Monday, December 13, 2010

Into the Woods

The Forest of Hands and Teeth
by Carrie Ryan

As a Pittsburgher born and bred, some might think I would have a great appreciation for the zombie genre created by hometown boys George Romero and Tom Savini, but aside from greatly enjoying The Walking Dead, I am not really a fan of zombies or of horror, in general. However, when I heard the premise of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, I was intrigued, as it transported the genre to a puritanical society steeped in secrecy.

Unlike many works about the zombie apocalypse, Ryan's debut novel is set a century or more after the initial outbreak, rather than at its onset. The protagonist, a teenage girl named Mary, has never known the world outside of her small village, which is surrounded on all sides by the Unconsecrated, as the zombie population is called. They are protected by a fence that was constructed at the village's founding, and most villagers believe they are the only people left in the world. As such, the people of the village are expected to marry at an early age and aid in the repopulation process.

When Mary's mother is bitten by an Unconsecrated, she is forced to join the Sisterhood, the religious organization that presides over the village, as she has not been claimed as a bride. While there, she is spoken to by Gabrielle, an outsider that somehow made her way to Mary's village, which, along with a few other events I do not wish to spoil, leads Mary to journey outside of her village.

I cannot stress enough how unlikable the heroine in this book was! She is ridiculously selfish, to the point where I honestly didn't care if she lived or died. Despite having the love of a boy she was childhood friends with, Mary prefers his brother, who she still pursues despite his engagement to her best friend. When the group finds a refuge from the Unconsecrated, Mary is unsatisfied and insists that the group keep moving forward. She just seems to take everything she has for granted, and I was extremely frustrated with her. Why is it that so many YA writers have been creating such wretched female protagonists as of late?

Aside from the characterization of Mary and the inexplicable love all major male characters seem to have for her, this was a fantastic debut. The pace was a bit languid for the first five or so chapters, but it picked up significantly following the introduction of Gabrielle. The writing was gloomy and atmospheric, and though description could be sparse, especially where the characters themselves were concerned, it suited the book well.

Unfortunately, there were many loose ends at the conclusion of the novel. No reason is ever given for the outbreak of the Unconsecrated, for example. Ryan has since written two other companion novels (The Dead-tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places), but if the protagonists are anything like Mary, I do not intend to read them.

Grade: B

Monday, December 6, 2010

The War to End All Wars

Leviathan & Behemoth
by Scott Westerfeld
Locus Award for Best Young Adult Fiction 2010 (Leviathan)

In the first installment of Westerfeld's new trilogy, Leviathan, we are introduced to Alek, the sheltered son of the recently assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Deryn Sharp, a Scottish girl pretending to be a boy in order to serve in the Royal Air Force. For the first third of the novel or so, the chapters alternate between the two characters, allowing readers to familiarize themselves not only with the two leads, but also with the disparate societies from which they come: the machine-obsessed Clankers and the life-fabricating Darwinists. Our heroes finally meet when Alek, while on the run from German forces, witnesses the crash of the British airship Leviathan in the snowy Alps, and, despite his better judgement, decides to aid its crew. Not long after, the story truly gets under way when Alek's men join forces with the Leviathan after another German attack.

The story moves at a breakneck pace, often spending more time detailing the design of various machines and battle maneuvers, rather than developing the characters, which was a major complaint of mine. I knew as I began Leviathan that it was the first of a trilogy, but compared to other such books, it felt more like set-up, not a story that could stand on its own. Additionally, the novel claims to be a steampunk alternate history of WWI, but aside from changing the axis and allies to Clankers and Darwinists, there is little difference with reality. However, since Westerfeld decided to create his own heir, rather than use one of the Archduke's real children, it is possible that in later volumes the course of history will veer from our own.

Despite the first volume's apparent flaws, I still decided to read Behemoth, and I am glad that I did. This second installment is much more like a novel than a screenplay (unlike its predecessor), and a decent amount of character development is present. The novel's setting of Istanbul also provides a new cast of characters, as well as a plotline heavy on intrigue and politics, as both the British and Germans attempt to gain the Ottoman Empire as an ally.

Consistent throughout both novels are two things: the writing style and the illustrations (drawn by Keith Thompson). Given that the series is set during WWI (and steampunk, on top of that!), I would have liked to see a writing style reminiscent of the period, at least in the characters' speech, if not the exposition. Unfortunately, Westerfeld does not deliver, and while his writing is serviceable, it is not very impactful. Thompson's illustrations, on the other hand, are a sheer delight. There are typically one or two such pictures per chapter (all in black and white), and they served as a great aid in depicting the various machinery described in the book.

Even with its flaws, the Leviathan trilogy is proving to be an enjoyable one, and I only hope that the final installment, Goliath (to be released in October 2011), improves upon the series yet more.

Leviathan: B-
Behemoth: B+

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

To Fight the Unbeatable Foe

Going Bovine
by Libba Bray
Michael L. Printz Award 2010
Although the protagonist, Cameron Smith, doesn't learn he has Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease until a decent number of chapters into the book, all one has to do is read the book jacket to know the kid has mad cow disease and is going to die. But, rather than making this novel into a melodramatic movie-of-the-week tearjerker, Libba Bray does something a bit unexpected and writes of all of life's small pleasures. By giving Cameron a quest to find Dr. X and a possible cure, she grants him the ability to forget that he is dying, if only for a little while, and enjoy what life has to offer. Although many hints are given that the entire journey is only playing out in Cameron's imagination, of course, this makes for a much more entertaining read than a novel with some kid wallowing in a hospital bed.

While I couldn't really identify with Cameron's slacker persona, Bray's witty writing, bursting with pop cultural references, was hugely entertaining. What I enjoyed most, though, was probably the linking of Cameron's quest to that of Don Quixote. At the beginning of the novel, Cameron's English class is assigned to read the classic work, and though Cameron never completes it, numerous parallels between Cervantes' novel and our hero's adventure are apparent. There are obvious similarities, such as naming Cameron's guardian angel Dulcie and purchasing a Cadillac Rocinante, and the narrative style, which consists of short, farcical episodes with sundry characters Cameron meets along his travels is reminiscent of Quixote. The two differ in one major aspect, however, and that is how the authors choose to end the story. While I hate to spoil the conclusion for those who might choose to read Going Bovine, let me say that it is not the bitter conclusion of Cervantes' novel, but something much more uplifting.

One of the quotes on the back cover suggests that this book will be one that people take to college in the hopes that others will have read it and been affected by it, as well. I definitely agree with this idea. Going Bovine should become this generation's The Perks of Being a Wallflower. A book that speaks to us about the trials and tribulations of becoming an adult, but also the many joys experienced on that journey. As Cameron says, "To live is to love, to love is to live," and I could not agree more.

Grade: A+