After being held captive in the city of Gold and Lead—the capital, where the creatures that control the mechanical, monstrous Tripods live—Will believes that he’s learned everything he needs to know to story them. He has discovered the source of their power, and with this new knowledge, Will and his friends plan to return to the City of Gold and Lead to take down the Masters once and for all. Although Will and his friends have planned everything down to the minute, the Masters still have surprises in store. Will enters the battle with confidence, but it might not be enough to fight against the Tripods. And with the Masters’ plan to destroy Earth completely, Will may have just started the war that will end it all.
The Pool of Fire takes place almost right where The City of Gold and Lead left off, after Will comes back from the aforementioned city with the knowledge he gleaned about the Masters. The entirety of this book details the fight against the Masters (not the Tripods, as the back cover leads you to believe—they only show up once or twice) and what the humans must do before they can infiltrate the cities to destroy them.
I realized while reading The Pool of Fire that Christopher’s writing style is probably not for everyone. I actually enjoy it a lot, though I find it needlessly complicated at times, but it’s a nice breath of fresh air from all the present tense, flowery and trying to be poetic writing out there. I also really enjoy Will as the not-always-capable, brash, not-particularly-heroic hero. In many ways, it is the other characters who shine more so than Will: Beanpole, with his work in bringing back ancient knowledge (like electricity and hot air balloons!), Henry, with a moment in the book that I still clearly remembered even though it’s been years since I last read this book, and one other, who I won’t say because it is a spoiler. In fact, compared to those three, sometimes Will is a bit exasperating.
The one thing that I really didn’t like about this book is Christopher’s pretentious introduction, as well as all the “is the world worth saving if humans are just going to kill each other again?” talk. And what’s really ironic is that this attempt at preaching world peace is going on as the humans of this novel are about to go to war. I suppose since it’s against aliens it doesn’t count, huh? There’s also the attempt at the united world government at the end. I mean, it’s nice that in a book about an alien invasion, there is some attention given to the reconstruction done after the aliens are defeated, but I just wish Christopher had been less heavy-handed about it.
The Pool of Fire is a good conclusion to this series, continuing the tone and the characterization from the first two books and detailing a lot more than was covered in the first two books, as years pass in this one. I had some issues with the idea of world peace that’s preached throughout the novel, as I don’t think it’s realistic or feasible, and there were some problems with pacing throughout (not helped by Christopher’s dry writing style, though again, for the most part I don’t mind it). In addition, Will is honestly the most forgettable thing about the book. However, there’s some great moments in this book, ones that I remember vividly, and I’m not disappointed that I came back to this trilogy.
When Will and his friends arrived at the White Mountains, they thought everything would be okay. They’d found a safe haven where the mechanical monsters called Tripods could not find them. But once there, they wonder about the world around them and how everyone else is faring against the machines. In order to save everyone else, Will and his friends want to take down the Tripods once and for all. That means journeying to the capital of the Tripods: the City of Gold and Lead. Although the journey will be difficult, the real danger comes once Will is inside, where Tripods roam freely and humans are even more enslaved than they are on the outside. Without anyone to help him, Will must learn the secrets of the Tripods—and how to take them down—before they figure out that he’s a spy…and he can only pretend to be brainwashed for so long.
The City of Gold and Lead delves further into the world of the Tripods, revealing the main threat of the trilogy and showing some standard science fiction fare. The question I had while reading The White Mountains of whether the Tripods themselves are the enemies or if there are aliens piloting them is answered, as Will and his friends infiltrate one of their cities. The first book was more “science fiction integrated into our world” while this one cranks it up and has the familiar replaced with the unfamiliar in the Tripod city.
I’m not sure how believable Christopher’s science is in the world he has created, but it almost doesn’t matter. The threat is real enough that the reader is swept up into the same race against time that Will and his friends are in. There’s a recurring motif of time limits in this book, from the journey that they must make in a particular time, to the strict schedule and timing inside the city, to the ultimate time limit set in the battle against the Tripods that Will discovers while in the city.
Speaking of Will, I really like him as a protagonist. He does enough stupid things to keep him from being too perfect, but he also takes initiative when he needs to. He’s brash, but can act fairly shrewdly when necessary. He makes some excuses for his lapses in action or judgment, but then acknowledges them and strives to make up for it. The development of his relationship with Fritz is done very well, too. I like that Christopher set up this trio of Will, Henry, and Beanpole in the first book, and then in this book tears it apart and gives us Fritz instead. It’s realistic, as it’s unlikely all three boys would always get picked for everything, and it gives Will more ways to develop.
The City of Gold and Lead is more interesting than The White Mountains, as it develops much more of the world and gives more incentive for the heroes, has some good character development, and, despite a long beginning, moves along quite well in terms of pace. There’s not a lot of action, but Christopher’s descriptions pull you into the book regardless. I’m eager to pick up the next book and see how everything ends.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry, was published in 1993 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Life in the community where Jonas lives is idyllic. Designated birthmothers produce newchildren, who are assigned to appropriate family units: one male, one female, to each. Citizens are assigned their partners and their jobs. No one thinks to ask questions. Everyone obeys. The community is a precisely choreographed world without conflict, inequality, divorce, unemployment, injustice…or choice. Everyone is the same. Except Jonas. At the Ceremony of Twelve, the community’s twelve-year-olds eagerly accept their predetermined Life Assignments. But Jonas is chosen for something special. He begins instruction in his life’s work with a mysterious old man known only as The Giver. Gradually Jonas learns that power lies in feelings .But when his own power is put to the test—when he must try to save someone he loves—he may not be ready. Is it too soon? Or too late?
Confession time: I’ve never read The Giver before. Even after years of hearing people tell me how great it was, even after the hype surrounding the movie and the renewed interest in the book it brought, I never read it. So, this was my first time reading The Giver, and I got to see firsthand whether or not I thought it was as good as people told me.
And the verdict is…mostly. It’s mostly as good.
The message behind The Giver is excellent. Lowry shows the importance of feelings, memories, and choice through the chilling world of the community, where everything is predetermined and feelings are suppressed. While this sort of utopia sounds good on paper (a place where there’s no animosity, injustice, inequality, etc.), the reality Lowry shows makes it clear that the utopia is actually a dystopia, and that in the effort to make things peaceful, the community has dehumanized life and people and sucked out all the color and diversity and humanity that emotions and choice bring to people. The message is clear and easy to understand, making this an ideal book to talk about the importance of freedom with children.
The one blip on the radar for me is that the world, plot, and ideas are simplistic, and, at times, confusing. Vague, hand-wavy “science” has accomplished the colorless, emotionless life of the community. However, the Giver and, in turn, Jonas, have powers of memory that border on the magical, not the scientific, and Jonas’s ability to “see beyond” also seems more magical than not, making the world a strange blend of science fiction and fantasy, but not really selling either genre. In addition, the structure behind the idea of a Receiver/Giver of Memory is hazy at times, and it’s not clear why, once Jonas has left the boundaries of the community, the memories return rather than stay with him.
Lowry builds the chilling world of The Giver well; by the end, the people seem like robots, or maybe just unfeeling, emotionless shells. However, occasionally her world is less than airtight in development, especially regarding the whole foundation of memory, and it fluctuates between science fiction and fantasy with no clear line or explanation. It’s a book ripe for discussion, and even if it is simplistic, at least it’s a profound simplistic.
The White Mountains, by John Christopher, was published in 1967 by Simon & Schuster.
Long ago, the Tripods–huge, three-legged machines–descended upon Earth and took control. Now people unquestioningly accept the Tripods’ power. They have no control over their thoughts or their lives. But for a brief time in each person’s life–in childhood–he is not a slave. For Will, his time of freedom is about to end–unless he can escape to the White Mountains, where the possibility of freedom still exists.
The White Mountains describes a world where, after an alien (machine?) invasion, society has reverted back to medieval times and are now under the dominion of the Tripods. The Tripods, giant three-legged metal things, control the humans with Caps, given to them at a coming-of-age ceremony. However, some people have managed to hide from the Tripods and are Capless, and they seek out boys (but not girls, apparently) who are brave enough to escape society and flee to the White Mountains. That’s what the protagonist, Will, ends up doing, of course, with some comrades of his.
The worldbuilding is actually quite good, at least in terms of describing the way the world reverted back a few hundred years. Will’s fascination with the Watch and the way the boys explore the ruined city (Paris?) and find unexplained, strange things, like cars and subway trains, is quite well done. Yet, Beanpole’s interest with such things shows that the way back to those times is still possible, if humans have a chance to get there.
Less well done is the concept of the Tripods. It’s never quite clear whether they are machines or controlled by something else—although, granted, no one in the world Christopher has shown us knows the answer to that, either. And I understand that the other books will answer that, as the Rebellion seeks to destroy the Tripods and free the humans. However, in this book, the vague threat of the Tripods, however ominous they are, is too unknown to really sell the book as solid science fiction. They’re metal tripods with strange advanced technology that can control people with silver Caps. That’s all we know. It’s all the characters know, too, but I was itching for more to be revealed.
My other complaint is that the ending is a little too abrupt, and reads too much like a voice-over done at the end of the first movie of a trilogy. I suppose actually showing the boys reaching the White Mountains, learning more about the Resistance, and other things isn’t particularly necessary, since the book is about their escape, and is something that can be explored in the other books, but I would have liked to see a little bit of that in this book.
Also, where are all the girls? Just saying.
The White Mountains does a really good job with some of its worldbuilding, but not so well with the rest, having a threat that’s too vague to really stand out as interesting. The concept is great, and it has enough appeal to hook people into the next books, if only to discover more about the mysterious Tripods, but the ending was too abrupt for my liking, and there’s a lack of female presence. I’ll pick up the next book because I’m interested in finding out more, but I hope some of the flaws are improved.
When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, was published in 2009 by Yearling.
By sixth grade, Miranda and her best friend, Sal, know how to navigate their New York City neighborhood. They know where it’s safe to go, and who to avoid. Like the crazy guy on the corner. But things start to unravel. Sal gets punched by a kid on the street for what seems like no reason, and he shuts Miranda out of his life. The apartment key that Miranda’s mom keeps hidden for emergencies is stolen. And then a mysterious note arrives, scrawled on a tiny slip of paper: I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own. I ask two favors. First, you must write me a letter. The notes keep coming, and Miranda slowly realizes that whoever is leaving them knows things no one should know. Each message bringers her closer to believing that only she can prevent a tragic death. Until the final note makes her think she’s too late.
When You Reach Me is a book that, after I finished it, I was surprised to look back and find that I liked it. I mean, while reading it, I was engaged in the story, and I had this overall positive impression throughout the book. So I suppose it’s not really so surprising that I enjoyed the book. But it is surprising that Stead could include such a strange turn of events in the plot and the entire premise and I still wound up enjoying the book despite its oddball reveal.
I don’t want to say too much, because it is such a strange and random revelation that saying it might make the novel seem cheap. It’s not—it’s a Newbery winner, after all—but a simple description or summary really doesn’t do it justice. I don’t know how I felt about the reveal, but Stead incorporates it in such a way that by the time it is revealed, I cared enough about the characters that I could roll with the punches.
Without the “surprise” of the novel, the story itself is delightful—a simple story about a girl growing up, trying desperately to fit into a changing environment and dealing with changing friends, rivalries, and odd and scary neighbors. Stead portrays nicely the changing dynamics of friendships as people grow older. Even though not too much development is given to the secondary characters, Miranda’s friends and family, they’re still interesting enough that her time spent with them seems meaningful. It’s also nice to see a rivalry story that isn’t over-the-top dramatic.
When You Reach Me has a bizarre reveal that actually works with the story as she developed it, so that even as strange as it was, it somehow seemed to fit with the story. It’s a unique sort of novel, and the main story itself, without the twist at the end, is good enough to warrant the Newbery medal, in my opinion. The twist doesn’t make the book better, but it certainly makes it stand out more.
Recommended Age Range: 8+
Genre: Children’s, Realistic, Science Fiction
I was named after a criminal. Mom says that’s a dramatic way of looking at things, but sometimes the truth is dramatic.
“The name Miranda stands for people’s rights,” she said last fall, when I was upset because Robbie B. had told me during gym that I was named after a kidnapper.
Dragon’s Blood, by Jane Yolen, was published in 1982 by Delacorte.
Jakkin is fifteen and a bond servant, which is little better than a slave. He labors for Master Sarkkhan in the dragon barns, tending to the beautiful beasts who are raised to fight in the pits. Jakkin’s only hope of freedom is to steal a hatchling, secretly train it as a fighter, and win gold enough to pay his way out of bondage. But does he know enough to train his dragon to become a true champion?
Clearly influenced by Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, Dragon’s Blood is a science-fiction/fantasy that didn’t turn out to be anything I was expecting when I picked it up. I thought it would be a fun dragon book (How to Train Your Dragon still makes me squeal in excitement); I was not expecting something akin to McCaffrey’s works. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing—it just caught me off guard.
I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, especially this kind, where strange terms and words are introduced and everything is described in detail—but sometimes not until midway through the book, where it seems strange. So I didn’t love Dragon’s Blood. I have nothing against Yolen’s worldbuilding or plot; there was some neat stuff at the end and as a whole the world made sense and the plot was pretty strong, though perhaps a bit rushed at the end. I simply don’t really like science fiction.
I can’t even say I dislike Dragon’s Blood for being such an obvious tribute/imitation of McCaffrey. I have read some of McCaffrey and liked it, but I had the same problems with it as I do with Dragon’s Blood. I like my dragons in fantasy, not science fiction. I like my worlds less meticulously and strangely described, or perhaps at least more smooth integrations of infodumping. This is a genre issue, not a particular issue with characters, world, etc. In fact, I didn’t even really dislike Dragon’s Blood at all—I just didn’t really love it.
Science fiction. It’s just not my thing.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Warnings: Some innuendo, breeding terminology.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy, Science Fiction
All dragons, he reminded himself with the conventional trainer’s wisdom, all dragons are feral, even though they have been domesticated for over two centuries. And especially dragons like Blood Brother.
As if hearing his name, Brother jerked his head up. Deep inside the black eyes there was an iridescent flicker, the sign of a fighter. Involuntarily Slakk stepped back. Errikkin stood his ground. Only Jakkin went forward, holding out a hand.
“Hush, hush, beauty,” he crooned, letting Brother sniff his hand. “It’s the baths for you.”
Raiders’ Ransom, by Emily Diamond, was published in 2009 by Chicken House/Scholastic.
It’s the 23rd century, and much of England—what once was England—is underwater. Poor Lilly is out fishing with her trusty first mate, Cat, when greedy raiders pillage the town—and kidnap the Prime Minister’s daughter. Her village blamed, Lilly decides to find the girl. Off she sails, in secret. And with a ransom: a mysterious talking jewel. If she saves the Prime Minister’s daughter, she might just stop a war. Little does Lilly know that it will take more than grit to outwit the tricky, treacherous pirate tribes!
Raiders’ Ransom is the type of novel where I enjoyed it enough to finish, but not enough to forgive perceived errors. To be honest, I’m not sure what compelled me to keep reading the book, but I did, even when halfway through I thought “Hmm…I’m not sure I want to keep reading.”
First of all, the world makes very little sense and Diamond doesn’t do much beyond vague mentions of floods and storms to establish how the world got the way it is. And floods would only account for part of the worldbuilding; things like the people’s view of technology, seacats, the “reset” to an eighteenth/nineteenth century world, and the odd division of power and property were never explained. I didn’t see any reason why, even if England had flooded, it would somehow make everyone forget/hate technology and set everything back a couple hundred of years.
Second, the voice was really annoying in this book, and by the end of it I was ready to scream any time someone said “Cos” or “But” or “And” at the start of a sentence because of how many times sentences were set up that way (clarification: I’m knocking the repetition, not the use of the word). I don’t particularly like novels written in dialect, so maybe that’s also why I had a problem with the voice/writing.
Finally, the convenience of the plot sometimes was a little too much. So Lilly just happens to be a descendant of the jewel’s former user and so she just happens to be the only person able to activate it fully? That’s incredibly far-fetched. I understand that Diamond needed some way to limit access to the jewel, but it could have been done in a less contrived way.
However, I did finish the book, and I did enjoy some of it, so maybe there’s some small amount of merit in Raiders’ Ransom, after all. A lot of the plot was pretty clever, even if it was contrived, Lilly was a good protagonist (even if the “I cut my hair and thus immediately look like a boy even though girls with short hair don’t really look like boys” moment was so contrived and unrealistic) and I think younger readers would probably really enjoy the book.
Starglass, by Phoebe North, was published in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.
Terra has never known anything but life aboard the Asherah, a city-within-a-spaceship that left Earth five hundred years ago in search of refuge. At sixteen, working a boring job and living with a grieving father who only notices her enough to yell, Terra is sure that there has to be more to life than what she’s got. But when she inadvertently witnesses the captain’s guard murdering an innocent man, Terra is suddenly thrust into the dark world beneath the Asherah’s idyllic surface. As she’s drawn into a secret rebellion that aims to restore power to the people, Terra discovers that her choices may determine life or death for the people she cares about most. With mere months to go before landing on the long-promised planet, Terra has to make the choice of a lifetime—one that will shape the fate of her people.
I really liked Starglass at first; I’m not a fan of science fiction but I do like “soft” SF if it’s written well—and Starglass is. I was intrigued by the concept of a Jewish community on a ship (and luckily North added the information that more than the Asherah were sent out; that tons of cultures and groups and communities sent out their own ships) and although the Judaism is really mangled, it makes sense that it would be—not only does the journals of one of the first travelers hint that the ship was, in the beginning, only surface Judaism, but 500 years with different generations, different commanders, etc. would be enough to distort some aspects of it. Yet…I don’t know. I’m still dissatisfied with its representation.
However, my uneasiness with the representation of Judaism is not the biggest issue with Starglass that I had. My main problem was with the main character herself. Terra is one of the most irritating protagonists with which to be stuck because throughout the book she rarely thinks of anyone besides herself and how she feels. Things just happen around her and she barely does anything about them. The only time she does anything actively, rather than passively, is near the end of the book when she acts on impulse and rage. Then she makes the brilliant decision to abandon everyone to what’s going on in the ship and leave because she wants to be with an alien she dreamed about.
That brings me to the plot, which was filled with cliché, irritating mechanics. The Koen/Rachel thing was incredibly abrupt and made no sense except as a means to generate tension and show, once again, how selfish Terra is. The bait-and-switch at the end was more aggravating than surprising, especially because there was absolutely no foreshadowing beforehand. Then Terra makes the stupidest decision ever and then the book ends.
I have absolutely zero interest in picking up the sequel. The plot and Terra irritated me too much in Starglass, and the fact that the last 3/4s of the book are sensual scenes of Terra making out with her boyfriend and then moping around, I’m completely not into whatever the sequel will bring, which is apparently more of the same except that now Terra makes out with an alien. No thanks; I think I’ll pass.
Recommended Age Range: 16+
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
“Um, Rebbe Stone?” I said, clearing my throat. “I can come back later if you want.”
She waved a hand at me, but her gaze didn’t move from the microscope. “Don’t call me ‘Rebbe’! The council might think they can make me teach you, but they can’t force me to be as formal as all that.
I chewed my lip. “You didn’t request me?”
“Bah,” Mara said. “‘Request.’ They’ve been trying to strong-arm me into retiring for years. They think you’ll be my deathblow. Sit down!”
Nick and Eryn’s mom is getting remarried, and the twelve-year-old twins are skeptical when she tells them their lives won’t change much. Well, yes, she says they will have to move. And they will have a new stepfather, stepbrother, and stepsister. But don’t worry, Mom assures the kids. They won’t ever have to meet their stepsiblings….For Nick and Eryn, this news begins a quest to find out who these other kids are—and why they’re being kept hidden.
I used to love Margaret Peterson Haddix, but I’ve found her most recent novels to be underwhelming. Under Their Skin is a mess from start to finish. It felt rushed and incomplete, and it breaks absolutely no new ground in any genre, let alone science fiction.
My main problem with Under Their Skin was not just the incomprehensibility of the plot, but the whole idea behind it. Recently, there’s been a trend to try and justify the treatment of non-humans as human, which means you get a lot of “but robots are people too!” arguments that tend to fall flat on their faces once you look past the surface. Under Their Skin tries to tackle this idea in the same way and fails spectacularly. I understand if Nick and Eryn are hesitant about destroying something that’s close to them, but don’t say that it’s “vile and cruel and inhuman” to destroy a machine. It’s not. Maybe wasteful, maybe a poor idea considering the circumstances, but certainly not “cruel.”
I think, however, that even if that idea was not present in this novel, I would not have enjoyed it anyway. The whole book feels rushed, as if it was written in a very short amount of time, and it’s hardly high quality middle grade caliber. It wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t exciting. It was odd and stilted and annoying and boring. Under Their Skin makes me not want to pick up anything written by Haddix, which is a shame because I used to quite like her older books.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Science Fiction, Middle Grade
“At least now we’ve seen pictures of Ava and Jackson,” Nick said.
“Yeah…,” Eryn said. She thought for a moment. “But didn’t something about those pictures seem kind of weird?”
“They looked like normal kids to me,” Nick said, finally turning around to look at her.
“That’s the problem,” Eryn said. “Didn’t they look maybe too normal? Like those pictures you see in frames at stories where it’s just some actors or models trying too hard to look like normal people?”
When Calamity lit up the sky, the Epics were born. David’s fate has been tied to their villainy ever since that historic night. Steelheart killed his father. Firefight stole his heart. And now Regalia has turned his closest ally into a dangerous enemy. David knew Prof’s secret, and kept it even when the Reckoners’ leader struggled to control the effects of his Epic powers. But facing Obliteration in Babilar was too much. Prof has now embraced his Epic destiny. He’s disappeared into those murky shadows of menace Epics are infamous for the world over, and everyone knows there’s no turning back….But everyone is wrong. Redemption is possible for Epics—Megan prove it. They’re not lost. Not completely. And David is just about crazy enough to face down the most powerful High Epic of all to get his friend back. Or die trying.
Calamity was, honestly…a little disappointing. Maybe “disappointing” isn’t the correct word. “At times annoying,” maybe, or even “confusing.” There were several times throughout the book when I either 1.) expected more from a scene, 2.) became confused at the plot developments or 3.) grew irritated with the way Sanderson was taking the whole Epic powers idea. I’m not sure if I liked what Sanderson said about corruption and goodness and the choices people make, and I especially didn’t like it delivered in such a “This Is The Moral Of The Story” way. And the whole parallel worlds thing was confusing as all-get-out.
But—David is still a great protagonist, even if his similes are annoying, and I’ve grown to like Megan more and more with each book. Sanderson can still weave a plot very well, even if this time I felt slightly less satisfied at the end than I normally do with his books. And even though a certain part of David’s development in this book was shouted from the very beginning—seriously, it’s so obvious that the book might as well be screaming at you—I still enjoyed the culmination of that development. I also enjoy that it wasn’t used as some sort of excuse to have a huge final battle—you know, the kind where the protagonist gets initially defeated by the villain and then fully realizes his powers and defeats the villain. Instead, David simply does a lot of talking. The powers part comes later, and in true David fashion, doesn’t work out quite as well as he hopes.
I don’t think Calamity is as good or as gripping as Steelheart, and maybe not even Firefight, but it is, at least, a mostly satisfying end. The moralizing bit at the end made me roll my eyes and wonder what Sanderson was trying to say, but I think if you liked the first two books you will probably enjoy this one, too. All my complaints aside, I know I did.
Recommended Age Range: 14+
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
“Why do I get the feeling there’s something they aren’t telling us?” Megan said. “That girl was looking at these cupcakes like they were scorpions.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “Right. Scorpions.”
Megan eyed me.”
“Or tiny nuclear warheads,” I said. “That works too, right? Of course, you could strap a scorpion to a nuclear warhead, and that would make it even more dangerous. You’d have to try to disarm the thing, but wow—scorpion.”