All Clear by Connie Willis

blackout all clear

4 out of 5 stars

I think I finally found a science fiction book that my history-loving mother would like.

It is 2060 in Oxford. Time travel is begin used by historians to observe and document key events in human history (though some are so critical time travellers are not allowed near). 3 students have gone back to observe World War 2. Merope (Eileen) is in the British countryside taking care of war evacuees. Polly is watching the blitz as a shopgirl in London, and Michael is watching the evacuation of Dunkirk. All three complete their assignments when it becomes clear that the time travel drops to take them home are malfunctioning. They are all stuck in the middle of one of the deadliest wars in human history, with only a limited knowledge of upcoming bombings and troop movements.

I love the balance Willis has struck between the science fiction and historical elements in these books. On one side, the time travellers have an advantage over the contemporaries in that, for the time they were scheduled to be in the past, they have memorized which areas of the country get bombed and burned, so they are pre warned, for a while, of where is safe. On the downside, they live in fear of inadvertently changing the course of history. Time travel is supposed to prevent paradoxes and major changes to history, but small, worrying discrepancies start showing up. Each character experiences World War II both through the eyes of the people around them in the time period, and as a historian with the knowledge of the 21st century.

Willis does a great job of taking readers through the terror and tedium of being in London during the Blitz. People are terrified for their lives as bombs reign down, but also have to cope with how boring it is to be stuck in the dark every evening with nothing to do. Little details, like how precious pantyhose become and how difficult it is to navigate when all the road signs are blacked out really add a realism to the text. All three characters have to survive the war, try to find a way back to the future, not get arrested as spies, and try not to wreck history.

There are a lot of complaints on Goodreads about these books being tedious, but I found the pacing to be in line with other historical fiction I have read. Willis does go into a lot of detail about the day-to-day doings of the characters, but that makes the setting real. There is not as much action as science fiction fans might expect, but there is a lot of character development that kept me interested.

I really enjoyed learning about World War II through a science fiction lens. I was constantly popping onto Wikipedia to read articles about the events and people. These are great for historical fiction buffs or anyone who loves time travel.

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The Game series by Eve Silver

rush push crash

3 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of Crash.

These books were a really mixed bag for me. The action and science fiction parts I quite enjoyed while the romance and realistic fiction parts left me unsatisfied and restless.

Miki is a somewhat normal girl who finds herself sucked into a game where she must kill aliens. If she manages to make it through the round, she will be spit back into her normal life at the moment she left it, with all of her wounds healed and more points on her score, ready to be pulled back in at anytime in the future. If she dies, she dies in real life. One of her teammates is an old friend from school (Luka) and her team leader is the handsome Jackson, who pushes affection away for fear of what it might lead to (because that is not enough of a YA trope already).

The science fiction premise of kids being forced to battle aliens for their planet is one I have enjoyed in the past (see: Ender’s Game) and I also like the idea of someone ping-ponging between real life and wild adventures and trying to keep things balanced. Unfortunately, this trilogy took a science fiction plot about humans fighting aliens under the direction of The Committee and badly stitched it together with a novel about a girl trying to get over her mother’s death, growing apart from her best friend, and dealing with her father’s alcoholism. The two did not merge well, so you are constantly thrown from one style of book to another and back again. I found it disorienting. The game and the battle between the aliens is exciting and action-paced, and then you are slammed into the tempo of a realistic fiction novel and then sped up for more action. It reads like a car with really touchy brakes. It also means that I felt a lot more for the kids in the game being forced to risk their lives than I did for Miki’s friends. While I would normally be more sympathetic to their everyday cares, the contrast between the two worlds did not paint them in an exceptionally good light. They seem petty and silly next to the other set of characters losing people they love and being shot at by aliens. They end up being grating and annoying.

The love plot line really didn’t take me at all. The bad/ moody guy trying to hide his goodness by being bad and moody is so overused at this point it just turns me right off. I don’t like jerks, and I want someone to respect me enough to explain to me rationally why being cozy might not be the best idea, rather than trying to drive me away by being mean. Let’s have a little self-respect people and not always fall for the person trying to emotionally manipulate you instead of having to explain himself/ herself the way a responsible adult might.

What kept me reading throughout was the foreshadowing, and then outright declarations, that everything is not what it seems in the game. Miki and Jackson start seeing Jackson’s sister, who is supposed to be dead, and The Committee starts being evasive about whether kids are ever allowed to stop playing or not (the rumour is 1000 points means you get out). I appreciated the second and the third books because they wrapped up the story. They also started to overlap the game and Miki’s everyday reality which brought more tension into the story. She is not allowed to talk about the game too precisely in the real world but people she knows and loves are starting to get hurt, so it becomes harder and harder not to.

The science fiction element was well-done. The alien conflict being framed as a video game made it fun and seemed like a nice homage to Orson Scott Card. Adding points and the possibility of escape through those points gave a competitive edge to what otherwise would be a cooperative endeavour. The characters were all written to react differently under stress. Some were realistic (starts to crumble immediately) while some were unrealistic (makes it 5+ years without going insane) but I appreciated the author trying to add some diversity.

I would not say these are worth starting, but if you have started them, then they are worth finishing. The quality does not decline throughout and the third book wraps up the hanging threads nicely. I just wish the disparate elements fit together more neatly.

The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd

madman's daughterher dark curiositycold legacy

4 out of 5 stars.

This trilogy is a rewrite of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and, later, “Frankenstein”. It answers the age-old question that seems to be on every YA writer’s mind. What if a famous character had a teenage daughter? In this case, what if the insane scientist Dr. Moreau had a daughter, Juliet, who loved science as much as he did?

While I did not love the original by H.G. Wells, though it was interesting, Shepherd did a great job preserving the mystery and tension of the original. Even if you already know the ending from reading the classic, you are still caught up in the story and want to know how it happens in this version. The character of the novel is transferred very accurately for a teen rewrite of an older book. The language is not totally accurate for the late 19th century, but it is close enough, and the prose is accessible to a teen audience.

Juliet Moreau and her mother were abandoned by Dr. Moreau when he was run out of England for illegal experiments. After running into her father’s servant (Montgomery), she bullies him into taking her to the infamous island from the Well’s novel. They run into another handsome young man (there tend to be a lot of those in YA novels) adrift in the ocean (Edward) and he also accompanies them to the mysterious, spooky island where mysterious spooky things are happening. For those of you who are familiar with Wells, you know what the island’s secret is. For the rest, go Wikipedia it or watch the Simpson’s episode.

The second book deals with the aftermath of the island and some health problems of various characters, which Juliet has to struggle to solve. The third ties in the “Frankenstein” plot from Shelley.

Juliet Moreau is caught in between her love of science and her fear that her father’s madness will lead her down the same dark path. She sees the potential for good in her father’s research, but also the huge destructive power. In many points in the books, she has to decide whether to attempt to duplicate Moreau’s procedures to try to do good, or if all of his work is tainted and will lead to nothing but sorrow.

There is romance in the books. It starts out as a very predictable love triangle but actually turns into something sweeter and more realistic as the trilogy wears on. I found this was true of many of the elements of these books. They got even better as the series went on.

These are great for lovers of classics being revisited, or historical science fiction. They are suspenseful and atmospheric and the ending is so well done.

Also, if you enjoy these, go ahead and check out Kenneth Oppel’s The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series. Very similar feel.

Psi Chronicles by Lana Krumwiede

freaklingarchontrue son

4 out of 5 stars.

This series has a really cool premise. Everyone in the society has telekinesis (or even cooler powers! They are all called psi), so everyone without mental abilities are considered impaired and exiled to a small community where everyone *gasp* has to use their hands for things!! It is taken as such a given that people can move stuff with their minds that the normal buildings do not have doorknobs. Taemon has powers, but locks them away when he almost kills his (admittedly horrible and evil) older brother. Suddenly he is trying to hide his lack of psi from everyone including his older brother (because of the afore-mentioned evilness).

Taemon, between all three of the books, manages to experience all levels of society and ability. This manages to give us a really good look at the world the author has created. This includes the religion, the society and its unpowered counterpart, and their neighbouring kingdoms and foreign relations. Krumwiede has created a very detailed and convincing world and it was great to explore it.

Taemon’s brother is a pretty convincing villain (though he is not the only one), but was the annoying evil/ arrogant type of villain that, because of their relationship, the protagonist is too lenient with. Seriously, he deserved one hell of a punching.

My own morals were in pretty severe conflict with the protagonist’s for quite a bit of these books. Taemon tries to stick to more absolute rules, but since I am a consequentialist, I disagree with quite a few of his decisions (like not punching his stupid brother in his stupid face). It is a tough go when you think the protagonist is being a purist idiot, but it was an enjoyable read nonetheless.

The first book ends up being fairly simple plot-wise. It is the second and third that really introduce us to the nuances Krumwiede is capable of. You get quite a few new characters and an introduction to two new kingdoms, both with varying degrees of psi and technology. The plot gets a lot more political and a lot more interesting.

The best part of the books was probably reading about the differences between psi and unpowered life. Taemon’s transition from powered to unpowered to powered, and learning all of the accompanying skills, was a neat detail to add to the story. The most frustrating part of the series was the way Krumwiede portrays humanity as a whole. He has people reacting to disaster like stubborn, panicky, gullible idiots. This may be completely accurate, but I find it disheartening. I want to believe we are also flexible, adaptable and occasionally thoughtful. In my mind, the books leaned more towards portraying the worst humanity has to offer as a group, with individualism as the only way we are able to behave rationally.

I would recommend this to any science fiction fans, and anyone who likes stories in which our realities are reversed. Finding out what one person thinks society would be like if most of us were telekinetic made this a really interesting and compelling read.

Steelheart and Firefight by Brandon Sanderson

steelheartfirefight

5 out of 5 stars.

It is really hard to express just how much I loved these books. They are a YA version of Disney’s The Incredibles or The Watchmen. They explore some of the more serious and practical implications of having super-powered individuals running around. In the case of these works, some people have gained awesome powers, but pretty much every affected individual has been corrupted. There are no superheroes, just super villains. And they are terrorizing EVERYONE. Even each other.

One of the details I really admired is the classification system used to rate and analyze superpowers by the main character. David is insanely geeky about the Epics (super-powered individuals) ever since one killed his father. He has studied their powers, risked his life to spy on them and now knows many of their weaknesses. I loved the level of detail Sanderson goes into while making his world. Epics usually have unique powers, but their are threads of commonality and powers that can be used to rate their powers and even help predict weaknesses. I guess it is the librarian in me that loves a good organization system, but Brandon Sanderson has put some serious thought into how superpowers would work, what weaknesses they could impart, and how to rate power and skill. I love this detail. It makes the resulting world wonderfully real.

The Epic names are sometimes ridiculous, (think early comic book era campiness), but they are always dangerous and bloodthirsty. It is at once a throwback to the origins of superheroes and comic books, while reminding us of the real violence and oppression that could come if Superman decided to go evil. This edgy humour and character is there throughout both books. There are awesome duels with powers, cool tech gadgets and even some quippy dialogue, contrasted with the utter devastation that can come with someone insane and evil happening to have ultimate God-like power. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It turns out later that using the powers themselves corrupts the Epics, so it may not be the complete moral failing of individuals, but a side-effect of the powers themselves. This leads the characters to a fairly serious consideration of ethics: whether it is ethical to kill one insane dangerous person who is not at fault to preserve the lives of thousands or even millions.

David is a great protagonist. A nerdy introvert who, since he has spent the last decade researching, has no idea how to talk to girls or construct understandable similes and metaphors (some are quite funny). He is determined to kill Steelheart, but needs some help. Luckily, there is a small but effective band of rebels that travel from Epic-dominated city to city, killing as many Epics as they can. They may be willing to help, but Steelheart is insanely powerful and the only one who has ever seen him bleed and lived (David) still has no idea exactly what Steelheart’s one weakness is.

These books read a lot like movies. They have the tight, snappy dialogue you would expect from a masterful screenwriter, and non-stop action. It is so hard to put down this series and I heartily recommend it to everyone. Absolutely everyone. Brandon Sanderson is wonderful.

Illusive and Deceptive by Emily Lloyd-Jones

illusive deceptive

4 out of 5 stars

I received an ARC of the second book.

Spoiler alert for the first book.

What started as a vaccine to save humanity may have become its undoing. Aside from protecting most humans from a deadly virus, the vaccine gives superpowers to a small minority. The US government is trying to track all super-powered individuals down and force them into service. Those who want to remain independent can either go at it alone (not advised since the bounty on individuals with powers is high), or they can work for one of the major crime families and trade their skills for protection.

Ciere, our protagonist and powerful illusionist, has survived so far in a small band of thieves and con artists, avoiding both the crime syndicates and the government. When she and her friends get involved in tracing the original vaccine formula, she is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and has to decide which side is better equipped to handle what may be the unfettered ability to grant superpowers.

This books is perfect for anyone who enjoyed Holly Black’s Curse Workers trilogy. They both have mafia-style gangs of criminals, select persons who use powers to commit crimes, and even a similar narrative voice (somewhat irreverent and funny teen narrator).

Ciere eventually sides with the mob, figuring there is going to be nothing worse for international politics than the US with a super-hero army at their disposal, but two of her friends end up in the other camp. One, Daniel, is coerced by a high-level manipulator into serving in exchange for immunity for Ciere and some others. Devon willingly takes an internship as a way to get away from his father. We get the second book from a variety of different perspectives that show many of the implications of having a select few in a society having God-like powers. How can you track and control them and is it ethical? Can you create them? Would you even want to try?

The worst part of the book was the confusion between Daniel’s and Devon’s characters. They have different back stories, but their names are so similar that, when reading quickly, it is hard to remember who is who. They both start with “D”, both are Ciere’s friends and both work and interact with the same people. It was confusing at times.

I really enjoyed this series. It has the surprises and intricate plots you can expect from heist and crime films, with the action you would predict from a YA science fiction novel. I love that a bunch of potential super heroes have to go into hiding and use their powers to pull off crimes. The classification and selection of superheroes was well done, with the vaccine only granting 6 or so various powers (illusion, manipulation, thought-reading, etc.), each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some powers cancel each other out in some ways, so each crime and trick must have the proper cadre of powers if it has any hope of success. The way they play off of each other is well done.

The characters are well written. They take their situations seriously and do not get completely sidetracked from all possible peril by romance. Hooray!

I really, really enjoyed these books. They are just the right amount of fun and serious. They are an awesome spin on the superhero tropes. Go Emily Lloyd-Jones!

Denton Little’s Deathdate by Lance Rubin

denton's little deathdate

4 out of 5 stars.

I received an ARC of this work.

Denton Little lives in a world where most people are able to find out the day they will die by having their DNA analyzed at birth. Denton Little will die when he is 17. That day has now arrived, and he is not sure how to handle it. Follow Denton through his last two days and watch his growing realization that not everything is as it should be.

First note: despite this really seeming like a science fiction novel, it reads a lot more like contemporary fiction. This is a style that will really work for teens who love books like John Green’s novels and maybe want to dip their toes into the science fiction pool. The premise is science fiction: using statistics and DNA analysis to figure out when someone is going to die, but the writing style and voice are very modern.

The world building is very subtle. Pretty much everything looks and feels identical, but people have different funeral rites, and different expectations of people, depending on when they will die (you can get away with a LOT if you are dying tomorrow). Denton has normal teen problems compounded by the fact that he is going to die. He really wants to sleep with his girlfriend, and has less than 2 days in which to accomplish that. He has a quirky best friend that he has to say goodbye to. He has a dead mother he knows nothing about. This book is not about Denton trying to save the world or topple a despotic government. It is a personal book about his reflections about his life and relationships, and how he is going to order his priorities knowing how much time he has left. There are glimpses of how weird it would get attending your own funeral and how scary it would be to count down to the end, but some convincing arguments are made that it would be nice to always have a  chance to say goodbye and get your affairs in order. Some countries even made it illegal not to know, since being able to find out when large amounts of people are going to die may help the government get other people out of a potential blast radius.

Nobody knows how they are going to die, just the 24 hour period in which they will go, so it brings up some important predetermination questions. If you are meant to die by suicide, is it possible to stop yourself? If someone has to die by being murdered, is it fair to blame the murderer? Can you provide substandard medical care if you know someone is going to die the next day anyways?

Denton’s voice and personality come in very strongly, and you can definitely see this guy being someone you went to school with. His interactions with his best friend are goofy and touching. His relationship with his girlfriend is confusing, maddening and about what you would expect for a high-school relationship. These are teens doing teen things: being horny, goofy, confused and angry.

This story is private and personal. It gives a decent view of what modern, western society would be like given a little more information about life. The characters are interesting and personable. This is a very unique read that mixes genres. I would recommend keeping an eye on this book and this author. It mixes very normal teen writing with some surprisingly insightful questions and moments.