Tag Archives: dystopia

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Every now and then you finish a book, close it, turn it over, look at the front cover for a while, caress the edges a little maybe, and in all likelihood give it a bit of a hug. Just a bit of one. It’s only a book, you know? Hugging a book is weird. So it’s only a bit of a hug. And then you put it down and get on with your day and find another book to read and life goes on.

Well, yeah.

All of that +10 for Stormdancer – except for the “read another book” bit because I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything else because mentally I’m still going “OH GOOD GOD I WANT A BURUU”.

The one on the left is mine and I luff it oh yes I do

Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she’s determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?

If you’re not sure if this book for you, let me give you The Checklist Of Awesome.

  • Alternative feudal Japan. With mecha suits, and yokai, and oni, and other things that make my grounding in Inuyasha and Gundam Wing suddenly so worthwhile
  • Mythical creatures that aren’t dragons, unicorns, vampires, werewolves, mermaids or fairies AND can disembowel you as easily as look at you
  • Dieselpunk/steampunk (author says steampunk but I’d disagree) technology that makes sense in mechanical, ecological, social, historical and narrative contexts
  • A flawed main character – entirely human and sympathetic and who grows and develops and is entirely like a 16-year-old but at the same time has that potential to be more 
  • Bad-ass fight scenes that you (if you’re me) decide to read twice because the writing is exquisite and it should be ridiculous but ISN’T because I think Kristoff has CLEARLY made a deal with a writing devil
  • Speaking of making a deal with a writing devil, even the big chunks of description are so wonderfully done you can’t hate him for it (damn you sir, damn you)
  • OH HELLO FANTASY BOOK THAT HAS A YOUNG GIRL AS THE MAIN CHARACTER AND DOESN’T MAKE ROMANCE THE CENTRAL FOCUS OF THE PLOT AND TREATS SEX WITH THE FUN *AND* RESPECT IT DESERVES OH HELLO WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE CAN I HUG YOU AGAIN OMG THE FEELS YEAH I’M GONNA HUG YOU AGAIN
  • Did I mention that romance isn’t the main focus? Even though it has a bit of a love triangle that it untangles without being incredibly patronising to the readers? YES I KNOW IT’S GREAT and don’t go looking for a clean YA resolution because Toto I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more
  • How about the emotional backbone being the relationship between a father and daughter? Or friendships, or families? The healthy ones (Yukiko and her twin), the broken ones (aww Masaru), the dangerous ones (OH HEY SHOGUN), the profound ones (BURUUUU) and so on? It’s all about family and it feels so much better than being all about romance for ONCE
  • This also counts as a dystopia, just FYI, and it wins at dystopias because of p.366 of my edition which was a glorious crowning world-building moment of awesome (and ick)
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS
  • LET ME REITERATE
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS

Okay. It’s awesome, but there are issues. People have pointed out the problems with the terminology before – THERE’S A GLOSSARY AT THE BACK BY THE WAY AND PEOPLE MAY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT IT – and how it’s apparently full of inaccurate Japanese. As a fantasy reader I feel like those issues can be side-stepped because it’s *fantasy* and how knows how the Japanese language may have developed in this alternative reality, but they’re valid concerns regardless, and worth the attention (excellent review there, I highly recommend reading it). I wasn’t sure about some of it during the book but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story – this is an entirely YMMV topic, I reckon, but I want to bring it up because it is, after all, dealing with a real culture.

One of my issues with it concerns the tone it takes with regard to the blood lotus pollution. It’s not THAT it deals with the topic, but HOW. It’s a great thing to be writing fantasy about but those segments – ESPECIALLY when Buruu lectured Yukiko about the pollution of Shima – come off as being really quite patronising and odd. I wanted to compare it to Miyazaki but Miyazaki is subtle and clever about drawing links between films like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke and the modern world, where this felt like being walloped over the head with relevance and significance and it was just… it was jarring. Kristoff proved he can be elegant and clever in almost every other aspect of this story, but that, the element that should linger the longest in people’s’ minds, was awkward. We weren’t being guided by his writing, we were being lectured to. Buruu is incredibly cool but using him as the author’s mouthpiece tarnished him a little. I’d love to get behind this aspect of the book but I just felt, for all the good he wants to do with this message, it suddenly switched tone from SFF to very young adult and then back, which didn’t work, and jolted me out of the story.

My most pressing concern? Lady Aisha. What was that? She was my favourite character aside from Buruu. Did that seriously happen? That was enough to knock a star off on Goodreads. Huge amounts of this book are ALL ABOUT the male gaze – from descriptions of the characters to Kaori’s face to the SODDING BATHING HOUSE SCENE THAT NEVER GETS PUNISHED oh god that annoys me – and although there are lots of aspects of this book to encourage and praise, this isn’t one of them. Lady Aisha feels like a casualty of that pervasive attitude, and it’s troubling – all the female characters are completely defined by the men around them. All of them. It could be read as an extension of the Evil Empire if you want to be kind, but it isn’t just that; I’m tired of Blokey Fantasy tropes and Stormdancer has lots of them. None of them are dealt with. They’re part of the story. I enjoyed the rest of it so much that this really troubled me, and for all I liked it, reflecting back on it there’s a lot I’m not happy with.

Aside from that I loved it, and read it slowly to savour the writing. I raced through the last third far too fast for my liking. People have criticized the beginning with its stately pace and how detailed the writing and descriptions are – I love all of that, and was sad the book wasn’t twice as long. For all I was deeply unhappy with aspects of it, I loved it so much I’d rank it up there with The Name Of The Wind for sheer enjoyment. I can’t wait for the 13th September to come so I can sell it to everyone. “READ THIS,” I shall tell them. “IT IS FUN AND GORGEOUS AND KICK-ASS. Also the cover is well pretty.”

AND I WANT A BURUU PLUSHIE GODDAMNIT

And the Stormdancer book trailer if you haven’t seen it is worth a gander because it’s hi-larious:

Unless you’re Liam who has no sense of humour.

Witch Crag by Kate Cann

So here’s a problem with Witch Crag – there’s not enough book for the story. It’s odd, isn’t it? It’s as if there’s a massive story and huge character development crammed into too small a space so it can’t flourish properly. It’s like those tea flowers you buy all curled up and you have to drop into hot water to make them blossom. It’s a great story that hasn’t had the space to spread out properly.

Despite that, I really enjoyed it.

The blurb:

In a tribe where basic survival is the only priority, Kita must make a choice: to accept arranged marriages and being treated with less value then sheep, or escape and journey to the place that even the strongest men fear with their lives – Witch Crag.

But a common threat is facing the witches and sheepmen alike. The tribes must somehow overcome their prejudices and join together if they’re to win a war that threatens to destroy everything they hold as good.

I was given the proof of this one in a goody bag after the Summer Scream event at Foyles (which was ace), and I have no idea why I went for it first. It was one of those “I’ll just see what the first page is like” moments that slipped away and became two hours of being engrossed in the rather compelling scene-building that Cann very ably engages in for the first quarter of the book.

It’s an easy read, unsettling moments notwithstanding; Kita is dynamic and interesting to follow, though the other characters feel half-sketched for the most part. Arc, for instance, could have done with a bit more attitude in a scene or two more. Kita’s friends could have had just a touch more presence. Geegaw could have been coloured in a bit, made more vivid. There could have been more, really – more time in each place, more described, more filled in. It felt like we were skimming over a really detailed back story. Sometimes, that’s fine. It works. Our imaginations can fill in bits and pieces and make it feel more real. Other times, however, it just feels like we’re getting the bare bones of the story and it just feels distant and vague. Witch Crag leans towards the latter. It’s the sort of book I’d love to see a bunch of teens illustrate or write a bit of fanfic about, because there’s just such a strong feeling of there being more lurking beneath the surface. So much more. I did wonder how it would have felt if it had been written as an “adult” book, or aimed for a slightly older readership.

Arc was a particular highlight and lowlight. Towards the end everyone just seemed to stop being a character and started to become mouthpieces – little speeches sounding the same from every quarter about uniting against a common foe, doing what’s right. It got a bit preachy and Arc suffered in particular, seeming to become a completely different character in the last third of the book – not in a good-character-development kind of way, but in a way in which he became unrecognizable. It’s sort of lampshaded by Raff in a random comment, but it doesn’t feel like his arc (yes I know) makes much sense. It’s a shame, because he was one of the strongest elements of the tale. I would have loved to read it from his perspective. His character only really unravelled right at the end in the most rushed chapter – a shame, racing to a conclusion that didn’t need to be hurried and could have been open-ended in a way that tied in with the atmosphere of the book as a whole, but I get that a lot of readers want that kind of ending. I’m just annoying.

Otherwise, I loved it. I gave it four stars on Goodreads – it’s a good-hearted story which lets people change and mature and grow up, lets the main character be a girl but also strong, lets her rage and mope and whine and still be a hero, lets the love interest be a complete boy and yet seek comfort, and lets people both redeem themselves and strive to redeem others. It’s a book with an overly obvious message, which usually pisses me off in YA, but it’s done with charm and Kita is a bit of a marvel when it comes to YA main characters. It’s a great story to visualize and has a wonderful sinister undercurrent the entire way through that did make me fear for what Cann was building towards. When it’s out I know I’m going to be giving it to a couple of teenagers I know.

So yes, I’d recommend it whole-heartedly. There’s a tantalizing sense of what else could be revealed about that post-“Great Havoc” land and the people in it, and I wish Cann could have gone into more depth about the world and the history and the people and the characters and everything, but it’s a really good addition to the Dystopian YA genre, perfectly pitched to appeal to boys as much as girls. It’s one notch below The Hunger Games in my personal rankings, and two above Divergent, and I reckon it’s closer to The Knife Of Never Letting Go in tone than anything else I’ve read. So yes. I liked it.

Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel (4****/5)

CAN YOU TELL HE'S DEAD NO I DON'T THINK SO HE'S LOOKING GREAT FOR A CORPSE

This is a pacy, bloodthirsty, hugely entertaining teen zombie novel with an unconventional but tender love story at its heart. From the ruins of a cataclysmic ice-age a new society has emerged, based on Victorian customs. Nora Dearly, a feisty teenage girl and apparent orphan, leaves her exclusive boarding school for the holidays to return home – only to be dragged into the night by the living dead. Luckily for her, this particular crack unit of zombies are good guys – sent to protect her from the real nasties roaming the countryside and zeroing in on major cities to swell their ranks. Nora must find a way to defeat the evil undead with help from Bram, a noble, sweet and surprisingly hot zombie boy for whom she starts to fall…

For all it’s riddled with issues, Dearly, Departed is a really fun read that’s so over the top it’s actually mesmerising – given half a chance it carries you with it all the way through a crazy mess of plot, rotting corpses, zombie street battles and undead romance. It’s like this book was written with a checklist in mind – what’s hot right now in SFF/YA lit? Let’s see!

  • Zombies – CHECK! with a whole new spin on this which was REALLY appreciated
  • Forbidden romance – CHECK! with bits falling off (I loved Bram, I couldn’t even hate him for the blatant name thing, he’s such a sweetheart)
  • Dystopia – CHECK! only it was literally overkill to have so much apocalypse infodumped on us. Utterly crazy.
  • Steampunk – CHECK! except not the steampunk of the Soulless books or anything, it’s more faux-Victoriana, which was really awkward in most places because it’s been shoe-horned in and doesn’t feel right at all. Except I didn’t mind it past the first few chapters. It stops grating once you just assume it’s a technologically advanced Victorian age. There’s a wonderful idea about the Punks and their tech however, which I’d love to read more of in any future books.
So, yes, it’s an attention-grabbing conglomeration of ideas, you know?

Fans of dystopias and zombies will get more of a kick out of this than romance fans – and people who enjoy well-rendered characters who are willing to get stuck in and be pro-active will enjoy this too. It’s all lampshaded of course, with every time a girl-character acts in a way which does not suit her upbringing everyone notices it and points it out. The romance feels a bit unconvincing but I loved Bram and Nora was far from annoying so, again, I didn’t mind. Once things had clicked it felt much more believable.

It’s not structured very well, however; the viewpoints are a mess and only partially feel like they’re distinct voices, but I had so much fun reading this that I didn’t really care – I can totally understand why people didn’t get into or didn’t like this book, because you need to suspend disbelief from a very high place to even get into the setting of Dearly, Departed, let alone the basic premise. It was such tremendous fun and completely different in tone and style and painted in such vivid colours that I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Seriously. Against my better judgement and everything.

It’s the most emphatically emphatic dystopian teen zombie romance you’ll ever see, and worth reading if you feel like going for an enjoyably deranged but hugely entertaining book. And yes, the horror elements were fun too. Strongly recommended if you like your YA to have a bit of backbone, decaying romance and a strong edge of dark humour to it. Anyone who liked it and wants MOAR! zombie love – Warm Bodies is your next port of call. Doesn’t have anywhere near the structural problems or the odd dialogue that DD does, and as a horror it’s a much stronger piece of work.

It isn’t, however, as much of a weird-ass dystopian teen zombie romance. With airships. Dearly, Departed has that down.

All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

Not too hot on the cover, but great eye make-up!

All These Things I’ve Done starts off so strong I’m almost surprised, having finished it, that it’s the same book as the one I’ve put down. Somewhere along the line it veers off course of being a grim, guilty-until-proven-innocent tale of Anya and her family in a chocolate-less and coffee-banning dystopian future New York and becomes something soft-focused and audience-pleasing without being actually satisfying, given the opening.

Here’s the write-up:

Sixteen year-old Anya’s parents have been murdered because her father was the head of a notorious underworld gang. Now she is determined to keep herself and her siblings away from that world. But her father’s relatives aren’t so keen to let them go. When Anya’s violent ex-boyfriend is poisoned with contaminated chocolate – chocolate that is produced illegally by Anya’s criminal family – she is arrested for attempted murder. Disconcertingly, it is the new D.A. in town who releases her from jail, but her freedom comes with conditions. The D.A. is the father of Win, a boy at school to whom Anya feels irresistibly drawn. Win’s father won’t risk having his political ambitions jeopardised by his son seeing a member of a crime family. She is to stay away with him. Anya knows she risks her freedom and the safety of her brother and sister by seeing Win again. Neither the D.A. nor the underworld will allow it. But the feeling between them is so strong that she may be unable to resist him…

For all I want to complain about the course Zevin takes with the narrative, having it wander off into a teeny No Man’s Land where major plot points feel like they’ve been put on hiatus for no clear reason, I want to be clear – I loved the premise for this book, and still do. Anya is a pretty solid, somewhat noble character who demonstrates strength and intelligence and great affection and love for those close to her while still being clear-eyed and a great viewpoint to read from. The concept of a world where chocolate and coffee are banned, water’s pretty much as valuable as oil and paper’s rare is such a great concept it had me reeling with mental images of a dystopian Prohibition. If anything, it’s worth reading just for that.

It’s not without problems. There really could be more colouring in of the outlines Zevin sketches of the society Anya and her family are living in as the bare bones of what we’re given are tantalizing and she’s clearly a skilled enough writer to make something really bright and original with it. There’s no explanation for most of it other than the understanding the reader brings to the book about energy and water crises, and it’s really crazy trying to make sense of alcohol being around but coffee being a no-no. And why is chocolate okay in Europe but not in the US? I have so many questions, which on one hand is really frustrating as there could have been more background to this to make the setting stronger, but also it’s probably a good sign that I was engaged enough with it to want to know more.

But there’s a point where everything important about the plot just seems to go on holiday and then it flounders. It’s frustrating, so frustrating, because the plot begins to pull itself back together before the end but the momentum is such it just doesn’t correct itself in time. In fact, I thought it was a bit transparent what’s been going on, but even that didn’t annoy me because I was just so relieved we were back to what the beginning of the book had been about. The romance angle felt thin, bookended as it was between the real movements of plot as it were. It felt rushed and crammed in a bit, and Win is just not convincing at all. Anya falters here a bit too – a bit of omg boy! overcomes those familial instincts of hers, which goes against what we’ve come to expect of her.

All told, All These Things I’ve Done is a book I would definitely recommend, though it does feel like a good concept washed out. It’s more about the characters than the dystopia. I’ll definitely read the next in the series in the hope that it’ll answer some of those pesky questions, and now Zevin’s certainly on my list of authors to investigate further! I just wish it hadn’t meandered so totally from the plot and felt so detached from the setting – otherwise it’d be a great read.