The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Jandy Nelson's book I'll Give You the Sun was one of my favorite books last year. Nelson has a profound ability to name and describe complex emotions, especially those experienced during the turbulence of adolescence. Her characters feel raw and vulnerable, her writing artful and often poetic.

The Sky is Everywhere is not the masterpiece that I'll Give You the Sun is, but it still demonstrates Nelson's ability to create characters who are fully realized and intensely human. Our protagonist, Lennie, is stunned and gutted by the sudden death of her sister Bailey, struggling to keep living with the gaping hole her sister's death has caused. Withdrawing from most of the people closest to her, she finds comfort in spending time with her sister's boyfriend Toby. When they are together, she feels Bailey's presence in a way that she finds compelling and addictive. But then a new boy, Joe, comes to town. Joe is full of exuberance and joy, expressed most keenly through his musical genius. She is caught between her feelings for these two boys, one tying her to a past where her sister still lives, the other calling her to move into a future full of hope and possibility. Does she dare to dream her own dreams, live her own life, knowing her sister never can?

This is a more straightforward narrative than I'll Give You the Sun, but it covers some of the same ground. Both deal with grief and loss, the characters responding to tragedy and loneliness different ways. Both explore what it means to fall in love for the first time while grappling with the feelings of anger, sadness, and loneliness that tragedy can bring. Lennie knows that her compulsion to be with Toby is a way to hold onto a past that can never be regained, but finds it almost impossible to consider what it would mean to move past her loss and continue living. Joe, this boy who never even knew Bailey, represents the future she could create for herself, if she didn't feel as though having a future at all is an act of betrayal to her sister's memory. Nelson's prose is beautifully written, full of imagery and with a lyrical flow that helps to create the emotional impact the story carries. The Sky is Everywhere is a jewel of a book, one that proves that Nelson is no one-hit-wonder. May her career be long, and may her books continue to explore the deep emotional life of youth.

The Final Empire (Mistborn Book 1), Brandon Sanderson

Monday, June 11, 2018

Frequent readers of this blog probably know that I am a fantasy nerd from way back. Beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, continuing through Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, The Elfstones of Shannara, The Thomas Covenant series, and Anne McCaffery's Dragonriders series, I have spent a good part of my life escaping into fantastical worlds where magic is real and heroes save the world from evil monsters.

The Final Empire, the first book of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, is epic high fantasy at its finest. The world Sanderson creates is one of order and stability. But that order and stability comes at a great price-most of the world's population, called skaa, is used as forced labor on large plantations, under the absolute and absolutely cruel power of a noble class. The Lord Ruler controls the Final Empire. He is treated like a god, revered and hated, seemingly immortal. His dictates are enforced by a brutal group of priests called Obligators, all of whom are allomancers-people who have the power to use ingested metals for magical purposes. He also controls the dreaded Steel Ministry, creatures with spikes for eyes that can command the power of allomancy in ways more powerful than any regular human.

One man has vowed revenge against the Lord Ruler for his many atrocities. Born a skaa, Kelsier is a skilled Mistborn-an allomancer who can use all of the metals, rather than just one as most allomancers can. He develops a plan for overthrowing the Lord Ruler, and thinks he has discovered a way to kill him, using a previously unknown 11th metal. While planning this rebellion, he discovers Vin, a full Mistborn girl who was raised in the streets as part of a thieving crew. Vin is timid and suspicious of everyone, a result of years of abuse by her brother and various crew leaders. Kelsier undertakes to train her, and brings her into his own crew. Kelsier's plan seems insane-to create a skaa army and take over the capital city of Luthadel. But just maybe his plan is crazy enough to work.

The plot is well-crafted, intricate even, and despite the many characters and the almost constant machinations that are happening throughout the story, the whole things holds together beautifully. While Kelsier is the main actor, Vin is the heart of the story. Waifish, paranoid, and skittish, she survived the streets through her own wit and inner strength, calling on allomancy even before she knew what it was. Her transformation from distrusting, angry girl to full, beloved member of Kelsier's crew gives the story an emotional impact it would otherwise have lacked. The action is well-paced, with detailed descriptions of fight scenes that really give the reader a sense of what allomancy would be capable of.

The world-building is exceptionally well-done as well. Despite being what I would consider high fantasy, there are none of the standard high fantasy characters here-no wizards or trolls or elves. Instead, Sanderson created a world unlike any I've read before, with allomancy as the main driver. It includes magical creatures such as the kandra, as well as a race called terrismen, allow Sanderson to write in twists and turns that would be impossible, or at least unlikely, with only human characters.

I'm on to book two, which is so far just as good as the first. I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

My Year of King, #9: Night Shift

Saturday, June 09, 2018

I have a confession to make-I don't like reading short stories. At least, not entire books of short
stories. If you're going to write an entire book, why not just write a novel? I tend to get bored before I'm even half-way through a book of short stories, no matter how skillful the writing or interesting the subject matter, and over the years I've stopped buying them altogether. (Don't worry, English teacher friends, I actually do like short stories, just not in bulk.)

I have two exceptions to the no-books-of-short-stories rule-Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. I'm not sure whether it's the genre, subject matter, or just my general hero-worship of both of them, but I have no problem getting through their books of stories. And the first book of short stories I ever read was back in the mid 1980s, Stephen King's Night Shift. I remember when it showed up in the house; I must have been 11 or 12. My mother brought home the paperback edition, probably from Crown Books (remember Crown Books?), and I asked her to keep it hidden because the cover I hadn't yet read any of King's books-I was not quite old enough yet-but I knew they must be terrifying, because how creepy is that cover. Of course, a couple of years later I read Carrie for the first time, and I've been hooked on King ever since, but my little brother was able to use that cover to creep me out for years afterward.

As a Constant Reader, I've always known that King puts Easter eggs in his novels to reward his fans. What I didn't realize, having read his books mostly in order since the mid- to late-80s, is that sometimes he also foreshadows his later books in short story form. In Night Shift, one of the characters in "Gray Matter" describes a huge spider-like monster in the sewers, which anyone who's read IT will recognize as one of Pennywise's forms. While not specific to any one novel, there are plenty of King staples in these stories-lots of humans behaving monstrously, and monsters behaving like humans. He also provides a prequel of sorts to his novel 'Salem's Lot in the story "Jersalem's Lot", in which some 19th century gentlemen exchange letters about a strange town and a house with something in the walls. This first story collection includes King classics such as "Children of the Corn", which became a not-very-good-movie that ruined the name Malachi forever (and in my experience as a public school teacher, naming your child Malachi guarantees they will act like the devil), and "Trucks", which later became the movie "Maximum Overdrive".

The story that goes along with the creepy picture on the cover, "I Am the Doorway", is actually one of the least scary in the collection, about a man who is infested with alien parasites that are slowly taking over his body and mind, forcing him to do unspeakable things. But that image has NEVER left me. To this day when someone mentions this book, I get a shiver thinking about that darn illustration. King follows up Night Shift with several other short story collections, and I am curious to see whether any of those stories also gave hints to novels that came later.

Scythe, Neal Shusterman

Friday, June 08, 2018

Neal Shusterman is one of my faves. I heard him speak at a reading conference a few years ago, and I appreciated how much he honors the intelligence of young people in his writing. His novels are full of action and excitement, but they also deal with big, challenging ideas that make the reader think and question. My favorite series of his is the Unwind Dystology, but I've liked almost everything I've ever read of his (sorry, Challenger Deep-I just didn't get you).

It says something about just how many YA books I currently have on my to-read shelf that it's taken me as long as it did to read Scythe, the first book in a new trilogy by Shusterman. The book is set in a future America where an artificial intelligence called the Thunderhead has benevolently taken over control of human society, solving all of the problems that plague mankind-poverty, crime, war, disease, even death-in the process. Because people can now reset themselves to younger ages, even be brought back from the dead (they call it "being deadish"), the population threatens to grow too large for available resources. That is where the Scythes come in. The only thing the Thunderhead does not control in this new world order are the Scythes, trained assassins who are required kill a certain number of people each month in an effort to keep the population under control. Scythes can choose to do this however they see fit, as long as they don't choose their victims based on biases, or spare victims because of personal connections. As you can imagine, Scythes are not exactly a welcome sight at your office picnic or kid's soccer game. Though they are revered for their necessary service to society, no one really wants to BE one. But that is exactly what Citra and Rowan have been selected for-to be apprenticed to a Scythe in hopes of earning the robes that will allow them to choose life or death for the people they meet. But, as they soon discover, there is a growing corruption in the order of the Scythes; there are Scythes who feel they should be freed from restrictions on who and how many people they can kill, Scythes who enjoy taking life so much they make a spectacle of it. Citra and Rowan must figure out how they can protect society from these immoral Scythes, or die trying.

Shusterman does a few unique things here with his worldbuilding. First, there is the whole premise of Scythes. I mean, people try to cheat death all the time, right? But what would the world be like if people really couldn't die? Would they stop getting married, having families, etc..? Probably not. The planet would be overrun in a generation. (This reminds me of Torchwood: Miracle Day, which had a similar storyline, though with a different cause). Also, not only didn't they die, but they can reset themselves back to a younger age to have a better quality of life. This appears to lead to some changes in the way people perceive relationships, both romantic and familial. Would people stay married to the same spouse for eternity, or would they eventually desire something different? How many children can a person have over centuries before they can't even remember all of them? How does the relationship change when suddenly your grandmother looks and feels younger than you do?

Most of the time when authors write stories about all-powerful AIs, they are trying to enslave humanity (think Skynet from the Terminator movies). Shusterman's Thundercloud, however, uses its power to save humanity. Of course, it takes over the functions of government to do so, and controls every aspect of daily life, but benevolently. Maybe Shusterman is setting us up for some big reveal about how the Thunderhead is actually using humans as slave labor for some larger purpose, but I don't think so. I think that Shusterman is presenting a version of the future where the technology we've created really does end up helping us instead of hurting us. That would be great, since technological advances are happening exponentially and there's no stopping them. I'd prefer the future where that's a good thing instead of a world-ending thing. This does beg the question of genre, though. I mean, ordinarily I'd say this is dystopian science fiction, but is it really dystopia if life is better after the computers take over?

The main characters Citra and Rowan are pretty well-developed, though I'm a little over the star-crossed-lovers thing in YA books in general. At least in this case the thing that makes them star-crossed is a little more unique than usual. I'm looking forward to seeing where Shusterman takes the story-a plot line that I assumed would take the whole trilogy to resolve was resolved by the end of the first book (and resolved well, not rushed nor through some deus ex machina shenanigans). Book 2, Thunderhead, arrived yesterday, and despite the many other books that have been on my to-read shelf longer, I may just have to dive right into it.