudite blames ignorance, and choose to pursue knowledge. Dauntless blame cowardice, and choose to highlight bravery. Candor blames dishonesty, and pursue a life of truth. Amity blame hatred and violence, and choose to live in peace and harmony. Finally, Abnegation blame selfishness, and therefor choose to live selfless lifestyles. Once children from each faction turn six-teen, they undergo an assessment test that determines which faction they’re most suited for. They then are left with a daunting choice; to choose their own faction would mean security, and to choose another would mean having to leave their families permanently. Beatrice Porter is born into the Abnegation faction, and though she admires their path towards selflessness, there’s something wild and unkempt in her nature that calls her towards the rowdy Dauntless faction. When the day for her assessment arrives, Beatrice does not what know what to expect—though she does expect answers. Instead, she’s left more confused than ever. She has been told she is a Divergent, and warned never to speak of it to anyone. The rest of the book follows Beatrice’s choice to leave her family and become a Dauntless, as well as the consequences to being a Divergent.
     Divergent cleverly addresses a very simple question that most of us have asked or will invariably ask at one point in our lives; what causes evil? In the novel, humans have tried to sort this out for themselves and have naturally come to different conclusions, leading to different factions. Something that both Beatrice and the reader learn however is that no faction is safe from evil, and none have an absolute cure for evil. Evil, like good, is omnipresent. You can anticipate it, guard against it, and fight it—but you can never eliminate it entirely. Beatrice struggles with both the evil present in the world as well as the evils present within herself. In fact, part of what makes Divergent such a good book is that the heroine is not infallible. She does not always do the right thing, even though she was raised to. She doesn’t always do the brave thing, even though she wants to. She isn’t incredibly pretty, or the top student in the class. She excels in some regards and fails in others. She thinks about going home once or twice, and she’s not above crying or screaming. Beatrice is a thoroughly human character, which in tern makes her thoroughly relatable. She also possesses a unique trait—being a Divergent—which makes her journey more interesting. The strength of Divergence as a story is its ability to address human questions in a very human way; through trial and error. Violence is used when necessary, but Roth is never gratuitous or tasteless. She uses enough to get the point across and leaves the rest to the imagination, allowing readers to contemplate their own fears and draw their own conclusions.
       With so many dystopian novels being published nowadays, especially in the young adult section, it’s difficult to sort through the failures, the good attempts, and the greats. I think that Divergent easily comes closer to the greats, with its wonderful characters and though provoking concepts. Why does it never quite make greatness, you might ask? Well, this is due to two chief complaints I have about the story. Firstly, I feel as though there should have been an additional character building moment in the story, sometime in between her first and second fight. I wanted to actually see her try to improve herself. I wanted to see her struggle to do so, and maybe find that a life of being reared to be selfless contradicted her feelings for personal improvement. Her character change, and the fact that she was a much better fighter the second time around without much contextual evidence to support how she became so made the transition a little unbelievable. Secondly, the romance aspect of this book was a little disjointed. I really enjoyed how it was progressing at first. The tendency with most YA’s is to just leap into a romantic plot line, usually by using a half-arsed excuse like fate, destiny, or animal attraction. Roth doesn’t do that, instead letting the romance build and gradually unfurl. The problem is, she spends so much time being careful, that by the time it actually does unfurl it unfurls too quickly. I understand why Roth wanted to establish this relationship, as it creates tension for the climax. However, while I like the relationship between the two characters I find myself not really believing it, because I don’t understand why they like each other as much as they do. Neither of these two points change the fact that this is a good book, but they do keep it from becoming a great book. Overall, Divergent is a solid read. The premise and the characters are interesting, and most importantly it will make you think—which is something this nerd thinks that all books should aspire to do.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Nette by Barbara Rayne

       Nette by Barbara Rayne is a fantasy novel based on a very interesting premise. Boys are born with brown eyes, and girls are born with blue. This is how the sexes always fall and have always fallen, until the birth of a brown-eyed girl forever alters the course of the world. Aside from having a genetic anomaly, the girl, named Nette, is the subject of a grand prophecy and the wielder of incredible powers. She is destined to overthrow the corrupt king and bring peace to the land of Sentus, as well as to free the captive souls of the once great kingdom Predious. After the despot king murders her parents out of fear and attempt to murder her, Nette is whisked away by lights of an unknown origin, and raised by them for five years. During this time, she learns that she does not need sustenance to survive, nor can she die. For all intents and purposes, Nette is a superhuman. As she grows into her prophecy and avenges her parents murders, Nette has to struggle with the fear of the people and the spite of nobility.
    I think that this book has a really interesting concept. I haven’t come across a similar idea in fantasy writing before, and the genre desperately needs new ideas. While there are some ideas that can be played with in a seemingly unlimited number of ways, sometimes this fantasy nerds feels as though writers get too comfortable with tropes and cliches. The first few chapters are very interesting. Readers are thrown into a confusing situation, just like the heroine, and they’re motivated to keep reading in order to solve the mystery of the lights and the strange, brown-eyed girl. However, while the writing of the first few chapters is very tight, the narrative unfortunately begins to unravel, worsening as the story progresses. Let’s start with the actual structure of the writing. While not horrible, the overall story lacks substance. What’s frustrating about this is that fact that substance is there—covered up like some forgotten relic or lost puzzle piece. I kept expecting Rayne to develop something more, but almost every time I was met with a brief and abrupt time skip. I also found that the number of typographical errors increased as the story progressed, which was midly annoying and distracting. I understand that Rayne was eager to progress the story, but I believe that by doing it so abruptly and without the use of transitionary devices, she instead created a crowded narrative that left no room for character development. That brings me to another point: the characters never change. The never grow—aside from physically—and they never learn; specifically the main heroine. Nette is a girl who attracts suspicion by simply being. She is almost godlike in nature, able to survive even the most brutal of deaths. Naturally, people fear this strange gift and tend to turn on her like a cliched angry mob with fire and pitchforks. And this angry mob trope happens a lot in Nette. What’s even worse, is that Nette recognizes how unjust the treatment is, and decides to resolve it by becoming exactly what they fear: a superpowerful terror. Now, if this story was meant to chronicle the life of this sort of character I wouldn’t be so opposed to it. However, Rayne makes it quite clear that Nette is supposed to be the hero of the work, and yet she’s entirely unheroic. She kills all how oppose her, throws temper tantrums like the Greek gods of yesteryears, and has absolutely no moral struggle with the fact that she kills left and right. She justifies everything she does, and what’s worse is that everyone else does—that is, the select few characters who aren’t apart of the angry mob. Not only do the main characters never grow, but the rest of the cast are complete stock characters. They’re all designed to fill the stupid, ignorant, and prejudiced antagonist roles. They all turn magically against her at the same moment, and no one actually sees the good she’s doing. These characters are so overplayed that they aren’t human or relatable—they’re just voices in a massive blob designed for the soul purpose of adding conflict to the story. And, once again, the only people who aren’t apart of the angry, stupid mass, blindly worship Nette and accept all of her actions as completely justifiable. It’s okay for her to murder large groups of people who oppose her. It’s okay for her to abuse the power of the blue orb—and object which is never fully explained. It’s okay for her to "cull" those who oppose her, because how dare they oppose their "benevolent" Queen?
      Simply put, Nette is a book full of missed opportunities. The heroine is not relatable, nor is she even likable. She never changes, nor do any of the other characters around her. I would have loved to see her begin as very bitter and filled with self-entitlement, perhaps even believing herself to be a god over the weak masses. She could struggle with her humanity and the inhumanity of the world around her, and the desire to repay unkindness with godly force. And then, over the course of the book, she could learn to see herself through the eyes of the people, and discover that their content was born out of fear—a fear that she was reinforcing through her behavior. Ideally, side characters would have helped her to learn this lesson by showing her that not every single person in the world was afraid of her. Unfortunately, these things never happened. She never changed, for better or for worse. Instead of using her inhuman characteristics to explore the notion of humanity, Rayne instead chooses to make Nette a god-like character with no growth arc and no care for the consequences of her actions. Sadly, this in turn made the entire story un-compelling for me as a reader. Why would I want to read a story whose plot is driven a character I can't bring myself to like? I reiterate, the core idea of this book was very good. If Rayne ever writes a sequel, I might be interested in checking it out to see if she's grown as a writer and learned how to do her ideas justice. Until then though, I have to dubb this one a miss.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Wards of Faerie by Terry Brooks



"She was close to breaking at that point, all her preparations and the steeling of her resolve shattered and vanished, and she felt naked and exposed. Everything about her revealed in an instant and nothing left hidden. The dead knew her. The dead could see all she was and all she ever would be, and it was terrifying."

      Wards of Faerie is the first book of Terry Brook’s latest fantasy trilogy, The Dark Legacy of Shannara. As one of the most renowned living epic fantasy authors, Brooks once again delivers a story full of grand odysseys, subterfuge, and hidden surprises—not to mention his colorful host of characters.
   The main plot is simple enough. As with all epics, the lead cast of characters find themselves undertaking a dangerous and life-altering quest, brought on by the impending threat of a government (known as the Federation) intent on destroying the Druid order and colonizing the rest of the free world. However, when the main cast of characters is separated side quests surface, and each group is left pursuing a task no less important than the others.
    The story begins with an elf named Aphenglow, who is member of the Druid order housed at the magical stone fortress, Paranor. She has been searching in Arbolon—city of her kin, the elves—for the whereabouts of lost magics for almost a year, and is just about to relent her task when she stumbles upon a diary written ages ago, in the time of the Faerie. In it, she finds a story of star-crossed lovers, as well as the only documentation of the fabled missing elfstones. Thousands of years ago, these magic talismans all but disappeared, leaving only the blue elfstones and the black elfstone. No one knows what these lost stones do, but they are sure to be powerful. Taking what she knows back to Paranor, the Ard Rhys, Khyber Elessedil—head of the Druid order—embarks on a quest to find the missing relics in order to secure peace throughout the four lands. However, a dark omen hovers over the quest, promising that no one will return unscathed—if they return at all.
     As is always the case with Brooks, this book is engaging and well written. Adept at his craft, Brooks manages to get to the point when the situations requires it as well as indulge in wonderfully detailed descriptions. His characters are interesting and human, as well as diverse and unique. What makes his writing all the more realistic is that none of his characters are truly ever safe from being killed off, even the members of the main cast. This ability to thoughtfully get rid of characters that are usually safe in other tales helps to make Brooks work more engaging, as no character’s fate is certain. And those that do survive one series usually cross over to serve as a bridge for the next, and such is the case with Khyber Elessedil, who was a main character in Brooks’ High Druid of Shannara series. In fact, there are numerous references to his prior works in this novel, most especially to the Voyage of Jerle Shannara series. And this is where my main complaint lies.
     Something I’ve always loved about Brooks’ work is that anyone can pick up a new series and not feel like they’ve missed too much of anything. Even though four series precede this one(excluding the pre-shannara books), enough references are made to past events that anyone new to the world of Shannara can chose to start anywhere. For those of us who have read Brooks' prior books however, some of the common threads seen in Wards of Faerie may prove to be a little too similar for comfort. While Brooks always includes common themes in his books in order to connect on generation of stories to another, some of the commonalties between the Voyage of Jerle Shannara series are a little too heavy handed. Once again, a voyage is being conducted to find missing elfstones. Once again, this voyage is prompted by the sudden discovery of lost information. Once again, this voyage is lead by the Ard Rhys, and once again the Druid is not being entirely forthright to the crew(although to be fair, this trait is simple a fact of life for Druids in the Shannara series). The cast of characters is also somewhat reminiscent of the cast from Jerle Shannara, including a Leah, an eccentric seer, and a shape-shifter. Now, these commonalities don’t make Ward of Faerie a bad book by any means, but they do make it more predictable than usual. Also, to be fair I should clarify that Ward of the Faerie bears similarities to Isle Witch, the first book in the Jerle Shannara series, and not necessarily the entire series itself. This is also the first book in the Dark Legacy series, which leaves the story more time to distinguish itself from that of its predecessors.
    Overall, I quite liked this book. The quality of writing was top-notch as per usual, and the characters are interesting. The story, though a little too reminiscent of the stories of previous series, is still engaging and enjoyable. I finished the book hungering for more, and I have high-hopes for the next book in the series that is scheduled to come out this March. I should also add that a lovely illustration and fold-out map can be found a the end of the book. This is the first time that Brooks has done this, and I sincerely hope that he continues. It was a nice surprise and it added more value to an already valuable purchase.