Tag Archives: dystopia

Review: Blackout by Mira Grant

I’d kind of like to take a photo of my stunned, tear-streaked face and just post that but I’m terribly unphotogenic, so I will have to use my magical writer skills and explain my feelings about Blackout in words.

SPOILER-FREE (For Basically the Entire Trilogy, Because I Am Awesome Like That)

Because if anyone had spoiled me, I’d have locked them into that bee cage from Red Seas Under Red Skies and laughed while they died in agony.

Blackout picks up where Deadline left off. Where that is is a massive spoiler but it was the kind of kick in your teeth spoiler that makes you drop the book and sit slack-jawed in a semi-comatose state while you absorb it. So that was fun. I was on a plane at the time and I spent the rest of my flight poking at ice cubes in my empty cocktail and trying to make my brain stop hurting. Since in this section, I can’t tell you much about the plot, let’s just say this:

Blackout is the perfect ending to a stunningly original and rich series about a group of bloggers living in a zombie world where the virus is meticulously explained and justified. There are multiple first person narrators and it works because each character has a distinct voice. The narration is supplemented with snippets of blog posts and unpublished musings from various characters, which helps to give the reader insight into minor characters we don’t hear from directly. If you haven’t read the Newsflesh trilogy and you like virology or zombies or blogging or dystopias or conspiracies, then basically you’re missing out.

I can also tell you this. Blackout came out right before my birthday Hawaiian vacation. I read a good chunk on the plane until my stress levels got so high from worrying about these characters that I had to stop and do something else, like a crossword puzzle. That’s right. I was so worried about fictional people that it gave me a stomach ache. And to me, that’s about the best compliment I can give Mira Grant. The characters are so well-developed and so independently themselves that they felt like real people I knew and I was worried for their happiness and safety. I feel like that’s true of all good books, but somehow I just got pulled into these characters more than usual, and I credit Grant’s writing skills for that.

Around three-forths of the way in, there’s this point where Grant lets the reader relax and take a breath. Things aren’t perfect or settled, but there’s a point where things are temporarily okay for ten minutes, and I totally stopped at the point for a while for fear of what might befall our After the End Times crew next. (Then I just got busy and distracted.) But I am glad I finished it and soon I intend to go back and reread the entire series in quick succession. Fabulous end, not a disappointment at all. Ten out of ten stars, or whatever. You get the point.

And now! SPOILERS. BIG ONES. MASSIVE CRAZY SPOILERS SO DO NOT CLICK HERE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE SPOILED.

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Common Mistakes YA Dystopian Novels Make

In MY first YA Dytopian novel, animatronic dinosaurs take over and people have to fight the robot dinos to survive. In Space.

I was talking to a friend the other day about all of the recent dystopian novels that have come out and tried to tout themselves as “The Next Hunger Games!” It’s a silly, but understandable marketing tactic, because people are always looking for the next big THING.

The Next Harry Potter or the Next Twilight or whatever THING is going to be the year’s newest break out money-machine. It’s impossible to predict, of course, and the fact that so many dystopian YA novels came out recently is less due to The Hunger Games than weird market trends and coincidence. Besides, the next THING is never the same as the earlier THING (Twilight was not like Harry Potter, really at all).

But it got me thinking about all of the Dystopian Books I’ve read in the last year or so, and why some work better than others. Obviously, this is a list of what didn’t work for me as a reader, and is no way meant to be universal. These are just the same gripes I tend to have with a lot of Dystopian Books (and, sometimes, in the whole YA market). I would love to hear what elements worked or didn’t work for you, especially if any of them are deal breakers.

Book One Lacks An Ending

This is the new biggest sin awful trend in the YA world if you ask me. Not only are lots of books coming out that are super short because they’re the start of a series that could probably be one novel, but they’re coming out with cliff hanger endings that don’t bother to conclude the first part of the story. There’s nothing wrong with leaving some loose ends and unanswered questions, especially in an intended series. I’m talking about books that literally lack an ending. They might as well print the last page with the words “DUN DUN DUN….” It happens a lot in dystopian novels, especially, and this is a problem there for one main reason (besides, you know, the fact that a book has no end):

Leaving dystopian novels with a million questions hanging in the balance creates the feeling of shoddy world building. It doesn’t matter if the author has maps and entire histories for this Awful Future charted out on their wall. When none of the reader’s questions about how, when, why are answered in the first book, it makes the book feel hollow and lacking.

Characters Raised in the Dystopian Society Still Oddly Shocked & Awed By It

This is a personal pet peeve of mine, but it comes up in so many dystopians that it breaks my brain. A character who’s lived their entire life under the Evil Overlord who makes everyone where Pink Sweaters on Tuesdays is not going to be outraged by the fact that mom set out a pink sweater for Tuesday morning. They just won’t.

And yes, anyone might be alarmed when something that happens all of the time to strangers–say, being arrested quietly in the middle of the night–happens to their own friends or family. But when someone is used to drills or spot checks or whatever has a Fit of Righteous Indignation during one of these, I get irked. As a writer, I think what these authors are trying to do is  show what a moral center the character is by detailing their outrage at the Bad Guys. But it often doesn’t jive with how the protagonist should react, at least until they have some larger revelation about the world they live in. Say what you will about Matched, but at least Cassia’s mindset made perfect sense given the world she was raised in.

Alternatively, you have characters who, by all rights, should be extremely genre savvy, like kids who have grown up surrounded by zombies/rebels/robots/random bad future thing and should know how to survive in such situations. Like, it’s probably taught in their schools (if they have schools). But then you end up with characters like Mary, from The Forest of Hands and Teeth, who literally cuddles a zombie baby and then taunts the zombies beyond the fence. TAUNTS THEM. I mean…. I just… That is Too Stupid to Live territory from a girl who knows better because she knows what zombies are and how they happen.

A Love Triangle Romance That’s Wedged in Is Really Not Necessary

I know, I know. Romantic tension is awesome and the love triangle thing has worked so well. But really, if it doesn’t happen naturally as you start drafting your characters, and even if it does, you have to ask yourself if it’s really crucial to the book. Because if no one cares whether Lucy ends up with James or Thomas, but are forced to read pages and pages of Lucy trying to decide whether she likes James’ aloof and quiet demeanor more than Thomas’ quick wit and sexy lips, they will toss the book out the window.

I started this section with love triangles, but really it applies to all romances that feel forced or weird, especially when they come at the expensive of actual plot/interesting things happening around them. I’d really rather read about the Robot Army laying seige to the Dragon Lord’s castle than why Sir Allen has the best hair and tastes like strawberries due to his love of fruit gum.

And I say this as a pathetic, full-on shipping fangirl who will sink with the Good Ship Tamani in the world of Wings before I ever accept David might have been the right dude. I like romance! I even like good love triangles! But not when it feels forced in for the sake of having one.

The World Building Does Not Exist or Makes No Sense

Look, a book set in a future where Alien Unicorns have taken over the world and burned all of our technology except digital watches and make us grow rainbow colored hay to ward off the evil SeaHorses who are allergic to the color red might be the Best New THING to hit book shelves. But if the reader can’t believe how the Alien Unicorns took over without opposable thumbs (let alone built space ships), it won’t work. And yes, that’s a ridiculous example, and this goes back to the first point, but seriously. Leaving the entire world situation vague and unexplained does not make it suspenseful, it makes it frustrating.

Eve does this: a generic “plague” decimates the populous and a strange government with a King of America is set up in under 30 years. Despite the pointless years Eve spends in school (until she’s 18) she never even gives the reader the government’s official version of events, and we’re left wondering what happened. (Maybe Once, its sequel, answers more questions, I haven’t read it yet.)

It also has to make sense. Pledge is set hundreds of years in the future and we’re never given so much as a hint about why the only acceptable government leader is a Queen, or how America became divided by class languages. Even just a few lines about the ancient past of our present day would make the experience so much richer, rather than plunking down the system and saying “Eh! It’s in the future. Who knows how it happened?”

The best books, regardless of genre, have detailed and thoughtful worlds built into them to give the story depth, but it’s so important in a dystopia to show how the world of present day got to The Evil Awful Future.

 

So now you have some of my thoughts. And I am out of thoughts. Time to watch The Glee Project and see if I can avoid crying when whoever is sent home has to do the Sad Walk Away.

Review: Struck by Jennifer Bosworth

Mia Price is a lightning addict. As in, she’s addicted to being struck by lightning and has been hit seven times. Her body is covered in Lichenberg marks, which are red scars that look like lightning bolts, an effect of the lightning. The last time she was struck, her hair had been singed off.

As a writer, sometimes I come across a premise that is so awesome I am instantly jealous I didn’t think of it first. This is one of those cases. I started thinking about where I’d take the idea, and it’s no whether near were Bosworth takes it, but she takes it awesome places.

We join Mia after Los Angeles has just had a massive, 8.something Earthquake that has left the city in shambles. Towers have fallen, houses have been reduced to dust. Displaced people wander the streets and there’s not enough anything to go around. In the midst of this destruction, a prophet named Rance Ridley Prophet who hosts a show called The Hour of Holy Light, has taken advantage of the quake, and in fact, predicted it the day before it happened. But something odd happens to his followers, who dress in all white and walk around with strangely blank looks.

Meanwhile another group, The Seekers, tries to court Mia into joining them in order to save the world because she has The Spark. Plus there’s mysterious guy who’s watching her house, trying to warn her to stay away from both the Prophet and The Seeker.  She doesn’t know what to do, and only wants to survive while total chaos reigning in the city. It’s a mess.

Struck by Jennifer Bosworth is compelling. It’s more realistic that so many dystopian books because it deals with the cataclysmic even and the direct aftermath. Mia and her brother Parker only attend school to get rations handed out to now-much-smaller student body at the end of the day. There are memorials and walls with photos of the missing and entire parts of Los Angeles reduced to Wasteland.

Mia is headstrong and smart, not easily taken in by anyone or their stories, though she does have a fierce need to protect both her brother and mother. She’s a practical protagonist, and not quick to accept the insane preachings from either side. When Jeremy tries to warn her to stay away from both groups and not get involved, she replies:

“You think I want to be involved in any of this? I don’t want people having prophecies about me, or giving me tarot cards, or trying to recruit me for Team Apocalypse.”

Team Apocalypse is the name of my next band. The narration is funny. There is a bit of romance but it doesn’t detract from the fast-paced plot or the constant questions Mia and the reader keep asking. I managed to figure out who Jeremy was pretty quickly, but I like how it’s handled nonetheless.

I’m also a sucker for crazy cult stories, true and fictional, and the Prophet was scary because it doesn’t feel that far fetched. Supernatural elements aside (of which there are only a few and lightly used), a religious leader using a natural disaster to gain followers and power isn’t exactly hard to believe.

Recommended for: People who enjoy books with dystopic elements set closer to present day. People who appreciate strong female leads who can take care of themselves.

Review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Just a warning: because this is the sequel, there are spoilers for the first book, Divergent, in this review. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend you do.

How do I even start this? Yes, it was an awesome follow up to Divergent and I continued to love Four, Tris, and even Caleb to some extent. So, when we rejoin our heroes, the Dauntless are divided into two camps: the traitors who are now with the Erudite, and the ones who are really ticked off about how they were used as robotic soldiers in a simulation.

Spoiler free thoughts: I was very happy with it. War is dirty and hard and deadly and I like that Roth does a good job making it realistic. This is especially true in Tris’ case, whose trauma after shooting someone in the last book leaves her unable to hold a gun without vicious flashbacks. She has some serious PTSD and no wonder: she almost died many times, lost loved ones, and killed someone. It’s not an easy thing to recover from.

Four was awesome. I was just as frustrated with Tris plowing head-first into danger time and again as he was, so I related to him and his anger about her carelessness for her own well-being. Team Four, FTW.

It was intense and stressful (in the way that good books are when you care about the characters and their fates are uncertain) but I enjoyed it. I found the reveal at the end pretty predictable pretty much from the get go, but that didn’t bother me because there was enough other plot happening to keep the book engaging.

Very good follow up to a very good novel. I look forward to the final book in this trilogy.

And now! Spoilers! (Including some questions I have.)

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Review: Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Right off the bat, I have to say my favorite thing about Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies is that Tally is so normal. So many dystopias feature the special/quirky/unique girl who is immune to whatever or super strong or super smart or super perfect–tee hee–(Eve I’m looking at you). Or they’re chosen by the Evil Government to be part of an experiment (Matched, so far as I can tell). I love Divergent but there are a slew of similar books about how the main girl is a special snowflake (Variant comes to mind) and that’s what causes the downfall of the evil regime or the start of the revolution.

Not Tally. She is literally in the wrong place at the wrong time and winds up being a catalyst of change just because she’s a decent human being who finally learns some of the evil truths about the world she used to believe in.

Uglies is the first in a series about a future in which humans have perfected an operation to make everyone Pretty. It can’t safely be done til the age of 16, so Uglies attend school and bide their time until their magical birthday. After that, they go to live in New Pretty Town, where everyone drinks and parties until they’re assigned a job years down the road. Tally happens to have a late-in-the-year birthday, so she’s one of the last of her class stuck waiting as an Ugly, when she meets Shay, who shares her birthday but not her excitement about the operation.

Shay wants to run away and live in the wilds and stay “ugly” (or “normal”) forever. After Shay vanishes, Tally is brought to Dr. Cable, a scary mean-looking Pretty who wants to find and destroy the outsiders. She sends Tally to find Shay and the others so the government can round them up. Once Tally arrives, however, fellow Uglies start to look.. normal. She likes the people in the camp. All of them work hard. And then there’s David, who isn’t bad looking for an Ugly. She’s forced to decide whether to betray them and turn Pretty or live as an Ugly in the wild forever.

Westerfeld manages to make this future society both appealing (who wouldn’t want to be pretty and free to party your teen years away?) and terrifying. He also gives hints as to what destroyed modern civilization (whose inhabitants are refereed to as “Rusties” for our love of metal and the remains of iron sky scrappers we left behind) without it ever feeling like an info-dump. I’m curious to see what else we learn as the series continues. It’s also nice we get to meet some of the “rebels” and find out where they began and why. Rather than just being told there’s a vague threat of rebellion somewhere yonder. And even better–they’re not even rebels! They’re just trying to live their lives free of the Pretty Surgery and Society’s Control. But of course, no evil government can allow that.

It’s a fast, fun read. The characters are great, as is the world-building. And there are hoverboards. That’s awesome, right? I’ll definitely be finishing this series, asap.

Recommended if: you want a dystopia that manages to make the government evil and scary without taking itself too seriously.

Review: Eve by Anna Carey

Not gonna lie. I picked up Eve by Anna Carey all because of the cover. It’s gorgeous and has what looks like (and turned out to be) The Golden Gate Bridge. Luckily, I enjoyed it. I grew up in South Lake Tahoe, so it was awesome to read a dystopian novel that takes place there for a bit. It was especially fun to see characters try to survive in the forests surrounding the lake, because I could picture it so clearly, having imagined myself trying to do the same a hundred times.

In Eve, America has fallen victim to a plague that lasted for years and killed insane amounts of people suddenly, leaving the government in chaos approximately 20 or so years before. We learn from older people that the New King of America started as a politician who promised to rebuild during the worst of it, before totally taking power, making it frighteningly realistic, especially in the wake of recent “How to Begin a Dystopia” legislation that’s been getting through congress. (I’m not going to get all political, but the first step to a 1984-esque Police State is stripping right away from suspected “terrorists” and legally being able to hold them indefinitely with little or no evidence. /politicizing over)

Eve is about 18 and has just “graduated” her all girl’s school, set up by the New King and organized for orphans of plague. She thinks she’s going onto to a life in a trade. Classmate Arden tells her otherwise and escapes. Eve discovers that all of the graduates will be impregnated artificially and tied to beds to pop out as many children as they can to be sent to the “City of Sand,” the King’s new country. She manages to escape, but troops are sent after her. She finds Arden and they head toward “Califia,” where there’s help for rebels. They stumble upon a camp of boys on the edges of Lake Tahoe, escaped from work camps (where orphan boys are sent instead of schools). Arden gets sick and Eve, despite her education concerning the evils of men and love, falls for a guy named Caleb. But troops are after her, because she was chosen to be the old King’s new bride.

It’s a fast-paced, interesting book. I like to imagine how weird it’d be to wander through abandoned houses and cities after a cataclysmic event, so I enjoyed reading about characters doing the same. I like that we get some history about the plague, since some dystopians take “the event” for granted and don’t go into how things played out. We’re also shown this, in rows of rusted cars in parking lots of looted big box stores. But we don’t get details, or even how the plague was stopped. What romance there is–and it’s not a lot, it’s nicely metered out–is convincing and sweet.

I did have trouble wrapping my brain around the timeline. I realize that something as catastrophic as a plague that kills millions is going to change the world substantially, but it seems almost.. too fast? Even if Eve’s mother died at the tail end of the plague, that means it can’t have started more than 22 years prior, and even that’s a stretch. Yes, lots of government officials died, the world fell into utter chaos with people looting, rioting, trying to escape a disease, but it’s odd that the new government has sprung up so efficiently in a short time. It seems like there would be more factions of rebels and small communities, but then the narrator is a young girl who doesn’t know much about it. She was never given that kind of history, just propaganda, so she can’t tell the reader. If it’s a series (and I believe it is), I hope future books go into more detail about the timeline.

I also didn’t understand the point of creating this elaborate lie about the school system. Keep the girls occupied until it’s time to strap them to the bed and make them push out babies? Sure. But why the lies and intense schooling, if that’s all the girls will be doing. It didn’t quite add up.

Otherwise, I enjoyed it. I liked how all encompassing the government was and how difficult it actually was to escape, rather than Eve simply being able to run to the woods and find safety.

Recommended if: You liked Delirium, Divergent, and other dystopian books.

YA Book Proposals (Based On Current Trends)

These are, of course, guaranteed* to be bestselling mega hits that will spawn movies and tee shirts. And it’s meant to be a bit of parody of some of the trends and popular ideas shown in YA. It’s supposed to be funny. Call it affectionate snark. And hey, if you’re a book publisher or an agent, and any of these catches your eye as something you want to sell, I am not above writing them seriously and cashing the check. Really**. No, really. E-mail me.

*Assuming you put the money into marketing and generating buzz.
**I have no shame. Ask my friends.

She loves to read. Her favorite book is.. uh... Romeo and Juliet. Because that's not cliched. Image: nuchylee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Title: Denial – A Mummy Love Story
Genre:
Paranormal Romance
Pitch: Let’s face it, vampires are everywhere. Heck, even zombies are getting their own romance novels now. But where are the mummies? No where, yet, which is why Denial will be a hit!

Synopsis: Henry is a mummy, an ancient and immortal creature, who was too beautiful for his time. He was wrapped up and put into a tomb to wait until the day his prophecy would come true and he would be a great, gorgeous king. As he slept, he was toured around the world in museums, until a curator accidentally awoke him one night. After hearing his story, the curator swept him away to the United States, to the dry air of Phoenix, Arizona, where she became his forged legal guardian in an attempt to let him live a normal life.

Forever a teenager, Henry goes to high school posing as a burn victim, but the bandages don’t cover up his gorgeous golden eyes. There, he meets Grace Papillion, a girl who is average and plain in every way. She catches Henry’s attention by being so nice to him. Henry wants to be with her. To remove his bandages and show the world what a beautiful immortal thing he is. But her father is an archeologist and he has to resist the urge to curse her and her family for digging up the remains of the dead.

Cover Suggestion: A flower petal with a scarab crawling on it. Black base. Pretty swirly font.
Will be a hit with:
fans of Twilight and their moms.

 (Props where they’re due: this one was a group concept with a few coworkers, on a very slow day. Thanks to Hannah, Jon, and Liam for fleshing out this insanity.)

Apparently in this world, the nurses and doctors are happy knowing they didn't choose. Image: nuchylee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

Title: Different (alternative tiles: “Special” “Immune” “The Choice”)
Genre: Dystopian Future
Pitch: Dystopias are the new vampires, am I right?

Synopsis: Hundreds of years in the future, the nation Beautopia, everyone is happy because they get to choose their own life and everything works out in the best interests of The Republic. At the age of 17, everyone is brought into the “Future Success Hall” for “Life Choices Day.” In theory, it’s a day where options will be explained and then each person will make a series of choices: who they will marry, where they will live, what career they’ll embark on, and how many children (if any) they will have.

In actuality, it’s a lab that tests their DNA, genetics, and weighs that against their potential, which is derived from academic performance and extracurricular activities. Then each person is given a shot of a drug meant to make them forget the tests and given a list that outlines their futures. They read this list into a camera, smiling on the drug, saying, “I choose to marry [assigned spouse], I choose to work in [assigned field], I want to live in [assigned city] and have [assigned number] children.” But our protagonist, Amanda, is immune to the drug. Panicked, she pretends not to be and reads the list but none of it is what she wants! And if she’s immune, there must be other people out there who are unhappy and pretending.

Should Amanda go along with The Republic and live the life they want her to have? Or should she find a way to get the life she wants, a life of her own choice?

Suggested Cover: Something with glass breaking, maybe a broken syringe with a girl in the background running away.
Will Be a Hit With:
Fans of Matched, Divergent, Delirium, Uglies, etc. Fans of The Hunger Games will find it lackluster and want more bows and arrows.

 

No one can know my perfect skin isn't from Neutrogena! Image: nuchylee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Title: Glitter Blood (alternatively, “Horns,” “Unicorn Blood,” “Sparkle Veins”)
Genre: Normal High School Girl is actually special magical creature, ie, Paranormal Romance
Pitch: Everyone wants to find out they’re special. And part of a nearly extinct race. Faeries have been done, but what about unicorns? Am I right?

Synopsis: Larissa Stephens was adopted as an infant. Her mother, Jena, is an artist who paints fantastical paintings and her father, John, is  history teacher at the local university. Larissa loves her parents but has always felt a little weird. She has perfect skin, she heals quickly when injured, and more, she can heal people with her touch, a power she’s kept hidden from everyone but her parents.

At the age of 15, a young man named Coren arrives at her door. He’s handsome with a mane of thick white hair and stunning blue eyes. And he bows and calls Larissa “princess.” It turns out, Larissa is the last unicorn princess, the remaining royalty of a hunted and dying race. She was sent away as a baby to keep her safe, but now unicorn hunters have discovered she’s been sent to live with humans, and they’re after her healing blood. Besides, it’s time for her to take the throne and lead her people to a promised land in a corner of the Faerie World. But Larissa doesn’t want to leave her mortal parents or her mortal life. And she’s not sure about her feelings for Coren, nor her feelings for classmate and best friend Jake.

Suggested Cover: Something pretty, with a sparkle font.
Will be a hit with:
People who like stories about girls finding out they’re magical, like Wings, and fans of paranormal love triangles.

Actually, you know what, these last two are pretty awesome. Any takers? I’ll just be waiting by my inbox for offers from agents and publishers.