Insurgent

I see it so, so often in trilogies nowadays. I think I first noticed it when I was reading the Chaos Walking trilogy. Book one is fantastic. Fast-paced, intriguing world, exciting characters. Then book two is kind of a journey, obviously a bridge to get to the finale, but already things are getting sort of bogged down and complicated. And by the time book three comes out, you hardly care anymore, because everything is convoluted and just too much. I was super bummed to feel Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy going in that direction—enough so that I’m so hesitant to read the third book now that it’s out, even though I think his sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph writing is superb.

Insurgent feels like the bridge to an epic finale that I’m not going to care about because everything has gotten way too complicated. When everyone’s in the city, just fighting one particular enemy with a very clearly defined end-goal, it’s great. Throw in more politics, more locations, more types of people, new characters, new enemies…and you’ve pretty much lost my interest.

I think the problem might be in that writers often lose their protagonists while they’re trying to make the world stuff work. All I want is more Tris, and instead I get convoluted busy-ness. And a sneaking suspicion that Roth likes Tobias more than Tris. Which was a total bummer for me, because I like Tris so much more. Even Four is better than Tobias, if that distinction makes sense.

One thing Roth really does well, though, is action scenes. They’re snappy and have a great back-and-forth balancing act that keeps the suspense up. She writes them really well, and that was basically what kept me reading. The action scenes and wanting to know what happens to Tris. These books are quick reads, and it definitely isn’t a waste of time to read them. I just got that sinking feeling during this one that I was entering more convoluted, confusing territories, and that Tris was edging away from center stage.

Divergent

There’s good and bad parts of this trilogy, and a large portion of the good ones happen in the first book. Which isn’t to say that people shouldn’t read them all—but the first book is the best, in my opinion.

I know the story well by now, having read the first book a couple times and having enjoyed the movie. It’s pretty fantastic, the world that Roth created. I love the idea of the factions, even though it all seems to be a bit flawed in practice. I like to think I would be Dauntless, but then, bravery is a most desirable quality, if we consider the number of Harry Potter fans who want to be Gryffindors (whether they actually would be or not). Tris is great, too, as far as protagonists go. She’s strong and smart and very brave. Almost too smart, though.

Roth’s writing takes a little getting used to. Her sentences are short and to the point, which keeps the pace up. It’s similar to Hunger Games, but not quite as good at keeping me 100% invested in every detail.

Following in the wake of the Hunger Games craze, I’d say Insurgent isn’t quite as good. But then, Suzanne Collins is hard to beat. Anyone looking for a brave female protagonist who drives a lot of action sequences and fulfills the “chosen one” role will probably like Divergent. There’s some romance thrown in for flair, and I actually really like Four in this book. He’s dark and still mysterious, something that we lose in books two and three. Dystopic YA sort of blew up after Hunger Games made it big, and there’s a lot of not-so-great stories out there. Divergent is solidly in the you-should-read-this-even-though-it-isn’t-quite-The-Hunger-Games camp.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

It doesn’t seem nice (or business savvy) to waste the time of literary agents who are obviously not excited about the type of book you write. So you do research, you target your queries based on what they’ve represented and the books they say they enjoy reading.

Dunham Literary, Inc. is friendly with my graduate program, and both Jennie Dunham and Bridget Smith have come to visit our residencies before. They are fabulously nice people, and it made sense for me to do some research on Bridget’s likes and dislikes, because she is looking for YA authors to represent.

Thankfully, an old high school friend and former roommate of mine had lent me his copy of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. He loved it, and since I trust his taste in most things (movies, books, boards games, his lovely wife, their wonderful cats), I was going to read it eventually. When I heard that Bridget loved it, I bumped it up on the list.

It’s a long book, of course. It can be a bit of a slog to get through some parts, though eventually there always seemed to be a good payout. All in all I’m very glad I read it, since I now know that I don’t (and might never) write the kind of books that really excite Bridget. It isn’t the type of book I would write, but it has plenty of merits to recommend it.

First, for the good.

The characters of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are fascinating. Likewise their close friends/advisors are sufficiently fleshed out, and everyone has a different motivation and ends up mucking things up one way or another because they’re slightly at odds to what someone else wants. The sheer pride and obstinate vanity of Mr. Norrell is humorous and frustrating at once. The mentor/apprentice relationship seems to be entering my reading sphere fairly often lately (what with The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun), and this one is a nice exploration of a mentor too full of himself to see straight and a respectful but refreshingly independent apprentice doing his own thing regardless.

The magic is woven into the historical aspects with grace. The descriptions of magic done on the fields of battle, the illusions used to fool enemies, all are delightful and well-executed. Clarke has very clever notions, and folds them into the story organically.

The “villain” if you want to call him that, acted just as his nature bid, and saw no fault in his actions. He wasn’t menacing so much as unknowable, living a life at cross purposes with normal mortal souls.

Sometimes the characters and turn of events surprised me, and I usually enjoy that sort of thing.

Now, to the not so good.

It’s a long book, and covers a long span of time. I feel like it takes a great deal of setup to even get to the main plot and relationship that matters most. It feels accurate, that a story this complex would unfold over such a span of time, but it was slightly frustrating for me to not see the general direction the novel was going in sooner than three-fourths of the way through.

There aren’t enough women, and the ones who are in it tend to suffer too much in silence. Yes, it’s a product of that time period, but I didn’t see much of the fire in their souls that commends me to characters. It’s a man’s world and men dominate the book. The women act to provide plot twists and motivation for the men to stop sitting in salons debating the future of England’s magic.

The footnotes didn’t really add or detract anything for me, which tells me they were probably unnecessary. I suppose once you’ve read House of Leaves it’s difficult to ever consider footnotes necessary if they aren’t being used to create a whole new layer of meta in a story. Still, I can’t say that I would have enjoyed this book any less without the information contained in the footnotes, which makes me think they aren’t worth distracting your attention from the main narrative to hunt down and read.

Even with the bad, though, this is still a beautiful book for what it wants to be. The writing on the sentence level is great, and the ending was fitting and beautiful in a kind of sad, lonely way that perhaps only people with tastes similar to me would appreciate (nothing’s tied up in a nice bow. It’s more complicated and germane to reality, and I like it).

If you’re looking for an interesting historical fiction with a touch of the fantastical thrown in–and you don’t mind long novels–this one is definitely for you. Also, props to the author for writing this exactly the way you would imagine Brits of that time period dealing with magic. On that alone it’s worth a read, because it makes you laugh when you stop to think about it.

The Killing Moon

There’s a lot of beauty in this book. I haven’t read Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy yet (I’m borrowing it from my cousin later this summer), but her writing flows. There’s grace in it, in the way she describes the settings and the mannerisms of the characters.

I really admire when an author can jump right into a story without doing too much infodumping. So often you can tell you’re in the beginning of a story because there’s so much explanation of this and that. But good writers just jump right in, because it’s an entire world that exists for them, not just something that springs into being on page one and disappears after the last sentence. The worlds contained in these stories are not finite—they have history and the character was alive and awake and doing things the day before the story started, too. Jemisin gets that.

Nijiri is a wonderful character. Ehiru and Sunandi are great, too, but the majority of my love for this book comes from Nijiri. He’s willful and prideful and young but never quite naive. He feels things purely. His emotions bring out the best responses and reactions in the other characters. He drives everything, even though things happening in the plot seem to be happening to other people or by other people’s design. He’s a joy to read.

In depth and richness of cultural and religious background, Jemisin’s world in this book reminds me of Jacqueline Carey’s world in the Kushiel’s Legacy series. Even the way she throws out the limiting frivolity of labeling people’s sexual preferences reminds me of Carey. You don’t have to call someone gay or bisexual or heterosexual when love and sex are not culturally restricted. I wish I didn’t feel like that was such a cool thing—because it means we’re so far from throwing out those labels in our own society. But it’s nice to escape to places where no one questions or cares or limits things. Attraction is attraction, love is love, sex is sex.

All that said, there aren’t actually any sex scenes in this book. I don’t want to mislead by talking about it so much. 🙂

There’s political intrigue, a fascinating system of magic that’s entwined with healing and dreaming, all set in a rich cultural system modeled on that of the ancient Egyptians. Jemisin’s writing is deep and thoughtful and exciting. This one is an excellent choice for lovers of fantasy fiction.

Dies the Fire

Post-apocalyptic fiction is a big deal for me. I’ve always thought that raising the stakes is the best way to see who a character truly is. On a small scale you could say that’s why I prefer YA over adult fiction so often—because for teenagers things are often perceived as life or death, even if “death” is only social suicide. Why do I prefer speculative fiction over realism? Same thing. Stakes are usually higher. Characters facing magic or new frontiers or intergalactic wars—bigger scale, higher stakes. Frodo can bring down this great force of evil if he just manages to walk to Mordor and throw a trinket into a volcano. One character, making all the difference.

So apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is great, because it rips away everything a character knows and loves, and we get to see what’s left. What they can make of themselves, when they have nothing.

Dies the Fire follows two strong protagonists who become leaders in a world Changed. Gunpowder doesn’t explode anymore. The laws of physics have changed. No electricity. No electronics, period.

I like Mike because he’s a bit of a hardass, and gets shit done while protecting his people. Juniper is great because she’s strong but yielding enough to be really likable. And, she’s Pagan. How cool is that? S M Stirling gets the details right, too, which really helps. No mis-representation of Paganism for the sake of Hollywood thrills here.

This first novel of the first trilogy of the novels of the Change (say that ten times fast) starts right at the Change itself, which is cool to witness through both our protagonists’ eyes. And for this particular apocalypse scenario, it’s better that we can watch the characters face the Change head on, rather than joining them years after the fact. Still, the novels could all be considered post-apocalyptic because they really deal more with the fallout of the Change than with the Change itself. Empires are built back up and go to war, that sort of thing.

I like Stirling’s writing style, too. He’s got plenty of details in there, writes good dialogue, and knows how to get us invested in these characters by showing us their flaws right alongside their strengths. I’ve read this first trilogy a few times now, and it’s definitely worth it. An excellent read for the post-apocalyptic novel fan, the avid reader who happens to be Pagan, and the speculative fiction reader who enjoys adult fiction with strong characterization and semi-epic storylines (seeing as the second trilogy follows the second generation).