Archenemies by Marissa Meyer

Archenemies, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2018 by Feiwel and Friends. It is the sequel to Renegades.

Rating: 4/5

*minor spoilers*

I keep expecting to know how Meyer will do things, but the first book surprised me and this book, though it didn’t surprise me in the same way, still didn’t end the way I expected. The plot is a little more basic in this one: for the entire book, Nova’s goal is to steal Ace Anarchy’s helmet (which somehow amplifies his powers, but we’re never told how or why). There’s some side plots that crop up along the way—Agent N, which was introduced in the first book, and the Vitality Charm—but the main action at the end is focused around the helmet. This is a long book to have such a simple plot, and it definitely shows in areas.

Once again, I expected Nova’s identity as Nightmare to be revealed, and once again, it was not, except now it’s gotten to the point where I have no idea how Meyer can possibly pull any sort of happy ending out of this. Adrian is angry at Nightmare, Nova is angry at Sentinel—how can there be anything large enough to get past that? Will there be a mysterious big villain coming out of nowhere that requires them to team up? Or is Meyer going to use the number of times Nightmare and Sentinel get associated with things that they didn’t actually do be the thing that brings them back together?

Of course, I’m assuming the series will end with their identities being revealed, but now that I think about it, that doesn’t have to be the case. It may, in fact, be more interesting if they were never revealed.

The most interesting thing about these books is that Meyer has stuck strictly to Nova’s ideas of the Renegades throughout, never once showing another side. Not even Adrian’s point of view chapters have much to do with countering Nova’s ideas, and any opposite viewpoint is interspersed with Nova’s curt questions. It’s clear, especially at the end of the book, that Meyer wants us to agree with Nova.

I hope the plot for the third book is a bit more tricky and complex than this one, but otherwise I’m surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying this series. Hopefully Meyer doesn’t pull anything outrageous or annoying in the last book.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy

Renegades by Marissa Meyer

Renegades, by Marissa Meyer, was published in 2017 by Feiwel and Friends.

Rating: 4/5

*minor spoilers*

Brandon Sanderson’s Reckoners series gave me a taste for superhero novels, so I decided to give Meyer’s (the author of Cinder) YA trilogy a shot. I liked her Lunar Chronicles well enough, except for Winter, so I figured I might enjoy this though it’s a different genre.

At first, I thought Renegades would be predictable. I mean, there’s only so many ways you can take a “girl infiltrates her enemy’s headquarters and seeks to overthrow them from the inside” plot. So, I figured that Nova would, in the course of her Renegade disguise, fall in love with Sketch/Adrian, but then discover that what she thought about the Renegades wasn’t true and/or get unmasked before she can do anything. The book would end with her true identity as a villain/Anarchist revealed.

Things looked good to be heading in that direction, until the very end when Meyer proved that she wasn’t just following a predictable, overused trope.

For one, Nova isn’t unmasked. For another, she still really and truly sticks to her Anarchist roots throughout, and while she learns a lot about the Renegades, she’s still dissatisfied with the way they run things (this whole book seems to be about Big Government Ruining Things because Nova is very into individual responsibility and not letting beaurocrats make all the decisions and solve all the problems). For a third, Meyer pulls a plot twist out of thin air at the very end of the book, a twist I didn’t see coming—and the great thing is, it didn’t come out of left field at all, AND it wasn’t particularly obvious.

So, in terms of plot, I can’t really fault Meyer. She did a much better job than I thought she would do, though the length of the book seems too long. There’s a stretch in the middle where everyone runs around a library that goes on forever. However, I can fault her for worldbuilding because it made very little sense. She’s simply too vague about the way things happened and nothing really is clear as to how things got the way they are. There’s no sense of place or time to the novel. Meyer seems to be being deliberately vague about many things like technology and other familiar things that would ground the novel, but then casually throws out words from modern day that fly in the face of a world-completely-changed narrative.

In addition, while several of the superpowers are clever (especially Sketch’s power) and most are standard ones you can think of, some are mindboggling strange. Like Ruby/Red Assassin, who swallowed some rubies and then suddenly has blood that turns into crystals??? What? And then there’s continuous mention of “bloodstone” with no reference as to what, exactly, that is…a drop of her blood that she uses as a jewel on her weapons? Or does she make weapons with her blood and then adorns each of them with this drop of blood (if so, why?)?

However, despite those things, as you can tell I still rated this a 4 out of 5, so my issues with the novel weren’t big enough to take away from my overall enjoyment of it, especially when Meyer changed things up and surprised me in a good way. The last (third) book just came out (though the end of this book seems to imply that it was originally only supposed to be 2 books), so I’m glad to read a series that’s actually finished already so I don’t have to wait too long.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Minor LGBTQ+ themes

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction/Fantasy

Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Obsidio, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2018 by Alfred A. Knopf. It is the sequel to Gemina.

Rating: 3/5

I really enjoy the format of these books, I do, but the two books after Illuminae have been incredibly underwhelming in terms of plot and characters. It’s like Kaufman and Kristoff were so enamored with what they created in Illuminae that they decided to recreate it two more times in Gemina and Obsidio—and in Obsidio, it really shows.

Let’s start with the characters. Just like in the first two books, it’s a boy and girl who are romantically linked. Except this time, neither character is interesting in the slightest. In fact, the book barely focuses on Asha and Rhys—most of its concern is taken up with Kady, Ezra, Hannah, and Nik, the protagonists of the first two stories—and they are incredibly flat characters. Rhys was cardboard. Asha was barely better. Their actions are predictable, as is the plot.

Speaking of the plot, I suppose there’s really nothing wrong with it at its core, but I’m not thrilled with the way the authors go about revealing things. Kaufman and Kristoff play the same plot tricks they did in the first two books, meaning each reveal is blindingly obvious. They pull the “That person died!—Or did they?” trick several times, even though the format of the book and what was revealed previously immediately proves it wrong. They attempt to obscure the characters’ plan to get rid of Evil Corporation, but there are so many out-of-character moments that it’s incredibly obvious that they’re playing a part (the most prominent example being Rhys’s “betrayal” of Asha—it’s incredibly obvious that it’s part of the Obsidio plan. If you kill four people to protect your girlfriend, you’re not going to turn on her because your buddy died in an explosion that your girlfriend insisted she knew nothing about).

The most interesting character by far is AIDAN, since it represents all of the moral dilemmas that run throughout the book (mostly consisting of doing bad things for good reasons). AIDAN is a great example of how logical evil acts can be. To be honest, it’s a bit disturbing to scroll through Goodreads reviews and see people gushing about how much they love AIDAN. I think they mean they love the characterization of AIDAN, not that they love mass murderers (I hope); I found AIDAN interesting, and probably the best character in the book (though some parts were really dumb, like its overly descriptive speech (why?) and the “AIs can have feelings too” subplot), but I certainly didn’t love it.

So, overall, I think Illuminae was the strongest by far of the three books. Gemina was a weaker repeat (with some new and interesting things) of the first, while Obsidio revealed just how much Kaufman and Kristoff were relying on old plot tropes to pull through. I can’t help but feel that I read the same book three times, or at least the same idea of a book three times.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Lots of (censored) swearing, sexual innuendo, violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Gemina, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf. It is the sequel to Illuminae.

Rating: 3/5

Kaufman and Kristoff work hard in Gemina to both continue the same tone and format that made Illuminae so unique, and to add new elements to tell the story in—in this case, a journal as well as some different forms of chatrooms. In addition, they ramp up some of the other formats with pictures and other visual elements, making for some rather beautiful pages.

The plot is virtually the same as Illuminae, except a bit less thrilling, less interesting characters, and now-stale gimmicks. Instead of a virus threatening to turn everyone into raging manaics, there’s alien predators who make you basically comatose. They’re kinda scary, but mostly just distracting from the real villains, the hit squad who come to the station to murder/cover up the tracks of the villainy caused by Evil Corporation. Except the hit squad gets summarily dispatched one by one by said alien predators and three teenagers.

Hanna and Nik are the “required” boy/girl protagonist love interests of this novel, though the romance is completely unnecessary and even distracting at times. It adds nothing to either the characters or the plot. It’s like the authors think that because the protagonists are a girl and a boy, there must be a romance between them.Far more interesting is the relationship between Hanna and Jackson, her boyfriend at the start of the novel (Hanna suddenly falls in love with Nik instead along the way).

Another gripe I have with the book is the fact that the authors pulled so many bait-and-switches that the end felt cheap. For one brief moment I wondered if Kaufman and Kristoff were actually going to do what I initially thought—and I was both disgruntled and thrilled that they would do something so daring. Instead, though, they pulled something they did in the first book (more plot repetition) and reversed everything (twice, really!), which left me feeling just disgruntled.

I did like Gemina, I really did, but if the third book is a repeat of plot and character tropes like this one was, then I might stop enjoying this series.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: Lots of (censored) swearing, sexual innuendo, violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2phGy86

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, was published in 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Rating: 4/5

Illuminae is one of the most unique books I’ve read in years. Not unique in terms of plot, which in this book, to be honest, isn’t anything groundbreaking or even unfamiliar, but in terms of format. The novel is told entirely through e-mails, messages, posters, reports, dossiers, transcripted surveillance camera footage, and the code of an oddly poetic artificial intelligence.

On paper, the plot is tired and old: planet is attacked, people flee for their lives, now they’re on the run with a mutating pathogen and a rogue AI to deal with. Yet, in this format, it transforms into a compelling, suspenseful story. Somehow Kaufman and Kristoff manage to pull off plot twist after plot twist despite the format (or perhaps because of it, as it is easier to get small details past the reader).

Plus, the conflict and moral dilemma at the heart of the novel is complex and not at all straightforward. Is AIDAN doing the right thing or the wrong thing? What about Syra Boll? This book emphasizes the fact that moral decisions are hard to make and that there’s more than one way of looking at things—something the authors tried to get across, I think, with their characterization of AIDAN, the AI who is trying to save everyone by killing everyone, or something. And the scary thing is that I get it. Almost everything Aidan (and Boll, and the other captains) does to try and stop Phobos from spreading—I understand. Do I agree? That’s a trickier question. That’s the great moral dilemma at the heart of the story.

And it’s a moral dilemma that Kady, the main character, tends to trivialize—one of the major reasons I disliked her. She was smug, self-righteous, always sure that her way of thinking was the right one. I mean, it’s basically a great portrayal of a teenager, but I could barely stand her even so. And the romance—ugh. The older I get, the less I can stand teen romance. There were so many more clever things that the authors could have done with Kady as a character and for the romance, but they chose to hang their hat on their format and add in a tired, stereotypical romance that was the main reason I didn’t rate this book 5 stars.

Another reason is that I got very confused at the end with why the percentage of Phobos afflicted was dropping (but by an incredibly small margin). Was it supposed to symbolize AIDAN malfunctioning or something??

What shines from Illuminae is the format, which transforms an average plot into something that even this science-fiction hater finds intriguing. I never thought I would be so involved in a YA SF book, but this book, even with its annoying main character and romance, proved that is possible—with the right set-up!

Recommended Age Range: 15+

Warnings: Lots of (censored) swearing, sexual innuendo, violence.

Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2VelBqM

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson, was published in 2018 by Delacorte

Rating: 5/5

Brandon Sanderson is always so consistently good as a writer—his plots are intricate, his characters are fleshed out, the worldbuilding is superb, and there’s always a bit of humor thrown in to mellow things out. Skyward is no exception. I don’t normally like science fiction, but Sanderson makes it interesting—and understandable. One of his trademarks as an author is complicated, but understandable worldbuilding, and in Skyward everything from the caverns to the planet, but especially the fighter ships, is meticulously explained in a way that makes sense and that flows from the world naturally.

This book was very hard for me to put down, since Sanderson is so good at pacing and tension. While perhaps not as fun as Steelheart was, with all of its superpowers, Spensa and the other members of her flight crew made the book come alive and made me enjoy every minute of it. I also enjoyed the mysteries surrounding M-Bot, Spensa’s spoiler-y ability which I won’t really talk about, and Doomslug (who may not be mysterious, but certainly seems that way). And did I mention that I normally dislike science fiction to the point where it’s hard for me to enjoy any book of that genre, regardless of writer or quality? Yet Sanderson made it as interesting and exciting for me as any book of another genre because he’s so good.

All right, I might be biased (like with Diana Wynne Jones), but I did really love the book. I found a few things problematic towards the end, especially with the big reveal about Spensa and the Krell that I thought was perhaps delivered too fast (though there’s room in the sequels to explore all that, I suppose) or not explained enough, but Skyward was an excellent, fun adventure all the way through.

Recommended Age Range: 14+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Young Adult, Science Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2Z5oXAS

1963 Newbery Medal: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle, was published in 1962 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Rating: 3/5 (2/5??)

A Wrinkle in Time has always been That Book for me. Not That Book that you really enjoy, or That Book that knocked you off your feet, but That Book that everyone talked about and referenced as a fantastic book, that you grew up hearing about, that you read a long time ago, that your friends all mention, that is always upheld as a great example of x genre. And with such a towering reputation, it’s always difficult to admit that you don’t actually like That Book.

I left my rating the way I typed it when first thinking about how to review this book because it really illustrates my conflict here. On the one hand, I didn’t like it: hence, the 2/5. On the other hand, I acknowledge its significance and reputation: hence, the 3/5. But 3/5 has turned into my lazy rating, my “it was average, but not terrible, but not great” rating, so I want to be bold and say 2/5. Yet, I think my dislike of it has to do with my personal taste in books, so I want to be fair and say 3/5.

So, I kept both ratings there because I couldn’t decide.

I always feared going into reading this book that I wouldn’t like it. See, the thing is, I simply don’t like science fiction. I struggle to enjoy even children’s books of that genre. So I knew that my thoughts about A Wrinkle in Time might be negative simply from that standpoint.

But I also didn’t think the book was that great…

I mean, the theme is great. Love wins over evil—fantastic. But the way everything is delivered, the way everything happens, is clunky, and not developed enough, and way too quickly paced. The explanation in this book is scant; we’re swept along just like Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin are, except there’s the feeling that the characters know more than the reader. There’s two kids who are special—somehow, with no explanation as to how or why they’re like that—and their father is missing, then BOOM! they get taken away by these three strange angel ladies to rescues their father, then BOOM! they go to the planet where their father is and one special kid gets overtaken by the evil, then BOOM! stuff happens, they rescue their father, one kid goes back to rescue the other, she stares at him and thinks about love, then BOOM! he’s back, they’re back, everyone’s back, and everyone’s happy.

But how is Charles Wallace different, and why is he different? Why do Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin seem to instinctively know how to combat IT, despite never knowing about him before? How does staring at Charles Wallace and thinking about love break ITs hold on him? Why do these kids just go with the flow and not freak out? Why is everything so pat and quick and why do the kids seem to know what to do despite also not knowing what to do?

Maybe I’m missing the point? Like this is supposed to be one giant allegory, even more than the one that’s abundantly obvious already, and that’s why everything is the way it is. I like the good/evil allegory/symbolism, but I didn’t think it was written all that well, to be honest!

So, those are my thoughts on A Wrinkle in Time. I’m now a pariah among my friends, I know, but I just found the whole book strange and poorly explained.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s, Science Fiction

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2LELu1G

The Pool of Fire by John Christopher

The Pool of Fire, by John Christopher, was published in 1968 by Aladdin. It is the sequel to The City of Gold and Lead.

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.

Rating: 3/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Middle Grade.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2xIl1X3

The City of Gold and Lead by John Christopher

The City of Gold and Lead, by John Christopher, was published in 1967 by Aladdin. It is the sequel to The White Mountains.

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.

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Middle Grade.

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2NkWmOe

1994 Newbery Medal: The Giver by Lois Lowry

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?

Rating: 4/5

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.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy, Children’s

You can buy this book here: https://amzn.to/2sWdCla