My quest to read more self-published books is mostly demonstrating to me that there is often no difference in quality between them and traditionally published books. In fact, in certain genres, it is much easier to find more ambitious or unusual books, of equal literary quality, in self-publishing.

I am tempted to say that this middle-grade book is more ambitious than most, but recently middle-grade seems to be getting more ambitious, while YA, overall, is getting less so.

It's divided into three timelines, which bleed into each other from fairly early on. In modern times, American Meredith is sent away from her beloved pregnant Lipizzan horse and her mother, who is recovering from cancer, to accompany her archaelogist aunt on a dig in Egypt. In ancient Egypt, Meritre, a singer in the temple of Amon, worries about her pregnant mother and the pharoah's daughter, who is sick with a mysterious plague. And in a cyberpunk future that has cured most diseases, Meru pursues her missing mother into a secret quarantine zone.

This novel reminded me of a childhood favorite, Mary Stolz's Cat in the Mirror, which also contrasted dual timelines, of the same soul reincarnated in ancient Egypt and modern New York. Tarr's book is more complex and ambitious. The three timelines are not merely compared and contrasted and paralleled, but directly affect each other.

The book starts a little slow, probably due to having to set up three plot lines rather than one, but becomes quite a page-turner by about the one-third mark. The themes are grief, times changing and times staying the same, the inevitability of death, and the equal inevitability of life going on: reincarnation, and birth, and life itself.

Satisfying and complex. I especially liked the pets of the three girls: a horse, a cat, and a half-insubstantial alien creature.

Note: The author is a friend, so I'm probably not that objective.

Living in Threes
This is a very difficult book to review. It's a sequel to Anderson's Ultraviolet, which had some nice twists. Though the cover copy suggests that Quicksilver can be read on its own, it spoils every plot twist in Ultraviolet, starting from the very first page. (I also think it would be pretty difficult to follow without having read Ultraviolet first. In fact, I found some plot points difficult to follow because it had been so long since I had read Ultraviolet.)

They're both good books. But if you have any interest in reading either, start with Ultraviolet and don't even read the premise of Quicksilver - literally everything about it is a spoiler for Ultraviolet.

I am going to do two levels of spoiler cuts. The first level will be spoilery for Ultraviolet, the second for Quicksilver.

giant Ultraviolet spoilers )

giant Quicksilver spoilers )


Clever YA sf in the old-school vein of "work through all the implications of a premise."

Teenage Ephraim finds a "magic coin" which can alter reality, and uses it improve his life: make his mom not an alcoholic, make his crush like him, etc. However, each change creates snowballing changes, often of a monkey's paw nature.

Without getting into moderate spoilers for the nature of the premise (revealed about a third of the way in) about all I can say is that yes, it does deal with the moral implications of "make someone like you," but other implications aren't dealt with as well. As a whole, the novel is solid and gripping but not quite inspired; the second half moves away from extrapolation and into action, and the extrapolation was more interesting.

Read more... )

Fair Coin
Come for the apocalypse.
Stay for cupcakes.
Die for love.

Solid, inventive, well-characterized YA science fiction. By “science fiction,” I mean “cool powers and alien invasion,” not “paper-thin dystopia in which the government’s main concern appears to be micro-managing the love triangles of teenagers.”

Madeleine, an aspiring artist, visits Sydney to paint her cousin Tyler’s portrait. Tyler is a famous cross-dressing actor, and probably my favorite character in the book despite his comparatively small part.

Her plans are stymied by an alien invasion. Starry towers rise up from the cities, and dust falls from the sky. Some people are given powers, others strange vulnerabilities, and still yet others are possessed by aliens. Stars shine from Madeleine’s skin, and she gets together with other teenagers to learn to use their powers and try to save the world.

The opening sequence, in which Madeleine tries to escape from a wrecked subway station, gets the book off to a great start. I stalled out for a while in a slow sequence in which the teenagers are interminably holed up in a hotel, but the story picks up enormously after that.

Host has a lot of respect for teenagers, and I liked the unabashedly heroic tone of the story. Rather than taking the apocalypse as an excuse for an orgy of rape and cannibalism, Host’s characters band together, form a community, explore their new relationships, take the time to make plans that make sense, and risk their lives for a cause they believe in. It’s engaging, uplifting, and, by the end, surprisingly moving.

This isn’t a flawless novel. Some events are confusing or poorly set-up, some of the dialogue is clunky, and I read the explanation of the alien invasion three times and I still don’t understand it. Too many characters are introduced in too-quick succession, and I didn’t realize that “Emily” and “Millie” were the same person with a nickname until I got to the cast of characters at the end. The sequence at the end with Gavin was really confusing, too. The book could have used one more rewrite.

However, so could at least half of the professionally edited YA novels I’ve read recently, many of which have glaring continuity errors, nonsensical motivations, ridiculous worldbuilding, unlikable characters, and, often, proofreading errors and poor formatting. In some cases, they are nothing but a string of action sequences strung together by plot holes.

And All the Stars isn’t Code Name Verity. But it’s imaginative, well-thought-out, and heartfelt. I will definitely read more of Host’s books.

Giant spoilers lurk below.

Read more... )

And All the Stars. Only $4.99!

Host self-publishes because of the glacial pace of traditional publishing, which got one of her novels stuck in review for TEN YEARS.

But there may be other reasons as well, which have nothing to do with the quality of her writing. Again, I'm not saying that she's one of the absolute best YA writers out there. But based on this, she's certainly one of the better ones. And when I say "better ones," I mean "compared to all the YA novels I've been reading that come out from major publishers," not "compared to the slush pile."

Speaking only of American publishing, which is the only publishing I know anything about, I can see why this novel would be a hard sell. It is not set in America, it involves aliens, and the tone and style are different from most YA sf I've read recently. (And there are gay characters, though in the supporting cast.) For a first-time author, those could be insurmountable obstacles.

M. C. A. Hogarth has a thought-provoking article on those issues. Maybe the audience for books about middle-aged female Hispanic space Marines is small. Maybe the audience for psychic Australian teenagers fighting aliens is small. But I'm glad that e-publishing makes it possible now for those books to find their audience.
I have often had this book recommended to me as a small classic of YA sf in the subcategories of post-apocalyptic, psychic kids, and Australian. It was written in 1987, when there wasn't quite such a glut of psychic kid and post-apocalyptic YA as accumulated later on. But it was still unimpressive.

As is explained in prologue of infodump, after a nuclear war, mutations and science were banned. Mutants can be executed or exiled if caught.

Teenage Elspeth is a telepathic mutant who can read minds, force people to do her bidding, and communicate with animals. She also has other extremely powerful abilities which are revealed later, when it's convenient for her to be able to unlock doors and kill people with her brain. Despite these abilities, her family has been executed and she is in a precarious position, under threat of death if her talents are discovered. Her brother, a teenage total jerk, has a somewhat higher status for reasons I forget and is not very helpful to her.

She ends up exiled to a prison/lab/boarding house for teenage mutants. There she is forced to slave in the kitchens, while sinister experiments are going on off-page. This section occupies about two-thirds of the book, and it felt like absolutely nothing was going on.

I was mostly bored by the book. Elspeth has very little personality. In fact, the only character with personality is a stray cat. Though a summary of events would make it seem like exciting things are happening, they are often narrated rather than shown, and are so underdeveloped that the sense is that nothing is happening. Dullsville.

Obernewtyn: The Obernewtyn Chronicles 1
I’m catching up on reviews; I read this some time last month. This is a bit unfortunate, because I enjoyed it while I read it, and if I’d reviewed it immediately afterward, I would have been more positive. One month later, I’m finding it un-memorable, which is not what I want from a Vorkosigan book.

In other ways, too, it wasn’t what I wanted. I always liked Ivan as a character, and what I probably would have liked best would be something with a tone along the lines of the early Miles books – funny with serious undertones, or serious with lots of funny moments – like The Warrior’s Apprentice or The Vor Game. I would have loved to see Bujold take Ivan a little more seriously, and have him wrestle with taking himself a little more seriously. Alternately, I would have enjoyed a pure light-hearted romp like Cetaganda or Ethan of Athos.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance had a few good serious moments, and it had some excellent light-hearted romping. But it was embedded in a lot of low-conflict, low-stakes, low-emotion, low-intensity scenes hanging around Barrayar. I found this especially frustrating because I kept seeing how a scene or plot point could have played out in a more interesting way, and then it often didn’t.

I did enjoy reading this, so the review is more grumpy than my actual experience of the book. The first quarter or so, on Komarr, was pretty great. Especially the scene with the groats. I also loved the offering to the dead, and the conversation where Tej and Rish talk over their problems and keep coming to the conclusion that they could probably be solved by someone having sex with Byerly.

My issues with this book come down to why I love Bujold’s earlier books. They tend to have very intense feelings and high stakes, whether emotional or physical. This book had low-key emotions and low stakes. It had some good comic scenes, but was too slow-paced to work as pure comedy.

The issue of stakes also applies to comedy, as a lot of comedy only works if the characters are extremely, extremely worried that something will go wrong, and are putting tons of effort into ensuring that it won’t, or trying to fix it if it does. A lot of this book would have been funnier if the characters had been more frantic.

Spoilers below.

Read more... )

Please feel free to put spoilers in comments.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (Vorkosigan Saga)
In an alternate future America, everyone is born with two souls in a single body. They are given two names, like the novel’s protagonists, Eva and Addie. But by about age five, one of the personalities fades away—effectively, it dies. The rare “hybrid” children, who grow older with both personalities intact, are considered a menace to society and are whisked away, never to be seen again. The “multiple personalities are banned and the government controls hybrids” premise is not given a detailed explanation, but the reason for the ban is at least given a justification with slightly more substance than the usual “because.”

Eva and Addie seemed on track to become hybrids when they were children. But, realizing that this would doom them, they instead pretended that Eva had faded and died. In fact, the novel is narrated by Eva, who is very much alive. However, she has lost the ability to move their shared body, and exists only as a secret presence, able to communicate with Addie, but with no one else.

This intriguing YA dystopia is both promising and disappointing. It is far better-written than average, has a genuinely clever premise, and avoids a number of stupid tropes which seem almost obligatory in YA dystopias. The unusual choice of narrator— Eva, who lives within Addie’s body— is quite compelling, and their shared existence and peculiar dilemma is handled with a touching emotional realism.

The first third or so of this novel, which simply explores Eva and Addie’s situation, is excellent. However, after that, they spend most of the rest of the novel locked up in a government facility with other hybrid kids. The story becomes much more conventional, moving from an intimate exploration of identity under strange circumstances to a typical “teenagers learn that their dystopia is a dystopia.” Zhang is excellent at little emotional moments, but not so good at action sequences; the book moves away from emotional moments and toward action sequences, to its detriment.

Her choice of plot doesn’t serve her premise as well as it could; it probably needed to be smaller and more character-focused, or else broader and more about social implications. The second two-thirds of the book rest in an in-between place, no longer intimate but without showing much more of the wider world. Also, considering that the entire premise is about two souls in one body, it would have been good if any of the hybrids beside Addie and Eva actually had two souls with noticeably different personalities.

That being said, Zhang is a talented writer, and the premise really is great. I would check out the second book to see if it focuses more on being a double soul, and less on "dystopian governments are bad."

What's Left of Me: The Hybrid Chronicles, Book One
Malinda Lo’s latest novel opens with birds falling dead from the sky. Teenage Reese Holloway and her crush object/debate partner, David Li, are caught in a strange near-apocalypse as all over the world, flocks of birds crash into airplanes. Unable to get a flight home from their debate, they rent a car and try to drive back. After adventures which I won’t spoil, they make it back to San Francisco, where life has gone more or less back to normal… except for their strange new abilities, gaps in their memories, and the men in black who keep following them around. Reese meets a cute, mysterious girl, Amber, and finds that she isn’t as straight as she had thought. But that’s only the beginning of her discoveries…

Adaptation is quite different from Lo's Ash, a fairytale retelling, and Huntress, a quest fantasy. I liked it the best of the three, partly because so many elements of Adaptation suit my tastes, but more because it has an emotional immediacy that the other two didn’t quite reach. The setting, from apocalyptic freeways in Nevada to a lesbian club in San Francisco, is as vividly depicted as the characters’ feelings. The structure is distinctly three-act: action-packed beginning, long leisurely slow build of a middle, action-packed climax. I enjoyed all three, but you will probably like the book more if you know going in that the whole thing isn’t the wild ride of the beginning.

It’s old-school science fiction given new life by Lo’s gift for depicting moment-to-moment physical and emotional sensations, especially those of sexual attraction, and by her likable cast of characters, who are diverse in a natural-feeling, realistic way. Adaptation is built from familiar tropes, though ones currently extremely rare in YA, but is executed beautifully. Imagine an episode of the X-Files – an early one, back when it was still good – done as a sensual YA novel with a bisexual heroine and a love triangle that doesn’t make you want to throw things. If that sounds good to you, you will almost certainly enjoy this novel immensely.

It doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, exactly, but it’s definitely one half of a complete story. The sequel will be out next year. I intend to buy it in hardcover.


Read more... )
rachelmanija: (Godchild: flapping embryo)
( Oct. 3rd, 2012 11:31 am)
I found a fascinating blog entry by Rahul Kanakia, the guy who wrote the bedbugs-and-squatters story, with a gay teenage Indian hero (yay!), for Diverse Energies. (I see elsewhere on the site that "I'm currently shopping a gay-themed YA novel -- set in a dystopian Washington, D.C. -- to agents." I hope it sells. Depressing or not, I would read it.)

The sly humor in his story also comes through in his post, but that's not why I'm linking it. It's about how he got into the anthology in the first place. He was not solicited for a dystopian story, but for "an action-oriented SF story with a teen protagonist who had some kind of diversity."

He adds, "Actually, no one ever told me (when I was writing a story for it) that it was going to be marketed as an anthology of dystopian stories. I wonder if that’s because they just assumed my story would be dystopian (which it was, of course) or if everyone else also turned in dystopian stories and they just decided to roll with it, marketing-wise."

In comments, anthology editor Tobias Buckell notes, "In the YA market they’ve decided anything that looks SF is ‘dystopian’ because ‘SF’ is like a bad word, so if there is a way to shoehorn the word dystopian on the cover it seems to end up there."

Regarding Diverse Energies, it intrigues me that, when given the guidelines Kanakia quotes, almost every single author wrote a genuinely dystopian story - a story in which the world is objectively awful, oppressive, and/or doomed. (Exception: Tempest Bradford. The other two non-quite-dystopian stories were reprints, not stories written for that prompt.)

This is not just about marketing, but about perception. Buckell could have just as easily received a bunch of non-dystopian stories, in which the world was not horrible, and slapped "dystopian" on the cover to satisfy the demands of marketing.

But in fact, not a single author read the prompt "action-oriented sf with a teen hero and diversity" and wrote a space opera, a story about teens meeting aliens, a non-horrific future world like Nnedi Okorafor's biotech wonderland, a story about mutant or psychic or uploaded or immortal or robot or alien teens, or anything that could not be very easily and accurately classified as a dystopia. (Again, exception for Bradford, who wrote an intriguing alternate realities story with dystopian elements.)

I see some circularity going on here, not merely regarding this particular anthology, but perhaps in YA as a whole. All science fiction is labeled "dystopia," whether it is or not. Actual dystopian fiction is popular. Writers begin to assume that "science fiction" means "dystopia," so when they get a request for science fiction, they write a dystopia. Non-dystopian stories are harder to sell, and so don't make as many appearances.

And so, the fictional future, at least as far as teen sf is concerned, is incredibly bleak.

Too bad! I don't much like dystopias, or the sort of post-apocalyptic stories that are about cannibal rape gangs and mass slaughter. I like post-apocalyptics that are about a transformed and marvelous and terrible landscape (like Railsea or Nnedi Okorafor's books), space opera, other planets with different cultures and aliens, and mutants. I like to think that the future will be different rather than doomed.

As far as my own personal tastes go, the future of my YA sf reading looks dystopian indeed.
An anthology of dystopian YA short stories with a focus on diversity, ie, most of the protagonists are not white.

As a whole, this anthology is not much like most current YA dystopian novels, which are generally about naïve privileged white girls slowly coming to realize that their “the government controls everything” society actually sucks, while navigating a love triangle. The characters in this anthology are often aware from the get-go that everything sucks, and the central problem is generally not an over-controlling government, but a devastated environment, poverty, and the haves grinding the have-nots beneath their feet.

The result is more realistic and less paper-thin, but also quite depressing. Few of these teenagers are trying to save their world, but only to scratch out a few more days for themselves and their loved ones in a world which is clearly already doomed. With two possible exceptions, no one makes any difference at all to anyone beyond themselves or a handful of people in their immediate surroundings. (I say “possible” because there are two stories in which characters make an effort, but the story ends before we learn whether or not they succeed in terms of the larger picture.)

Sure, it wouldn’t be realistic for teenagers to save the world singlehandedly… but I don’t read science fiction for realism. Also, in real life people do make large changes collectively. A few more stories in which the protagonist is part of a larger effort to save or even improve the world would have been nice. (There is one story in which that's the case, Tempest Bradford's.)

I did really like some of the stories. But I would recommend reading a story or two here and there, as you feel like it. If you read the entire anthology from start to finish, the grimdark is overwhelming.

“The Last Day” by Ellen Oh. An alternate history of WWII set in Japan comes out… extremely similar to real history, so far as the main characters are concerned. Maybe the point was that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Otherwise, it’s a straightforward “war is bad and children suffer horribly” story, all the way down to its awesomely depressing conclusion. If you’re disturbed by graphic atom bomb scenes (I am) this might be one to skip. I would not have selected this as the story to open the anthology – it’s the darkest in the whole batch, and that's saying a lot.

“Freshee’s Frogurt” by Daniel H. Wilson. Oral history of robots run amuck, much along the lines of World War Z. A robot attacks two employees in a frozen yogurt shop, and there’s a bloody battle. That’s it. This was an excerpt from the novel Robopocalypse, which may explain how slight and unfinished it felt, but on the other hand it didn’t leave me wanting more. On the positive side, it’s only depressing in the sense that its space could have been given to a better story. In fact, it’s probably supposed to be funny in a hipster-ironic mode. (I did not find it funny.)

“Uncertainty Principle” by K. Tempest Bradford. A young girl notices reality shifting around her, but nobody else does. Over the years, the President changes, wars break out and are erased from time, and her best friend vanishes as if she had never existed. This extremely intense and existentially horrifying set-up turns into a more standard action-based science fiction story about halfway through. The whole thing is well-written but I liked the first half much more. It probably needed to be longer to give the second half the same emotional weight as the first. This one is more bittersweet than depressing.

“Pattern Recognition” by Ken Liu. Kids in an orphanage are told that they’ve been rescued from a hellish world outside, and are made to play video games all day. Very good prose; plausible but predictable story. There’s a really jarring, confusing transition right before the climax, possibly exacerbated by the poor formatting of the version I read (an e-book via Netgalley.) Moderately depressing.

“Gods of Dimming Light” by Greg van Eekhout. Alone among the stories, this is fantasy, not science fiction, and so reads more oddly than it probably would have in a more fantasy-geared anthology. In a doomed and dying world, a boy of Indonesian descent finds a connection to the other side of his heritage – his descent from Odin! The ancient Norse theme of the brave fight against inevitable doom meshes powerfully with the modern apocalyptic setting.

This was one of my favorites, mostly because of the ending. Read more... ) I didn't find this one depressing, but that was purely because the tone was heroic/tragic. Everyone's still doomed.

“Next Door” by Rahul Kanakia. The haves have gotten so plugged in to VR that they barely notice squatters living in their houses. A boy and his boyfriend search for a squat that isn’t bedbug-infested, and tangle with a family of haves that aren’t as out of touch as most. This story made me itch. Literally. It’s a black comedy and quite clever. And yes. Everyone is probably doomed. Including, quite possibly, Read more... )

“Good Girl” by Malinda Lo. Alone in the collection, this was an X has been banned and the government controls X story. (Interracial procreation is banned and the government controls marriage.) Ironically, it was my favorite of the original stories in the collection – sexy, well-written, well-paced, believable, and even with a somewhat hopeful ending. A biracial girl who can pass meets another biracial girl who’s living underground – literally and metaphorically. Lo is fantastic at depicting sexual attraction in a hot but non-cheesy way. The characterization is good, too. Great last line. I would read a whole book of this.

“A Pocket Full of Dharma” by Paolo Bacigalupi. A scarred, disabled, half-starved plague survivor leaves his village to become a beggar in a future Chinese city in the hope that things will be better there. Spoiler: they aren’t. Lots of colorful details of the setting, but I have a low gross-out threshold for descriptions of bodily fluids, and I ended up unable to finish this one.

“Blue Skies” by Cindy Pon. A have-not boy kidnaps a have girl in an environmentally devastated future Taiwan, in the hope of getting her wealthy family to pay a ransom. Very well-observed details, and a poignant relationship given just enough room to breathe. In another world, those two might have been lovers or friends… but this is not that world. The tone is more wistful than depressing, but the world as a whole is probably doomed.

“What Arms to Hold” by Rajan Khanna. Indian children are slave labor in a mine… and the details are even more grim than one would expect from that thumbnail description. Well-written and with a surprisingly hopeful ending, but most of the story is excruciatingly depressing. Appropriately so, given the subject matter. But still.

“Solitude” by Ursula K. Le Guin. A reprint from The Birthday of the World. A fantastic, non-grim story – there’s even some funny lines – about a future anthropologist who goes to a planet with her two young children to study the ways of a culture that seems to have no community. The mother and older son learn a lot about the culture; the young daughter becomes part of it. Can a culture really be based on solitude? A fascinating, moving, beautifully written, well-characterized work of anthropological science fiction.

I was puzzled at first as to why it was in this collection, as I would have never thought of that culture as a dystopia. Then I realized that while the daughter sees it as her home, and sees all the positive aspects (as well as the negative ones – she’s only naïve when she’s very young), the mother sees it as a dystopia. The idea that the same place can be utopia for one person and a dystopia for another is unique to this story, in this collection: it’s the only one set in a world that isn’t objectively, unequivocally horrible. No wonder it’s the only story that, while it has some sad and dark moments, isn’t depressing at all. No one is doomed! It was such a relief!

There are some excellent stories in the anthology, and not every single one is depressing. But the cumulative effect is awfully grim. This is purely my personal preference, and I do realize that dystopian sf is not a cheery genre, but I would love to see a diversity-focused YA anthology that’s a bit more fun.

Diverse Energies
In China Mieville's wildly inventive science fiction/fantasy take on Moby Dick, earth and water are reversed. No one may step on the terrifying land lest they immediately be munched by some predatory creature tunneling up from below. Luckily, the railsea is covered in train tracks and traversed by a multitude of trains - including the moler train Medes, which hunts giant moles and is captained by a woman obsessed with the great ivory-colored mole that bit off her arm.

This was probably the most purely enjoyable book I've read all year. That being said, it's a love-it-or-hate-it novel - it has a very distinctive and odd prose style, bizarre (awesomely bizarre!) worldbuilding, and lots of metafictional authorial intrusions into the text. But if you've always liked the sound of China Mieville's worldbuilding but don't like grimdark, this is the book for you - all the worldbuilding, none of the grim. (Spoiler: the cute pet survives.) Also, you don't need to have read Moby Dick (I haven't) but a number of things are much funnier if you know the general outlines of the story.

Railsea is packed full of cool details, fascinating beasts, and sense of wonder. The worldbuilding is wacky but logical on its own terms, and the world keeps unfolding and unfolding, revealing more and more secrets and marvels. The ending is the logical outcome of everything that came before, and perfectly so: a succession of satisfying revelations leading up to a final image that made me grin until my face nearly cracked. (Not the thing about the bill, that fell flat; I mean everything else.) Tons of little details which at first seem annoying (like the use of & instead of "and") or throwaways turn out to be there for a purpose - worldbuilding, thematic, or just a running joke. (I cannot believe that Mieville actually managed to sell me on the ampersand, which annoyed me immensely when I began reading.)

Railsea repeatedly made me laugh out loud, sometimes at the author stepping in to give the readers a head-up about the plot, sometimes from events in the story itself. And though the hero is a boy, it has tons of women and girls in the supporting cast - so many that it made me realize just how unusual that is in most science fiction novels.

I didn't like Mieville's other kids' book, Un Lun Dun, but I absolutely loved Railsea. Highly recommended. I suggest that you give it some time if the style and metafiction put you off at first - it took me a little while to warm up to it, but I ended up falling in love. I would also advise against knowing too much going in. A lot of the fun is discovering all the little details for yourself. Also, be aware that the beginning, though not super-graphic, is gorier than the rest of the book.

By the way, this did not read at all YA to me, so also don't be put off if you don't generally like YA. It's more of a playful adult novel with a young protagonist. Though I could also see it being a good read-aloud.


Feel free to put spoilers in comments.
I am delighted to announce that Stranger, the post-apocalyptic YA novel that I co-wrote with Sherwood Smith, will be published by Viking (Penguin Group) in Winter 2014.

The acquiring editor is Sharyn November. I have wanted to work with her ever since we met twelve years ago, at World Fantasy Con in Corpus Christi, Texas. She said that she was reprinting classic children's fantasies. I grabbed her by the shoulder and said, no doubt with a mad gleam in my eye, "Lloyd Alexander's Westmark! Elizabeth Wein's The Winter Prince! Patricia McKillip's The Changeling Sea" She smiled and said, "We're doing all three. Got any other suggestions?" Sharyn, thank you so much for championing our book.

Also, thank you very much, Eddie Gamarra and Ellen Goldsmith-Vein of the Gotham Group!

Yes, it's the Yes Gay YA book. Here's a little more about it:

Many generations ago, a mysterious cataclysm struck the world. Governments collapsed and people scattered, to rebuild where they could. A mutation, "the Change,” arose, granting some people unique powers. Though the area once called Los Angeles retains its cultural diversity, its technological marvels have faded into legend. "Las Anclas" now resembles a Wild West frontier town… where the Sheriff possesses superhuman strength, the doctor can warp time to heal his patients, and the distant ruins of an ancient city bristle with deadly crystalline trees that take their jewel-like colors from the clothes of the people they killed.

Teenage prospector Ross Juarez’s best find ever – an ancient book he doesn’t know how to read – nearly costs him his life when a bounty hunter is set on him to kill him and steal the book. Ross barely makes it to Las Anclas, bringing with him a precious artifact, a power no one has ever had before, and a whole lot of trouble.

There are five main characters. One is Ross, who knows all about prospecting, fighting, and desert survival, but hasn't had to interact with other human beings on a regular basis since he was twelve. The others are teenagers from Las Anclas: Mia Lee, introverted genius and town oddball, who can design six different weapons before breakfast; Yuki Nakamura, an aspiring prospector who is dying to get out of his small town and explore the rest of the world; Jennie Riley, Changed telekinetic and over-achiever, who must choose between becoming the teacher of the one-room schoolhouse or joining the elite military Rangers; and Felicite Wolfe, the Mayor's narcissistic daughter, who likes to spy on people with the help of her pet mutant rat.

And yes. Yuki is still gay. So is his boyfriend, Paco Diaz, the drummer in the town band. And Brisa Preciado, who has the power to make rocks explode, is still dating shy Becky Callahan, who works after school waiting tables at the saloon. As you can see, this isn't so much a "gay book" or a "straight book" as an ensemble book.

Sherwood and I wanted to write something fun and exciting, with adventure and romance and mutant powers and martial arts and a vivid sense of place. And we wanted it to be about the people who are so often left out of those sorts of books: Latinos and African-Americans, Jews and Asian-Americans, gay boys and lesbian girls, multiracial teenagers and teenagers with physical and mental disabilities. We didn't do this to fulfill some imaginary quota, but because we wanted to write about teenagers like the real ones we know, the real ones in Los Angeles, the real ones we were.

We hope that, however flawed it may be, our novel will make even a few of those teenagers happy.

This is a very personal project for me. People often ask me if I'm ever going to write about coming back to America, after spending most of my childhood in an ashram in India. In a metaphoric sense, this is that book. To tell the story of what it was like for Ross to come to Las Anclas, I drew upon my own experiences of stumbling into an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar rules, beset by memories I couldn't bear to recall and reactions I didn't understand, longing for connection but with no idea of how to relate to people.

Stranger is a post-apocalyptic adventure, not an issue novel. But all stories have their genesis somewhere, and for me, it was my wish to say, "It's okay. You're okay. You'll get better. You'll make friends. You'll fall in love. You can be a hero." I hope it finds its way to the people to whom it will speak.

If you would like to be notified when the book actually comes out, please comment to this post to say so. I will reply to your comment when the book is published, and you should get an email notification. Or you can leave your email address in a comment. (I can copy the address, then delete or screen the comment.) If you're not on LJ/DW, you can comment anonymously (or email me) with an email address where I can reach you.

Incidentally, I am putting out an e-book anthology of my short stories and poetry in a couple months. If you'd like to be notified when that's available, please comment to say so.

If you're interested in reading our book, you may also be interested in this list of YA science fiction and fantasy with major LGBTQ characters. And here's a list of YA fantasy and science fiction with protagonists who aren't white..

I would be happy to answer any questions you might have, about the novel or anything else.

Finally, please feel free to Tweet, link to, or otherwise promulgate this post. Lots of people mentioned during Yes Gay YA that they would like to know what happened to this book, but the vast majority probably don't read my blog.
After the apocalypse, persecuted gay lovers fight homophobia and dragons!

The mysterious sudden climate change called the Ice descended about eighty years prior to the beginning of this book. 17-year-old David's 100-year-old grandmother barely remembers what things were like before; the government is still hanging on and handing out precious seed wheat; the culture is reminiscent of the Old West but the social mores are reminiscent of the 1950s, due to a resurgence in religious and social conservatism immediately post-Ice.

The best things about this novel were the atmosphere and the voice. (This is the third book in a row I've reviewed with that note, isn't it?) The cold is palpable, David's voice is likable and unique, and the small town and its culture are very well-imagined: Little Town on the Prairie after the apocalypse.

The first third or half of the novel, in which David slowly introduces us to his world, is very strong. A young new healer, Callan, shows up to help the old one. In David's eyes, Callan is hot, sophisticated, bringing a whole new world of intelligence and culture in the form of precious books, and hot. I am a total sucker for the "what are these strange feelings?" trope, and David's awakening sexuality is sensitively depicted.

Problems set in at about the one-third mark, and the same one continues all the way through: amazingly stupid decisions. In a world in which doors have latches and homosexuality is punishable by death, I find it mind-boggling that the town healer, who commonly has people suddenly rushing into his office due to medical emergencies, would get a blow-job in his office without latching his door first. I also find it boggling that a townsperson would give him one under those circumstances. Sure enough, someone walks in, and both are immediately jailed.

This sort of thing is especially annoying because other aspects of the book continue to be very good. I'd be lulled along by the sweet romance and well-done scenes of post-apocalyptic life, and then wham! Astounding stupidity!

Also, the last half-to-third borders on grimdark. Warning for child harm. Major spoilers below.

Read more... )

A Strong and Sudden Thaw

There is a sequel, but Goodreads reviews suggest that it's excruciatingly depressing. I think I'll give it a miss. But I did enjoy the first book, albeit with caveats, and it has a satisfying ending.
My case studies on disappointing revelations to fascinating mysteries:

Gateway, by Frederik Pohl. Though dated and likely to offend, in purely artistic terms this is a perfect little novel. Earth is slowly dying of overpopulation and ecological damage, but humans found an abandoned fleet of alien starships, which can accommodate no more than five passengers. If you fiddle with the computer until a valid destination pops up and hit a button, the ship will go to that destination. The catch is that humans have no idea what the destination actually is until they get there, so they are liable to fly the ship into a star, go so far that their food runs out before they even arrive, etc. Most voyages discover nothing of value; lots return with all the crew dead, or never come back at all. But a few strike it rich. In two alternating timelines, the protagonist, who struck it rich on an otherwise disastrous voyage, recounts his time at Gateway and, back on Earth, explores the depths of his own psyche with a computerized psychologist. The novel stands completely on its own. No sequels were necessary.

Gateway is about mystery: the mystery of the ships, the mystery of shipping out for an unknown destination (metaphorically, life), the mystery of one's own motivations. These are not mysteries that can be completely solved; the mystery is the point. The sequels produce the most mundane and dull explanations possible.

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, is an sf-nal Canterbury Tales in which seven travelers share their origin stories, all involving mysterious events. This is a bit different in that while it also sets up fascinating mysteries, they are the sort for which one does want explanations. But one wants interesting explanations. The Fall of Hyperion is a mixed bag, with some good ideas but some not. It also defangs spooky beings who should have remained spooky. Subsequent sequels continue explaining and explaining, with explanations that make increasingly less sense, until it explains the entire cosmos with the stupidest explanation possible. Ybir YVGRENYYL ubyqf gur havirefr gbtrgure. Yvgrenyyl. Zbyrphyne obaqf ner znqr bs ybir. (Be cbffvoyl dhnaghz fgevatf. Fnzr cevapvcyr, gubhtu.) (Decipher with

And then there's The Other Wind, by Ursula Le Guin, in which the main thrust of the story is explaining and solving the world of the dead, which was never set up as a mystery or a problem and did not require any explanation or solution. (Yes, it was depressing. But in a mythic way which fit the tone of the earlier books.)

Religious/spiritual/mystical explanations for physical phenomena are generally unsatisfying in science fiction novels. It can work in short stories, where less build-up is required, or, of course, in mainstream novels about religious people, in which one expects something like that.

What other novels fell prey to unsatisfying explanations, whether or not any explanations were even necessary? Which novels managed solutions that lived up to the mystery, and didn't destroy the sense of wonder?
Though the title made me imagine a comic historical romance, this is actually an action-packed YA space opera with tons of sometimes wacky yet internally consistent worldbuilding. Yes! YA space opera, a genre which I had thought was extinct. I cheer its return and hope that there will be more.

Cover copy: You'd think being a Prince in a vast intergalactic empire would be about as good as it gets. Particularly when Princes are faster, smarter, and stronger than normal humans. Not to mention being mostly immortal.

But it isn't as great as it sounds. Princes need to be hard to kill—as Khemri learns the minute he becomes one—for they are always in danger. Their greatest threat? Other Princes. Every Prince wants to become Emperor, and the surest way to do so is to kill, dishonor, or sideline any potential competitor.

The surface story is pell-mell action, with Khemri madly dashing from one cool location to the next with help from his psychic ninja assassin servants, getting in lavishly imagined duels and space battles and narrow escapes. It's a bit reminiscent of a video game: lots of video games rely on cool worldbuilding and imaginative weapons and intriguing aliens as much as they do on things blowing up.

But what's most striking about the book is the sly undermining of the trope of the badass young hero with a destiny. Khemri is certainly badass. He's also a total jerk: smug, clueless, arrogant, and so detached from humanity as to border on sociopathic. Since the book is narrated in retrospect, after Khemri has (at least somewhat) learned better, he helpfully comments on what a jackass he used to be. This is mostly played for comedy, both light and dark, and I did find it pretty funny.

The narration, with its sparkling gloss over very dark undertones, matches the setting, which is one of the darkest, creepiest Evil Empires I've ever read, with virtually everything done by mind-controlled servants who are used for everything from courtesans to cannon fodder to living furniture, without anyone ever - including even the present, somewhat more humanized Khemri - thinking that might be wrong.

This is an odd duck of a book, slight in some ways but quite ambitious in others, made of pieces that don't all fit together. It overall reads like it's aimed at the young end of YA, but Khemri has casual sex with mind-controlled courtesans of both genders (this is mentioned, but not shown). When he later has a real relationship, it's assumed that when you're in a romantic relationship, it's automatic that you have sex. While this is often true in real life, I rarely see it presented that way in YA.

The chasm between tone and subject is signposted enough that it's clearly deliberate, but never quite resolved. Khemri learns better... but not that much better. Perhaps that's the point. I wonder if the younger readers will get that?

A Confusion of Princes
"Deathworld" centers on Jason dinAlt, a professional gambler who uses his somewhat erratic psionic abilities to tip the odds in his favor. [...] In a fit of ennui, he decides to accompany planetary ambassador Kerk to his home, despite being warned that it is the deadliest world ever colonized by humans...DEATHWORLD!

I idly opened this the other night. Next thing I knew, it was several hours later and I had finished it. I'm not saying this is the best book ever, but it has quite a lot of readability. Especially if you at all enjoy pulp fiction.

The world of DOOM, where everything is attacking you at all times, is a great invention, and the first third, in which it gets talked up and then introduced, is the best part. The rest of the book, while satisfactorily adventurous and producing a reasonably clever explanation for why its so doomful, is a bit of a come-down. It's a slick, fast, breezy tale, but with the concept of a world in which absolutely everything is deadly, I wanted more atmosphere.

I don't expect writers other than C. L. Moore to be C. L. Moore (one of the best at evoking creepy deadly places where the very grass will suck your blood), but I did hope for more description of exactly how everything is deadly and what it looks like. Instead, it's mostly "A thing just leaped at me! Whew, I shot it. It moved too fast for me to get a good look at it but now I can -- uh-oh, another thing! Whew, shot that one. Now another thing! No time to look at any of them because here comes a BIGGER THING! And a thing with tentacles! Fangs! Yikes! More things with tentacles! Get the explosives!"

Fun but doesn't really live up to the delicious premise.

Deathworld (99 cents on Kindle, including sequels.)
Sponsored by Sartorias, for the same cause as my Read-a-Thon For Mindfulness, only as a sponsored review at any time rather than as part of the read-a-thon. (If you missed the read-a-thon the first time, it's not too late to sponsor me to do something like this, for the same cause.)

An e-book anthology of reprint and original sf, fantasy, and horror. There are some stories I liked, and at the very very low Kindle price it’s worth checking out, but other stories are weighed down by the over-use of very familiar genre clichés and the failure to do anything new and interesting with them. The best stories also made use of very old plots and tropes – the stranger who comes to town and shakes things up, zombies, quests, mysterious aliens – but either gave a new spin to them, or freshened them up with wit, realistic detail, and good prose.

“The Blessed Days,” by Mike Allen. Inexplicably and universally, people go to sleep and wake up drenched in their own blood. Well-written and with a creepily intriguing concept, but the ending, which employs a standard horror trope, didn’t live up to the rest of the story. This is a bit of a nitpick, but given the level of thought Allen put into the implications of the premise, I wondered why we never learned if everyone was dangerously anemic, or if the blood was somehow replenished, or what.

“Soldier’s Home,” by William Barton. A war-weary soldier encounters aliens and robots. I didn’t get this at all. The story was hard to follow, there was too much description to too little point, the climax was sentimental, and I didn’t care for the moments of sexual violence.

“Segue,” by Keith Brooke. This story hits every “cynical white expat in exotic foreign country” cliché before coming to a conclusion so completely out of left field that I flipped back to see if I’d accidentally skipped a page.

“Dead Man Stalking,” by Alfred D. Byrd. Zombie vs. cephalopods! Exactly what it says on the tin, playfully executed with a hard-ish sf gloss – the cephalopods are aliens and the zombie is a medically altered, clinically (and legally) dead person set to wrangle them. A bit slight, but lots of fun. I liked the resigned, just-doing-my-job zombie narrator.

“Needle and Sword,” by Marian Crane. A warrior woman cursed into an old body meets a young woman who weaves spells into her needlework. An epic fantasy squished into a longish short story; it needed room to grow and breathe. Full of fantasy clichés, but the plot twist near the end has a lot of promise. Unfortunately, the story ends before it has room to fully explore its implications.

“The Human Equations,” by Dave Creek. A young man gets exiled from his space-Mennonite community for breaking a law no one bothered to tell him about; the cop who arrests and escorts him into tragic banishment learns a valuable lesson in humanity and forgiveness. It makes no sense that when people can freely travel from community to community, and breaking the law in another community means permanent exile to hell, it never occurred to the man’s parents to tip him off that in other places, there’s this thing called “stealing,” and it’s not allowed. Readable but cliched, predictable, full of expository lumps, and preachy. Reprinted from Analog.

“Guardian Gargoyles of the Gorge,” by Helen E. Davis. The silly title gave me low expectations for this story, but it was surprisingly enjoyable. Young Ingrid is determined to earn the title of Hero, normally reserved for men, by staying out all night in a supposedly gargoyle-infested gorge. There’s nothing surprising here, but the little details of daily life are well-chosen and evocative, and the story is quite sweet. Though it comes to a satisfying resolution, it also reads a bit like the first chapter of a Tamora Pierce-esque YA.

“Crocodile Rock,” by Linda J. Dunn. Pointlessly cutesy title. This starts out like a children’s story, complete with pee jokes and the space kids picking on the Earth-born kid who’s scared of zero-g. I was certain that the Earth kid was going to save the day and then they’d all be sorry. That’s not exactly where it goes. I liked the twist, but the conclusion feels like it either needed to be longer (and take the character in a new and deeper direction) or shorter (and lose the page of post-climax angst and unnecessary plot wrap-ups.) It’s also odd that a kid who keeps worrying about her family being desperately poor would find something that’s clearly of immense value, and then keep it a secret for months or possibly years because secrets are cool, without ever thinking that she might be able to use it to get some money for her family.

“The Girl Who Was Ugly,” by John Grant. I would not have placed this story next to “Crocodile Rock,” as it’s similar in setup, tone, and theme. Kids spend all their time playing sports very badly and switching from one beautiful body to another. The intro, in which it’s obvious that something is deeply wrong but it’s not clear exactly what, is well done. Then an “ugly” (not perfectly beautiful) girl shows up and shakes up the hero’s world by revealing that he’s in the middle of a hoary sf cliché. In a bit of “cleverness” which made my eyes roll, the hero hears “clones” as “clowns” and “genes” as “jeans,” and relays a page-long expository lump on clowns and jeans. The ending is poignant, but undercut by the barrage of clichés in the middle.

“The New Corinth,” by Roby James. A doctor investigates a child’s mysterious infection with an alien virus. The aliens are the best part of the story, and some nice worldbuilding went into them. The humans utter stilted dialogue, like, “He was not so deeply involved with the campaigns then, and his desire for immortality overcame his obsession for duty long enough for him to impregnate me,” and (as a physical description) “He was racially quite centrist.” The climax is absurdly melodramatic. If you're going to compare a character to Medea, it can be done more subtly than by having her write a note reading "I am become Medea."

“But Loyal To Her Own,” by Leigh Kimmel. The story of a girl kidnapped by mages and accidentally transformed into a dragon, only to find an unexpected new purpose in life. It could have stood to be longer, to more fully explore Sera’s character and the mages’ motivations.

“Earth, Ashes, Dust,” by Catherine Mintz. This seems to be the opening to a novel, not a short story; it stops rather than coming to a conclusion. In what appears to be a lost colony, human villagers must pay a tithe of servants and women to the all-male, genetically altered unmen. As you can probably guess from that, an undercurrent of dark sensuality runs through the story. I would have liked to have seen that played up more. The protagonist, a young girl waiting to be chosen, is a bit of a passive nonentity, but the backstory is interesting and the world has potential.

“The Witch Who Made Adjustments,” by Vera Nazarian. An elegantly stylized comic fable about a witch who comes to town and rearranges everything, metaphorically and literally. Playful and beautifully written, with wit and charm and delectable food descriptions. This story and Elisabeth Waters’ have the most distinctive voices in the anthology.

“Credo,” by Jonathan Shipley. Mildly amusing comedy about a possessed organ (the musical kind.)

“Shadow Chasing,” by Justin Stanchfield. This emotionally intense story of alternate realities would have been even stronger if the unnecessary and tedious technical details of reality traveling had been edited way down, and if the rules had been more straightforward. (At one point a character argues that they should deliver a little girl to certain death because if they don’t, she might die. That moment would have made sense if they thought she was doomed no matter what.) I also would have liked to have known the protagonist’s backstory.

“A Rhumba of Rattlesnakes,” by Elisabeth Waters. A really funny fantasy told in first person from the POV of a rattlesnake with human intelligence. She and her eight sisters were all born to a cursed Goddess (hence the snakiness), and if they don’t break the curse before they go into hibernation, they won’t survive the winter. And we’ve barely had a chance to live at all – we’re less than two months old! Oh noes! Can nine rattlesnake sisters evade cars, nuns (they live at a convent), and security guards with flashlights in time to break the curse? Totally adorable, and just the right length to not overstay its welcome.

Past Future Present 2011, edited by Helen Davis. Only 99 cents on Kindle. I’d say it’s well worth that.
Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake. Cas, a teenage boy who inherited his dead father's ghost-killing knife and mission, encounters the first ghost who's his match - in more ways than one: the blood-soaked goddess of vengeance, the teenager who just wanted to go out dancing, the raging spirit trapped in the deadly house she rules: Anna Dressed in Blood. This YA horror/supernatural thriller has a nice snappy pace, some good ideas (Cas lives with his mom, a witch who totally knows what's going on), and Anna is a vivid creation, but the other characters, the world, and the story felt underdeveloped, like an early draft that got polished rather than deepened. I liked what i think Blake was trying to do with Cas - a beautifully polished front of teenage cockiness covering up a well of creepy, death-obsessed nihilism - but as actually shown, he just seemed to alternate between obsessing about death and being full of himself in a way that I didn't find very plausible for a teenage boy. (He's certain that all the girls will be all over him instantly because he's all that. Sure enough, they are!)

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Cave on Earth, by James M. Tabor. Nonfiction about what it says on the can. This has incredibly vivid descriptions of giant caves, tight spaces underground, and what it takes to explore them, and I would highly recommend it as a writer's reference for the topic. As armchair adventuring, it's pretty good too. Unusually for this sort of book, Tabor does not ignore or slight the women who were involved in cave exploration, describing how one "oozed through" a crack so tight that she had to exhale all the air in her lungs in order to compress her chest enough to get through. Yikes! As far as the quest itself, there's a lot of hair-raising exploration, and then an anti-climactic, "And then [spoiler] turned out to be the deepest, the end."

Thorns, by Robert Silverberg. 70s sf in which a fat! fat! FAT! and evil emotional vampire (did I mention that he's FAT?) throws together two tragic people to feed on their pain. One is a space explorer who was captured and surgically transformed by aliens for, uh, no particular reason, and one is a not-too-bright virgin whose eggs were harvested and given to others, and she wants her babies back. They have a hopeful yet sordid affair, while the fat vampire cackles in glee. Can two misfits find hope and happiness together or apart, even if their problems don't get "solved?" Only if they deal with the fat pain-sucker first!

I'm making this sound worse than it actually was. The storyline about the altered space guy had real emotional weight. But even apart from the fat = evil stuff, I am a very hard sell on emotional vampires who feed on pain, especially if they're not conflicted about this at all. The virgin was so childlike and naive that I briefly wondered if she was supposed to have some sort of intellectual disability, but no - just Silverberg's idea of a traumatized young woman who's none too bright, which made her relationship with the space dude, who was intelligent and worldly-wise, possibly more creepy than was intended, and lacking in the possibility of redemption through love. Also, too much 70s sf-type unpleasant sex. I read this because I do generally like stories about traumatized people building up their lives again, but this was overloaded with turn-offs.
Sponsored by [personal profile] tool_of_satan.

The world has been transformed by magic, science, and war. In a future Niger, West Africa, storms and camels speak with human voices, teenagers type and listen to music on their e-legbas, and some children are born with the ability to fly, call rain, or listen to shadows.

Ejii is a teenage shadow speaker. Her father once ruled her village according to harsh traditions, but he was executed by a woman called Jaa, whose rule is more egalitarian and modern, but who is equally ruthless. Jaa wears a translucent burka and wields an otherworldly living sword; when she speaks, sometimes red flowers fall from the sky. When Jaa hears that the people of another world are planning to invade, she asks Ejii to come with her on her mission to stop them. Ejii's mother forbids it, but after consulting the shadows, Ejii takes off after her anyway, across a magical, dangerous landscape.

The worldbuilding in this is absolutely fantastic. The blend of magic, technology, and magical realism is utterly convincing and really fun to read. Unlike the last 20 or so futuristic YA novels I've read lately, people have cultures and religions and tribes, they speak different languages, the ecology is weird but believable, towns have economies, and the whole world feels real enough to touch.

The first two-thirds of the novel, which sets up the story and then follows Ejii's quest across the desert, is simply plotted but made fresh and new by the strength of the world. The final third has some good moments but is a bit of a mess in plot terms, with too much chaotic action and several crucial moments falling flat. Read more... ).

The prose is plain, occasionally poetic but also occasionally clunky, and the characterization is solid. But one of the main reasons I like sf and fantasy is for the chance to explore new worlds, and this is a great new world. Despite my caveats, I liked it a lot, and I would recommend it. It's more obviously flawed than Zahrah the Windseeker, to which it's loosely related, but its strengths are much stronger and it's overall a better book.

I also love the cover. Nnedi Okorafor's books all seem to have great covers.

The Shadow Speaker
Sponsored by [personal profile] mme_hardy and [personal profile] lab.

This is the sequel to XVI, the infamous Sexteen. I tried to keep an open mind about the sequel. Honest. However, two pages in, I realized that liveblogging it would do a better job of capturing the reading experience than a normal review.

Page 1: Hey! This one actually begins with a concise and clear explanation of the XVI tattoo: Given to girls only at the age of 16, wears off in about sex six years, means that they’re legally available for sex. Does not legally mean that they can be raped with impunity, but in practice it works out for that. Good job. Seriously. Book one never explained it clearly.

Page 5: B.O.S.S. as the acronym for the evil government agency will never not sound like something out of Get Smart.

Page 8: “John’s got an appointment with the big trannie dealership in Evanston, so I have the afternoon free.”

The plot so far: Nina has quit school to work for the Art Institute. She’s dating Sal, who spends most of his time disguised as a homeless person to cover his NonCon (revolutionary) activities. (I can never not read NonCon as “nonconsensual.”) Sal is showing signs of being a creepy, stalkery control freak. Nina and her little sister Dee are living with Pops (her disabled and mentally fading grandfather) and Gran. Her revolutionary father, Alan Oberon, is out there somewhere. B.O.S.S. doesn’t know that Nina killed Ed, the evil B.O.S.S agent who murdered her mother.

The Resistance is sexist and doesn’t let girls do anything dangerous, but there are still girl Resistance members. Wei, Nina’s high-tier friend, will induct Nina into the Sisterhood.

Page 30. Slang of the future: “Skivs! Dee’s been waiting!”

Page 31. Slang of the future, Part II: “Zats! Nina, you look awful!”

Page 42: Slang of the future, Part III: “Welfs” for “welfare recipients” joins “verts” for advertisements and “digi” for digitize in a further demonstration that good invented slang needs to consist of more than just abbreviating words.

Pops has been taken away by evil government ops, and Gran has a heart attack, then is confiscated for an experimental procedure done by the creepy Dr. Silverman. Dee and Nina are evicted, and go to live in Wei’s ultra (cool) home.

94. Wow! A teenage interracial lesbian couple pops up! Good for Karr, seriously. Even if this brief mention is the last we see of them, they are the first lesbians I have spotted in any teen dystopia. More props if they both survive till the end of the book. (If the brown-skinned one dies, a prop will be withdrawn.) They are part of the Sisterhood.

117. Nina gets carried away and almost has sex with Sal. He takes her no for an answer, protesting, “I’m not a sexer.” Despite the idiotic slang, this is the best part of the book so far, as Nina struggles with real and complicated questions about love, sex, and how to tell the difference between her impulse to rebel against society by refusing to have sex, and genuinely not wanting to or not being ready.

149. “Here’s a free hire trannie ticket.”

168. Classic moment of unintentional comedy: Nina’s Dad makes a daring illegal interruption of the constant stream of verts to broadcast subversive propaganda! The content of the subversive propaganda? “Once upon a time, Holiday meant more than a buying frenzy. It was a time for family and friends and compassion for the less fortunate.”

168. A trannie spun out of an alley, nearly knocking me over.

171. There should be a ban on the scene, which I swear I have read about a billion times, in which, hundreds of years in the future, the classic baby boomer musicians are enthusiastically praised by hip future teens as world-changing and superior to modern pap. I love Bob Dylan and Joan Baez too, but come on!

188. The inevitable appearance of the love triangle. Chris, Wei’s brother, treats Nina as an equal, unlike the possessive, over-protective Sal. Nina points out to him that she can take risks just like a boy, and that murder is not gender-specific. I wonder if Karr got criticized for all the victim-blaming in book one? This one has way less of that, and some actual discussion about victim-blaming. Again, seriously, good for her.

This was a big improvement on the first book in the sense of being less politically objectionable, and less hilariously bad. The points Karr seems to be trying to make are more supported by the actual text, so it doesn’t constantly switch back and forth from lectures about the evils of sexism to in-text virgin-whore dichotomies. I was also surprised and pleased that the lesbians survived – even the brown-skinned one!

That being said, The Truth is mediocre. The plot is aimless, many of the supporting characters are blank slates, and I didn’t care what happened to anyone. Sal randomly vanishes about two-thirds of the way through the book, apparently just so that Nina can get some quality time with his rival, and it’s explained in an epilogue that he’d been off on a mission. There are a lot of loose threads, which may be tied up in the presumably forthcoming sequel. I don’t feel moved to seek it out.

The Truth


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