In this post I’m bringing you my October reads: Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo, Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien, and Unwind by Neal Shusterman.
Siege and Storm is the sequel to Shadow and Bone, which was published in the UK as The Gathering Dark. I borrowed the first book from the library and liked it – the fantasy element was well worked and the two main characters, Alina and Mal, were intriguing. So when I spotted the second on another library trip, I had to pick it up. It carries on from where the last left off: Alina has been living with the Grisha, but the events of The Gathering Dark have left her on the run with Mal away from the evil that has risen from within the Grisha Palace.
The story is much improved for having Mal around some more. While Alina’s time with the Grisha in The Gathering Dark was good, for me it missed the opportunity to capitalise on the orphan learning how to use her powers, something that I’ve seen executed brilliantly in one of my favourite book series, The Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon. As a result, Alina and Mal escaping that sphere and going on the run livens the narrative up for me. Alina is very much alone with the Grisha, and misses Mal greatly; by bringing him into the narrative there is more focus on driving events forward rather than reflecting on what Alina misses.
It is also, of course, the second book in a trilogy, which automatically gives it the challenge of that awkward in-between place. It is inevitably tied to the books either side of it, and badly done can be filler rather than an engaging novel of its own. The Grisha trilogy, however, doesn’t seem like something for three separate books. Its story carries on, and happens to be split in to three. In some respects it would be stronger with three distinct plots of its own, rather than one that just moves steadily onwards, but it is executed pretty well and has me interested in reading the final book if it appears in my local library.
The next book I read was Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien. This tells the story of Gaia, a sixteen year old midwife, who serves the women living outside the Enclave. The Enclave is the settlement inside the wall, and who take a “quota” of babies from outside the wall to bring in to their gene pool. One night Gaia’s parents disappear, and she has to go into the Enclave to find them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. While it can easily be marketed as dystopian, to me it is good solid YA fantasy adventure. Gaia is a compelling narrator, and brings the world both in and outside the Enclave to life. When she smuggles herself into the Enclave we are treated to her careful and determined exploration of its contents and why they are so desperate to advance babies from the outside. Its sequel, Prized, carries on with the same strengths, and the claustrophobia of one small settlement with rigid laws sees Gaia work from within a system and trying to break out.
Her dealings with Leon, a guard inside the Enclave, are well constructed and never has huge overtones of “here is the boy there must be romantic interest!”. The two characters stand equally well on their own, and neither becomes weaker for meeting the other. The initially awkward acquaintance develops well, and O’Brien never lets it overpower the story arc. Gaia is never lessened for meeting other characters. She remains strong and determined and it is one of the main things I love about this book. I am just gutted that the third book is only available in the UK as an ebook.
Finally, I read Unwind by Neal Shusterman. This particular read was a recommendation from a tutor and one I’m glad I came across. The premise is that there was a war between pro-life and pro-choice campaigners, and as a result they created the rules of Unwinds – children between the ages of thirteen and eighteen can be “unwound” and their parts be used elsewhere, meaning they haven’t technically died.
It is a controversial topic and one that creates a strong dystopia from the outset. The three main characters, Connor, Risa and Lev all have varying stories from their different social backgrounds, but all have one thing in common: they are going to be Unwound. Connor and Risa are determined to escape but Lev has been brought up by devoutly religious parents who conceived him as a “tithe”, a child born to be unwound. I found Risa and Connor stronger characters than Lev, but then again the reader is exposed more to them. The on-the-run narrative is hardly a new one but Shusterman makes it work well. The only problem I had with Unwind was that I always felt the characters never quite got into top gear. They were always good, but I wanted them to be pushed further and to really grab me by the scruff of the neck and pull me into their story.
I also read Unwind as a stand-alone novel, and as such it works well. It is part of a trilogy though – what YA books aren’t? – and I’m not sure I would pick up a sequel. As one book, it is contained and works effectively. The scene of the unwinding, for example, is especially powerful. But I’m not sure where Shusterman can go from the conclusion of Unwind. It is a good read, but I don’t think I’ll be going any further.
Recommendation: Birthmarked, by Caragh O’Brien
Siege and Storm: 7/10
The Gathering Dark: 6/10
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