The Mime Order

9781408857397

“Some revolutions change the world in a day. Others take decades or centuries or more, and others still never come to fruition. Mine began with a moment and a choice. Mine began with the blooming of a flower in a secret city on the border between worlds.
You’ll have to wait and see how it ends.
Welcome back to Scion.”

NB: This is a review of an ARC won in a giveaway by @say_shannon .
The hardback of The Mime Order is published on 27th January 2015 by Bloomsbury.
Warning: This review will contain mild spoilers for The Bone Season.
You can read The Bone Season and my review of it here.

* * *

The Story So Far:
In The Bone Season we met Paige Mahoney: a young clairvoyant, a dreamwalker, working in the criminal underworld of Scion London. Kidnapped and taken to a prison camp in Sheol I, she was chosen by the mysterious Warden to be trained for purposes as yet unknown. But Paige was determined to break free and in The Mime Order we have returned to London, where she is suddenly a wanted fugitive, in hiding from her captors, many of her friends, and the all-seeing eye of Scion.

*

The Mime Order:

The Bone Season was one of my favourite reads last summer, and it was with eager anticipation I awaited the chance to get my hands on it’s follow-up, The Mime Order. After the high-paced action in Sheol I, we are left hanging at the end of the novel with Paige, thrust into a train with Nick, and Warden vanishing before her eyes. They’ve left Sheol I, but we don’t know yet if they are safe. What is going to happen to Paige when she is flung back into Scion? And what will the Rephaim do about their escaped harvest?

What I loved about The Mime Order was that it picked up precisely where The Bone Season left off, and it felt like a very smooth continuation. Yes, there were occasional drops of information to remind us about what had come before, but none of the “summary of the last book in a few hundred words” that can happen at the start of books in a series (one of my pet peeves). What Paige knows of the world gradually broadens in The Mime Order in comparison with The Bone Season, but it feels very much like Shannon is carefully pushing the world further out within Paige’s control – she’s not going to be stood there overwhelmed by everything all being opened up to her at once. And I really enjoyed that. I find with some fantasy that there is that tendency to go “epic” really quickly, especially with a second book in a series, but the slow-burner effect created in the Bone Season series so far has been far more successful. It makes the projected seven books very realistic, as we are left to assume as readers that things will get bigger and grander. After all, we are yet to learn much about the world outside London, so who knows where that might lead?

As in The Bone Season, the setting is fantastically brought to life. This is a place the reader can explore as if it were here in front of us: no inconsistencies, no places where it feels anything other than fully realised. Much as we learnt our way around Oxford in The Bone Season, here we explore more and more of London and it becomes familiar to us as it is familiar to Paige. We get an idea of her knowledge of the city what life must have been like for her before her adventures in The Bone Season. We see the workings of Scion, of government controls, and what it must be to live in Scion London. And most of all we find out what life is like working for Jaxon Hall, and the workings of the syndicate, which previously we had only spent a little time on. The underworld that Shannon creates is fascinating reading as we discover how the mime-lords and mime-queens govern their territory out of sight of the increasingly authoritative Scion.

Paige grows as a character too: she avoids the trope of the “strong female character” (don’t get me started!) whilst simultaneously being an excellent protagonist. She has weaknesses, she has characteristics that sometimes land her in trouble, and she treads the line between “I will beat this” and “I’m about to die” very thinly indeed! She keeps us on our toes but in no respect pretends to be a flawless character. After everything she experienced in The Bone Season, there are plenty of fears and worries and unanswered questions that she has to deal with, but in London there aren’t people she can really speak to about what has happened. Warden is nowhere to be found, and Jaxon is hardly the first person Paige would trust. Watching these concerns manifest themselves in an environment where she is on the run from Scion and not necessarily trusted by those she has returned to in the syndicate is intriguing and tells us a lot about her character. I also liked how Shannon played out the repercussions from Paige’s relationship with Warden – it’s not a traditional situation, trying to find the man who was your ‘keeper’ in Oxford – as there were plenty of opportunities to jump down well-worn storylines and they were avoided. This has made the relationships impacted upon as a result of this feel far more realistic, and avoids the pitfalls of other YA novels where certain dynamics can then overrule the entire plot, to the detriment of the story.

I would have classed The Bone Season as adventure fantasy, but in The Mime Order we begin to stray far more into dystopian territory. It definitely doesn’t go all Hunger-Games on us, but naturally by being back in London, and being closer to Scion, we see more of the iron first of government taking action of the everyday lives of its citizens. The very existence of the underworld syndicate is testament to Scion’s determination to be rid of all clairvoyants, as are the introductions of yet more methods in The Mime Order by Scion to identify and exterminate its clairvoyant citizens. But with the focus on the syndicate, we see less of Scion than we might, which works well as it means we are still focused on Paige’s adventure. It hasn’t upscaled into dystopia rapidly in the way that books like Divergent have, which plough the characters straight into the massive, overwhelming, dystopian situation where only the big things have to matter and you don’t have time to explore how the little things interconnect. The Mime Order is very carefully weaving the web of Scion, strand by strand, and so far it’s going excellently.

And then, the ending. The ENDING! I am keeping this entirely spoiler-free, so suffice to say that it was unexpected and brilliant and I certainly couldn’t have called that! And I am now DYING to find out what happens in book three.

Which is exactly how it was supposed to feel at the end.

 

Things I liked about this book: The smooth continuation from The Bone Season; the setting (again); the balance of dystopia and adventure.

Things I was less keen on: These are only tiny things now, but I would have liked to have seen more of Nick and Zeke. While Paige’s relationship with Nick may not be the most important one to her now, as it was at the start of The Bone Season, he’s still a really interesting character and him and Zeke have a really interesting dynamic that I would love to see more of!

 

The Mime Order: 9.5/10 (because there is no such thing as a perfect book!)

 

If you liked this, try:

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Slated by Teri Terry
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
Slade’s Children by Garth Nix
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

Advertisements

Adventures at Bath Kids Lit Fest

Over the last few weekends I have been making regular sojourns to Bath to attend a multitude of events as part of their Children’s Literature Festival (check out #bathkidslitfest on twitter). Here is a summary of the amazing events I went to, featuring some of my favourite authors. Thanks to everyone at Bath Festivals for putting together such an awesome programme – I only wish I could have attended more events! Here’s to next year being just as fabulous as this one.

 

IMG_3031.JPG

Unfortunately I haven’t got a picture with Marcus too – but he was there, honest!

Sally Green and Marcus Sedgwick

I had booked in to this event entirely to see Sally Green, whose debut novel Half Bad I read over the summer and subsequently raved about here on the blog. I’ve dipped in and out of Marcus Sedgwick books for years, and I find them a mixed bag, but I was looking forward to hear what he had to say. Both were very interesting panellists, with a good contrast between the two: after all, Green’s novel is her debut and Sedgwick has been writing for years. We opened with Sally Green (Marcus was stuck in traffic!) who talked all about the premise behind Half Bad and the main character, Nathan: “Once I had Nathan, the rest was easy”. The host, Gill McLay, asked lots of very good questions that opened the conversation right up, especially as we had such interesting yet contrasting authors.

The section of the panel dedicated to research was the one I found the most amusing and fascinating! Marcus Sedgwick told us all about when he went to visit derelict lunatic asylums in North America (now there’s a tale!) among various other things, and it was really interesting to hear about how he approaches research for books (“It’s much easier to do research than to actually write!”). Sally Green, on the other hand, said that she does considerably less work – about “ten minutes” on witch research, and the rest is filled in with imagination, and a little help from google! It was great to see how two different authors approach the process, but with equally successful results. The one particular part that stood out to me was when discussing the violence in their books. I’ve not read Marcus Sedgwick’s current book, The Ghosts of Heaven, but Half Bad certainly has some very harrowing scenes. But, as Marcus so fantastically put it: “If you have to plumb the depths of human badness, that’s what you do”, and Sally told us that you’ve “got to make it right, and make it believable and justifiable”. I’ve found, as a reader, that this is the case in their books and there are plenty of YA books that spring to mind that deal with this topic very well and make it really powerful in their stories. They then touched briefly on what YA means as a genre – something that David Almond, Mal Peet and Melvin Burgess are talking about at a panel here, on 5th October.

 

IMG_3038.JPG

Garth Nix and Joe Abercrombie take questions, chaired by John McLay.

 

Garth Nix and Joe Abercrombie

This panel was an absolute hoot, as well as being fantastically interesting. Garth Nix and Joe Abercrombie entertained us without hesitation for at least an hour, whilst being interesting and insightful about writing for young people. One of the first topics of discussion was about starting as a writer. Garth Nix said “I think I started as a writer because I started as a reader” (something that I think can be easily forgotten by some), and Joe Abercrombie said it was because he had time [between his jobs as a freelance tv editor] and thought he’d better do something that “wasn’t 100% playing video games”, and that “what [he] was writing wasn’t nearly half as bad as he was expecting”. Apparently writing brings gaming down to a more conservative 90% of his time!

Both are established fantasy writers, and there were plenty of questions on the genre. Nix voiced his concerns over popular fantasy: “There was a phase of ‘all children’s fantasy should be like Harry Potter’, and now I think we’ve got the same thing with Game of Thrones”, and Abercrombie says that “the whole categorisation is about how it is sold, and nothing to do with the book at all”. This led on to some very interesting discussion (much like with Green and Sedgwick) about the category of YA. YA was described as “a subset of adult, not a subset of children” (GN) and Abercrombie said “I just wrote the books I wanted to read when I was fourteen or fifteen years old”. I found this really interesting as they considered where YA had come from, the prevalence of YA now, and the effect of trends. After all, Nix wrote Slade’s Children which is a dystopia novel – far before dystopia became popular! The general consensus was trends will come and go, and it’s hopeless to try and fit in with them – if you get lucky, you get lucky, something I agree with wholeheartedly! This went on to discuss the process of writing and we had readings from both authors. I am only gutted that Abercrombie’s book Half a King is currently only out in hardback, and so I couldn’t purchase it on the day. (Both space and money prevent me buying hardbacks now unless they are titles I have been desperate to get my hands on from my mental list of all-time favourite authors. I will, however, be getting my copy as soon as the paperback is released!) This was a very interesting panel and had us laughing all the way – thanks to Nix and Abercrombie. A great time! I also got an early copy of Clariel (squeeeee!) which I’ll review here just as soon as I’ve finished reading it!

 

IMG_3046.JPG

David Almond and Cornelia Funke responding to questions from the audience.

Cornelia Funke and David Almond

And oh my goodness me, how I wish there were more people in the world like Cornelia Funke. Her event with David Almond was simply superlative, and my personal highlight of everything I saw at the festival. I couldn’t type fast enough to note down all the brilliant, amazing things that were being said, and me and my friend who attended were lost for words at the end. (We mainly gawped at each other to express our general disbelief at all the awesome we had just heard). Personally I’ve only read Inkheart, but many of her others like Dragon Rider and Reckless have been on my to-read list for years – which says something about my to-read list! I absolutely adore Inkheart, and at today’s talk we were clearly in the presence of someone who values the importance of an amazing library – as well as every person in the room of course! There were so many things discussed, I’ll pick my highlights from the event:

“I went to the library and came back with piles of treasure”
Much time was rightly spent discussing the importance of libraries in helping young people become voracious readers. Cornelia Funke described her trips home from the library as above – as while they may not have had lots of books at home, they all went to the library regularly when she was growing up. A question later on asked Cornelia if this love of libraries and books meant that she was Maggie, the heroine of Inkheart – to which the reply was that writers all put parts of themselves in characters, and “I have that relationship with my father because he took me to the library all the time”. And of course there is nothing more magical than stories coming to life! As Funke put it: “There are so many vast realities in this world that you should explore as man of these as possible”. Who could disagree with that?!

“You cannot change the world? Yes you can! They just don’t want you to… because if you can, why didn’t they?”
I think this quote really neatly summed up the essence of what Cornelia brought across in her event. Time and again we came back to the idea of books opening up new worlds and opening our eyes, and showing us that things can be different, things might be different, and showing us how change can happen. Not didactically, but by encouraging readers to “listen more carefully” to the world around them. And, Funke argued, fantasy does this very well, as “it makes the world so much more meaningful and makes you understand… When you cannot imagine another world, you won’t change this one.” And what did she consider the role of writers to be in perhaps politically motivating young people? “We [writers] cannot be missionaries, so we have to ask the questions when the world around us pretends to know the answers”. I don’t think anyone could have wiped the beam off my face when I heard that!

“I have such a longing to own a dragon – I would even let go of the TARDIS for the dragon and that is saying something!”
This stemmed from an excellent audience question, which was if a spaceship were to arrive above the Guildhall and drop Cornelia on a desert island, what book would she bring with her? Her first response: “Well first of all, I would change the spaceship for a TARDIS, complete with the 11th Doctor!”, which went down a hit with kids and adults alike! (Her book of choice was The Once and Future King, by TH White, if you were wondering). This brought us on to where the idea for Dragon Rider came from. Apparently, from a dog! We were told that the white dragon on the cover looked suspiciously like a certain canine Cornelia owned… Needless to say I am now even more intrigued to begin Dragon Rider than before. She also read from Fearless, and her performance was excellent. There were different voices, different characters, all brought to life with her reading. I am very excited to pick up the first Mirrorworld book!

“Life should not always be happy, and life teaches us, in darkness, lessons… We [as writers] learn to make gold from the dark.”
Something that has cropped up time and again at events like this and when discussing where writers get their ideas from, and the opinion that writers must have had some kind of traumatic childhood to draw on ideas like this is one that has frequented Q&As. The opinion on this panel was that sadly some authors have experienced a trauma in their childhood, but this is by no means the majority of authors or indeed necessary to be able to write stories. Cornelia said that “there are pains in many moments that don’t have to be these ‘traumas’ and we have to learn to see them”. It was an interesting discussion about what ‘trauma’ implies and how this could possibly affect the writing process in different ways.

 

Overall,  I had a wonderful two weekends at the Bath Children’s Literature Festival, and I look forward to other fantastic events like these in the future! While at the festival I also attended Now We Are Ten!, which I discuss over on my writing blog – check it out!

 

Sally Green is a debut YA author, whose novel Half Bad has been a fantastic hit with readers. She is currently working on the sequel, Half Wild.

Marcus Sedgwick is a seasoned writer of both YA and adult fiction. His latest novel, The Ghosts of Heaven, follows four separate characters from different eras of history. He is famous for novels such as My Sword Hand is Singing, The Foreshadowing, and The Book of Dead Days.

Garth Nix has written over 20 novels for young readers, including the popular Sabriel series. His latest book, Clariel, is a prequel to that series. He is currently working on another Old Kingdom book which takes place after the ending of Abhorsen.

Joe Abercrombie has largely written for adults, including books such as The First Law series. His latest series is written for YA readers. The first book, Half a King, is out now.

Cornelia Funke is a popular childrens/YA author, whose work includes the popular Inkheart series, books such as Dragon Rider and her current project, the Mirrorworld series. She was born and grew up in Germany but now lives in LA, when not travelling around the world.

David Almond is a writer of popular children’s books such as Skellig and My Name is Mina. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and Guest Artistic Director of the Bath Children’s Literature Festival.

 

Maggot Moon

41mzdjZeAGL

“There are train-track thinkers,” says Hector, “then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.”

This has been on my to-read list for quite some time, after having a glowing recommendation from a colleague. I’d also heard excellent things about the e-book version, which is designed specifically to be dyslexia-friendly. It won the Carnegie last year, and I can certainly see why.

Maggot Moon is an adventure/dystopia led by a young boy called Standish Treadwell, who lives in Zone Seven with his grandad. We’re unclear initially how they came to be here, but know that everything is done “for the Motherland”. The dystopia element of the dictator-style government seems quite far away from every day, but is still hangs in the background through Standish’s every day life. The short and sharp chapters made a pleasant change from other YA offerings and gave a jigsaw-like feeling to our building up a picture of the world. This worked well in terms of building up Standish’s voice, but didn’t always give us a clear way in to the world. We know something is up, but we don’t exactly know what. This lack of knowledge makes Standish’s voice authentic, as there’s only so much a young boy would know, apart from that life is pretty rubbish and there’s no hope of improvement. What I loved about this book was that we don’t ever have the narrative zoom out to give us the super-wide context. We have what Standish knows, and nothing more. It makes Standish’s voice very realistic; we don’t even have hints of the author’s hand in the crafting of his voice. It’s so realistic that even when horrific things are happening, Standish has very little reaction. Because this is normal for life in Zone Seven.

The brilliant thing about this story is that it’s not a dystopia in the popularised Hunger Games way. It’s a dystopia in the way that I remember dystopias being before we got told what the word for it was. I think in the current climate of dystopia, if it’s not spelt out as the whole world and what’s happening in wider society and here is the horrible thing that is happening to the population, it might not be considered of that genre. This would probably classically fit into more of an adventure category. But we have the characteristics of a dystopia: a government ruling with an iron fist, controlling the media and the population and under totalitarian rule where there doesn’t seem to be any hope left. And we have a main character who, somehow, ends up retaliating in some way, no matter how large or small. However, it’s mostly retaliating in a huge way (think Hunger Games and Divergent) and Standish doesn’t respond in a massive way. He is very quiet, very subtle, and uses people’s perceptions of him to enable him to achieve what he wants.

It’s a book about a dyslexic boy who is told he is ‘impure’ but doesn’t let it weaken him. He uses this as his strength to play against the system for his little victory that he wants – to find his friend Hector. It’s got very clear themes of friendship and adventure and determination, and those aren’t ones that traditionally dovetail with popular dystopia, in my view. But these things are the things that make Maggot Moon so strong. In many ways it reminded me of Wonder, as it’s a book about someone not letting a disability or weakness define them. I like to think that most YA is about not letting things define you, but teens are reading these books in a context when the media is barraging them with negative ideas of the ‘right’ way to look and the ‘right’ way to think and the ‘right’ way to treat other people. Apart from Wonder, I don’t have a book spring to mind that I’ve read that has a main character with a form of disability – be that physical, learning, etc. And it’s so hugely important that we have books out there for teenagers that reassure them. We read books to find ourselves in them, and I don’t think YA always does that. It is very good, but could go even further. And Standish, to me, is someone who does this.

Things I liked about this book were: The fantastic characterisation. Standish’s voice is very strong and guides us with real authenticity through the novel.

Things I was less keen on were: The distancing at the start. It took me a good fifty pages to fit together the jigsaw of Standish’s context.

 

Maggot Moon: 8.5/10

 

If you liked this, you might like:

Wonder by RJ Palacio
Slade’s Children by Garth Nix
The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Wind Singer by William Nicholson

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

The Bunker Diary

bunker

“As soon as my eyes opened I knew where I was. A low-ceilinged rectangular building made entirely of whitewashed concrete. There are six little rooms along the main corridor. There are no windows. No doors. The lift is the only way in or out. What’s he going to do to me?”

Please note: There will be discussion of spoilers marked further down this post.

I was recommended this by many many lovely people, and got my hands on it the other day. I’ve been reading it little by little and just… wow. The Bunker Diary is really a book that stays with you after you’ve read it. I rarely go for books like this: psychological thrillers that you finish and feel like someone’s been messing with your head. But I’m very glad I gave this book a go, and it certainly induced somewhat of a book hangover after I finished it!

The atmosphere in a book like this is integral. When I was first told of this book, I thought it’d have to be something pretty special to pull of being in a bunker, seemingly alone. Who or what does the character interact with? How do you get plot, events, conflict driving the book forward? To be honest, in many ways I’m still not quite sure how Brooks carries it off.

Our narrator is Linus Weems, a sixteen-year-old runaway who’s been living rough on the streets of London. But one day he is kidnapped by a stranger and he wakes up in a bunker. Nobody else is there – but there are five empty rooms. And this story is his diary, recording everything that happens down in the bunker. He has a compelling voice; we are finding out everything with him, and he is clearly a teenager with strong characteristics. He treats the whole experience with far more of a level head than one might expect of someone that age. He doesn’t “keep his head when all about are losing theirs”, because it would be impossible to be in his situation and not have at least a few moments of crushing hopelessness, but he holds up very well given his horrific circumstances.

This book is hugely driven by relationships. Not long after Linus arrives, the other five rooms are filled. First (and, I think, most compellingly of all) we meet Jenny. She’s a little girl from Essex who’s also been kidnapped. She comes down in the lift and Linus takes responsibility for her. It’s a lovely relationship between the two of them, with Linus being something of an older brother/guardian to her. She’s obviously very confused and upset, but as the story progresses we meet this very brave little girl who does her best to stay positive and not let herself be bowed by things. In many ways, Linus and Jenny support each other, and their relationship is far stronger than that between any other characters that we meet in the novel. We have Anja, a rather stroppy woman who thinks most people are beneath her; Fred, a tough-looking heroin addict from the streets, like Linus; Bird, a snotty and generally nasty piece of work, who is your stereotypical London commuter figure; and Russell, a very old science philosopher.

All the characters are unique, and you get the hang of who is who very quickly. Most are developed effectively as characters by Brooks throughout the story, with the exception, for me, of Anja, who came across as rather two dimensional throughout. She seems a very vain, selfish, shallow character, which naturally lends itself to coming across a little more two-dimensional. Linus tells us she spends lots of time with Bird, insinuating that horrible people hang out with horrible people, but it means that we as readers gain much less insight into Anja as a character. Bird is excellently awful, with no consideration for anyone else and who needs taking down a few pegs. Linus is happy to oblige, and Linus’ reactions to Bird are very interesting as we see such opposite personalities clash. Fred seems easier to get along with for Linus, and Russell is a straight-talking old professor who automatically gains respect from some, and those who don’t are told to give that respect to him.

The fact that I could talk for hours about character on this blog rather than plot is very significant, and something that I definitely picked up on and thought about once I had finished the book. There are, of course, small events – like seeing if the lift has anything come down in it every day, or the attack dog that comes sprinting out one time. But the one character we know nothing about, and the one who intrigued me the most by the end of the book, is The Man Upstairs.

We know very little about The Man Upstairs. He kidnapped these six people and trapped them in the bunker, but we don’t know why or whether he’ll ever let them out again. The only interaction that those trapped down there have with him is putting the shopping list in the lift every day or so, and hoping that it magically materialises the following day. There are cameras and microphones everywhere, so nothing goes unnoticed by The Man Upstairs. The interesting aspect of this character is that, because we know so little of him, our understanding is based entirely on his few actions on the group, and the rest is Linus’ hypothesising. It’s this absence of solid character and motivation that really plays on your mind through the book. We have no motivation for The Man Upstairs to be doing what he is doing, so we just have to assume he’s doing it for the hell of it, or he’s a psychopath, or any number of other things. It’s the not knowing that plagues the reader with this character, and this adds fantastically to the insular atmosphere that pervades the story.

WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.

The book leaves a lot of unanswered questions, and I can’t quite decide whether I love that or not. Part of me very much thinks “yes this is brilliant; we’re getting the unexpected; this story doesn’t play to our expectations and satisfy our wants as readers!”, but the other part of me wishes that we had learnt at least a teensy bit more. We never do find out who The Man Upstairs is. We never find out why they have been trapped there. We never find out what Linus’ relationship with his mother was like in full. It feels like a lot of teasers, with not very much reward at the end. And different styles suit different people, so some of you may be jumping for joy, some of you may be raging against the choices Brooks made with his ending. I’d personally have liked at least one thing knotted up, even if it was about Linus’ mother, but then again, if you are in Linus’ position, you may never find out the what, why and how. And I think it’s this realisation that really stays with you at the end of the book.

Some might argue that the ending was rushed, and that it just ended with very little fanfare or ceremony. I understand that perspective, but I also think the non-traditional climax was very much the point of the book. You have someone who has had all these terrible things happen to them, has met people who’ve died or gone insane or who are seriously ill, who doesn’t see any escape out of this bunker, and when something like the power goes, that could genuinely be it for them. It is a very realistic ending. No it doesn’t tick all the boxes, but I don’t think Brooks has set out to satisfy his reader. I think he’s there to do the total opposite.

 

Things I liked about this book were: The really well-crafted insular atmosphere, and the way the character relationships were developed.

Things I was less keen on were: Anja’s development compared to the others, and the ending. I still can’t decide if I love it or not.

 

The Bunker Diary: 7.5/10

 

If you liked this, you might like:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Lord of the Flies by William Golding

 

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

The Bone Season

bone-season-cover

 

“Paige, you will have two tasks tonight,’ he said, turning to face me. ‘Both will test the limits of your sanity. Will you believe me if I tell you that they will help you?’
‘Not likely,’ I said ‘but let’s get on with it.”

The Bone Season is Samantha Shannon’s first novel, the first in a projected series of seven (seven! No more trilogies here!). It’s a sci-fi fantasy dystopia hybrid, and plays with these genres very effectively in creating the setting, scenarios, and driving the plot forward.

It’s the year 2059. The story begins in Scion London, where clairvoyants are prosecuted for their skills. We are introduced to Paige Mahoney as she works for the criminal underworld, unbeknownst to her father. She’s working for the rather scary yet charming Jax, but everything falls apart one day when she accidentally uses her illegal powers on a train. She’s spotted by Scion police, and runs for her life. But soon she ends up in Sheol I, a penal colony full of stolen voyants from the city. And they want her skills badly.

The first thing that struck me about this book, apart from being very tightly plotted and paced, was that the setting was absolutely alive. Shannon clearly has immersed herself in the setting of her book, which translates fabulously to the page. The world-building has been absolutely nailed. We have government systems (that are anti-voyant), we have rebellions, we have transportation systems, laws on recreational activities, sectioned cities, the sorts of jobs people do, and wider UK context with mention of Ireland, which leads back to more world history in terms of how Scion cities have been created and where the fear/persecution of voyants has come from. As an avid fantasy reader, I have put plenty of books down that have had woolly world-building, but as far as I can tell, Shannon’s world is watertight, and I am one very happy reader!

The opening is relatively exposition-heavy – after all, we are being introduced to another world – but by using first person, the pace keeps ticking over and it feels quite conversational between Paige and the reader. No encyclopedic info-dumping here! It gives us enough to tide us over and seems to tell us a lot. By the end of the book we know that really, we knew very little indeed. I always think that the cardinal sin of fantasy writing is info-dumping. It’s why I still stick to YA fantasy over adult fantasy. In my experience, adult fantasy books seem to think that now they’re writing for adults, they can give themselves the luxury of some unnecessary long-winded info-dumping exposition. This is not the case! I’d say that The Bone Season strikes the balance of world-building verses info-dumping generally very well. This is helped by the fact that Shannon uses very effective description in her writing. Certainly knowing your setting as inside-out as Shannon does has helped fantastically with this.

It’s when we move with Paige to Sheol I (formerly Oxford) that this expands further. One of the commonly regurgitated pieces of writing advice is ‘write what you know’. Clearly Shannon isn’t a persecuted voyant who’s been kidnapped to the penal colony of Sheol I, but her author bio tells us she has lived in both London and Oxford. The influence is clear, and well utilised throughout. There are hints of Oxford, with all its grand colleges, that we would see today, but at the same time she has made it so clearly ‘other’ and different that we as readers have no issue with the transfer between what we know and what we don’t.

Paige’s character develops gradually from the beginning, and I feel like I finally have a hold of who she is by the time she’s been taken to Sheol I. She’s not a voice that grabs you with the first sentence, but you get the impression that she has plenty to say about what’s happened to her, if only you’d sit down and listen to her properly. So I did! She comes far more alive as soon as she has stuff to react to, which in this scenario works to her advantage; it is even played upon by certain characters. And a good opener to react to is when she’s kidnapped by the Rephaim to live in their penal colony.

The Rephaim have come to Paige’s world from the Netherworld, the place between life (the human world) and death (the aether). They rule over Sheol I, essentially farming human voyants. There is a huge status divide between humans and Rephs, and even more so between the humans that succeed and pass their ‘tests’, and the ones who fail – doomed to be ‘harlies’ and yellow-tunic’d cowards for the rest of their days. The kidnapped voyants are taken on by important Rephs to be trained. Paige, unsurprisingly, gets picked by Warden, who just so happens to be the fiance (blood-consort) of Nashira (blood-sovereign), who runs the colony. Warden also has a reputation for not training humans. And yet he chooses Paige. Clearly there is something else at work here, but Paige is oblivious to anything other than the fact that she has been kidnapped and has been sold off to a master like cattle. One word to describe her, in a positive way, is righteous. She’s no saintly do-gooder, but speaks her mind when she can, but also knows when to stop to save her neck. One thing we definitely know about Paige is that she has an excellent survival instinct.

I was worried that all these test and training under the Reph (and Warden) would turn the whole thing into a wannabe-HungerGames book. But it doesn’t. It might also explain why there appear to be so few tests to hop up the ranks of Reph trainees; Shannon may be trying to avoid a HungerGames-esque scenario. It definitely doesn’t feel like The Hunger Games, and for me is written a whole lot better! This is no Katniss Everdeen, come to be the saviour of the poor; this is Paige Mahoney, determined to save her skin and the few people she cares about from Scion London at the same time. It makes her far more relatable and realistic, which does her plenty of favours with the reader. Paige hasn’t come to preach.

I was also concerned with the character of Warden. My ‘oh god, a love interest which results in the lead losing the ability to think for herself!‘ klaxon was buzzing in my head. Thankfully, this fear was unfounded. Throughout the book, the relationship between Warden and Paige develops as student and teacher, with hatred – or at the very least, dislike – thrown in aplenty. It’s clear Warden has his own agenda going on, and we side with Paige in not wholly trusting him, but our curiousness as readers is also replicated in Paige. It’s this parallel with character and reader that is a real strength of the story, and keeps the reader hooked in what’s going on.

This was a book I could pause with from time to time, which was a refreshing change after both Half Bad and Cuckoo Song, which I practically inhaled. But I did reach that point where I just knew I must get to the end because everything was gearing up and I had to find out what was going to happen! Unfortunately, for me this was at about 1am when I had to be up the next day, which somewhat scuppered my desperate need to finish it. Such is the way of the late-night reader.

The only thing I did feel I wasn’t so keen on at the end was the way it flipped, in the last few chapters, from being something that I thought would be a stand-alone into something that clearly had sequels. I then expected a trilogy, so to discover a projected seven-book series was quite something! And to have a seven-book arc shows a heck of a lot of planning on the author’s behalf on plot, structure, etc. I think I’m just pining for a fabulously written YA book that doesn’t lead into a series.

 

The things I most liked were: excellent world-building, and tightly, well-executed plot. Everything felt relevant to the bigger picture. Causality rules supreme!

Things I was less keen on: I’m slightly apprehensive about sustaining this level of detailed plot and tight writing over a long series, but I look forward to the second book with curiosity.

 

The Bone Season: 8.5/10

 

If you liked this, try:

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Slated by Teri Terry
Ashes by Ilsa J Bick

Follow me on twitter @unexploredbooks

 

Talking Terminal

the-fault-in-our-stars-book-covermonster calls

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
I can’t review these books without discussing their endings!

As a reader, I tend to avoid obviously difficult subjects, both in YA and elsewhere. In fact, I wouldn’t have picked up Stolen if I hadn’t been recommended it by a friend. The blurbs never scream “happy ever after” to me and while I’m fine without a neatly tied everyone-survives ending, topics like illness (in this case, cancer) tell me that this book is unlikely to end with the illness gone away and all characters surviving. As Hazel says about her favourite novel: “It’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck.”

But saying that, I am now going to talk about The Fault In Our Stars (TFioS) by John Green and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (based on an idea from the late Siobhan Dowd) which both address this challenging subject. TFioS is told from the point of view of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old girl who is suffering from incurable lung cancer. A Monster Calls, on the other hand, is the story of Conor and how he copes with his mother’s terminal cancer.

Hazel opens TFioS by attending Support Group, as her mother has decided she is depressed. Hazel disagrees, but goes anyway. It is here that she meets our other protagonist, Augustus Waters. He is a seventeen-year-old boy in remission after losing one of his legs. He is easy-going, confident, and enjoys finding symbolism and metaphor in pretty much everything. The two swap book recommendations: Hazel’s favourite novel, An Imperial Affliction, for Augustus’ book based on a videogame with “a sentence to corpse ratio of nearly 1:1”. Thankfully, Augustus is not as formulaic as his book recommendation would suggest.

The thing I love the most about TFioS (and at the time of writing I’ve read it four times and listened to the audiobook twice) is Hazel’s narrative. For so much of the book you think of cancer as a side-effect of the plot; it doesn’t get in your way. And it means you get more room to enjoy Hazel’s character, her sense of humour, her interests, her view on the world and the people she meets in it. She is very well-read, yet enjoys sitting in for day-long marathons of ANTM. Most importantly, she is not daunted by Augustus. Hazel is very much her own person.

It is this narrative that makes the highs and lows of the novel feel even more heightened. John Green does a wonderful job of creating these carefully orchestrated crescendos, then suddenly tugs you down into something softer, quieter, and inevitably more painful. It is his own reminder that while you can believe in the illusion of health that Hazel (and predominantly Augustus) creates, you are only fooling yourself. It is, after all, an illusion.

The ending is what makes Hazel even more brilliant to me: she understands that the wheels keep turning and she has to keep going, even while dealing with her grief. We know she will not ever live a long and ‘normal’ life, but she closes this chapter of her life with Augustus knowing she will carry on, for however long that will be. It is that optimism, shining through the bleakness, that makes this such a wonderful conclusion to the story. It is heart-wrenchingly sad, but Green does not leave you in total darkness.

A Monster Calls feels considerably darker as a story, and in many ways it is. This is not only because of Jim Kay’s brilliant illustrations, but because the focus is on Conor and the monster. The monster arrives every night just after midnight, waking Conor up from the nightmare he has had since his mum started a fresh bout of treatments. Finding out what the nightmare is forms the climax of the story, but in between visits from the monster we see how Conor manages day-to-day. His parents have separated and his father now lives in America; he lives with his mother and is occasionally visited by his grandma, who he makes no secret of loathing.

Conor drifts through school, and Ness makes the readers feel how he is fading. He is becoming his mother’s illness. Picked on by bullies, unable and unwilling to stand up for himself, you watch him continually self-destruct and become more and more isolated. As this happens during the day, the monster visits him during the night. He is told three stories by the monster, who insists that after these tales are told, Conor will tell him his story: the truth about what happens in his nightmare.

The story is beautifully told, and feels horribly real. It feels so real that it is impossible to distance yourself from it, and the ending will likely have you in tears. It is crafted in such a way that when Conor finally reveals happens in his nightmare, we can understand completely. He has been consistently beating himself up, letting others beat him up, because he can’t shake the guilt of what he feels. It is also made clear he doesn’t ever vent and has nobody really to talk to, which only increases his guilt. This isolation is completely understandable from our external perspective, but we see how it eats him up. When he finally lets go, it is a great weight that has lifted from both Conor and the readers’ shoulders.

While I may not frequent books that discuss subjects like terminal cancer, both TFioS and A Monster Calls are brilliantly worked (and also two of my favourite books). Neither are truly about cancer. TFioS is about first love, and A Monster Calls about the importance of letting your feelings go. Both are brilliantly crafted, and the sort of books that you are determined everyone should read. And therefore I hope you now go away and (re)read them. They are both truly excellent books.

.

For all things TFioS (FAQ) : http://onlyifyoufinishedtfios.tumblr.com/

VIDEO: Patrick Ness talking about A Monster Calls

.

TFIOS: 9/10

A Monster Calls: 10/10

Divergent, Insurgent.

Divergent_B_CITY_eh1_Girl_Sunset3 INSURGENT


Warning: spoilers if you’ve not read Insurgent!

The idea behind Divergent is that when you turn sixteen, you are tested to decide which faction you belong to: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite. Tris, the main character, tests as Divergent – she does not belong to any faction. But she cannot reveal this information to anyone. So she chooses a faction, and keeps her true traits to herself.

The use of first person present is fairly fundamental in establishing the pressurised atmosphere of the novels. It begins with Tris’ test and keeps building as she joins other initiates in her new faction. As a reader you are on edge, and this reflects Tris’ feelings. She is determined to fit in, but is scared of what might happen if her Divergent skills are spotted.

The character of Four is an interesting one. He arrives to train the new initiates, and his entrance screams “potential love interest”. I was expecting Tris to follow the stereotype of becoming reliant on him, and being less able to act for herself. But she doesn’t – much like Katniss, as I mentioned in my review of The Hunger Games. And with Tris, her determination to do what she thinks she should, regardless of the consequences, heightens with Four’s presence. Another female character thinking for herself! Yay! But Four’s story arc very much engages your curiosity, and moves nicely into the plot of Insurgent.

As an outsider, Tris is a bullying target for her fellow initiates. Her family were Abnegation, which preaches selflessness – the opposite of her new faction, where you look out for yourself first of all. This is where Tris develops even more as a character; she refuses to be beaten by the bullies and so works harder and harder at topping the rankings and proving herself better than them. And people she makes enemies with in this initial phase are brought back cleverly in Insurgent. The continuity between books is great – rather than feeling like a second book, Insurgent picks up precisely where Divergent left off.

In many ways Insurgent sets up for the final book in the trilogy (due this autumn), but the repercussions of events in Divergent permeate it and tie the two tighter. Tris is dealing with the personal consequences of having killed another person, yet has chosen a faction where she must be fearless. Roth manages scenes where Tris needs a weapon but feels so completely unable to use it very well, and the impact of this on her relationship with Four (or rather, Tobias) plays out nicely. Now the faction lines are blurring, Tris and Tobias’ characters are less constrained. The two are determined to do things their own way and aren’t always honest with each other as a result. This not only makes them both more interesting characters (one might say unnecessarily ‘tortured’ when they’re at their most melodramatic) but much more flawed. As readers we are not being treated to the gospel according to Tris and Tobias, which is excellent.

Insurgent is full of unexpected surprises and twists, making what could otherwise be little more than a set-up for Allegiant a gripping story.  The Hunger Games may have all the headlines, but I’d pick Divergent ahead of it. If you’re a fan of the genre and haven’t yet read this series, I’d definitely recommend a read.

Divergent: 8/10

Insurgent: 7/10