The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The blurb on the front cover of this book by Neil Gaiman really sums it up nicely: “A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom.”

This book is like a combination of J M Barrie and Neil Gaiman, with generous heaps of The Phantom Tollbooth thrown in, and plenty of references/allusions/respectful nods to The Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Narnia, and any other fairy tale you can think up. It’s a delight to read, and surprised me by being dark and wicked at times, which is so fitting for a true fairy tale.

The narration style is definitely in line with Peter Pan, and the characters are closely modeled after Wonderland characters. There’s clever wordplay like you would expect from Norton Juster—a wyvern whose father is a Municipal Library so he’s really a wyverary, for example. It’s clever and sweet.

Parts of the story reminded me of The Magicians trilogy, which isn’t too surprising considering its roots in Narnia. The narration style lends itself to a flavoring of metafiction. Our protagonist is aware of other fairy stories that came before hers, and aware that she’s in her own story. But she’s never aware of the narrator, which is good because I’m not very fond of breaking the fourth wall. It pulls me right out of the characters and tells me I’m not them, however much I relate to them or want to be them. And a story someone else tells you is never as exciting as the story you’ve lived yourself.

Probably my only gripe—and it’s small enough that it hardly bears mentioning—is that the protagonist, September, has a companion named Saturday eventually, and their names are too similar, being long and both beginning with the letter S.

My favorite part came near the end, something that Saturday says to September. Clever, and sweet, and just a little terrifying and portentous.

There are a million places in this book where you want to hold on to what you just read. A sentence or a phrase that just rings beautiful and insightful, that seems to describe yourself better than you thought a story that wasn’t about you could possibly do. I very much enjoyed all those little starbursts of connection.

Before I picked up this book I thought the ship of her own making was, for some reason, a steampunk-worthy airship. It isn’t. I wasn’t disappointed. You won’t be either.

After reading the interview with the author at the back, I think Valente is clever and fun and the kind of person I’d love to get to know, because we could probably get on great as friends. I’m glad she wrote this book, and glad I got to read it. You should go read it, too. You won’t be sorry.

Allegiant

So, I think I was right about the direction the trilogy was headed in. This third book introduced a bunch of new characters who I could care less about. They don’t have a lot of depth or complexity, and we don’t spend enough time with them to get to know them.

The new setting is fairly boring, as it offers a lot less moving around and war-zone type action than in the previous two books. And the entire time it feels like Tris and Four and the others just came in halfway through someone else’s battle, and they take it up because there isn’t anything else left to fight for, and they were groomed to fight by their past experiences in the city.

In this one we see a greater disintegration of the relationship between Tris and Four, as well, one that was pretty good in books one and two. Now it feels played out and repetitive.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t think people should read these books. Or watch the movies. The first movie is actually pretty great, though the second one felt to me like it was dropping the ball majorly. I wouldn’t count these books as a waste of time, more like frustrated hopes. There was so much potential, and to watch it leach away as the trilogy progressed was just–disappointing.

I think I’d still love to read other work by Roth, though. Her writing is good, I just want to see her with a story that doesn’t peter out.

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.

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).

The Lost World

As far as sequels go, some readers might be disappointed to learn that The Lost World doesn’t follow Alan Grant as the protagonist. In my humble opinion, Alan would never be foolhardy enough to set foot on an island with dinosaurs again. Ian Malcolm, however, apparently is.

The setup is an interesting one, as Crichton forces us to focus on an enthusiastic scientist who believes he has discovered a “lost world,” an oasis untouched by time or humanity where dinosaurs actually still exist. As the reader, we are aware just as much as Ian Malcolm is that these are actually genetically engineered dinosaurs, apparently housed on the “back up” island Isla Sorna, instead of the resort island of Isla Nublar. We again travel with woefully unprepared and overly-confident characters as they discover how completely fucked humans actually are, when they try to control Nature in such an intimidating form. Where the raptors took the show in the first novel, the tyrannosaurs are the central dinos in this sequel.

Curiously, Crichton again includes two kids on the island. It’s strange, when Crichton obviously most loves the intellectual adults, so deserving of some bad karma after all their prideful posturing. As in the first novel, though, I think Crichton realized that he needed to amp up the suspense on the island. If it’s only adults who are either inherently bad people, or prideful people making bad decisions, then the reader might feel they deserve what comes to them if they’re eaten, maimed, or lost. The kids, however? Innocent kids don’t deserve to be eaten by dinosaurs. Their awe as they are clearly in the throes of their dinosaur phases helps bring the adult reader back to that sense of wonder, as well. If we are only looking at the dinosaurs as analytical scientists, we miss out on how amazing it would be to actually see a live dinosaur.

Reading The Lost World isn’t quite so essential as reading Jurassic Park, but it is still crafted with beautiful balance. Writers would benefit from learning about the pacing of a suspenseful story that still includes plenty of scientific fact. Considering the amount of background that needs to be present to support the believability of these circumstances, I never noticed Crichton falling prey to excessively boring info dumping. As far as page turners go, Crichton delivers as per usual.

Jurassic Park

I’ve had a pretty long love affair with Michael Crichton’s novels. There was a period as a teenager when I picked up everything I could find by him at the used bookstore. Many of my copies are still dog-eared, spine-cracked, disintegrating.

So reading Jurassic Park is like visiting an old friend. Sometimes you uncover some small tidbit about them that you hadn’t known before, but mostly you just bask in an appreciation of the richness of their character, the depth of their experiences. There are probably people out there who dislike Crichton’s writing, dismissing it as too “commercial.” As a speculative fiction writer myself, I obviously don’t suffer from that snobbery. There are novels that are better than others, though, in Crichton’s body of work. I particularly didn’t enjoy Next, and Airframe was thrilling but not very memorable. I remember Prey as being delightfully scary. Jurassic Park, however, carries this beautiful balance between thrill, suspense, and intellectual intrigue.

Crichton has a way of framing the science behind his concepts so that you think it’s entirely plausible. Speaking with a fellow alumni of my graduate program recently, we reached the conclusion that sometimes straight realistic fiction has an edge up by being based solely on what is possible. It requires a lot of research, but there’s a joy to be had from digging deep into an intellectual topic that is different from the joy of creating a fantastical world from the atoms up. Crichton makes you feel like you’re getting all the best parts of his research into a field of science that already exists. I suppose it comes from basing so much of it on methods or practices that do already exist, and that the wider public has heard of. But to stretch gene sequencing and cloning to the point where it is ready to be commercialized and capitalized on… In short, his imagination stretches that final yard and provides the high concept foundations that fascinate us all so much.

Anyone who’s seen the movie Jurassic Park can appreciate that high concept. Dinosaurs, walking the earth alongside humans. How cool! And with such a fantastic movie, it’s hard to imagine that the book could be just as good, or better (which happens so rarely). Part of the beauty of the movie is the richness of the characters. We have a very human connection to these people placed in such an extraordinary circumstance. Crichton’s novel is the birthplace of that. Some authors do concepts really well, some do plot, but Crichton manages to be good at concept AND suspenseful pacing AND rich and relatable characters in this one.

With such a fabulous cinematic translation available, many people might think it unnecessary to also read the novel if they haven’t already. I feel like that would be a mistake along the same lines as thinking you don’t have to read The Princess Bride because you’ve seen the movie. The novel adds a depth that a movie can’t possibly contain. As charismatic and wonderful as Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill are in their roles, Crichton’s characters rival that on the page. There’s nothing quite like reading one of Malcolm’s diatribes as he’s tripping on morphine. There’s something more in Ellie’s capable nature, an internalized scorn for misogyny that the screenwriters didn’t fully capture when they wrote her part for the movie.

When I hear that one of my writer friends hasn’t read Jurassic Park, I become one of those obnoxious people insisting that they are missing out, that their life can’t possibly be complete until they’ve done so. Missing out on Jurassic Park is different from missing out on something like Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games. Sure, if you enjoy stories, you might be satisfied with just the movie. If you have an appreciation for the intricate balance necessary to write a page-turning human interest thriller with a really cool foothold in scientific possibility, though, you need to read the novel.

Ready Player One

by Ernest Cline

I listened to the audiobook of Ready Player One through the OverDrive app on my phone.  I had no idea who Wil Wheaton was, but admired the way he handled the narration.  The different characters were distinct from each other; even the sounds of electronics and especially the Pac-Man game noises were done exceedingly well.

When I started listening to it, I wasn’t immediately hooked.  Our protagonist was a self-professed overweight kid spending most of his time in a beat-up van with distinctly unattractive surroundings (these being “stacks” of mobile homes positioned one on top of the other, in an hazardous impromptu apartment building that invited almost certain death by crushing).  This kid, Wade, spent all his time in the Oasis, an Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation.  He went to school in the Oasis, he interacted with his “friends” in the Oasis.  Thankfully, I didn’t really get any of those “beware of technology” vibes trying to convince us that social interaction will die out the more cool tech toys we have.  There was certainly a level of social commentary, in the vein of us neglecting the world (ie Nature) in favor of said tech toys, but you won’t find me arguing with that, so I was cool with its inclusion.  This novel didn’t feel like a moralizing story bent on making us put down our computers and phones and tablets.  Which is great, because novels with such blatant messages are generally pretty annoying.

So the basic premise revolves around this hunt for an Easter Egg, in a The Westing Game style hunt, albeit with a much broader setting.  Wade is intent on obtaining the three keys and passing through the three gates to find the Egg before anyone else does, thus obtaining the fortune and power of the creator of the Oasis, as set out in his last will and testament.  The level of infodumping in the beginning seemed tedious at first–it takes a long time to get the reader up to speed on what has happened to the world (and within the Oasis) from our year, 2014, to Wade’s current time, 2044.  Once the action really started, though, I had trouble pushing pause to do things like eat dinner with the fiance and take a shower before work.  The whole novel is rife with pop culture references that I actually understood, which is pretty rare for me (you should see me watch Gilmore Girls, having pretty much no clue what they’re referencing but loving it all the same).  It’s mostly 80s movies, games, and music, which, being born in 1990, I don’t know about all of it, but being a “nerd” in the sense that I enjoy movies and games and books (stories, in general), I recognized plenty.  That helped draw me in, and the characters easily did the rest.

I don’t want to spoil anything.  But I will say, in case it sways anyone, that giant robots come into play at one point.  I recognized the Eva Units and Gundams, though I didn’t know what Voltron was and had to ask the fiance.  Anyone of my generation will enjoy the story, but true video game nerds will find it irresistible.  D&D lovers will find plenty of references, and arcade games show up pretty often.

Speaking as a storyteller myself, I admire Cline’s ability to draw me in, to invest me in these characters and their surroundings.  I went on an enjoyable rollercoaster ride, trying to decide whether I loved or wasn’t so hot on the protagonist, and it’s a testament to Cline’s abilities that I stuck with the story, passionately, even when I wasn’t sure about whether or not I liked Wade or thought maybe he had some of the bad stuff coming to him.  Young Adult is always my favorite, so I might be biased in enjoying watching characters screw up and fumble things and try to figure out who the hell they are, but Cline does an amazing job of investing you in the story regardless.

I’ve been telling a lot of my friends to read this, and I’ll say here that it’s definitely not solely for a younger audience, though I would place it firmly in the YA category because the protagonist is a teenager.  Readers of any age would enjoy this, more so if they like video games, 80s movies and music, and characters that are well executed and realistic.