Tara Calaby

writer, editor & phd candidate

Category: YA Dystopia

Review: Across the Universe – Beth Revis

When Amy agrees to accompany her parents to a new life on a new planet, she expects to wake up there in three hundred years’ time. But then, fifty years before their planned arrival, she is woken from her cryogenic slumber and almost killed in the process. With her parents still frozen, she feels overwhelmingly alone. Can she trust Elder, the ship’s leader-elect – and can Elder trust everything he’s ever known?

Across the Universe combines two things I love – science fiction and a dystopian society – so I was pretty much fated to enjoy it. I’m a sucker for books that are set in space, and this first novel in a trilogy combines the spaceship location with an intriguing mystery that kept me reading with interest right through to the end of the book.

The narrative of Across the Universe is split between the perspectives of Amy, who grew up on Earth, and Elder, who was born and raised on Godspeed and is destined to be the ship’s next leader. Amy feels very real for a teenager who has been thrust into circumstances she didn’t choose, without the support of her family or the friends and boyfriend she left behind on Earth. Her feelings of displacement and loss are well-portrayed and her determination to understand her new world helps her to be a likeable character. At times, I wished for a deeper insight into her personality and past, but it is likely this will eventuate later in the trilogy.

While Amy is easy for the reader to identify with, Elder is less familiar a character. Despite this, it was he whom I found the more interesting and enjoyable of Beth Revis’s two protagonists. The development of Elder over the duration of the novel is very well done, and his struggle with the conflict between the truth that he’s always known and the protests of his conscience is cleverly described.

The book’s supporting characters were generally enjoyable as well. Eldest is overbearing and rather sinister from the beginning, while I never entirely knew how to feel about Doc. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of Harley, because I liked what we did get to see, but didn’t learn quite enough to truly feel for him.

One thing I really enjoyed about Across the Universe was the lack of romance. I love YA romance, but sometimes it’s nice to have a book from a non-romance genre that doesn’t feel the need to make love a focus. While I realise that this won’t be the case for the whole trilogy, for this book I enjoyed being able to concentrate on the science fiction, dystopian and mystery elements of Revis’s world without having to dodge a love triangle to do so!

My main issue with Across the Universe was the fact that I found the chapters dealing with Amy’s dreams and thoughts while frozen dull and repetitive. It reached the point where I was just skimming them, and I feel like one short chapter could have given the same impression without detracting so much from the more interesting Elder chapters in between the Amy ones.

Although Across the Universe is the first book in an intended trilogy, it stands apart from other recent books in that, while there are some questions left unanswered, it nonetheless feels like a complete novel without the need to read the next two books. The main plotlines are all resolved and it is the universe that entices the reader to continue with the trilogy, not one of the oh-so-fashionable cliff-hangers that always leave me feeling like I’ve paid for a product that isn’t complete.

Across the Universe is a solid sci-fi addition to the young adult market.

Warning: Contains an attempted rape scene.

Review: Divergent – Veronica Roth

At the age of sixteen, all teenagers are required to undergo aptitude testing and choose the faction that they will belong to for the rest of their lives. For Tris, the decision may mean leaving her family behind, if she decides not to join them in the selfless community of the Abnegation faction. Such choices, however, are only the beginning, as the world around Tris begins to rapidly unravel.

I loved this book. Loved it. I read a few pages over a couple of days, and then sat down and read the majority of its 487 pages in one afternoon, enjoying every moment of it. Divervent hits so many of my happy buttons. Dystopia, personality-based groupings, coming-of-age stories, heroic actions and deaths… this book was essentially written to be just my kind of thing.

Because of that, I’m going to struggle to review it properly. Right now, I mostly just want to rave about the fact that I’ve not been this excited by groupings since Harry Potter. The Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless and Erudite factions are what make Divergent great, and I think that, through them, Veronica Roth has created a universe that will stick with people long after the plot of her trilogy has become a little fuzzied by time.

I also really enjoy Tris as a protagonist. It is so refreshing to read about a character who is great because of who she is, rather than how she looks. She’s not pretty, she doesn’t look Dauntless-strong and yet she is always presented as having something to offer and as being a girl that people can fall for. As much as it is a book about increasing tension between factions, Divergent is a book about Tris’s personal growth. She is far from perfect and far from confident in her own abilities, but she grows a great deal over the course of the novel and will hopefully continue to do so in the other two books in this trilogy. Certainly, the events of the closing chapters would suggest so.

I also appreciated the slow development of the romance in Divergent and the fact that it is not represented as being the most important part of the story. It feels like the romance is based on common backgrounds and values, not the usual fated attraction or interest based almost entirely on infeasibly perfect appearances. Again – very refreshing.

The supporting characters are all wonderfully developed as well. Christina’s bold and tactless personality is a great counter to Tris’s self doubt and Abnegation upbringing. Four is just the right about of mysterious and always intriguing. Will steadily grew on me as the book progressed and Al is heartbreakingly complex. Tris’s family are all great in different ways and by Jove there are two scenes in the book that will stay with me for a while. The villains are good too. A little too villainous at times, perhaps, so I’m hoping that we get a bit more character development with them in the upcoming books, so that they’re a little more three-dimensional.

I could rave for ages, but instead I shall just reiterate that I loved this book and bemoan the fact that I have to wait until May for the next book, Insurgent to be released. It’s going to be a long six months…

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games book coverThe Hunger Games is divided into three parts and my opinion of the book at the end of the first part was vastly different to my opinion once I had read the closing words. Initially, I struggled to become emotionally invested in the characters and Suzanne Collins’s universe. There is a lot of information in part one, without a lot of accompanying action, which causes the book to feel quite slow moving at times. In addition, I struggled with the bleakness of the opening chapters. When not tempered by action and dramatic tension, the Hunger Games universe is difficult to read about. Instead of being an escapist pastime, the reading experience felt more akin to being nose-deep in the most depressing sections of a newspaper.

From the beginning of part two onwards, however, I was hooked. The relationship between Peeta and Katniss becomes more interesting, the games themselves begin and it becomes easier to connect emotionally with the characters – both major and minor. In particular, Rue managed to both win me over and make me warm to Katniss, whom I had remained undecided about until her attitude towards Rue convinced me to like her. And I do like her. A lot. Collins has very cleverly crafted a protagonist whose life has made her mature beyond her sixteen years in many ways, but who nonetheless still shows signs of youth and naivete as well.

Peeta is similarly likeable. At times, he comes across as being a little whiny, but I think his vulnerability is necessary to moderate the impact of Katniss’s strength. As The Hunger Games is told in first person, from Katniss’s perspective, Peeta’s motivations remain pleasantly obscured throughout the book – although certain things that remain unrealised by Katniss are blatantly obvious to the reader! Of course, it’s rare for a book or series for young adults to exist today without the presence of a love triangle, so the memory of Gale is also strongly present throughout the novel. However, while this will undoubtedly become more of a focus in the second and third trilogy instalments, here the romance remains secondary to the battle to survive – as it should.

There is little in The Hunger Games that is entirely original, whether it be in terms of plot or premise. But the same can be said of most novels and here, at least, Collins has constructed a universe that has the ability to horrify and characters who are rounded enough to provoke tears upon their death. When reading this, I was reminded often of Stephen King’s (writing as Richard Bachman) The Long Walk. Both are based around similar concepts but, more importantly, both dug their way inside of me and lingered long after I turned the final page.

I wasn’t sure about The Hunger Games at first. When I finished it, however, I immediately ordered my own copy, along with Catching Fire and Mockingjay. I think that says it all.

Review: Shatter Me – Tahereh Mafi

Shatter Me coverJuliette Ferrars can kill with a touch. Treated like a monster all of her life and finally thrown into an asylum and kept in isolation for almost a year, she is eventually collected, only to find that she is wanted as a weapon. Can she trust Adam, the boy she remembers as the only kind student at her school, or is he as bad as her captor, Warner, and the rest of the Reestablishment? Juliette must choose whether to agree to the Reestablishment’s wishes – or to fight back and potentially change the world.

The plot of Shatter Me will be greatly appreciated by lovers of dystopian and paranormal fiction for young readers. We learn about Mafi’s universe slowly, due in part to Juliette’s isolation at the book’s beginning. As she becomes aware of the changes that have taken place since her incarceration, so too does the reader, meaning that the full extent of the Reestablishment’s actions is not clear until the latter half of the book.

As a protagonist, Juliette is a complicated mix of power and vulnerability. She is physically strong, but emotionally weak, relying upon Adam to provide her with the feeling of security she desires. I think this vulnerability will endear her to many readers. Although her abilities set her aside from Mafi’s audience, her fears and insecurities make her nonetheless easy to identify with. It is easy, too, to sympathise with a character who has been so deprived of love and affirmation throughout her life.

It is Adam, however, who is sure to prove the favourite of most readers. He is carefully calculated to make a good proportion of younger readers fall immediately in love with him, from the descriptions of his buff appearance to the deeper aspects of his personality. For those who are greater fans than I of fated romances, Adam should be a much-appreciated leading man!

Personally, however, I was far more intrigued by the character of Warner, leader of the local contingent of the Reestablishment. I’m not sure I was meant to like him and very sure that I shouldn’t, but I have always been a sucker for a bad guy and Warner is so delightfully multi-faceted that I can almost justify his sections of Shatter Me proving to be my highlights. It takes skill to construct an antagonist who is more than just a caricature of evil and, for me, Warner was the character who I wanted to learn more about and wanted Juliette to “learn more about” as well.

Shatter Me has an interesting plot and strong characters, but the stand-out feature of Tahereh Mafi’s debut novel is her prose. This book is not written like your standard young adult offering. The language here doesn’t just tell a story. It becomes like another character, such is the strength of its presence. It pleases me that a book so devoted to the love of words and writing is being published and heavily promoted in a literary era that often values paint-by-numbers offerings over truly eloquent works.

To be fair, Mafi’s style didn’t always work for me. There were points where I found the prose a little too purple or out of keeping with the action it described. I think this is largely a consequence of a conflict between style and content. Poetic metaphor sits much more comfortably with Juliette’s internal monologue whilst confined to a cell than it does in the middle of gunfire. And I think there can be too much metaphor in a book of this length. There is a danger of phrases becoming repetitive or even just feeling repetitive if metaphor is overused.

That said, I will gladly take a novel that perhaps tries to be a little too clever occasionally over one that doesn’t try at all. There is a great deal of talent behind Mafi’s prose and I feel like she is only a little more writing experience away from being a truly incredible author. When she learns to harness her abilities she, like Juliette, will be capable of great things.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review: Specials – Scott Westerfeld

Specials book coverBeware: this review will necessarily include spoilers for Uglies and Pretties, the other books in this trilogy.

With the New Smoke’s influence and reach growing, Special Circumstances are more active than ever. And the Cutters, a new group of particularly icy Specials under Shay’s leadership, intend to put a halt to their power before things go to far. Tally loves being Special, but will her new heightened senses and abilities prove enough to stop the Smokies from changing the world for good?

I was hoping for big things from Specials. Uglies and Pretties both struck me as good dystopian adventure novels, but I felt as though they were building towards a spectacular conclusion, which would tie together all of the plot threads and character changes and leave me feeling satisfied and wowed. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my experience and, instead, I’m left feeling quite apathetic towards the entire series.

I love the concept of Tally belonging to a different group in each of the books. The difficulty is that, in practice, its a technique that can alienate the reader. I had grown to enjoy her as a protagonist by the end of Pretties, but in Specials I found her even less likeable than in Uglies. In Specials, Westerfeld asks his readers to identify and empathise with a character who is, essentially, a villain. This can work brilliantly when the villain in question is charismatic, mysterious or multi-faceted, but it is here where Tally falls short. She is little more than a puppet.

In contrast, Shay is an interesting character. I remain unconvinced by her personality progression in the trilogy but, here at least, she proves herself the least-offensive of Westerfeld’s female characters. In a series where the protagonist merely reacts to situations (usually under the guidance of a male partner or friend), Shay initiates. However, Shay is the only supporting character who receives any real development in Specials. It may have been intentional on Westerfeld’s behalf, to show an emotional distance that differentiates the Specials, but it meant that an important character death felt rushed and emotionally dull and the conclusion felt unsupported.

Another thing I found lacking in Specials was a counter to the destructive actions that were linked to mental acuity here and in the previous books. The Cutters cut themselves to clear their minds; the Crims deprived themselves of food. I felt that Westerfeld raised important issues, then failed to do anything valuable with them, so that I was left viewing them more as an attempt to be daring than a careful commentary on the challenges that real teens face.

I found the ending of the series particularly dissatisfying. It didn’t ring true to me as a realistic outcome and it felt unsupported by both what Specials showed of Tally’s nature and the Uglies universe as a whole. Instead of being left wishing for more, I confirmed that I had no further interest in reading about this world and the characters within it.

Specials is not a bad book, by any means, but I found it personally unsatisfying. As a stand-alone, I think it would make a good adventure yarn. As a conclusion to a trilogy, however, I found it extremely wanting. There are some great action sequences in here and some clever ideas about a dystopian future that has definite echoes of today’s existence. But I wanted more.

Review: Pretties – Scott Westerfeld

Pretties book coverTally is pretty now. Her time in the Smoke is over and she’s settling into the life she so desperately wanted for the first sixteen years of her existence. She has her best friend, Peris, back, her friendship with Shay is rejuvenated and she seems like a sure bet to be accepted into the Crims, the coolest clique in New Pretty Town. But for some reason, Tally feels like she has to try a little too hard to fit into the pretty world. Her memories of the Smoke are faded and confused, and yet something is tugging at the edge of her conscience. Something important. But what?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Pretties, as review opinion seemed to be divided upon whether it was a better or worse book than Uglies, its predecessor. Personally, I think I come down on the side of it being better, largely by virtue of the fact that its place in the trilogy meant that Pretties was able to jump straight into the action, without all of the scene setting and universe building that made Uglies a slower read in places.

Pretties is a fantastic adventure yarn. Apart from a couple of short sections, the book moves at an exciting pace, pulling the reader from one heart-pounding (or perhaps bubbly-making!) situation to the next with little time wasted on exposition or internal monologues. The noticeable exception to this rule was the section of the novel devoted to Tally’s time among the pre-Rusties. I’m interested to see whether this diversion proves important to the final installation of the trilogy, because it felt a little unnecessary to Westerfeld’s plot and slowed the action at a pivotal point.

As a protagonist, Tally worked so much better for me in Pretties. She seemed to act, rather than merely react. While I didn’t like her much at all in Uglies, I became rather fond of her in Pretties – she was your typical tough female action hero, and that’s a character archetype that I always enjoy. I think my greatest difficulty with her as a reader came from an element of the plot relating to the brain lesions associated with her becoming pretty. I won’t specify due to spoilers (although those who have read the book will easily guess what I’m talking about) but it had a bit of a Mary Sue feel to it.

I really enjoyed the introduction of Zane. Chris held little interest for me, but Zane felt like a rounded and realistic character. I also preferred the nature of his relationship with Tally. It felt like it grew out of commonality rather than the oh-so-common instant attraction that one finds so often in YA fiction.

In contrast, I was disappointed by Shay’s role within this book. I’d hoped that the boy-centric rivalry of the first book would have a satisfying resolution in the second but, unfortunately, this was not the case. I had my rant about this in my Uglies review, so I won’t repeat it here, but I think there are better ways of introducing conflict.

All in all, Pretties was a solid adventure offering, which set things up for a strong finale in Specials. Whether Scott Westerfeld managed to pull off that perfect ending, however, is something I’m yet to discover.

Review: Uglies – Scott Westerfeld

Uglies book coverTally is looking forward to her sixteenth birthday, when she will finally become pretty. At that age, all teenagers receive extensive plastic surgery to remove and refine all of the physical features that set them apart from each other, changing Uglies into the generic Pretties, who spend their new lives partying and having fun. But then Tally meets Shay, an ugly who shows Tally that there is an alternative to the future she’s always expected, and soon Tally is forced to make a choice that she never thought she’d face.

I’ve seen a lot of discussion of this book on Goodreads over the years, so when a copy finally turned up at my local library, I thought it was about time I tried it for myself. Ultimately, I enjoyed the read, but came away from it feeling like Uglies could have been so much more than it actually was.

As a premise for a YA novel, it’s a good one. The focus on appearance, to the detriment of everything else, is particularly relevant to the teenage age group. There’s something immediately uncomfortable about a world that strives towards homogenisation instead of the acceptance and promotion of diversity, and Westerfeld does a good job of depicting his dystopian world.

However, most other aspects of the book do not prove as interesting as its premise. The characters are mostly one-dimensional and Tally seems to me to be a particularly uninspiring protagonist. I understand Westerfeld’s difficulty here. Tally has been brought up in a society that forms its children into acutely shallow beings, and her thoughts and actions are an immediate by-product of this life-long indoctrination. As a character, therefore, she is true to her world. But this authenticity proved to be a barrier to me. I disliked her weakness, her gullibility and her deceptiveness. I found myself wanting her to fail.

For me, the most interesting and likeable character was Shay – but only in the beginning. From Part Two onwards, her relationship with Tally warps into one of feminine rivalry, with a boy in the centre (of course). I, for one, am tiring of endlessly being told by books (and films and television) that women are in competition with each other. I am hoping that something comes of this plot point in later books, because otherwise it’s just hackneyed and destructive.

My other big issue with Uglies is the fact that Westerfeld focusses almost entirely upon physical differences. There is a brief mention of race, but no talk of culture. How do the many religions fit into his world? What about disability? Homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexualism? It’s almost as though his world picture is unfinished. Not having read the rest of the books in the series, I’m hoping that these questions are dealt with in later books but, judging Uglies on its own merits, it felt like there were a few gaps that negatively affected my reading experience.

All that said, I did enjoy this book. It’s a fast-paced read, with a fun concept, plenty of adventure and a cliff-hanger ending that had me ordering the next book into my local library right away. I’m just harsh because it could have been incredible, but instead it was just a lot of fun.

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