BOOK REVIEW: Bannerless, by Carrie Vaughn

BOOK REVIEW: Bannerless, by Carrie VaughnTitle: Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn
Series: Bannerless Saga #1
Published by Mariner Books
Published: July 11th 2017
Genres: Science Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Format: eBook
Source: Netgalley
Goodreads

A mysterious murder in a dystopian future leads a novice investigator to question what she’s learned about the foundation of her population-controlled society.

Decades after economic and environmental collapse destroys much of civilization in the United States, the Coast Road region isn’t just surviving but thriving by some accounts, building something new on the ruins of what came before. A culture of population control has developed in which people, organized into households, must earn the children they bear by proving they can take care of them and are awarded symbolic banners to demonstrate this privilege. In the meantime, birth control is mandatory.  Enid of Haven is an Investigator, called on to mediate disputes and examine transgressions against the community. She’s young for the job and hasn't yet handled a serious case. Now, though, a suspicious death requires her attention. The victim was an outcast, but might someone have taken dislike a step further and murdered him?  In a world defined by the disasters that happened a century before, the past is always present. But this investigation may reveal the cracks in Enid’s world and make her question what she really stands for.

What happens when you mix a post-apocalyptic dystopian with a bit of detective fiction? You’ll get Carrie Vaughn’s Bannerless. I really enjoy traditional, structural genre stories mixed with a fantastic setting, and this one didn’t disappoint. Bannerless takes place about a hundred years after a series of events destroy society. It’s a little like taking a peek into our future if we aren’t careful about our relationships with other countries and if we aren’t careful with our planet. Instead of being another post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, Vaughn uses this vision of the future as a twist in her traditional mystery and that twist adds a dimension to the story that I found really enjoyable.

In this futuristic world, the population has dwindled, birth control is mandatory, and people live in tight-knit communities in which everyone knows everyone else’s business. People group together in family units called houses, and they work together to provide enough materials for themselves and for their families, and once their quotas are met or consistently exceeded, these families can apply to get a banner which allows that household to have a baby.

Enid of Haven is an Investigator, a role that combines the roles of police, detective, and judge. Crime doesn’t really exist in this future world, and most of it ends up being bannerless pregnancies or unauthorized food and material production to try to game the system. She is called up with her partner to investigate a suspicious death of a bannerless person in a neighboring community, and she is forced to confront someone with her past as she and her partner Tomas figure out the mystery. I also really enjoyed Enid’s self-discovery as she investigates the suspicious death. She goes from being a little insecure of herself as an individual to growing more and more confident in herself, and to me, that’s entirely relatable. Told in alternating chapters of Enid’s past and present, Bannerless explores a future in which our very society is regulated on the local level and how our actions, even with good intentions, can be devastating for entire families.

If you enjoy traditional mysteries, dystopian futures as imagined in books like Station Eleven, and speculative fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this one! It’s short, yet well-crafted and well-paced. And I’ve just read she’s working on another post-apocalyptic murder mystery, so I’m hoping that the next one will continue following Enid’s investigations!

This book was provided to me for review by Netgalley and Mariner Books. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: This Savage Song, by Victoria Schwab

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BOOK REVIEW: This Savage Song, by Victoria SchwabTitle: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
Series: Monsters of Verity #1
Published by Greenwillow Books
Published: July 5th 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Pages: 427
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

There’s no such thing as safe.
Kate Harker wants to be as ruthless as her father. After five years and six boarding schools, she’s finally going home to prove that she can be.
August Flynn wants to be human. But he isn’t. He’s a monster, one that can steal souls with a song. He’s one of the three most powerful monsters in a city overrun with them. His own father’s secret weapon.
Their city is divided.
Their city is crumbling.
Kate and August are the only two who see both sides, the only two who could do something.
But how do you decide to be a hero or a villain when it’s hard to tell which is which?

 You wanted to feel alive, right? It doesn’t matter if you’re monster or human. Living hurts.

I really enjoyed this book. Victoria Schwab has quickly risen to be one of those authors that I’ll auto-buy anything she writes. This Savage Song is set in a post-apocalyptic North America in which humans and monsters are separated by a literal divide. August and his siblings are monsters who use musical abilities to wreak havoc against their enemies, and Kate and her father are humans who are on the opposing side of monsters. August is sent across the border to get to know Kate, and instead of becoming enemies, the two become friends.

There are things I didn’t really enjoy but I know, in the end, are acceptable and understandable in the grand scheme of the narrative. The first fifth of this book was a little slow for me (and I wondered if I was going to even like it, but then it got unputdownable) and Kate is very similar to other main female characters in Schwab’s other novels (her snark seems almost forced and goes against her character for a bit of the novel). I think for a world that’s unfamiliar it’s good to have a little bit of a build-up with a slower beginning, and it’s perfectly understandable to have a signature sort of character.

The idea of August’s weapon music through his violin is amazing, and I can’t wait to see how that develops in the sequel. I also really enjoyed that the two main characters weren’t romantic in any way. I find that refreshing in the sense that so many books geared for YA audiences seem overly focused on romance instead of friendship, and friendship is a very important aspect of anyone’s life. The horror aspect of the monsters gave me the shivers and added a depth to the terror rising throughout.

It’s not an entirely new type of story in the world of YA fantasy, but it bends expectations and thrilled me while reading it, and it earns a solid recommendation from me.

BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

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BOOK REVIEW: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray BradburyTitle: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Published by Del Rey Books
Published: October 1st 1953
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 190
Format: Mass Market
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The terrifyingly prophetic novel of a post-literate future.
Guy Montag is a fireman. His job is to burn books, which are forbidden, being the source of all discord and unhappiness. Even so, Montag is unhappy; there is discord in his marriage. Are books hidden in his house? The Mechanical Hound of the Fire Department, armed with a lethal hypodermic, escorted by helicopters, is ready to track down those dissidents who defy society to preserve and read books.
The classic dystopian novel of a post-literate future, Fahrenheit 451 stands alongside Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World as a prophetic account of Western civilization’s enslavement by the media, drugs and conformity.
Bradbury’s powerful and poetic prose combines with uncanny insight into the potential of technology to create a novel which, decades on from first publication, still has the power to dazzle and shock.

 I reread Fahrenheit 451 this year for a discussion with students at my school, and what struck me most this time was the reliance of so many of us on technology and the media that some of us forget (or don’t think) to think about the world around us. Ray Bradbury’s novel deals with the dissolution of literacy and the saturation of media in the future. In the 1950s when it was first published, the novel deals with a future imagined by Bradbury, and through the years, the warnings the novel shows its readers still remain relevant.

I gave a little talk to incoming freshmen about the novel as it was a campus-wide reading requirement for all incoming freshmen, and I spoke a little bit about the Cold War, a little bit about Bradbury writing it, and then I contrasted it with media and literacy today. I talked about how things are different now than they were in the 1950s, especially with the rise of technology, and I compared the walls of TV in the novel to the constant companion of our phone familiars. In Bradbury’s novel, the characters sit in literal rooms of screens and are fed an endless stream of entertainment and information. Today, we sit with phones in our hands and are fed an endless stream of entertainment and information. I asked them to consider where the information is coming from, I asked them to consider a bias, and I asked them to continually seek out answers to any questions they have and to use whatever is available to them to get those answers.

After the election results, I’m astounded at how culturally relevant this book still is. Our society is so dependent upon the media for information and does not seem to value using one’s own mind and abilities to read, to research, to question what’s put before us. Our society has devalued education, and I feel as if so many students are no longer taught how to think but what to think, and this is reflected in the constant, consistent bombardment of information through our televisions, through our computers, and through our phones.

How and why are we moving away from a culture that values literacy and knowledge to a culture that places more importance on inciting fear and hatred based on superficial, bigoted information? I’ve been thinking about this for a long while now, and I’m going to continue thinking about it and writing about it and talking about it.

Let this time in America’s history be a reminder to never stop thinking, never stop questioning, because if we stop, we’re going to live in a world in which thinking about ideas rather than merely absorbing them will become a way of the past.

BOOK REVIEW: Red Rising, by Pierce Brown

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BOOK REVIEW: Red Rising, by Pierce BrownTitle: Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Series: Red Rising #1
Published by Del Rey
Published: July 15th 2014
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 382
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

The Earth is dying.Darrow is a Red, a miner in the interior of Mars. His mission is to extract enough precious elements to one day tame the surface of the planet and allow humans to live on it.The Reds are humanity's last hope.
Or so it appears, until the day Darrow discovers it's all a lie.
That Mars has been habitable - and inhabited - for generations, by a class of people calling themselves the Golds.A class of people who look down on Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought. Until the day that Darrow, with the help of a mysterious group of rebels, disguises himself as a Gold and infiltrates their command school, intent on taking down his oppressors from the inside.
But the command school is a battlefield - and Darrow isn't the only student with an agenda.
Break the chains.
Live for more.

I read this book over the summer on the way down to Florida to go on a cruise. I found it a fast, fun, engaging read, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. It draws on a lot of popular series in fiction, and that’s all right, because I think Brown does an excellent job reinventing and reimagining those tropes. If you enjoy the Hunger Games and want something deeper and like the intrigue of Game of Thrones, I’m sure you’ll like Red Rising.

Darrow, the main character, is born on Mars and mines beneath the surface. He’s of a lower caste than others, but then he’s modified, becomes perfect in the eyes of the law, and is chosen to be sent to an arena-sized game board to fight for dominance. Through his transformation from someone of a lower caste to someone in a higher caste, we get an insight into the unfairness of class treatment and the effects it has on society as it trickles down. During Darrow’s transformation, we also get political insight into why the Reds are Trojan horsing themselves into the upper castes. For freedom, mostly, and that’s what a lot of the “lesser” people in any society tend to fight for.

It’s a little unbelievable sometimes, even for science fiction, but I liked how Brown didn’t take the time to explain all of the foreign details straight away. He uses words, phrases, technology, and ideas (like headTalk, helldiver, and frysuit), and incorporates them into the story, building upon them and expanding our horizons as he does so. Not everything should be explained right away. Good exposition does that for us. Sometimes the writing seems a little melodramatic and over-the-top, but I think it’s supposed to be that way. Upper classes often puff themselves up and make themselves seem more important than they really are, using frivolous language to embellish everything.

Brown does know how to write and how to keep the pace, and his editor does him a service. There wasn’t a time while reading this that I felt bored or felt that the story dragged on. It’s brutal and engaging, and it left you wanting more. It’s got great character development, great action, and an ending that will leave you wanting more (and thankfully there is more!). Definitely pick this up if you’re in the mood for some great science fiction

BOOK REVIEW: Smoke, by Dan Vyleta

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BOOK REVIEW: Smoke, by Dan VyletaTitle: Smoke: A Novel by Dan Vyleta
Published by Doubleday
Published: May 24th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 448
Format: eBook
Source: Edelweiss
Goodreads

England. A century ago, give or take a few years.
An England where people who are wicked in thought or deed are marked by the Smoke that pours forth from their bodies, a sign of their fallen state. The aristocracy do not smoke, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot. An England utterly strange and utterly real. An elite boarding school where the sons of the wealthy are groomed to take power as their birthright. Teachers with mysterious ties to warring political factions at the highest levels of government. Three young people who learn everything they’ve been taught is a lie—knowledge that could cost them their lives. A grand estate where secrets lurk in attic rooms and hidden laboratories. A love triangle. A desperate chase. Revolutionaries and secret police. Religious fanatics and coldhearted scientists. Murder. A London filled with danger and wonder. A tortured relationship between a mother and a daughter, and a mother and a son. Unexpected villains and unexpected heroes. Cool reason versus passion. Rich versus poor. Right versus wrong, though which is which isn’t clear.

Dan Vyleta’s Smoke is what you would get if you crossed Henry James with Philip Pullman and is set it in some post-apocalyptic Victorian-ish England in which Smoke is the manifestation of humanity’s emotional existence – the soul, the spirit, some other sublime aspect of ourselves. London itself is a cesspit of Smoke and Soot, running rampant with all sorts of behavior. There is a lot of interplay with levels of class, with the ideas of right and wrong, and with adhering to social expectations of propriety or letting go and running with base emotions.

Smoke is never fully defined with no origin story or full resolution by the end. Readers looking for a solid beginning and end will not find that here. Smoke is something that came into existence a few hundred years before this story began, and society’s leaders rewrote history to include the existence of Smoke as if it has always existed. The upper class are allowed to rule and govern because they are pure and restrained, while the lower class must rot in Soot and Smoke. But it’s discovered that the upper class, especially the ones who control the power with money and influence, have ways in which to control the Smoke through special candies developed to absorb all release of the body’s Smoke. Conversely, the upper class have devised a cigarette in which one can enjoy the pleasures of Smoke without entirely being consumed by it (at great expense, of course).

Three school-aged people – Thomas, Charlie, and Livia – discover the lies in which their society lives and go to great lengths to find some kind of resolution. It might seem a bit anticlimactic to those who are unfamiliar with British literature and/or culture or the Gothic genre, but it is quite liberating if one is on the side of the young ones. Embracing the Smoke, ultimately embracing emotion (passion, anger, yearning, courage, etc.), is where one finds personal freedom.

I should add that the description advertises a love triangle. Without any spoilers, it’s the first time I’ve been wholly pleased with the outcome of that love triangle at the end. Writers, take note.

Vyleta’s immensely detailed descriptions evoked that style of Henry James, the social commentary reminded me a bit of Dickens, and the use of the elements and religious tyranny with children discovering the truth reminded me of Pullman. Stir in a pinch of Collins, a dash of Doyle, and a handful of soot, and you’ve got Smoke. It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year.

Thanks to Edelweiss for the review copy!