The Lone City by Amy Ewing

the jewel  the white rose

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC.

Spoilers for the first volume.

This is another series of YA books that focus on women’s reproductive rights. Hooray! I am still not sick of this premise and I do not know if I will ever be.

In this society, the royal elite are sterile and need surrogates to bear their children. The inhabitants of the poorest area of the city occasionally have daughters that have mental powers. These girls are kidnapped from their families and trained to be surrogates for royalty, they are schooled to improve their abilities and then auctioned off to the noble houses. Violet is one such girl, and her mental powers are more powerful than most. This makes her a very desirable surrogate and she is auctioned off to one of the 4 most powerful houses in the kingdom.

The ruling couple have just had a baby boy and all the nobles are anxious to have their own baby girls to offer as prospective future brides. Violet’s owner (the Duchess of the Lake) is anxious to win the race and wants Violet to use her powers to grow the baby faster than nature can. Violet gets caught between her need to rebel against the people who think they can steal her life and her need to survive the vicious and bloodthirsty Jewel (the part of the city that houses the powerful and wealthy).

Violet’s only friend in the house is Ash, the man her mistress bought to train and seduce her niece. They both know what it is like to have their futures controlled by the rich elite. Violet’s close friend (Raven) from school is right next door, but they are not allowed to have any contact. Raven’s condition is quickly deteriorating the longer she is with her mistress. Violet has nothing to do with her time but sneak secret meetings with Ash, hope she does not get assassinated like some other surrogates, and wait until she is impregnated.

At the end of the first book, Violet has been offered a chance to escape. At the beginning of the second book, she manages to get out, along with Ash and Raven. They have to travel out to a hidden rebel base, dodging soldiers until they can reach the relative safety of the rebels. Then all they have to do is topple the unfair, oppressive system.

One of the reasons I like these type of dystopian fiction that deal with women’s issues is because it usually breeds strong female characters. They may be oppressed, but they are willing to punch and kick their way out of the holes they have been placed in. It is also really satisfying when their oppressors get beaten down. REALLY satisfying.

The plot unfolds rather predictably and anyone who has read enough of these books can guess what is going to happen. I kept reading despite this because I found the premise so compelling and the stakes so high for the characters. The world building was convincing and brutal, so I want the emotional catharsis of watching it get torn down.

Violet is a bit of a stock dystopian heroine: in love, tough and resourceful, but because of the political intrigue in the book, she has to be sharper than some other characters would. Outright rebellion could lead to death as quickly as complete acquiescence, so Violet has to walk a thin line between pleasing her mistress and being able to live with herself.

These books are not a sophisticated philosophical treatise on ethics, but do bring up some interesting questions about the ethics of surrogacy https://web.stanford.edu/group/womenscourage/Surrogacy/moralethical.html. They are a quick and fun read that grab you quickly. I am looking forward to reading the third.

5 to 1 by Holly Bodger

5 to 1

4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this work

I am not a huge fan of poetry. I find it hard to read and most of it takes forever to say something that could have been done in a much more straightforward manner using prose. Needless to say I had not realized that large parts of this work were going to be done in poetry. I should probably read book descriptions more closely.

In this case I was too excited over this book to stop though, so I thought I would at least give it a try. India, thanks to years of gender-selected abortions and female child abandonment, has reached a point where there are 5 men to each woman, and suddenly it is the girls who are precious beyond belief to their parents.

Sudasa’s portion of the country has decided to guard its most valuable resource, its girls, by building a giant wall around their land, forcing the boys to compete for the chance to marry and sending the losers to guard the wall. It is now Sudasa’s year to have a group of boys compete to be her husband in a series of tests. One of the contestants is her cousin, an arrogant, rich boy her controlling grandmother is rooting for (and snuck into the contest). Another contestant is the poor Kiran, who is not at all interested in her and the lifestyle she can offer him. He is the most attractive candidate though, and the only one who can possibly beat her cousin. Sudasa and Kiran must quickly decide what they mean to each other and what they are willing to sacrifice to keep the other safe.

The first stylistic note is that all of Sudasa’s chapters are written in verse and all of Kiran’s are in prose. This reflects a difference in education mostly, but also lets the difference in their voices come through more clearly. Sudasa has been given the best access to education and culture, while Kiran is lucky to know how to read, so Sudasa knows poetry in a way that Kiran does not. It also shows a difference in personality and expectations. Sudasa is a bit more passive at the start of the book. She does not like the way things are run, but is too scared to try and rebel completely, so she speaks in a more limited, but refined way. She has to be delicate and cultured because she is a girl. Kiran is able to speak more directly and bluntly because he is expected to be more aggressive. He is also a more active character, he is planning escape at the very beginning of the book.

I really wish this book had been a lot longer. The page length is already shorter than normal for a YA book, and a lot of pages have lower word counts because of the poetry. The entire novel is set during the couple of days of the test, but it would have been wonderful to see more of Sudasa’s and Kiran’s childhoods in this weird society, and more of the world itself. It read a lot like a short story or novella, and there is so much more I want to know about these characters and their realities. I love that Bodger took the issue of India’s missing girls on, but I want more from her. Maybe a sequel?

This is a very topical read, and could be used very effectively in a classroom setting. It is short, contains both poetry and prose, and is attention-grabbing. I am just disappointed that Bodger left the ending so unfinished and the world so unexplored. She has a great premise here.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

water knife

4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC.

This one was more disturbing than I initially thought it would be. I read Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker duo and since that was fairly speculative I thought this one would follow suit. It was shockingly realistic though. From what I know of the Colorado River, it, and the states it supplies, are going to be in trouble in the near future. That, combined with the lack of futuristic technology in the book, make it seem very close to reality. This book is ultimately about water, and a future in which it has become dangerously scarce.

Set in the near future, three different characters try to navigate a water-starved Southwestern United States. The survival of different cities depends on their political clout  and ability to claim senior water rights. Las Vegas is one of the big players, with Catherine Case and her goons destroying nearby competitors by undermining their water supply. Angel is one of those goons, and when someone in the area starts claiming they have traced down a game changing water allocation document, Case send him to investigate. Lucy is a future Pulitzer prize winning journalist who is willing to risk her life to uncover the shady dealings and murders behind the ongoing legal battle for control of the Colorado. It is her friend who initially claimed possession of what might be the most valuable document in America, but when he is found murdered, she has the story of a lifetime in her hands. Maria is a refugee from the now ruined state of Texas who lives hand to mouth, trying to stay out of the way of local gangs and save up enough to escape to one of the more hydrated states.

I thought this book was going to read like a dystopian novel, but it actually had a lot of characteristics of a legal thriller. A lot of the action is around legal battles for water rights, since the United States has not quite dissolved and any state caught attacking another for water will face retaliation from the federal government. There are hidden dealings, gangs and murders, but it is not outright like it would be in a dystopia. The cities have to at least appear to be handling things legally and above board. The world is dystopian, but the plot is the type of action I would more expect to find in a John Grisham novel.

Maria’s viewpoint was probably the one I enjoyed reading about the most. Angel and Lucy both live fairly privileged lives within the world of the novel. Angel is employed by one of the most powerful women in America and Lucy has enough money to buy herself water. Lucy is also not native to the area, so she has the ability to relocate elsewhere (state borders were quickly shut down once the drought hit. Too many people were flooding into the states that had steady water supplies). It is from Maria that we get a good sense of what a prolonged drought and interstate tensions would do to the most vulnerable parts of the population and how it would potentially affect politics and companies. In Maria’s world, refugees from stricken states like Texas are taken care of by large companies like Dasani and Camelpack, who provide emergency water and other supplies to citizens who have no place else to go. Criminals can be bribed to sneak people across state borders, but since they are heavily policed by troops and local militias, that is a very dangerous option. Tensions against refugees even from other cities whose water has run dry makes moving around tricky, but when the water is turned off, people don’t have much of a choice. Local gangs prey on the desperate and those who cannot afford to live in technology rich, Chinese built condos often have to go to great lengths to buy the barest necessities. Maria’s best friend is a prostitute and Maria herself sells water to Chinese workers on their lunch breaks, all the while paying protection money to several dangerous men.

The plot is full of twists and turns as Angel and Lucy both try and find the truth behind the elusive document and the trail of bodies it seems to be leaving behind it. There are several torture scenes I found a bit intense, so while others on Goodreads have characterized this as a YA novel, I would probably recommend it more for adults. It would be a good thought-provoking read for older teens if they could stomach the violence, but I found it a bit of a hard read in places.

Bacigalupi built an insanely convincing world very close to our own. The most futuristic technologies are ones that are able to recycle water more effectively, and some medicines that are a bit more advanced. Nothing that could not reasonably come into being in the next 50 years or so though. Fighting is done with guns and cell phones and computers still look much the way they do now. That is what makes this book so scary. It is only a small step away from the present. Control of waterways is only going to become more important as the population continues to grow and average global temperatures rise. It is completely conceivable that battles over water rights in already drought stricken states will become more tense and water prices become more interesting than oil. It would be a great book for a book club that wants to tie speculative fiction closely in with world events.

This book was a quick read since I had trouble putting it down. Having a variety of characters occupying different layers of the social strata gives the reader a rounded view of the world the author has created, and fast paced action keeps you reading. This was definitely an attention-grabbing book by an author quickly making a big name for himself.

W.A.R.P. by Eoin Colfer

reluctant assassin  the hangman's revolution

4 out of 5 stars.

Eoin Colfer finally strikes out into the world of young adult. The novels I know him for are all for junior-aged people, so these are a little different. The villains are a little scarier and the characters are a little more mature. It does still have all the creativity you would expect from Colfer though.

In the first volume, Riley is a Dickensian orphan who is pressed into service by a serial-killer magician who needs an assistant both for his act and his murdering. Chevron is a 21st century Native American (hooray for a diverse cast) FBI agent who is ordered to guard a time machine. Worlds collide when Riley and his horrible boss are sucked through to the present day. Now Riley and Chevron have to escape a madman who is slowly manipulating his way into the FBI, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.

The second one is a lot more Dystopian, where the first one was very solidly time travel/ historical fiction. In the second, Chevron travels back to her time, only the future has been changed into a bleak, fascist society. The Chevron of that future now has to deal with the FBI Chevron popping up in her head and demanding things like basic freedoms. Chevron is able to escape into the past and hook up with Riley, all with the goal of stopping the terrible future from happening.

One thing Colfer really excels at is writing very sympathetic male characters. They have personality, strengths, and weaknesses. They aren’t just structures to pin action onto, but boys that are allowed to have emotions. Similar with his female characters, who tend to be very strong and independent. Colfer has a great talent for making characters of both genders that will appeal to both genders. His books have enough action and enough character development to keep everyone happy.

I also really appreciate a Native American main character. I live very close to one of Canada’s largest reserves, and there are very few books about Native Americans, especially ones that don’t have the character’s Native-ness as the whole point of the work. It is so nice as a librarian to have minority characters so that I can have all my patrons reading about kids like them having adventures and being awesome.

The two books actually read very differently. The first one actually really reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms (good guys chase down a psycopath in a Dickens-like landscape) and the second is a lot more dystopian. The second is a lot more political and reads a lot more like a YA, whereas the first could still pass as an older junior work. Despite this, the two are very good, just quite different for being in the same series.

I am delighted that kids that read Artemis Fowl now have a series by the same author to keep them company as they grow older. I have yet to read something by this author that I did not like.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

ember in the ashes

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

This was a really neat read for a couple of reasons. Number one: the setting is unusual. Dystopians tend to take place in either an advanced technological setting, or the ruins of a once-technological society. It is rare to get one alluding back to early Rome/ Sparta/ Greece. It is not explicit (no mention is made of togas) but between the jacket blurb, the frequent use of slaves, and the militaristic empire bent on conquering everything, I can see where they are coming from.

Number two: it is a mix of science fiction and fantasy. They have some futuristic technology (awesome, unbreakable steel) with fantasy elements, like Jinn and other creatures, as well as some mind-reading abilities. The science fiction element is very subtle, but I still found it present enough to mention it. I love it when authors skillfully combine genres and that has definitely happened here.

Number three: while it does have the game/ contest elements of books like The Hunger Games, it does not overshadow the rest of the plot. The contest is an element to drive the story forward, but not the entire reason for the story itself. If was a skillful addition of elements that have a tendency to completely overtake stories.

Both of the main characters, Laia and Elias, are strong but complicated people living in surprisingly similar situations. Laia is a member of the conquered people (the Scholars) whose family has been slaughtered by the empire. She and her brother managed to survive, but he has now been taken, accused of being a member of the Scholar rebellion.

Elias is the son of the head of a prestigious school for elite soldiers (Masks) who is about to graduate and take his place as a member of the armed forces of the empire, when he is one of four students chosen to compete to be the next Emperor.

Laia is sent to Elias’ school as a spy for the rebellion. If she can give them enough information on the contest, they will free her brother. She is placed as a slave to Elias’ mother, who is brutal and vicious, but she has to survive if she ever wants to see her brother alive. Elias must survive a ruthless contest that pits him against his friends, and hope that what he must do will not rob him of his soul. They are both trapped in intolerable roles within a violent society and must try to survive without being monsters themselves.

The writing is skillful and the plot has enough action to really drag you through the pages. The world is well-constructed and interesting and the romance is sweet and not heavy-handed. I found myself relating to the characters easily and really caring about what happened to them. I think this is going to be a very popular novel, and I am prepared to be very angry if a second is not published (especially since they left the story unfinished).

Ash by Shani Petroff and Darci Manley

ash

I received an ARC of this work.

3 out of 5 stars.

Dax and Madden live in a society where everyone has a destiny. It is extracted minutes after birth and determines the rest of your life. Most importantly, it determines your colour (a mix of social and economic status), where those with critical destinies are a royal purple, with less important destinies leading to less important colours, all the way down to ash.

Dax is a blank (one of the very few without a destiny at all) and is relegated to Ash, with dismal living conditions and daily prejudices. Madden is a Purple, with a destiny to become a top minister in the government, luxury accommodations, and praise and admiration. Their only connection is Link, Dax’s brother and Madden’s ex-boyfriend, who is jailed after protesting the execution of another of Dax’s brothers by the government. The two have to put their differences aside to try and rescue Link.

The overarching story arch is purely dystopian with the bad government and the inequality and the need to be taken down. One of the unique elements was that the two main protagonists were both women, so that there was not a love plot on top of the “people from separate backgrounds overcoming their prejudices to right wrongs” plot line. Hooray for exploring friendships and not just romance!!

The second element I really liked was the destiny system. Most everyone has a destiny and a corresponding time. The Ashes and Slates have destinies like “buy apples on the 22nd of April” or “Drive your car down a street on this date and time”. Reds and Purples will have destinies that stop wars and shape government policy. Despite the fact that everyone is supposed to be critical for the system, there is a lot of prejudice. I like the imagination of this system, that destinies can be small and silly, but people still NEED to fulfill them or the entire system goes to hell (or so the government believes).

If you are confused about the world and system in this book, don’t be discouraged, I was as well for the first chapter or so. It took me a while to grasp the terminology and some of the background.

This is a good, but not excellent, addition to the dystopian genre. It was not creative enough to be completely memorable, but good enough to not be a disappointment. I would recommend it for the premise, but not entirely for the execution. It was standard writing and a standard plot. None of the characters were overflowing with personality and the writing was not especially beautiful or clever. There were no plot twists that you could not see coming. You can read it and expect to be entertained, but not blown away.

Ashes Trilogy by Kassy Tayler

ashes of twilightshadows of glassremnants of tomorrow

3 out of 5 stars.

Wren lives in a bubble. Not a metaphorical bubble, an actual huge glass bubble that encloses her and the rest of her society, survivors of a terrible meteor crash that rendered the outside world uninhabitable. Unfortunately, life inside of the bubble isn’t great either. The entire dome and its way of life were constructed to preserve the bloodline, and comfort, of the royal family. Everyone else is merely a tool towards that goal. This includes everyone Wren knows and cares about. Most people consider this a fair trade, as the outside world is full of flames and death and eternal servitude is reasonable compensation for their families surviving the earth shattering comet years ago. Wren and her family live almost permanently underground, gathering coal. They are called shiners because their eyes have adapted to the darkness.

Things existed for generations in an unpleasant, but stable, equilibrium, until one of Wren’s friend Alex disappears, reappears burnt half to death and babbles something about the sky being blue before passing on. Shortly after, Wren meets Pace, another dweller of the bubble who is on the run from the authorities.

Between the two of them, they manage to breach the bubble and start a revolution. This does not come without a substantial cost though. Wren is now responsible for many deaths and the lives of the survivors of her village.

This book mostly touts very contemporary views on slavery and equality, but for some of it I got a really weird, anti-feminist vibe. I am not sure whether this is intentionally done by the author as a possible characteristic of a society that repressed, or if Tayler is really confused about how capable women are in a fight. Wren and a couple of other women are shown as strong and capable, but Wren enjoys someone looking at her “possessively” and gender roles are just assumed. It is the weirdest mix of progressive and conservative, and honestly made me pretty uncomfortable. I had no idea whether this author likes women or not, and respects them as people.

Other than that, this is a dystopia with a steampunk feel to it. Because the bubble was formed and sealed in the 1800’s, everything is coal powered and really old-fashioned, but mixed with the plot of a dystopia.

This is an interesting read, if only for the genre mix, but I can’t get over the nagging feeling that Kassy Tayler thinks the proper place for women is in the kitchen.