I really enjoy the format of these books, I do, but the two books after Illuminaehave 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.