Tag Archives: science-fiction

Book Review: Friendship as a Superpower in Hilo

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Spoilers!

It was the jacket blurb on the back of the most recent (6th) book in the Hilo series that got me interested in this graphic novel series:  “Being a hero isn’t easy.  But Hilo had no idea it would be this hard.  Hilo came to earth because he was running from Razorwark.  But he’s done running.”

DJ Lim feels mediocre in the shadow his four siblings.  In the absence of his best friend, Gina Cooper, who moved to New York 3 years back, he feels alone.  Being friends with Gina was the one thing that he felt he was good at. 

Alone, he goes to investigate a fallen object and finds a pale-skinned, blond boy in metallic underwear in the crater.  The boy speaks English—or he does after a static shock occurs between him and DJ—but he knows nothing of Earth—not grass, not milk, not rice—and delightfully believes that humans scream at one another in greeting—nor does he know anything about himself or where he came from or why he fell from the sky.  He gives DJ no choice but to befriend him as he asks the way to DJ’s house and then leads the way there with a cry of “outstanding!”  Hilo faces anything short of life-threatening (and even a few things that are life-threatening) with exuberance.

Over the course of the book, Hilo begins to remember more about his life before he fell.  It comes to light that he is a robot who can shoot lasers from his hands and fly and that his mission is to stop Razorwark, a robot who destroyed the capital city where Hilo lived.  In his more technologically advanced parallel universe, robots do most work for humans, but some robots have become noncompliant and are seeking to destroy instead of serve humans.  Hilo was created to stop the noncompliant, “bad” robots, the most powerful of which is Razorwark (155). (Razorwark’s methods of rebellion, destroying the whole city, are extreme, but I’ll be interested in more discussion in later books about whether the cause itself is wrong.)

There is a great deal of action in this book, whole pages of battle without dialogue.  There are too many jokes about burping for my taste.  Although with Hilo’s photographic memory and ability to breeze through a dictionary and most of an encyclopedia collection in 20 minutes, Winick squeezes in factoids about Texas and some difficult vocabulary words like “octoped” and “astronomy” and “vacate.”

Although the titular character bears the appearance of a white male, I appreciate the diversity in this cast.  DJ, who I would argue is the primary POV character, is Asian American, and his best friend, Gina—who happens to return to town the same day that Hilo crashes there—is Black. 

I really appreciated the lesson about the elasticity of friendship and about what makes a person interesting: 

(p. 125 and 132)

DJ by protecting Hilo reminds Hilo that he was made to protect others.  DJ learns the strength and importance of his skill in friendship, although it is difficult to put on a college resume. 

Hilo returns to his universe to protect the people of this, his friends DJ and Gina and their families.  But it isn’t enough.  In the final pages, Razorwark comes through the portal through which Hilo fell, making quite a hook for book 2 in the series.

***

Winick, Judd. Hilo, Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth. New York: Penguin Random, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

Visit Penguin Random for links to purchase, summary, sample, reviews, and author’s bio.

This review is not endorsed by Judd Winick, Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: The Wide World of Amulet Needs a Clear Path

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I ended up blitzing my way through the remainder of the published Amulet books in a week.  Each ends on a tantalizing hook for the next installment, making the series difficult to set aside, but reading the next book, it is difficult to judge how much time has passed between.  It seems like it’s meant several times to be months, so I don’t think that the series was ever meant to be read one after the other after the other as I read them.  The books felt rushed, and I don’t wholly attribute that to my rapidfire reading of them.  I am going to openly admit that this is a series rather than an individual book review.  I will have to look again at the books, I think, to even parse out what happened in each. 

SPOILERS!!

These books see the arrival of the Hayes to the planet of Alledia.  Alledia is Earth-like but larger and home to more races of sentient species, including elves and prophetic gadoba trees and a humanoid species.  Poorly understood science is taken as rampant magic in Alledia (and occasionally recognized as science by some): curses and Transpores, mushrooms that help people teleport, and stone amulets that give Stonekeepers telekinetic powers as well as allowing them the ability to enter and manipulate memories under some circumstances.  Alledia is being overrun by Shadows for whom Ikol, the voice that haunts and tries to manipulate Stonekeepers, is a servant.  Ikol has overtaken the corpse of the Elf King and has set the elven nation to conquering Alledia.  Ikol is working to ready Alledia and other planets for habitation by, I think, either the Shadows or the creatures traveling with the Shadows in hypersleep and en route, but I am a bit unclear on that.  

Emily Hayes becomes a Stonekeeper, one of only a few remaining on Alledia.  Her brother Navin is the prophesied commander of the resistance against the elven army and force that has overtaken their king.  Together the two are thrust into a fight to free Alledia from nefarious influences.

The prophesied arrival of a child of Earth to another world and the battles of those children for the worlds in which they find themselves is an old fantasy trope, but one that I find mildly disconcerting now and especially in this context where the Alledians have not been passive or deprived of hope yet.  There is an element of white savior-ism here.  It is worth noting I think too that the Hayes seem to be of nebulously European descent and that it isn’t until the fourth book in the series that we are introduced to a named Black character, present for only that one book, and then we meet another named Black character in the sixth, who is also only present for the one book.

The stories seem episodic, and the larger plot seems oddly to have taken a backseat to an individual adventure in many of the books, though as I’m writing this review, I can trace the larger plot points a bit better than I could do in the moment.  I still feel that I shouldn’t have to take two big steps back from the books to follow the plot’s trail.  I appreciate though that many of the characters that we meet have their own stories, are the heroes of their own stories, independent of the larger plot.  It brings an element of largeness and realness to the world, but it is also distracting, and I wonder if the inclusion of these stories would be less so in a different medium or in longer graphic novels.

The first books made it seem as though the climax would be a confrontation with the Elf King and the conclusion would be an end to the imperialistic expansion the elves’ rule, although perhaps I drew that conclusion influenced by Avatar: The Last Airbender, which finds echoes here with its exiled prince from an imperialist nation, who drew me first towards these books (in addition to their popularity).

Slowly and then far too quickly the Elf King is revealed to be a pawn in a larger war.  Emily alone swoops in and single-handedly deposes the king in a page spread, which was sorely anticlimactic.  Trellis, the king’s exiled son, branded I think a traitor to the elves for outing his father as a corpse, is not even present for the unmasking of the Elf King and his fall from power.  Never once do we as readers get to see the two interact.  I am seeking out stories right now about characters facing their abusers, and I had expected such a scene at some point within this series and missed it.

That I am eight books into a nine book series and unclear about the identity of the Big Bad is frustrating.  I am only just as of the eighth book beginning to understand the stakes—possibly to avoid being wiped out to make way for this invading alien race or to stop their invasion?—but even now I am uncertain.  I want to know the end goal of all of these fights.  I want to know towards what the characters are working.  That I don’t yet know any of this for certain seems poor storytelling.  Kibuishi has said that the series will end with one final book, and I struggle to see how he will satisfactorily conclude the series in one book when I feel that I don’t even yet truly understand who is the antagonist.

As the series has become more science-fiction than fantasy, there are possibly some echoes of Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse here too.  I wonder if these characters will too have to wrestle with the sentience of the Shadows and the obviously technologically advanced creatures that they accompany.

The illustrations, particularly the watercolor backgrounds against which the characters play, remain outstanding.  The spines of these books are definitely worth cracking just to enjoy Kibuishi’s artwork.

***

Kibuishi, Kazu. Amulet, Books 1-8. New York: Graphix-Scholastic, 2008-2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7

This review is not endorsed by Kazu Kibuishi, Graphix, or Scholastic Inc. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Wilder Girls, Infected and Quarantined

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's bio.

I read four novels in full and half of another and about 30 pages of one more for Barnes & Noble’s new YA Book Club in 2019. This was my favorite of them all. It was advertised to me as Lord of the Flies with a female cast. In Power’s novel a strange disease has struck an isolated island that is home to an elite girls’ school. The island has been quarantined, and the girls have already survived eighteen months in isolation when the story begins. The girls form new social strata. They form strong bonds with fewer people. But they form bonds. It is not every girl for herself. And there is order to their society. The few remaining adults still hold authority over the loose coalition of cliques.  There is still a sense of acting towards a collectively good and a collective goal of survival of as many as possible.

It’s honestly been too long since I last read Lord of the Flies for me to intelligently compare the two.

The disease, which affects everything living on the island—human, animal, and plant—turns things more wild, monstrous. The trees grow taller and the forest more dense. The animals in the forest grow large and turn carnivorous while their still living bodies begin to decay. It affects the girls in different ways. Some have protruding, spiked spines breaking the skin along their backs. Some glow in the dark. Some sprout scales. Girls die of the Tox—or of the changes that their bodies undergo because of it.  But some survive, and not everyone who survives the painful changes views these changes as monstrous.

The government sends supplies, but there are never enough supplies, and there is never a cure.

This is a novel that explores what makes a person human.

This is a story about survival and friendship and love, about trust or distrust of the authority, particularly male and adult authority over girls. This is a story about the ties between families and friends and what might sever those bonds.

I don’t remember this being a particularly uplifting story, but it is a story about surviving disease and about surviving quarantine that some of you might find timely.

The novel itself is fairly short, clocking in at 357 pages, and I found especially its latter third fast-paced.

SPOILERS:

When Hetty, one of the POV characters, is chosen for the elite group that crosses the island to fetch the supplies from the dock and bring them back, she discovers that one of the few remaining adults, Ms. Welch, is making the girls dump many of the supplies that are sent. It is not until later that she understands that she is trying to keep the girls from being either poisoned or cured.

The disease is revealed to be a disease released from melting permafrost, so this is a science-fiction more than a fantasy, though I hope no such disease is caught in our ice.

****

This review is fairly incomplete, but I’m afraid it’s now been 6 months since I read it, and I passed it quickly to a friend who wanted to read it. I’m writing this one from memory, and my memory is failing me.

Power, Rory. Wilder Girls. New York: Delacorte-Penguin Random, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Rory Power, Delacorte Press, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Wizards in the Deep Sea and in Deep Space

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, and reviews.I was reminded recently of my love for Diane Duane and for her Young Wizards series after stumbling back upon her blog as I occasionally do. This time I fell into a rambling piece about Duane struggling to write a scene and working through it with the Transcendent Pig.

So after six years, I reread the first book.

It had been more than eight years since I’d last read the second or the third, which I tumbled right into after closing the first this time, and I only ceased with my reread of the series because reading for work got in the way (perhaps I will pick up with book 4 again soon; I remember enjoying that one immensely).

On this blog, I’ve reviewed the first, eighth, and ninth in this series. In one of those reviews I defended Nita and Kit as the ultimate BroTP. Rereading these earlier books, I realized that I’d missed or I’d forgotten or I’d blocked the memory of Nita’s parents’ worry that these young teens are sneaking off to have sex with one another at the beach—and that Nita flounders around fears even within these first three books that her feelings for Kit are not wholly platonic—though so far as book 9, that relationship is not consummated with kiss, a profession of romantic love, or anything else. The piece that I’d found on Duane’s blog actually names Nita and Kit as her OTP and deals with her trying to force the two of them into a romantic scene (please don’t force what isn’t there, Miss Duane!).

I found in my reread that these books are as beautifully written and as intelligent as I’d remembered. Nita’s pure intentions and her willingness to sacrifice herself for the good of humanity in Deep Wizardry drove me to tears as I saw again in her that desire to do good, to help others, to defend us from the horrors that we are still facing 34 years after this book’s publication (this second book is older than I am!).

I again applaud Duane’s inclusion of a Spanish-speaking Latino American protagonist, a shorter and stockier boy, unafraid to cry when the situation demands while writing in the early 80s before the clarion calls rang throughout the publishing world for non-white characters and for gentler masculinity.

The third book takes a step away from Kit and Nita and turns its attention to Nita’s sister Dairine. This book expands wizardry beyond our planet and beyond our solar system.  The worlds that Duane builds in this book are delightful.  Dairine chases after “Darth Vader,” and of course she finds It—and takes part in a new species’ Choice, their decision whether or not to accept entropy and death, whether to accept the temptation of the Lone One and the chaos that It desires.

This third book was published in 1990, and I wonder what today’s readers make of the technology in this book. The Callahans are excited to get their new Apple computer, an Apple IIIc+, “a cream-colored object about the size and shape of a phone book—the keyboard/motherboard console” requiring “loose-leaf books, and diskette boxes” (6). How many of today’s kids have seen a phone book? I had to look up what the Apple IIIc+ probably looked like; the Apple IIIc+ was never invented, but there were computers called Apple //c+. Even my childhood computers were upgrades from this. I don’t know how many computers today use DOS as their primary programming language, though I think that DOS still exists if it is no longer the most relevant or advanced computer language. But from that Apple IIIc+, Dairine produces a mobile, tech-based version of the wizard’s manual with unlimited processing power and memory.

(Duane has been publishing updated versions of this series, calling them New Millennium Editions.  Perhaps those updated texts update the technology, but I have not read her updates.  The links that I provided—accessible by clicking on the cover photos—are to those editions of the texts.)

The tech might be outdated but the text is, like the first and second books in the series, otherwise as relevant now as it was when it was published.

These books are near and dear enough to me that a properly impartial book review is fairly impossible, so these read a little more like some highlights of my thoughts.  I hope you will forgive the lapse and let me take a week to just remind myself why I love these books so.

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards, Book 2: Deep Wizardry.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 1985.

Duane, Diane. Young Wizards, Book 3: High Wizardry.  Orlando: Magic Carpet-Harcourt, 1990.

Intended audience: Ages 10-12, Grades 5-7.

This review is not endorsed by Diane Duane, Magic Carpet Books, Harcourt, or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which acquired Harcourt in 2007. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Vox is a Chilling Dystopia with Current Events as Foundation

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Click to view the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, excerpt, reading guide, and author's bio.

Comparisons between Christina Dalcher’s Vox and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are nearly unavoidable. Both women are writing speculative dystopian Americas that oppress women by relying on a skewed, ultraconservative Christianity. Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, but Hulu has recently brought the novel back to the zeitgeist with a streaming video series. I haven’t read it more recently than 2007 or seen any of Hulu’s series.

The chill of Dalcher’s speculative novel is in the near-past and contemporary, concrete news stories and (sub)culture that build the background of her horrific America. I remember reading about Supreme Court seats being filled with ultraconservative Justices during the extremely contentious Kavanaugh hearings in which a potential Justice’s emotional testimony was pitted against a woman’s even-keeled testimony of an assault allegedly committed by that nominee against her (and the man’s testimony was given more credence) and having to put the book down. It is too easy to see the building of this dystopia by tuning into the news—as is also true of Atwood’s book, but the details are not as immediate coming as they do from events from the 1980s.

In Dalcher’s America, a charismatic, ultraconservative, women-hating, mega-church televangelist has taken power, using the American president as a puppet. Women’s passports have been destroyed. Schools have been divided by gender, women relegated to an education that is glorified home economics. Women’s Bibles have been edited. Extramarital sex is punishable by public, televised humiliation, relocation to a work camp, and enforced silence. Dissidents and lesbians are sent to these camps too with the same imposed silence. (Dalcher to my recollection never really addresses whether two men having sex is punished in the same way.) Women of any age have been forced into monitors that count the words that they speak. Each day every word after 100 causes a shock, and the voltage increases in intervals after 100, one woman at one point discovering how to commit suicide using the monitor.

The protagonist, Jean McClellan, is a former Wernicke’s area specialist, seeking a way to reverse the effects of damage to that area, a cure for Wernicke aphasia, a condition that results in fluent speech devoid of meaning. Her husband works for the president.

In college, despite her roommate being an activist for women’s rights, Jean didn’t pay much attention to politics. She didn’t participate in any of the protests or rallies. Now it’s too late.

When she is given the chance to be released from the monitor and to win her young daughter’s freedom too, she reluctantly accepts and works for the president to complete the research and create the serum on which she was working before the changes in policy barred her from work.

But she begins to suspect a larger plan to further curtail women’s and dissidents’ voices and advance the pastor’s cause. The end hurries into a race to uncover the government’s true intentions for McClellan’s research, thwart the government, and escape punishment.

The chapters are short, and I was for a long while reading the book only for 5-15 minutes at a time as I got ready to go somewhere a little more quickly than I thought that I might. It was really only being laid up with a sprained ankle that sped me through the last ¾ of the book.

Dalcher’s seems to be a warning to those who say “it can’t happen here” and to those who choose the sidelines over the frontlines.  Her heroes are as much the ones who acted and called out the slippery slope before the government physically curtailed women’s voices as Jean, who acted to impede further curtailment.  Ultimately it is one of those early criers who continues the fight to overturn the oppression, not Jean, who escapes after helping to end the tyrannical administration.

Science is weaponized by both parties in this fight.

Violence is justified by both.

I read an ARC of this book.

The trade paperback of this novel comes out July 16, 2019.

***

Dalcher, Christina. Vox.  New York: Berkley-Penguin Random, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Christina Dalcher, Berkley, or Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: The Giver Questions a World Without Choice

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, guides, and author's and illustrator's bios.

I am reviewing this book from memory; I don’t have it in front of me as I write this review.

Spoilers.

I am the rare reader for this graphic novel adaptation, vaguely aware—it’s true—of The Giver but who has never read the novel, never seen the movie, never seen the play. I was excited to see this graphic novel adaptation and more excited for the very good excuse to take it home to read (I was to lead a book discussion on the adaptation). So I can’t talk about this adaption as an adaptation.

I can only talk about the graphic novel as a separate, standalone entity—which I realize that it is not, but I am probably one of the few to read it who can talk about its conveyance of the plot and the world’s ideas without past experiences bleeding in to color my reading of this.

In a future, highly regulated society where almost every choice is sacrificed along with feelings of desire and perceptions of color and smell that would announce difference and the necessity of choice, and everything from how to dress to when to learn to ride a bike to a martial partner to a career to children that the parents did not birth is assigned by a committee. In order to live with this regulation, the society sacrifices its history, its memories of the former world, which are thrust on a successive line of Receivers only occasionally consulted by the committee before the committee announces its decisions. Each Receiver alone holds memories of war, pain, risk, joy, love, color, difference bar the brief time when an old Receiver trains the new one. The Receiver is chosen by the committee, but it seems that there is some innate quality that makes one a more apt choice (possibly signified by blue eyes though I am inferring this from what I know of Jonas and the second book’s title, Gathering Blue) Before being chosen, the story’s child protagonist, Jonas, begins to experience the color red.

The absence and emergence for Jonas of color was particularly well-conveyed in this form. The graphic novel begins in white and gray, pale blue, and tan for shadow and minimal shading, but color bleeds into the illustrations as Jonas’ Receives more memories of the past at first palely but ultimately in a deep, livid paint of many colors, and the past is always vivid, although the Giver begins Jonas’ Receiving with a red sled on a hill in the snow, easing him into the transition from non-color to color.

I read this story in a day, and the ambiguous ending had me leaving my nest of blankets to run to my housemate to demand to know what outcome the rest of the series reveals. I have to believe that I became invested in this story then, though I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. I don’t actually think that this is a story that is meant to be enjoyed—or if it is meant to be enjoyed, then it is only in the rebellion of the protagonists against the status quo.

Jonas’ is a hard world to accept, but it is not at all difficult to see how some could laud these sacrifices, could laud this version of peace, for “the greater good,” to borrow a phrase from Grindelwald’s propaganda. The Giver and Jonas decide that the world’s way of life is not worth defending, is in fact worth destroying, bestowing pain and memory on the populace by force, and I think the story would have us support the protagonists’ decision.

But the open ending of the novel, the failure to follow up with the community after Jonas has left and his memories have been dispersed among the community members leaves open the possibility that the decision is wrong, though irreversible. And the consequences of the decision on Jonas and on the toddler Gabe, whom he has taken under his care, are also open ended. They hide and live a life on the run, stumble through exhaustion and dehydration and starvation and cold and heat. They cyclically stumble upon the sight of the first memory that Jonas Receives and Jonas takes yet one more ride on the red sled down the hill towards a village celebrating Christmas.

I think The Giver is meant as a warning. And I think that it is meant to make us question what is most important in life.

In this format, it was a quick but impactful read, raising many questions in the comparison of Jonas’ world to our current society.

What would life be like without the burden of choices? Would we need to sacrifice every choice to be content without choice?

Did Jonas and the Giver make the right choice?

****

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. Adapted by and illustrated by P. Craig Russell. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 12-16, Grades 7-12.

This review is not endorsed by Lois Lowry, P. Craig Russell, or Houghton Mifflin.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: A Christmastime Rebellion in the Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

This is my third book in the Enderverse. I found the rereleased hardcover at Barnes & Noble and got so excited. It was nearing Christmas when I did, and I am a sucker for Christmas fanfictions, so a canon Christmas novella in a world that I’m just falling in love with was near irresistible. So I ran to the library.

This happens mid-Ender’s Game/Ender’s Shadow, when Ender is newly transferred to Rat Army, but the majority of the novel does not revolve around Ender.

Zeck Morgan is rescued from his ultra-religious father, a Puritan minister who whips Zeck to make him more pure. Zeck has a perfect memory, which his mother believes is from God, though she warns Zeck to hide that memory from his father, whom she thinks will believe it from the devil. The IF sees that memory as a useful asset in a soldier—and it seems implied that the soldier who comes for him believes that he is rescuing Zeck from his abusive household, though Zeck resents being drafted.

In Battle School, Zeck maintains his father’s preached pacifism and won’t fire his weapon, though he enters the Battle Room and does the school work for Battle School. He is disliked by the students.

A homesick Battle School student, Flip Rietvald, sets his shoes out on Sinterklaas Eve, and Dink Meeker, noticing the childlike gesture, gives him Sinterklaas gifts, a silly poem and a pancake shaped into a F.

Religious observation is banned in Battle School and Zeck’s father has preached that Santa Claus is a manifestation of Satan, so Zeck complains to Commander Graff about the Dutch boys’ observation of the holiday. The punishment that Flip and Dink receive spurs Dink to begin an underground celebration—not in the name of Christmas, but in the name of Santa Claus (in all his forms), whom he argues is not a religious figure but a cultural icon, his day celebrated even by the atheists of countries where he exists, and nationality impossible to ban. Children begin to give one another gifts with a sock attached so that the gift is known to be in Santa’s name.

The battle brews. Zeck stirs up trouble by convincing one Pakistani soldier that prayer is a national observation as much as is the celebration of Santa because Pakistan was formed as a Muslim nation, and so Muslim identity is national identity. When this results in several Muslims being led away in handcuffs for religious observation, the Santa Claus celebration stops; the fight becomes too serious, the consequences too dire; it ceases to be fun, and the celebration ceases to be in the spirit of Santa Claus, “compassion and generosity […] the irresistible urge to make people happy […] the humility to realize that you aren’t any better than the rest of us in the eyes of God” (78).

Because this series is Ender’s story more than any of the others’, it is Ender who gets to give the last Santa Claus gift of the book and demonstrate the team-building prowess that makes him such an astounding leader. He corners Zeck and convinces him of the error of his father’s protestations, battling Zeck Bible verse for verse and sharing secrets about his home-life and his abusive brother.

This story mostly provides an interesting platform to discuss national observations versus religious observations, particularly around the Christmas holiday but around all religions—though only Christianity and Islam are discussed—the intersection and dissonance of nationality and religion, religious tolerance, and the fake religious proclamations of those whose words are not reflected in their actions.

It ends on a happy note, which I almost require of my Christmas fanfiction but has even more substance than I’m used to expecting from a good Christmas ficlet—for which I was not ungrateful. I like more of a Christmas meal than Christmas fluff.

Ultimately, this was a good diversion while I prepped and then survived the Christmas holiday.  It was good food for thought.  It was not the cleanest and tightest of Card’s writings, but it was interesting to spend more time with Dink and more time with some of the previously nameless Battle School students.

***

Card, Orson Scott. A War of Gifts. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty-Macmillan, 2007.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Tor, or Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: Shadow of the Hegemon: Political Thriller in a Sci-Fi Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

The sequel to Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, follows Ender and the colonists that he heads decades in the future on a distant planet, encountering a new alien race. That’s all well and good (I assume), but following Ender’s Game Alive, I wanted to know what happened to all of the Battle School students, not merely to Ender, so I sought out something a little closer to Ender’s Game in time and space. I skipped over Ender’s Shadow, which happens simultaneously with Ender’s Game, and jumped to the second in that sequel series, The Shadow of the Hegemon. This book deals with the immediate aftermath of Ender’s Game (and Ender’s Shadow), specifically what happens to the jeesh once they arrive back on earth, though it focuses pretty solely on Bean and Petra, and on Peter Wiggin’s quest to attain the title of Hegemon.

I want to start by saying that I don’t read many political thrillers—or not books that would be primarily classified as political thrillers (I suppose Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire could be classified as such). I’ve never read Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, Brad Thor, or any of those other household names in the genre. But I was sucked into this one, which disguises itself as a science-fiction book by virtue of association with the other books in its series. I won’t pretend to judge this book against others in its genre, but I do qualify it as more of a political thriller than a science-fiction book. Card describes this as being inspired by the board game Risk, a game of global domination through alliances and wars (I think; I’ve also never played Risk).

I say this is more political thriller than science-fiction because all of this book happens on Earth and its drama is in the geopolitics and the child geniuses who are pulling at the strings, toying with world leaders and directing the militaries of various countries.

Shortly after arriving back in their own countries, the entire jeesh is kidnapped—except for Bean, who is meant to be killed with his family in an explosion, which he escapes using a superior “Spidey” sense for danger. For a while, the book becomes an Earth-wide whodunit with every major country and political group as a suspect. I enjoyed this part of the book a lot. I enjoyed the mystery, and I enjoyed the insights into each country’s desires and assets. I enjoyed (and was horrified to find) that I could recognize the seeds of Card’s future-Earth geopolitics in my mediocre understanding of the political aspirations of today’s superpowers, that I found myself nodding along as the characters laid out the clues.

Petra having gotten a message to Bean, and Bean having gotten a message to Peter Wiggin, the three reveal that the architect of the jeesh’s capture is Achilles, a character from Bean’s past (I have not read Ender’s Shadow or I’m sure I’d know more about Achilles, but I picked up enough through Shadow of the Hegemon to know that he’s a dangerously smart, savvy, charismatic psychopath who has killed in the past and will kill in the future). Only Petra remains captive after that, Achilles interfering directly with her rescue and whisking her away to India, where she is forced to take part in the planning of a war for Indian expansion into Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, though her intelligent plan for guerilla warfare is ignored for reasons that only become clear as the novel and Achilles’ complicated plan to sew chaos unfolds.

Bean meanwhile goes to Thailand and earns the trust of Suriyawong, another Battle School graduate and a member of Ender’s Dragon Army and now the nominal head of the Thai military’s planning division. With his knowledge of Achilles and Petra and military strategy in general, Bean helps to predict and to thwart what can be thwarted of Achilles’ plan, though Bean’s larger goal is always to save Petra.

Achilles is playing the nations against one another, but he is also pitting himself against Bean, working to destroy Bean.

This is Bean’s story (spoiler in white) and ultimately Bean’s victory to paraphrase the novel.

I loved to hate Achilles. I loved his dialogue, his speeches. And that’s of course how charismatic dictators rise to power, but—thank God—this kid is fictional. He’s at his best when he is convincing the Pakistani president to join a ceasefire with India and move Pakistani troops away from the border.

I loved the back and forth, the squabbles of Peter and Bean, two kids too bright for their own good.

I loved that Petra had so much more agency in this novel, so much more of a role, that the women (not only Petra, but Carlotta, Mrs. Wiggin, and Virlomi), who were largely absent in Ender’s Game even with the insertion of Major Jayadi in the audioplay that I listened to were here and were bigger parts of the plot.

I have some reservations about this audiobook, however. Some of the cast of the audioplay that I listened to for Ender’s Game reunited (I say reunites because I listened to this book second, but this book was actually produced first, so really they reunited for Ender’s Game Alive) for this audiobook, but not all of them, and this was a full audiobook, narration included. The voice actors took different parts and read different sections. But they could not decide how to pronounce Achilles. Though Peter had to hide that he knew that it should be pronounced A-SHEEL to avoid sounding more knowledgeable about current events than his parents. By the end of the text, even Bean’s voice actor had caved to the anglicized Greek pronunciation, ə-KIL-eez. That could be intentional. Perhaps Achilles remade himself into the Greek Achilles, adopting the more prominently used pronunciation as he became not the leader of a street gang but a puppet master on the global stage. I had thought that the voiceover of the word Hegemon was some weird conspiracy, something done to give the name importance and prominence, and it actually didn’t occur to me till reading a review on Goodreads that this was a poorly dubbed voiceover of a mispronounced word—which makes me wonder more about the conflicting pronunciations of Achilles. In the last few bits, when most of the primary characters were again sharing the scenes, the voice actors returned to more of an audioplay format, with everyone voicing the dialogue of their primary characters; I like that format better, and I liked to see its return, but it makes me question: why not do that sooner? Achilles and Petra share most of the book, yet lines of dialogue where they shared a scene were voiced by one or the other of the narrating voice actors.

Retrospectively, maybe this is one to read and not to listen to on audio. Maybe.

But this was a story I wanted and a story that I liked a lot with compelling characters.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Shadow of the Hegemon. Narr. David Birney, Scott Brick, & Gabrielle de Cuir. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki. Audio Renaissance-Tor-Holtzbrinck, Sound Library-BBC Audiobooks America, 2006. Audiobook, 11 CDs. Shadow of the Hegemon first published 2000.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Audio Renaissance, Tor Books, Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC, Sound Library, BBC Audiobooks America, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Ender’s Game Alive Springboards My Dive into the Enderverse

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, behind the scenes videos, and full cast list.

Time for one more reader’s confession: I’ve never before read an Orson Scott Card novel (though I did once read a book of literary criticism about Severus Snape to which he contributed). I was only vaguely aware of the plot of Ender’s Game. The novel and Ender’s Shadow have been sitting on my bookcase for years, but they never seemed to be the books that I wanted to read. As I work through the Valley libraries’ collections of audiobooks, I am also working my way through the books and authors that I probably ought to have already read.

When I found this version of Ender’s Game, Ender’s Game Alive, rewritten by Card as an audioplay, I couldn’t resist. During my brief stint as a London resident, I became fond of radio dramas. My host mother sometimes left the radio on, and I would enjoy snippets from the lives of fictional characters while I cooked or ate. Where that was written to be enjoyed in snippets, to catch a listener up quickly if she’d missed a few episodes, Card wrote Ender’s Game Alive to be enjoyed as a collected whole (more what I expect from an audiobook than a radio drama). Had I skipped a few segments of Ender’s Game, I think I would have been wholly lost.

I was however able to follow and enjoy this dramatization without having read Ender’s Game or having had any other introduction to Ender’s world.

My roommate will tell you that I quite a few nights came home complaining about this dramatization. I was annoyed at the ickiness that the physical fights made me feel, the squeeze of my stomach at the groaning, squelching, cracking, grunting, ringing sound effects. I was distraught as I realized what was happening before Ender did. I was disconcerted by the similarities between Peter’s intentions for Locke and Demosthenes and the nationalism and demagoguery of today. All of that probably means that I really enjoyed this drama and disliked being away from it when I had to turn off the car.

For those who are unaware as I was of the plot Ender’s Game: After Earth’s first two wars with an alien species called the Formics, genius children from every country are monitored to determine their usefulness to the International Fleet (IF). Ender Wiggin is one of these geniuses, the third child in his family, allowed by the government despite a law limiting families to two children because his two siblings both showed such promise before being ruled unfit for combat. Because one officer, Colonel Graff, decides that the Ender is the One, he is taken to Battle School at a younger age than is average and proves himself again and again a creative and unbeatable commander of the other children in their mock battles against rival commanders and armies despite the odds being continually stacked against him by Graff and the other adults in order to speed his training. He rises very swiftly up the ranks, ultimately joining Commander’s School, where he is eventually reunited with some of his friends from Battle School, and they are tested with a string of rigorous battles, each commanding fleets, and Ender commanding the commanders.

By contrasting Ender with Mazer Rackham, an independent thinker who operates best alone and with all of the less successful commanders in Battle School and with his two siblings who were never given the chance to try, Card says an amazing amount about the type of commander that he believes is best. Ender is an independent thinker, but operates best with a team of loyal friends, whose trust he has earned, and with whom he spends time and maintains relationships.

At some point within the novel, Graff admits that it is Ender’s capacity for love (for his sister and for humanity) that make Ender the One leader that humanity has needed. He values friendship and values cooperation more so than many of the other leaders of Battle School. Soldiers become friends and become loyal to him instead of merely obeying his orders out of fear or duty. As often as he can, he will avoid conflict, but when he does fight, he is calculating and vicious, making sure that battle need only happen once and that he will be victorious.

The ending of the book reminds readers that war is always a tragedy, that diplomacy should always be attempted, that the defeated of any battle are not nameless nor faceless nor without their own victories and histories, that winners of wars are not left untainted and unscarred by their victory.

This version of the tale is largely “narrated” by Colonel Graff and Major Jayadi, a character who seems to have been created for this dramatization (again, this is my introduction to Ender’s world), and whose role seems mainly to be as a child psychologist. The two bicker over Ender’s care and dissect his thoughts and actions from videos from his feed and then from surveillance videos at Battle School. It’s an excellent way to get around not having any actual narration, a way to show both thoughts and action while the reader is allowed only dialogue and sound effects—although such a go-around is largely only possible within a science-fiction such as this. With a huge cast and no dialogue tags, that each character has a specific voice actor helps to keep the cast straight. The child voice actors don’t sound as young as the characters that they claim to be, but this is much as films and television series almost always cast characters in adaptations as older, particularly when these children are asked to take on adult problems. The different accents here help not only to keep the voices distinct but also to underline the I in the IF. I appreciate that Card’s wonderfully diverse cast, that he didn’t let the chance at international cooperation slide past (despite knowing that after this novel, the countries of the world descend again into chaos). One of Ender’s commanders is one of only a few girls in the IF. One of his commanders is a Muslim from North Africa who references Allah and uses Arabic within the text. Another is Jewish and Israeli. Another grew up as an urchin on the streets of Rotterdam. One of the first children in Battle School to be kind to Ender is Japanese. The values and histories of each character’s home nation are allowed to inform the character.

I was struck in this book by Card’s decision to give the kids of the novel power through language. Ender denies his given name, Andrew, in favor of the name that his sister called him before she could say Andrew. The adults of the novel recognize that Ender is the name that he calls himself and so use this name. It’s the children’s Battle School slang that gets adopted by the adults as they spend more time with Ender. His team, for example, is called a jeesh, a term first used and defined by Alai, an enemy of Ender’s who becomes one of his closest friends.

I think because of how this story echoes today’s politics, I can’t let it go. I continue thinking about it, two weeks later, and am drawn to Card’s newest book, Children of the Fleet, despite not having read any intervening novels. I’ve begun another of his audiobooks already.

****

Card, Orson Scott. Ender’s Game Alive: The Full-Cast Audioplay. Exec. Prod. Steve Feldberg and Wil Snape. Prod. Stefan Rudnicki, Gabrielle de Cuir, and Mike Charzuk. Dir. Gabrielle de Cuir. Skyboat-Brilliance with Audible, 2013. Audioplay, 7 CDs.

This review is not endorsed by Orson Scott Card, Skyboat Media, Brilliance Audio, Inc, Audible, Inc, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audioplay.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.