Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic fiction

Book Review: Eternity Road: Strong World Building and Weak Characters

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9780061054273

I was caught by the blurb on the back of Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road. It is not my usual genre by any standards. It is adult, post-apocalyptic, journey fiction. A plague tore through the population. Centuries on, humanity has grouped again into large cities though much of the knowledge of the eons has been lost—everything from basic geography to Christian philosophy to the printing press. The main transport is horseback though man-powered and current-driven barges and boats travel the Mississippi and Hudson. Recently several cities have formed alliances and unified their governments. People remain nostalgic for the time before the virus, awed by the giant and enduring ruins of that culture, called the Roadmakers.

It was refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic world that was neither technologically advanced nor dystopian. Life in Illyria is fairly civilized. There are not government-sponsored death matches or even a focus on government corruption within the text.

McDevitt does a very good job building new cultures and societies out of the scraps of ours. Language evolution is visible in the names. There are new gods and religious traditions. He uses the journey to explore several ways of living, and particularly several views of sexuality, with which he frankly seems a little preoccupied to me, but then I read a lot of kid lit.

I’d expected from the blurb, a greater emphasis on the power of fiction—or a greater connection between this plot and that of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain’s novel serves only as proof that a sanctuary might have been discovered by a seemingly unsuccessful expedition where Roadmaker culture—American culture of at least several decades beyond present day—might have persisted or been preserved. There is still however a strong undertone of the value of literature to dandle every reader’s soul.

Chaka and Avila seemed very promisingly feminist characters. As too many do though, I felt as if this male writer didn’t quite know how to handle them. I don’t like to criticize on that front when my own story features at least one male protagonist, but Chaka particularly had the chance. She is the first to call for an expedition and the one to gather the crew, but she is never considered for a leadership role and seemed to not consider herself for one either. She is too preoccupied with the male characters, to willing to rely on male protection and leadership, making her more of a male fantasy than a feminist role model. Avila’s curiosity, readiness to break tradition, and resourcefulness make her a more feminist model, but she is also given less time in the text. I do have to give McDevitt a few points for his attempts to write feminist characters in these and then the very briefly present Judge… who is never named.

In truth I think it is less a problem of not knowing how to handle female protagonists than a problem of not knowing how to handle characters or maybe a group of characters. None of the characters develop as fully as I’d have liked. I had a difficult time distinguishing between the men of the expedition. McDevitt made attempts to differentiate them and to have them exhibit growth, but the characters never came alive.

Without vivacious characters, I had a difficult time investing in the journey, which, granted, took the team through some interesting ruins but one ruin did not really build to another so that the journey read as scenes of excitement bridged by lulls filled all too often with the characters’ romantic and lustful relationships with one another. One Goodreads reviewer compared the book to a bus tour, and that’s not inaccurate. Journey fiction is difficult. The lull between adventures is difficult. It really takes at least one strong character to uphold the reader’s attention. Stronger characters are I think one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings works better than The Hobbit, for example. The Lord of the Rings has a whole company of strong characters. For me, Bilbo is perhaps the only standout in his company, the dwarves mostly blending together in the text. For me, Eternity Road’s crew seemed more like the dwarves of The Hobbit, acting mostly as a group than a collection of individuals. That might be one more reason why the romances between the characters felt so jarring.

***

McDevitt, Jack. Eternity Road. New York: Harper Voyager-HarperCollins, 2011. First printed 1997.

This review is not endorsed by Jack McDevitt, Harper Voyager, or HarperCollins Publishers .  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book and Film Review: Warm Bodies is Deliciously Meaty

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, synopsis, starred rating, and preview.

Beware spoilers.

Reading Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, I realized just how many escapist, donuts-for-dinner books I’ve been reading.  After all those donuts, it felt great to sit down to a real meat-and-potatoes dinner, the type of book that begs literary analysis of a classroom level—which Warm Bodies did despite being a zombie romance made recently into a motion picture.

Warm Bodies is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but also combines elements of “Beauty and the Beast” and of course the zombie apocalypse/post-apocalypse genre.  I saw the film before I read the book.  The Romeo and Juliet storyline did not fully register—though it did niggle—in my mind in the film till “the balcony scene.”  In the film, the balcony scene was subtly done, with camera angles echoing other, truer Romeo and Juliet adaptations mostly, though Julie echoes Juliet’s “if they do see thee, they will murder thee” (2.2.70) sentiment.  Marion’s book was a bit more blunt about the connection it wanted the reader to draw from this scene, where Julie uses a tape recorder to soliloquize to and wonders aloud what R is, what zombies are: “isn’t ‘zombie’ just a silly name we came up with for a state of being we don’t understand?  What’s in a name, right?” (127).  In this scene, I preferred the film to the book, but I wonder if that would still be the case had I not seen the movie already and already connected the story to Romeo and Juliet.

The film catered to its medium—as it should have done.  The plot was simplified, though it still asked the questions of “what is living?”, “what is death?” and all that must come up when a zombie begins to think about itself and its place in the pre-apocalypse and post-apocalypse world.

Prior to this story, I’d not seen any zombie films or read any zombie fiction, but I know enough about the genre to recognize that Marion has done something different with the zombie concept.  R is a zombie who questions himself and questions the structured zombie society of which he is a part.  Where the Boneys in the film were eaters of everything with a heartbeat, creatures of chaos and destruction, in the book they were priests more than anything else.  In Marion’s book they led the zombie church, preformed weddings, and reminded the undead about the dangers of the Living, a force for structure.

Yet ultimately, the Boneys are the enemy of both mediums.  Unable to return from the undead as R and the Fleshies are, they seek to destroy R and Julie and their hope and love for the threat that they pose to the new world order that the Boneys have created among the zombie hives.

I could not say that either medium presented the better story.  The humor of the film gave the action/adventure/zombie apocalypse a romantic comedy tone.  The mix of the genres was very appealing.  The book asked more of the deeper questions with more force than the film did and was more tragic ultimately than the film, though both ended with hope.  The book ventures more deeply into the effects of a zombpocalypse on humanity and on individuals and more dramatically portrays how the Living can be made dead by fear.

*****

for the book

Marion, Isaac.  Warm Bodies.  New York: Emily Bestler/Atria-Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Warm Bodies.  Dir. Jonathan Levine.  Summit, Make Movies, Mandeville.  2012.

This review is not endorsed by Isaac Marion, Emily Bestler Books, Atria Paperback, or Simon & Schuster, Inc or Summit Entertainment, Make Movies, or Mandeville Films.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Film Review: The Hunger Games: “Thank you for your consideration”

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Minor series spoilers.

I’ve just returned from seeing the much-touted cinematic adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which was highly influenced by Suzanne Collins herself in her roles as co-screenwriter and co-producer (I applaud her victory on that count).  You might remember that I wasn’t a huge fan of the book itself.  I suppose it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that I wasn’t head-over-heels for the film either.

The film cleared up Katniss’ gender easily (reading the book, her first person voice was masculine enough to greatly confuse me, really, till I turned to the back and saw that she was given the feminine pronoun), and I enjoyed its insight into life outside the arena, in the Game room, President Snow’s garden, Districts 12 and 11….  These insights deepen the plot by showing the causes and effects of Katniss’ actions in the arena, about which Katniss might speculate in the book but of which she knows nothing for certain.  As someone who I think ships the (I believe, but remember I haven’t read the second or third books yet) star-crossed pairing of Katniss/Gale, the scenes of Gale’s reactions to Katniss and Peeta’s budding though potentially pretended relationship were particularly heart-rending.

Almost all around, this is a well-acted film.  The characters were easy to feel for (or hate as appropriate), and little interaction was required to express their feelings for one another.  Especially skilled were Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, Liam Hemsworth as Gale, and Amandla Stenberg as Rue.

What this movie failed to express—or failed to express as clearly as the book does was Katniss’ and Peeta’s reactions to being pawns in the Hunger Games.  The focus seemed to be on the excitement and peril of the Games and less on the problem with the government that the Games exposes.  This, I think, is mostly the fault of the medium.  Katniss’ voice is a close one in the novel.  Her inner monologue is absent from the movie.  Peeta’s anti-government feelings, though, might have been played up more on film.

Much, really, overall might have been better explained, such as mockingjays’ and tracker jackers’ historical importance and the symbolism of three upheld fingers.

I’d be interested to hear opinions from those who haven’t read the books.  Was the story clear?  What did you or didn’t you understand?

I can see though where fans of the books would come away quite satisfied.  The movie’s plot adheres quite closely to the book’s (so far as I recall), so fans of the series will grumble about errors more quietly than, say, Tolkienites or Potter-heads tended to after seeing their films.

I almost think though, for all this and all my previous grumbles, that I prefer the book to the movie because it more strongly comes across as a political struggle, and I enjoy a strong focus on politics in my plots.

It maybe should be mentioned that, while I haven’t read Catching Fire or Mockingjay, I’ve read a few spoilers.  I’m not actually sure that I felt that The Hunger Games book did emphasize political struggle as strongly as I’d have liked; I think I’ve imposed a stronger emphasis on those stirrings of political dissent post-spoiler than I originally read in Katniss’ grumbles.

My film rating?

***

The Hunger Games.  Dir. Gary Ross.  Lionsgate.  2012.

This review is not endorsed by Lionsgate, Gary Ross, anyone in the cast, or anyone involved in making this film, nor Suzanne Collins or Scholastic. It is an independent, honest review by a viewer.

Book Review: Black is Colorful but Too Forceful

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There are many spoilers in this article, and they are unmarked but very revealing.  Ye be warned.

Black, the first book in the Circle Trilogy by Ted Dekker tells two stories that I have yet to connect as thoroughly as the hero, Thomas Hunter, comes to believe them to be.  Thomas lives in two worlds: the present-day Earth, where he somehow becomes the center of a plot to release and a plot to stop a powerful biochemical weapon, and the utopia that Earth will become if that weapon is released, where God is very present, and evil is contained in the lower hemisphere.

Honestly, I kept hoping that Black would get better.  Like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and other apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic literature, the plot of Black is gripping.  With the world dependent on the governments’ belief in one man’s outlandish dreams, the threat of a biochemical weapon that will eradicate the human population in three weeks, and (in Thomas’ dreams) the threat of demonic, oversized bats, it’s difficult not to race towards a conclusion, to be dragged along by the intricate plots and schemes of madmen, assassins, unlikely rescues, death threats, and deaths.

I have a difficulty liking novels that rely so heavily on such fear and danger because I feel like I’m being tricked into hurrying through the novel; I feel like the author has me by a nose ring and is dragging me along with them forcefully.  I don’t read because I want to; I read because I have to, and I don’t like feeling forced and rewarded with nothing more than more danger, threat, and fear.  (I realized as I wrote this paragraph that a) I may need to reevaluate my own style of making journeys more interesting, and b) Rick Riordan frequently uses the apocalypse coming plot, but he rewards me with humor, mythology lessons, and generally victory and so his books seem to rely less heavily on threat, and I consequentially love their breakneck pace.)

Further force is employed by the ending, which is perhaps the most precarious cliffhanger I’ve ever read (if, at least, I consider The Lord of the Rings a single book).  If I want to discover which world is real, if the virus is stopped, who lives and who dies, I will have to complete the trilogy because the book ends with no conclusion and Thomas at gunpoint.

What Dekker does do really well in Black is bring reality to fantastical dreamscapes and less-fantastical fictional realities.  It’s easy to question with Thomas which reality—the Earth as we know it, or the Earth of a hypothetical post-apocalyptic future—is “real.”  With his description of setting and feeling—perceptions, emotions—Dekker creates the realities of these worlds.

As Christian literature—which it very plainly is, the future world’s plot being a retelling of Eden and the Fall—Dekker escapes some of my usual critique of being too “preachy” by placing God in a dreamscape where he manifests himself most as a small boy too wise for his years called Elyon.  Dekker has some very interesting ways of describing God’s love for the world and for Man, but I don’t think that for me, personally, his descriptions were very illuminating.  Perhaps that was his point: that it is impossible to fully explain or comprehend God, but that we can feel his love without fully understanding.

**1/2

Dekker, Ted.  The Circle, Book One: Black: The Birth of Evil.  Nashville: WestBow-Thomas Nelson, 2004.

This review is not endorsed by Ted Dekker, WestBow Press, or Thomas Nelson, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: The Hunger Games. More Than Favorable Odds: The Hunger Games’ Popularity Analyzed

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My friends at the Gwelsey Virus began with rules that, if broken, meant punishment for the rule-breaker. If any of my friends want to assign me a punishment, I will accept it. I am about to break the one rule I put in place for myself: that I kept things to 550 words or less.

This is the first review that I’ve written with the idea of getting it published somewhere other than this blog. I feel the writing is pretty tight, but it is over 1000 words long.  I just don’t know that I can trim that any further.  (If wants to offer a critique, do, because I haven’t submitted it anywhere yet.  Or if anyone knows where to submit reviews like this, I’d appreciate that even more.)  If I later find the energy to try, perhaps I’ll post the short review.

In the meantime, enjoy:

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games Trilogy has been receiving a lot of critical and popular attention of late, probably at least in part due to Lionsgate’s announcement of a film adaptation of the popular YA, post-apocalyptic series’ first and title book due to be released in March 2012. I am, I know, late to the feast, so to speak. I only recently finished the first book, The Hunger Games.

Perhaps because of the hype that has been built up around this series, I found it at first disappointing. Within the first ten pages of text, I was terribly confused and put-off. I found the voice suffered from gender confusion. I was confused why two boys—Gale and Katniss—were discussing having children and why there seemed to be a definite implied “together” within that discussion, having heard nothing of a pro-homosexual aspect to The Hunger Games, something that is unlikely to be overlooked in discussions, popular or critical. Giving my mother a basic summary of the book, I turned to the back cover, looking for clues to the plot, and only then discovered that the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is in fact not male as her first person voice had led me to suspect, but female. Even discussion of her name in a pool of all the girls in District 12 did not wholly convince me of her gender, so seemingly male is Collins’ narrative voice.

I lamented this among friends, who wondered whether the gender confusion of Katniss’ voice was not intentional. I don’t know whether or not it could be. It is possible. Katniss, a trade hunter, has been playing a more stereotypically male role within her family for many years. She is the breadwinner and looks after the basic needs of her mother and sister in a stereotypically male fashion: by hunting in the woods and haggling for the best trade.

Eventually, I overcame the confusion I felt, though not without setting aside the book for some time and reading the whole of Rick Riordan’s The Throne of Fire and a large portion of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. I can’t name the exact moment that I decided to believe that Katniss was female; maybe it didn’t even happen within the text so much as within my head. Perhaps Katniss’ voice became more feminine as I journeyed deeper into the book. But either way, I emerged with an image of Katniss as strong, fiery, rebellious, independent woman, though I doubt that she will actually emerge from the series as a single, independent woman.

Like the Gamemakers and ranking officials of the Capitol in her world, Collins seems to very well understand that sex and violence sell (though the romance of the book stopped short of sex), and she used this to write a best-selling series. In fact, Katniss bears some resemblance to a stronger, more active Bella Swan (of Stephanie Meyers’ supremely popular Twilight series), unable to decide between two good men who love her and waffling over which she should love while believing herself unworthy of the attentions of either, unable to see her own apparent allure. I can’t really fault Collins for utilizing these proven money-makers, but it does seem a bit ironic that while she faults the Capitol for staging the Hunger Games, a death-match for entertainment of the Capitol citizens, for food for the winning district, and a reminder not to rebel against the current government, she uses a death-match to lure readers.

Perhaps because I came into the series knowing the basic premise, I was not as horrified as I could have been by the concept. That knowledge that I’m reading a work of fiction might also have factored into my less-than-terrified reaction. Still, I recognize what Collins is saying. The Hunger Games do read a bit like a season of Survivor where players are killed rather than voted off the island and the participants are children below the age of eighteen and the majority are unwilling victims. Perhaps a better analogy, though less current, is to a government-sponsored, publicly viewed reenactment of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies.

Now, it’s time to admit it: Like so many others, once I was caught in the action, the book was a quick, capturing read. At several points, I was emotionally wrecked by the book, which is always high praise. I’m not sure that I was wrecked at the moments that I should have been, but Shakespeare proved years ago that audiences love a tale of star-crossed lovers. Those moments of doomed romance I found more compelling, more heart-rending than I did the deaths and descriptions of hunger, dehydration, poisoning, and oozing wounds. Further proving its merit, I left the book feeling that it was one that was going to take some sorting, that I was forced to think, but perhaps I merely missed the happy ending, which I ought to have known from the opening pages was not forthcoming.

At any rate, am I glad I read this book, beyond now having entered the conversation ringing in the halls of children’s literature criticism and popular culture? Yes, I think I am. The Hunger Games was far from the best book, technically or in terms of its plot, that I have read even recently (but then, I am reading Tolkien’s classic and few can really compare to that), but it was a book driven by questions of character, of plot, and of the future of our society that I think has made a lasting impression. Apart from Katniss’ voice of which I have still have my doubts, the majority of the characters were believable, though some were perhaps a bit overblown, like Haymitch, Effie Trinket, and Cato (who I wish was unbelievable). Collins has thought through characters’ motivations carefully and crafted a story that I think showcases the characters more than it does the situation and the plot, which I was not expecting in a post-apocalyptic tale. These seem like characters who will not quickly fade from memory, which when compounded with its exciting, peril-filled, anti-government plot, probably accounts for the series’ popularity as much as does Collins use of perennially and currently popular aspects of plot.

**

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic, 2008.

This review is not endorsed by Scholastic, Lionsgate, Suzanne Collins, the Capitol, or the Gamemakers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.