INCARCERON by Catherine Fisher

incarceronIncarceron–a futuristic prison, sealed from view, where the descendants of the original prisoners live in a dark world torn by rivalry and savagery. It is a terrifying mix of high technology–a living building which pervades the novel as an ever-watchful, ever-vengeful character, and a typical medieval torture chamber–chains, great halls, dungeons. A young prisoner, Finn, has hauntings of an earlier life, and cannot believe he was born here and has always been here.

In the outer world, Claudia, daughter of the Warden of Incarceron, is trapped in her own form of prison–a futuristic world constructed beautifully to look like a past era, an imminent marriage she dreads. She knows nothing of Incarceron, except that it exists. But there comes a moment when Finn, inside Incarceron, and Claudia, outside, simultaneously find a device–a crystal Key, through which they can talk to each other. And so the plan for Finn’s escape is born…  (Add to Goodreads)

Review

Incarceron is one of those books you stumble upon, then find yourself forever wondering how you found it. Seriously, there’s nothing out there quite like it–it’s equal parts science and magic, prison break and royal court drama.

Finn is the first protagonist we meet. He’s a member of a criminal gang, born into the sprawling, sentient prison Incarceron–or maybe not. His first memory is of waking up in a cell in the prison a few years ago. Before that, he has nothing. Everyone around him insists that he’s just another cellborn, made by the prison out of recycled organic components–nothing goes to waste in the prison. Everyone also insists that Incarceron is all there is–that there’s no Outside.

Finn isn’t sold on either point.

He’s slowly assimilated to life in Incarceron–now he’s a member of the Comitatus, one of the most feared, hated criminal gangs around. Like everyone else, he’s found an oathbrother, Keiro: someone who’s sworn to watch his back, fight alongside him, and avenge him, if it ever comes down to that. Finn and Keiro have even carved out a good reputation for themselves within the gang.

But even if Finn’s grudgingly respected, he isn’t accepted–he’s not quite like the others, and everyone knows it. Sometimes Finn has fits: seizures, black-outs, disjointed visions that seem to come from another time.

Another world.

So when Finn finds a Key and comes into contact with a girl named Claudia–a girl who claims to live Outside–he and Keiro are determined to make their escape.

Then there’s Claudia. She’s the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron–a place that everybody knows of, but nobody but the really knows about. The Warden’s a cold, hard guy, endlessly calculating, and he’s raised Claudia to be the same way. He wants her to be a strong future queen of their kingdom, and he’s arranged her marriage to the kingdom’s insanely obnoxious prince, Caspar.

Claudia was originally betrothed to Caspar’s older halfbrother, who supposedly died under mysterious circumstances.

But when she steals a Key from her dad’s office and comes into contact with a prisoner named Finn, she starts to wonder if maybe she’s found the long-lost prince. Even if he doesn’t turn out to be the real thing, Claudia thinks she’ll be able to turn Finn into a convincing replacement–and that would be enough to get her out of her arranged marriage to Caspar.

So she decides to bust Finn and his friends out.

At first, Claudia’s storyline kind of bored me. It provides some interesting insight–for example, Incarceron was created as an experiment, and it was originally supposed to be a closed-off utopia–but not a ton of plot. She squares off against her dad in somewhat petty mind games, schemes against him with the help of her tutor, and complains a lot about having to marry Caspar. But once her story gets going, it gets good–murder plots, secret factions at war within the royal court, and an evil queen spice up Claudia’s life a little.

I still prefer Finn’s end of the story, though. It’s spiked with action at just about every turn, and it’s got the insanely creative world-building behind Incarceron to support it. Yeah, this prison has cells and dungeons, but it also has everything else–whole villages, human-sized cages suspended from ceilings, wings claimed by gangs. There’s even a forest made of metal trees. Every morning, Incarceron turns its lights on, and at night, it shuts them off. But sometimes, when its prisoners irritate it or it just gets bored, the prison will shut down sections of itself–releasing poisonous gases, collapsing entire wings, you name it. And at every turn, the prison is watching.

Settings aside, I think this book also excels at complex, interesting secondary characters. Finn and Claudia were okay, but I found Keiro and the Warden more compelling–an in a way, they’re complete opposites. Keiro’s wild and stubborn and seemingly arrogant, and nobody but Finn trusts his loyalty. The Warden, on the other hand, is careful and precise and controlled, and even if he’s cold toward his daughter, nobody can argue that he doesn’t have her best interests at heart. But both Keiro and the Warden calculating, somewhat ruthless, and hard to read–there’s no obvious hero or villain material here. They’re also both harboring huge secrets, which is always fun.

Considering everything Incarceron has going on, I honestly feel like it’s got something for everyone. 5/5 stars, and I definitely recommend it.

ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell

eleanor & parkTwo misfits.

One extraordinary love.

Eleanor… Red hair, wrong clothes. Standing behind him until he turns his head. Lying beside him until he wakes up. Making everyone else seem drabber and flatter and never good enough…Eleanor.

Park… He knows she’ll love a song before he plays it for her. He laughs at her jokes before she ever gets to the punch line. There’s a place on his chest, just below his throat, that makes her want to keep her promises…Park.

Set over the course of one school year, this is the story of two star-crossed sixteen-year-olds–smart enough to know that true love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. (Add to Goodreads)

Review

This is actually the first time I’ve read the blurb for Eleanor & Park–and looking back, I figure that’s a good thing. A teacher sent the book home with my sister over Thanksgiving break, and I’d heard good things about it.

At first, I didn’t plan on reading the whole thing. I was curious about all the hype, but I’m kind of an anti-fan of romances, so I just wanted to duck my head in and then back away again. But I loved the voice–it’s 3rd person, but still manages to pull off a casual, conversational style that usually only comes with 1st person–enough to keep reading.

Then I came to an exchange between Eleanor and her English teacher, who wants to know why she doesn’t seem invested in Romeo and Juliet. Said English teacher insists that the whole thing is sad–you know, a tragedy–and Eleanor maintains that it isn’t:

“But [Shakespeare]’s so obviously making fun of them…. It was ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight. If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline…. It’s Shakespeare making fun of love.”

Suddenly, I felt much more optimistic about my odds of liking this book.

And honestly, even though it’s a romance, some of it worked for me–because you know from page one that it’s an ill-fated romance. In a way, it’s a 1986 version of (500) Days of Summer, just not quite as bitter, with the quirky adult leads swapped out for quirky, loser teenagers. Heck–now that I think about it, both couples even like The Smiths.

the smiths

That leads me to another fun aspect of the book–all the pop culture references. Really, besides the fact that there are no cell phones and gas is cheap, it’s easy to read this and forget that it’s set in the 80s–except for the music. And it isn’t just name-dropped: in Eleanor & Park, music is important enough that it feels like a natural extension of the story, like a character or its own setting. Music isn’t just a way to pass the time–in a way, it’s a lifeline for the two leads, in two different but related ways, and it influences who they are and who they want to be.

I think the dual narration works well, too. Sometimes the POV switches after a complete chapter, and sometimes it jumps back and forth several times within the same chapter. The POV is always clearly labeled, so it doesn’t get confusing, and I liked that it wasn’t restrained to following a narrator for a set amount of time.

More than the relationship between the two leads, though, I enjoyed Park’s relationship with his family. He has a much more stable home life than Eleanor–which, granted, isn’t saying much. His parents met when Park’s Irish American veteran dad was serving overseas and met Park’s Korean mom, and Park’s identity is very much tied up in those two different cultures: how they blend, how they clash. He also takes after his mom in a lot of ways, while his giant younger brother takes after their dad, so there’s plenty of room for family drama. I would’ve liked to see Park’s dynamic with his brother get explored a little more, but his relationships with both parents feel real and fleshed out. At the end of the day, they’re also always there for Park, which is a fresh change from the absentee parenting abounding in YA.

The story hits all sorts of notes, from lighthearted discussions about how many telepaths the X-Men really need to that bittersweet ending promised on page one. It deals with important issues, like Park’s struggles with identity and Eleanor’s messed up, crumbling home life, without getting too bogged down with them. Ultimately, I’m glad I accidentally gave it a chance. 4/5 stars.

 

PARANORMAL LEGACY by Caitlin Hensley

PLAfter moving to a rural Pennsylvania town, cynical teen Haily Long soon discovers that the next-door neighbors are paranormal creatures of darkness. Despite this little quirk, the Knight family seems friendly enough, especially handsome Nathan. Nathan is well-mannered and polite, your typical boy next door…except for the fact that he turns into something else once a month. In a matter of days, Haily is drawn deep into a shadowed world of danger and deceit, and learns startling truths about her own past. When sinister strangers come sniffing around town for Nathan, and Haily gets pulled into the resulting chaos, she must discover how to discover her true heritage if she wants to survive.  (Add to Goodreads)

Review

First, the politely expectant elephant in the room: I’m typically not a fan of paranormal stories that flip things around and make the monsters the heroes. When a vampire’s a creature that goes to work or school and acts like a normal guy–just one with a quirky diet–it takes all the fun out of things. Where’s that inhuman edge that makes monsters interesting villains, you know?

But I met the author of Paranormal Legacy several years ago, and I ended up reading this series.

More than that, I ended up loving it. Despite the fact that the blurb itself says that the paranormal neighbours are polite, upstanding citizens, this kicks off a series I can really get behind: Jake West is one of my Favourite Characters of All Time, the snark is almost non-stop, and there’s plenty of action tossed in.

It all starts when two strangers try to break into Haily’s house in the middle of the night. Instead of calling the cops, Haily’s mom, Caylin, hauls Haily and the family dog off in their car, not stopping to pack or even glance behind them.

Like that’s not weird enough, it seemed like Caylin knew said strangers. Caylin drags Haily across the country and basically forces a reboot of their life, but she still refuses to share with the class about what the heck is going on. As it turns out, though, she doesn’t have to. Those strangers catch up with them before too long, and forget the closet–they bring a whole basement full of Long-related skeletons with them. When Haily’s family secrets intersect with those of the next-door neighbours, things get interesting.

But they get fun when Jake hits the scene. He’s one of those two strangers who broke into Haily’s house and confronted her mom, but as it turns out, they had a reason to. They end up staying with the Longs, much to Haily’s chagrin–and the delight of sensible readers everywhere.

After all, more Jake means more laughs. He’s got something witty, irreverent, and totally shameless to offer up in any conversation, but he also has this dark streak at his core. Though that dichotomy is explored more deeply later in the series, we see Hensley start to delve into it toward the end of Paranormal Legacy. I’m a fan of this development, because as much as I love a (clever) class clown, I love a wiseguy with a tragic core even more.

Basically, Jake’s pretty much the best thing ever, and together, he and Haily are basically the king and queen of banter. Think early Castle, but they don’t take themselves quite as seriously. Paranormal Legacy is worth reading for its dialogue alone, but it also tells a really human story–which plays interestingly with the generally inhuman cast. So despite the fact that “polite” (nope), “handsome” (double nope) Nathan makes me want to punch things, and the fact that I normally don’t like the friendly-monsters take on the paranormal, I’m a huge fan of this series.

SPLIT by Swati Avasthi

SplitSixteen-year-old Jace Witherspoon arrives at the doorstep of his estranged brother, Christian, with a re-landscaped face (courtesy of his father), $3.84, and a secret.

He tries to move on, going for new friends, a new school, and a new job, but all his changes can’t make him forget what he left behind–his mother, who is still trapped with his dad, and his ex-girlfriend, who is keeping his secret.

At least so far.

Worst of all, Jace realizes that if he really wants to move forward, he may first have to do what scares him most: He may have to go back. Award-winning novelist Swati Avasthi has created a riveting and remarkably nuanced portrait of what happens after. After you’ve said enough, after you’ve run, after you’ve made the split–how do you begin to live again? Readers won’t be able to put this intense page-turner down.   (Add to Goodreads)

Review

First confession: It took me a ridiculously long time to notice the silhouettes of faces on the cover. I thought they were just cool, whittled-down keys. Also, I think I like the keys better than the faces.

Also, I’m not sure why I’m admitting this.

Second confession: I expected to like this book for the voice–based off of that first paragraph in the blurb–and not much else.

I was incredibly wrong.

Yeah, it’s a book that deals really heavily with abuse. But that’s not all it’s about. At its heart, Split is my favourite kind of story–a story about two brothers. It’s about who they’ve both become in the six years that’ve passed since they last saw each other, knew each other. In the six years since Jace’s big brother, Christian, ran away to escape their dad.

It’s about who they are now, on the other side of those six long years. Christian’s made a new life from himself, gotten a new start. But when he ran away, there was nothing left to distract their dad–he started in on Jace.

It’s also about who they want to become, now that they’ve gotten away from their dad and found each other again.

But obviously, it’s not going to be that easy.

Jace comes to find Christian when his dad kicks him out for standing up to him. It’s late at night and Jace has nowhere to go, but Jace’s mom–slips out behind him to give him his car keys, a small handful of ones and fives she’s squirreled away over the years, and an envelope with Christian’s address.

Jace isn’t so sure about that–he hasn’t heard from his big brother since Christian disappeared from their lives, and he’s hurt that Christian kept in touch with their mom but not him. Not only that, but going after Christian is risky–there’s a chance Jace could lead their dad right back to his brother, bring Christian’s life crashing back down.

And when Jace arrives, Christian’s well aware of that possibility. At first, he’s closed off, unwilling to try to connect too much with Jace. He’s mild-mannered, emotionally distant, and above all, cautious–those are his defense mechanisms. That’s what keeps him safe.

And for a younger brother who kind of idolises him, even at seventeen years old, it’s incredibly frustrating.

But Jace really can’t blame Christian for not trusting him. When Jace ended up at his brother’s door, he came with a lot of baggage–and secrets.

He wants a fresh start, a new life. But he wasn’t able to leave behind the old part of his life he hates–and fears–most.

Himself.

Basically, Jace Witherspoon shares a lot of demons with Dean Winchester–but instead of idolising and wanting to be like his dad, Jace is trying desperately to avoid following in his footsteps.

What thenBut when Jace’s secrets catch up with him, he’s going to have to suck it up and face the past if he wants to move forward.

Like I said before, I initially wasn’t sure if I would like this book beyond Jace’s narrative style. But it delivered on more than that front. I loved watching that complicated relationship between the brothers evolve, and Avasthi does a great job of weaving in seamless subplots so the plot works on multiple levels.

She’s also really great at portraying a Big Issue in all its complexity, on a personalised level, without getting preachy, reducing the situation to stereotypes, or coming down heavy-handed. According to her bio on the dust jacket, Avasthi coordinated at a legal clinic victims of domestic violence, and her experiences there really give Split a sense of authenticity.

Basically, it’s brilliant. 4/5 stars.

THE HOLLOW KINGDOM by Clare B. Dunkle

The Hollow Kingdom

Hallow Hill has a strange and tragic history. For thousands of years, young women have been vanishing from the estate, never to be seen again. Now Kate and Emily have come to live at Hallow Hill. Brought up in a civilized age, they have no idea of the land’s dreadful heritage. Until, that is, Marak decides to tell them himself.

Intelligent, pleasant, and completely pitiless, Marak is a powerful magician who claims to be a King–and he has very specific plans for the two new girls who have trespassed into his kingdom.  (Add to Goodreads)

Review

 I didn’t realize it till after I’d finished it–that’s how different it is from other retellings and even its source material–but The Hollow Kingdom is basically a unique twist on the old Beauty and the Beast tale. And by “unique,” I don’t mean that it’s got a clever twist on the trope that makes it stand out from the crowd.

I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything like this one, and that’s probably what I appreciate about it most.

When their dad dies, Kate and Emily Winslow are left without a legal guardian. Finally, an obnoxious relative steps up and agrees to be their legal guardian–his motives aren’t exactly selfless, but that’s beside the point. He lives at the family estate on Hallow Hill, which Kate will inherit from her late mother once she officially comes of age.

There are lots of old, weird folktales about Hallow Hill–ones about goblins kidnapping human girls and dragging them underground to marry them. The sisters shrug this off as neighbors clinging to old-fashioned tales designed to scare girls from going out too late. But when Kate and Emily stay outside stargazing one night, Kate swears she feels someone watching them.

As it turns out, she’s right. All the old stories about Hallow Hill are true–it’s located roughly around where elf territory used to be, and right above the goblin kingdom. Kate, bless her English soul, has attracted the attention of the goblin king, Marak: he wants her as his bride.

This leads to a huge game of cat versus mouse, which a large chunk of the book focuses on. Mouse, thanks to Kate’s intelligence and resourcefulness, usually manages to outsmart cat at the last second. Cat, thanks to Marak’s self-assurance and flippancy, is pretty hilarious.

Eventually, though, Emily goes missing. Faced with losing the last real family she has left, Kate decides to take matters into her own hands. She marches into the goblin kingdom and offers her own hand in marriage to the goblin king–if he helps her get her sister back.

This leads into my favourite part of the book: Kate’s life in the goblin kingdom. The worldbuilding here is incredibly rich, and there’s nothing out there quite like Dunkle’s goblin society. And when the roughly 19th-century Kate first arrives there, it horrifies her. Goblins are hideous (and Dunkle did a dang good job making them hideous, for the record) and harsh, valuing strength over beauty and truth over manners. Marak takes real joy in teasing Kate, and as king, he’s sometimes ruthless in the name of protecting his kingdom.

But the more Kate sees, the more she comes to appreciate the goblins. They may not be as refined as she’s used to, and some of them may be traumatizing to look at–but like their king, they really do care about her, and they’re kind. They shower her with jewellry and pick flowers for her when they go aboveground to patrol their lands. More than that, they’re loyal to the end, and their hearts really are in the right places. They’re just good.

In the end, that’s more than Kate can say for the human race. Over a year after she’s signed herself over to goblin life, the kingdom comes under threat–from a human sorcerer. He wants the goblins’ magic for himself, and to get it, he’s willing to bring the whole race toppling down. When Kate’s the only one left with any real knowledge of the human world, it’s up to her to venture back to her old life and find the sorcerer–then bring him down to save her new kingdom.

To be fair, the resolution to that particular issue came about a little too easily for me. But Kate made up for it afterwards–you’ll see what I mean if you read it–and in doing so, she showed not only some character growth, but some real guts.

My other quibble would be that we spent more time in the cat-and-mouse portion of the story than in the actual goblin kingdom. Compared to something so vibrant and bizarre, hanging out in the human realm is boring by comparison.

Ultimately, though, The Hollow Kingdom is a quick, really enjoyable read. Besides the worldbuilding, Marak made this book for me, and the supporting characters–especially Seylin, the goblin boy who’s an outcast because he’s pretty, and Charm, a magical entity that protects all Kings’ Wives–were equally brilliant. I give this one 4/5 stars, and look forward to reading the next book in the series.

HEIR APPARENT by Vivian Vande Velde

Heir ApparentIn the virtual reality game Heir Apparent, there are way too many ways to get killed–and Giannine seems to be finding them all. Which is a darn shame, because unless she can get the magic ring, locate the stolen treasure, answer the dwarf’s dumb riddles, impress the head-chopping statue, charm the army of ghosts, fend off the barbarians, and defeat the man-eating dragon, she’ll never win.

And she has to, because losing means she’ll die–for real this time. (Add to Goodreads)

Review

First off, I’d like to take a moment of silence for the sheer awesomeness that is this author’s name. The best part is, according to her website, that’s actually her real name.

Okay. Moment over.

I was in middle school the first time I read this book. In fact, I ended up reading it a few times during middle school, because my library was small and the book was hilarious, so why the heck not.

I stumbled across it again recently, and I decided to give it another shot–see if it had stood the test of time. As it happens, I’m happy to report that this one held up just fine.

When Giannine’s estranged father sends her a gift card for her birthday–through his secretary, no less–Giannine isn’t expecting much. She ends up getting credit for a round of gameplay at the Rasmussem Corporation Gaming Center, which is basically a virtual reality arcade.

Unfortunately, a group of protesters break into the center and attack the equipment inside while she’s hooked up to it–effectively trapping her in the game. Now the only way out is to beat the game, and quickly: her brain will fry if she spends too long hooked up to the virtual reality machines.

She happens to have chosen the game Heir Apparent, in which she plays a peasant who finds out she’s the king’s illegitimate daughter–and the child he’s named, on his deathbed, as the heir to his throne.

Of course, he’s also left behind three legitimate sons and a real shrew of a wife, and none of them are exactly thrilled about old King Cynric’s (God rest his soul) choice of successor.

None of them are above sabotage, either, which makes things interesting for Giannine. Each time she’s killed in the game, she’s booted back to the starting point–which is one thing when you’re playing Pac-Man, but a whole nother issue when you’re on a life-or-crispy-death deadline. And if there’s one thing Giannine seems good at, it’s making the wrong choices that ultimately get her axed.

That’s the great thing about this book, though. Even though certain aspects of the plot repeat themselves again and again each time Giannine starts over, things never feel annoying or even stale.

This is mostly because of Giannine–she’s hilarious in pretty much everything she does, whether it’s action, dialogue, or her interior monologue. Between her wit, the sarcasm of her half-family and her advisor, and the broken English of the barbarian king threatening her kingdom, I laughed out loud more than once.

Really, that’s all I can ask for in a book–but Heir Apparent delivers more than that. It’s got an engaging plot with just enough twists to defy the formulaic nature of the repeated gameplay, and between the virtual reality premise and the fact that she’s in a medieval-fantasy game, it should appeal to sci-fi and fantasy fans alike.

This is one of those books you wish had a sequel–not because it doesn’t wrap up nicely, but because you want to spend more time with the narrator, more time getting to know the secondary characters. I give it 5/5 stars, and look forward to rereading it again in the future.

Fools Rush In

Yesterday, I finished the last round of micro edits for my YA superhero novel before I start querying. Now I’ve just got to rewrite my first couple of chapters and spiff up my query letter, which is still a rough draft at this point. The goal is to start submitting to agents by late October or early November.

It’s crazy to think that four years ago, I was just feeling out the querying process for a much different version of the same book.

I went through a few different versions of my query letter and a list of agents, but none of it panned out. For a long time, I kept pushing through, kept pushing more submissions out–Winston Churchill, never surrender, you know?

WC FieldsBut eventually, I realized there was a difference between greeting the proverbial drawing board like an old friend and just plain quitting. Sometimes, yeah, you need to be hard-headed and thick-skinned and plow through the let-downs.

Other times, you need to sit down, shut up, and admit when something isn’t working.

Realizing that didn’t make scrapping that draft of my book any more pleasant. But looking back, I’m weirdly grateful for it. I feel like I’m a stronger writer now, and while the general spine is the same, my story and series have evolved a heck of a lot since then.

Really, it’s just a matter of knowing what battles are worth picking–and when. If you find yourself needing to take some time, step back, and approach your story from a new angle, consider Maggie Stiefvater and Eric Kripke.

Maggie Stiefvater is the bestselling author of the Shiver series and The Scorpio Races, among other things. She also wrote The Raven Boys–my favorite book in the history of the universe, and the first book in a planned quartet.

The interesting thing is, she wrote the first draft of The Raven Boys when she was nineteen years old–at least twelve years ago. She’s mentioned before that she realized she didn’t yet have the writing tools necessary to tell that story and juggle multiple POV characters, so she moved on. She still loved the story and carried it around inside her, but she wasn’t ready to tell it yet. It was a matter of timing.

So she waited, worked on some other projects, and came back to it when she was ready. And I have to say, the result is pretty amazing.

If that success story doesn’t sell you, there’s also Eric Kripke, creator and longtime showrunner of Supernatural. Before he came up with the Winchester brothers and the Impala, he set the creatures and cases against an anthology backdrop. After that, he planned to tell the stories through a tabloid reporter investigating it all. Then it was the story of Sam and Dean Harrison, raised by their aunt and uncle after their mother died and their father left.

The story went through loads of different versions–it was pitched and rejected and reworked for ten years. And it ended up being a wizard show that’s still going strong in its tenth season. If the story about the tabloid reporter had been greenlit, the Winchesters would never have been born.

So by all means–if you’ve really examined what you’re doing and feel like it’s the best it can be, go for it. But if the timing seems to be wrong, maybe there’s a reason for that.

A time and a season, and all that good stuff.