Book Review: Mockingjay

August 26, 2010

In 2008, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel The Hunger Games reached popular and critical acclaim for its compelling portrayal of the intricacies of love and loyalty when set against the human desire to survive. Its sequel, Catching Fire, moved seamlessly into the lengths to which an oppressive ruling power will stretch to maintain their fragile control, and what it takes to forge a revolution. In Mockingjay, the third and final chronicle of the Hunger Games, Collins takes us on a spare-no-glance tour of the cost of war on a nation and on the human soul, and of how far we are willing to go in defense of a fragile conception of moral right.

Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Who was on Fire, has survived two of the infamous death matches known as the Hunger Games and has unintentionally made herself into the symbol of the resistance against the Capitol’s tyrannical rule. Peeta, the one person who has been through as much as she has and understands, has been captured by the Capitol. District 12, her home, is a firebombed ruin. All around her war rages– the districts are revolting, and at last President Snow’s regime will be toppled or will crush them all.

Katniss is safe in the hands of the surviving District 13, protected as the face of a revolution must be. Inside, she is terrified by the loss of Peeta, enraged by the abuses of the Capitol, and discomfited by the “allies” who seek to use her standing for their own ends. The only stable thing in her life seems to be Gale, her oldest remaining friend, and even he seems to be someone she doesn’t quite recognize any more. Amidst all of this, Katniss must put aside her misgivings and come to terms with the fact that she is the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope for a nation, who is responsible for countless lives.

Anyone who has read one or both of the previous Hunger Games books knows that Suzanne Collins pulls no punches with her vivid prose, but even knowing this I wasn’t prepared for the brutality of Mockingjay. This is a book about love, trust, family, and heroism, true, but above all else it is a story of war and what war does to us. You will not necessarily like this book; you may come out of it hating Collins, Katniss, Peeta, Gale, or any other of the numerous characters. But it will resonate with you, and that, combined with your hatred, will be how you know Collins succeeded in what she set out to do– her characters are human. They have human lusts, fears, weaknesses, and strengths. Their every defeat is diluted by hope, and their every victory is tainted by regret. At the end, you will be hard pressed to say who won, exactly, because each side– every individual, in fact–left so indelible a mark on the outcome that the idea of “winning” seems nothing more than a nostalgic fantasy from before everything was set in motion.


Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Jemisin)

May 28, 2010

I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.

I must try to remember.

These are the first words of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, book one of the Inheritance Trilogy. From this enigmatic beginning the story unfolds in a way that is both disjointed and arrestingly personal. In most books narrated in the first person, the narrator tells us what happened to them without mentioning any bearing that it has on them now– they relate the events of their story, occasionally offering insight, but never making it clear what has happened since it ended or why they are offering it. Yeine proffers her tale in tantalizing bits and pieces, mixed up and out of order, interrupted by distracted tangents that support the assumption that she is looking back on all of this with regret. She may be talking to the reader, or simply to herself, but from this jumble she draws pieces that she draws together more and more tightly, right up until the dramatic finish. I loved Jemisin’s bizarre but highly effective style.

But I’ve gotten a bit out of order myself– it’s rather essential to mention what it is the story is about, wouldn’t you say? I’ll see if I can do it justice.

Yeine Darr is an outlander from the barbarian north of the empire that is the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. When her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the royal city of Sky, where, to her shock, she is named one of the heirs to the king’s throne. Despite the fact that Yeine would rather go home and deal with the monarchy from afar, ruling her own people as best she can, she is quickly drawn into a tangled web of conspiracy and lies which centers around the relationship between the Arameri (the ruling family) and the gods, who the Arameri long ago pulled down from their pedestals and enslaved, and who are every bit as terrifying as, but in ways more human than, Yeine’s royal relations. What Yeine cannot puzzle out is exactly why the Arameri would be interested in her— let alone the gods. Only two things are certain in the floating city of light and secrets– Yeine is held out of her depth by those around her, and many of them want her dead.

This book contains explicit sexual content.


Book Review: The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi)

May 23, 2010

There is no denying that Orwell’s 1984 was a relevant and terrifying speculation on the future when it came out in 1949, and that elements of its prophecy have come true, but fascism is not the threat to our way of life that it once was. The world has changed, and its nightmares have changed with it. Paolo Bacigalupi has provided an updated account of what humanity is doing to itself: welcome to the world of The Windup Girl, where domestic cats have been supplanted by flickering engineered cheshires, calories are currency, and governments and corporations struggle to stay one step ahead of the bio-terrorist super-blights which ravish the world’s rapidly diminishing supply of produce.

Many of the world’s nations have already fallen to blister rust, cibiscosis, genehack weevils, and the predations of the midwestern monopolies, which sell sterile crops so that none can take their market. Thailand has survived by nationalizing its seedbank and keeping the secrets of the last natural flora for themselves, but Anderson Lake has come undercover from AgriGen to take their secrets for his company’s profit. But his factory manager Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee from genocide, has plans of his own.

Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, the Tiger of Bangkok, leads the Environmental Ministry’s white shirt enforcers and spends his days intercepting and destroying smugglers’ loads of illegal produce and trying to elicit a laugh from his stoic second, Kanya.

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a beautiful and illegal genetic hack designed to be the companion of a wealthy Japanese businessman, abandoned on the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as abhorrent and unnatural by the Thais, she allows herself to be pressed into the life of a prostitute in exchange for shelter from the white shirts who would euthanize her.

These are the characters around whom Bacigalupi unfolds his epic tale of the age after oil, the characters whose intrigues and desperate attempts at self-preservation may tip the scales on the fate of the entire kingdom in which they machinate, may push humanity to the very brink of extinction. The Windup Girl is as relevant and terrifying as 1984 must have been when it was new. It is a vivid and fully realized conceptualization of what world we may find in the next century, and a dire warning for us all.

For more information and free reading of a few short stories set in the world of The Windup Girl, head on over to Bacigalupi’s website.

This book contains explicit sexual content.


Book Review: The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Pearson)

March 8, 2010

Seventeen-year-old Jenna Fox awakens after more than a year in a coma to find herself in a life—and a body—that she doesn’t quite recognize. Her parents tell her that she’s been in an accident, but much of her past identity and current situation remain a mystery to her: Why has her family abruptly moved from Boston to California, leaving all of her personal belongings behind? Why does her grandmother react to her with such antipathy? Why have her parents instructed her to make sure not to tell anyone about the circumstances of their move? And why can Jenna recite whole passages of Thoreau’s Walden, but remember next to nothing of her own past? As she watches family videos of her childhood, strange memories begin to surface, and she slowly realizes that a terrible secret is being kept from her. (synopsis from School Library Journal)

This is one of those books that makes me feel somewhat out of the loop. Apparently it was something of a Big Deal. Like Keturah and Lord Death, it’s not the next great American novel or anything, but well-received and sort of acclaimed. I had never heard of it and picked it up on a whim. But I am glad that I did.

Now, personally, I will gladly debate almost anyone on politics/religion/the big questions- American culture, Christianity’s merits and flaws, LGBT rights, whether the human race deserves to go extinct… just about the only thing I won’t touch is medical ethics. This is because medical ethics are very, very scary. Drawing a line between doing right and saving lives and playing God, meddling with what shouldn’t be meddled, that is something which I refuse to have an opinion on, because it seems like a question so convoluted as to be impossible. With the kind of technology we have today, and will have in the years to come, we can do some amazing things to help people. But atque in luce, sic semper in tenebra (“as it is in light, so always in darkness”), and so on. We as human beings always manage to hurt people with our miracles, and the capacity for harm in some of the things we’re developing is mind-boggling. I don’t want to get involved.

So when someone, in this case Mary E. Pearson, tackles the very questions I’m too wussy to examine with literary grace and aplomb, I tend to cheer them on. Not only is this book full of deep thoughts, but it presents them in a way that provokes further examination long after you’ve closed its covers. Ultimately, it even presents a funny kind of hope, though the limits Pearson defines are too far past my own personal lines for comfort. It’s only 265 pages, almost slim, but is weighs on you heavily enough that it feels much longer. Gripping and powerful are the two words that come to mind, overused though they may be.

The romance seemed a little thin to me, and never quite got the point of the character Dane- he could probably have been cut out and I wouldn’t have missed him- but otherwise I liked it. Jenna herself seems to be emotionally distant for much of the book, but it fits with her lack of/developing identity, so it works. Four stars.