Vicious – V. E. Schwab

October 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

Vicious Cover Art

Vicious by V. E. Schwab. Love this cover art!

Vicious is the story of Eli and Victor, two young men who become obsessed with the concept of ExtraOrdinaries (Eos) – people with superhuman abilities. For his final thesis, star pupil Eli decides to research the possibility that the existence of EOs is not only legitimate, but traceable. Burning with jealousy that his best friend chose such an intriguing concept, Victor disbands his own work to work alongside Eli. Together, the prodigious students are able to discover what it takes to become an EO…and then, to replicate it.
With the dangerous zeal of the obsessed, Eli and Victor undertake the transition from ordinary humans to EOs. Their success, however, has come at a cost: the life of Eli’s girlfriend, Angie.
When grief shatters the last remnants of his true humanity, Eli pits himself against the entire community of EOs. Convinced that EOs are abominations, he is determined to track and kill each and every one of them for their crime against humanity.
Sent to prison for Angie’s death, Victor is released ten years after his transition. Knowing Eli as he does, and understanding his capacity for darkness, Victor accepts that he must be the one to stop him.
One EO pitted against another, the odds should be fairly even. But they’re not, and it comes down to one small fact: Eli can no longer be killed.

Hours passed in blinks as the two let it sink in, what that meant, what they had done. It was extraordinary.
It was ExtraOrdinary.
Eli rubbed his thumb over the fresh skin of his palm, but Victor was the first to speak, and when he did, it was with an eloquence and composure perfectly befitting the situation.
“Holy shit.”

Vicious fits in perfectly with the New Adult genre, which is currently lacking in content. Said to fill the gap between YA and adult fiction, the New Adult genre is set to explore life at university, the stress of independence and self-sufficiency and the complexity of adult relationships. Vicious ticks all of these boxes, making it an excellent addition to the ranks of New Adult fiction.
I love books with a university setting. Although I probably shouldn’t admit this in such a public forum, I didn’t find it too difficult to identify with the way that Eli and Victor became obsessed with their research. Vicious explores the stresses and pressures of university life in its fullness, including the jealousy and intensity of friendships formed over abstract and obscure research. When a pair or group of like-minded, highly intelligent people collaborate to produce something great, and commitment levels, ability and goals begin to oscillate, the effect on the individuals involved is profound. Obsession, it could be argued, is an academic disease, and Eli and Victor are at its mercy.   For me, Vicious recalls that same highly intellectual, all-encompassing obsession that Donna Tartt depicted in her prolific novel, The Secret History. Incidentally, The Secret History is my favourite book, so it’s no wonder I enjoyed Vicious so much.

Vicious trading cards. I'm dying to get my hands on some (Vicious pun...)

Vicious trading cards. You might say I’m dying to get my hands on some…ha. 

Rather than seeking a definition of a hero, Vicious asks, what constitutes a villain? Is someone who opposes good automatically a villain? If you find yourself the bearer of enormous power, is it your responsibility to use it, or can you allow it to lie dormant? If you have the capacity to do good, and do not, does that make you a bad person? What if you have the capacity to stop good?
Eli and Victor’s respective powers throw an additional spanner into the philosophical works. Where Eli’s powers affect only himself, Victor has the capacity to force his will on others. Eli becomes arguably more evil in intent, but Victor’s actions are more horrifying. Even their personalities call these definitions into question: is Victor evil, just because he is “dark”? Eli certainly isn’t good, despite being a “nice” person (and a religious one…read into that what you will…).
In Vicious, the lines of good and evil begin to blur. Victor and Eli are at once the same and opposite, and the way that Schwab spins the story around their changing lives is fascinating.

If Eli really was a hero, and Victor meant to stop him, did that make him a villain? He took a long sip of his drink, tipped his head back against the couch, and decided he could live with that. 

The single thing that irked me about Vicious is the way that story constantly jumps back and forth between several time periods. I’m all for a non-linear narrative, but I don’t think that the book is long enough to justify the jumps from ten years ago to the present, to a few days before, to five years ago, to two hours ago. Ultimately, Schwab manages to use it to her advantage, but it’s a bit hard to adjust to at first. Although, if that’s the only gripe I have about the novel, we’re doing pretty well.

Vicious is hellishly good.  I loved the darkness in the story, and it was refreshing to read a book set at university. I was fascinated by the concept of the EOs, and the fact that they are created and not born. I only wish that this book had been longer, but I can content myself with the possibility that there might be a sequel in the works. Certainly, the end of the novel indicated that there’s more to come. Surely, Victor and Eli’s enmity has not been exhausted? Eli can’t die, for God’s sake, Victor’s going to have to try harder!

“You can’t kill me, Victor,” Eli said. “You know that.”
Victor’s smile widened as he buried his knife between Eli’s ribs.
“I know,” he said loudly. He had to speak up over the screams. “But you’ll have to indulge me. I’ve waited so long to try.” 

Vicious recalls elements of The Secret History, the X-Men and noir-style comics. It’s a world I want to know more about, and Schwab is an author whose work I want to see expand into the adult genre. Vicious is published by Tor, so if my review doesn’t give you the confidence to pick this book up, that small fact should! As usual, if you’d like a copy of Vicious, call Pulp Fiction in Brisbane on (07) 3236-2750.

Victoria Schwab has a WordPress blog, which you can find here.
Like The Novelettes on Facebook here. If you have any suggestions for books to review, leave me a comment below.

What did you think of Vicious? Will you grab a copy, now that you’ve read my review?

 

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Starglass – sci fi for beginners.

September 14, 2013 § 2 Comments

Starglass Cover Art

Phoebe North’s Starglass

Imagine that you have never set foot on a planet. Imagine that your entire world is a human construct, designed as a long-lived but ultimately temporary means of transportation to a new life. Imagine that the world of your ancestors is long-dead, and that you, and everyone you ever knew, were cast into space, one of humanity’s few opportunities to survive the end of Earth.

Try and get your head around the requirements and qualities of a society which is completely and utterly contained within a ship. Consider what it would take to keep such a huge piece of spacecraft running. What sort of jobs would be required of its inhabitants? How would you get allocated to a role? What happens if you’re no good at it, or you hate it? Where does food come from? Where do you live? How does this affect your mentality?

Perusing the stacks and stacks of unread books in my mini-library, I picked up my copy of Starglass on a whim, shucked its dust jacket and cracked the first page. Within ten minutes, I was suspended in space, along with the passengers of Asherah.

For the next twelve hours, I could not put this book down. I mean this in a very literal sense. I was wandering around my house with the book in front of my face, a cup of tea sloshing precariously around in my other hand, in a vain attempt to get something productive done. Alas, all I really succeeded in doing was getting lost in the pages of this surprising novel.

To Zaheva and beyond...

To Zaheva and beyond…

Terra is a part of the standard family unit, the female child of an allocated pair of boy and girl. Her father is a clock-keeper and her mother died when she was twelve. With her brother now living in his own quarters with his wife, Terra is left alone with her alcoholic father. She’s been separated from her friends and allocated a profession she never expected to have. She’s content to find herself betrothed to her father’s apprentice, but she’s not ecstatic about it. She expected her engagement to be a source of happiness, but it’s mediocrity at best. She’s been miserable for a while, but the impending arrival of the Asherah on the planet Zeheva gets her through every day. That is, until the day that she witnesses the brutal murder of the ship’s librarian.
This changes everything for Terra. She finds herself embroiled within a revolution, and she’s not sure which side has her true loyalty. Meanwhile, the Asherah is hurtling toward Zehava – time is running out for the revolution to take action, and time is running out for Terra to choose a side.

If you’re a sci-fi novice like me, Starglass might be an excellent way to ease yourself into the genre. Although I’m fine with fantasy, I feel as though there’s something inherently intimidating about sci-fi. I’ve tried a few sci-fi novels, and even enjoyed a couple, but there’s been some kind of block stopping me from properly becoming a fan of the genre in general. So, broaching it from a YA perspective allowed me to immerse myself in a sci-fi setting without worrying that it would be overly complex.

Up until recently, this was about the extent of my SF exposure...

Up until recently, this was about the extent of my SF exposure…

If you’re a YA snob, unlike me, don’t be put off by the fact that this book has a teenage protagonist. And don’t go thinking that you don’t need to read this because you’ve read other current YA stuff. Starglass is different; it’s a genre-buster.  Until I was about halfway through Starglass, I figured I knew exactly where it was going. Don’t get me wrong, I was thoroughly enjoying it. I just didn’t think it would stray from the traditional love-triangle, girl-revolutionary sort of storyline. Boy, was I wrong. The second half of the book explodes with action, and just about every chapter contains an unexpected twist.

Last night, I headed into Pulp Fiction in Brisbane City to (once again) harass the trustworthy staff for a recommendation. I walked out with John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, to which I am dedicating the majority of my Saturday. So we’ll see, readers. Maybe my love for Starglass is the beginning of a beautiful relationship with the sci-fi genre. Watch this space, I may become a Trekkie yet.

New Catching Fire trailer – “Since the last games, something is different.”

July 23, 2013 § 4 Comments

Anticipation for Catching Fire is running high – I, for one, cannot wait for the next instalment of The Hunger Games franchise. The first one met and exceeded all my expectations, thanks to some brilliant re-imagining and the casting of down-to-earth Jennifer Lawrence as tough, resourceful Katniss. The Hunger Games are some of my very favourite books, and this trailer for Catching Fire looks like it will at least live up to its predecessor. What do you think of it?

I Believe in J. K. Rowling – A Review of The Casual Vacancy

July 20, 2013 § 8 Comments

With the recent revelation that Jo Rowling has decided to try her hand at a detective novel, we thought it might be prudent to revisit her first novel for adults – The Casual Vacancy.

When Barry Fairbrother, a council member and former “Fields” resident, dies unexpectedly, Howard Mollison is elated; his main opposition to his anti-Fields campaign has been conveniently eliminated. A casual

The Casual Vacancy's striking cover

The Casual Vacancy’s striking cover

vacancy arises in Barry’s wake, and several members of the community, each with a different motivation and stance regarding the Fields, step up to fill his shoes. These include Miles, Howard’s mini-me son; Colin Wall, the nervous and emotional school principal; and Simon Price, dodgy employee of the local printing shop. From this premise, Rowling spins her story of small-town corruption and secrecy. Each of the characters has a secret, and some of them begin appearing on the parish council’s website, published by an anonymous user, ominously titled The_Ghost_Of_Barry_Fairbrother. The skeletons in respective townspeople’s closets begin to appear, and as the past is dredged up, the very fabric of the community begins to change. For some characters, these exposures effect positive changes in their lives, and for others, they bring the walls crashing down around their ears.

Rowling’s characterisation simply shines in The Casual Vacancy. Each and every character is so vivid that the reader’s response to them, whether disgust, sympathy or pity, is visceral and lasting. Rowling imbues nasty, vicious characters with semi-redeemable qualities that leave the reader doubting their absolute opinions, and she renders small behaviours of the most admirable characters hateful. In the broad spectrum of characters Rowling has drawn in The Casual Vacancy, there are those whose cruelty stems from ignorance or misunderstanding; there are those whose apparent charity is nothing more than a carefully constructed social veneer; there are teenagers who appear spiteful and selfish to their parents, but who carry the burden of a grief to which their parents are oblivious; and, perhaps most importantly, there are people who are dirty, foul-mouthed, ill-educated and promiscuous, who, as Rowling points out so very clearly, are human after all.

I believe in J. K. Rowling.

This brings me to Krystal Weedon, whose struggle to care for her four-year-old brother Robbie continues throughout the story. Krystal is a native of the Fields, and her mother, Terri, is a long-term heroin addict. Krystal has a reputation for being violent, and is generally thought of as a disgusting, foul-mouthed example of why Pagford should excommunicate the Fields. Despite this, though, several characters throughout the book have unexpectedly fond memories of Krystal which often showcase her bravery and confidence in difficult situations. She’s written off by the majority of the community as a no-hoper, and, although she is oblivious to the goings-on of the council, it is she who will be most affected by their decision to cut Pagford’s ties with the Fields.

A lot of fuss has been made about Rowling’s fairly explicit criticism of the striation of the British social classes in this book. Of course, this is a huge part of the novel, but I felt that it was done masterfully. Krystal’s story ends with a sort of tragic dignity that is both fitting and highly confronting.

She kept asking herself whether, if he had looked cleaner, she might have been more concerned; whether, on some subliminal level, she had confused his obvious signs of neglect with street-smartness, toughness and resilience. ‘I thought he’d come in there to play, but there was nobody with him. He was only three and a half, Miles. Why didn’t I ask him who he was with?’  – 494

And while the novel’s close sees the redemption of some characters, others are too mired in their own prejudices to see past the fact that Krystal was from the Fields, and therefore not worthy of their concern or even pity. But Rowling, master storyteller that she is, finds some subtle way to punish these characters, ultimately elevating Krystal as the heroine of the story.

After reading this book, it's hard to forget him.

After reading this book, it’s hard to forget him.

Many readers seem to be searching for the link between Hogwarts and Pagford. Rowling has been quite explicit about the fact that there is none. You might see glimpses of some of the same issues that were embedded in the fantastic world of Harry Potter, such as the class divide, but The Burrow is far from the Fields of The Casual Vacancy. In this novel, poverty is not quaint and cozy, but is the cause of disease, neglect and death. That said, I do see a connection between the Harry Potter novels and Rowling’s first adult novel. The world of Harry Potter contains many moral lessons for the millions of fans who read the books. For example, issues of discrimination are addressed perhaps without many young readers realising, when lupine Professor Lupin is driven from his post at Hogwarts for a condition he cannot help having. Similarly, we are positioned to be somewhat repulsed by the Malfoys’ decadent mansion, and to feel at home in the dilapidated house of the Weasleys, subliminally coming to associate wealth with evil, and poverty with good, hard-working people (Harry himself always says he would give up his wealth for the Weasleys if only they would let him). The Harry Potter novels, therefore, are a sort of fable – they contain moral lessons imparted by the behaviour of the characters.

I see The Casual Vacancy as a moral tale for adults. The way in which the villagers of Pagford are bound up in their own lives and petty concerns may seem extreme to us, as readers, but when examined closely, is recognisable. Through superficial Samantha Mollison, misogynistic Gavin, cruel, cold-hearted Fats Wall and nervy Sukhvinder, Rowling expounds a new moral message – look around, and take note of those who need your help. Put aside your own concerns, and listen to those of the people around you, even if they are not being spoken aloud. Use your resources for the greater good, and not for the immediate gratification of the few.

Yes, The Casual Vacancy is about social class, and yes, there’s a lot of swearing, abuse, drug use and sex in this novel. No, of course it isn’t another Harry Potter, it’s far from it. But it is just as good.


J. K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, is a masterpiece of characterisation and storytelling that confirms what we knew all along – Rowling is a highly gifted author.

Pagford is no Little Whingeing. Or is it?

Pagford is no Little Whingeing, but it’s worth a visit.

xx Kalystia

Murakami’s After Dark: I don’t think I like it…

July 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

Murakami's After Dark

Murakami’s After Dark

When I told itsnotnatalie that I didn’t like Murakami, she simply refused to accept it. Knowing that she holds Norwegian Wood in very high esteem, and knowing also that she knows me, I accepted a loan of her copy of After Dark. She thought that this short, eerie novel might be a better way to ease me into the joys of Murakami.

I tried so hard to enjoy and to appreciate After Dark. Really, itsnotnatalie, I did… but it just felt like a waste of a potentially good idea. The characters are drawn with surprising clarity and depth, and I wanted to know more about them. Murakami’s prose is enthralling, with its clean, cold crispness and swinging perspectives. But the very unfinished-ness of After Dark irritates me so very deeply that I can’t appreciate any of it.

There are certainly scenes worthy of skin-crawling, goosebump-inducing creepiness in After Dark. The masked man who watches over the comatose Eri, for example – he’s indescribably unsettling. The freakishly detached “salaryman” who assaults a nineteen-year-old Chinese prostitute is shocking. How could someone commit such atrocities with such ease and apparent unconcern?

Oddly, these were the parts of After Dark that I liked the most. The cold, clinical attitude toward violence reminded me of another Japanese novel I had read: Grotesque, by Natsuo Kirino (which I loved). I also found the way that the characters seemed to contemplate the ability to commit violence and atrocities to be fascinating.

Takahashi, a jazz musician and law student, establishes a suddenly intense friendship with Mari, Eri’s sister. He begins to tell her about why he chose to pursue law:

…there really was no world separating [the criminal’s] world from mine. Or if there was such a wall, it was probably a flimsy one made of papier-mache. The second I leaned on it, I’d probably fall right through and end up on the other side. Or maybe it’s that the other side has already managed to sneak its way inside of us, and we haven’t noticed.

This is pretty disturbing. Is Murakami suggesting that the capacity to assault and intent to murder lurks within everyone? If he isn’t, why did Takahashi focus on this so much? Takahashi is so concerned with this concept that he decides to give up music, his true passion, to follow a career in law. Perhaps he’s so worried about his own capacity to commit evil that he feels compelled to prevent others from doing so…?

Or maybe he’s not. Because it’s Murakami, and to attempt to interpret it would be to fail to understand it.

This book is a snapshot of one night. This is why there is minimal characterisation beyond in-the-moment observations. That’s why there’s no real plot, resolution or climax. Murakami works with the concept of magical-realism in such a way as to render any symbolism inscrutable, and toys with the reader’s expectations of narrative structure. I found that at the end of it, I was mildly interested in finding out what happened after the night in question, but didn’t really have any burning questions about it.

Overall, I felt about After Dark as I did about the other Murakami books I have read: I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but resented it once I finished it. Maybe this means that my reading tastes aren’t mature enough to appreciate the great Murakami, but for the moment – I kind of don’t get it, and I can’t work out if I like it.

Susan Ee’s Angelfall: My favorite apocalypse

July 14, 2013 § 16 Comments

Susan Ee’s debut novel has become a darling of the reading social network Goodreads, with over eight thousand seperate five star reviews from individual readers. After reading Angelfall, I am here to tell you that all eight thousand of those reviews are one hundred percent justified.

What’s it about?

Six weeks ago, an army of angels descended to Earth. Millions, then billions of people die, as the angels bring about what appears to be the biblical apocalypse. Living in the aftermath of the initial invasion, Penryn’s fight or flight instincts have kicked in – and flight isn’t an option when the enemy has wings.

Penryn saves a brutalised angel, Raffe, after his wings are cut off by members of his own kind. When her wheelchair-bound little sister is abducted by angels, Penryn bargains her assistance for his help in finding the aerie where she believes her sister has been taken. With the weight of their opposing races on their shoulders, the pair set out toward the aerie. They come across a small pocket of organised human resistance, and Penryn begins to question her loyalties. Although she feels begrudgingly grateful to Raffe, his race did eviscerate society as she knew it. She feels a sense of pride in the human resistance, as a Daughter of Man, but knows that she can’t truly contribute until she reaches the aerie and saves Paige.

When they reach the hub of angel intelligence, Penryn is shocked. Far from the organised military base she was expecting, the angels are revelling in post-war decadence. Champagne, luxurious food, evening gowns and five star hotels are the norm for the celestials, even as the smoking panorama of a destroyed San Francisco looms from the penthouse windows. As she and Raffe navigate the political scene of the celestial elite in their quest to find Paige, Penryn finds herself blurring the lines between loyalty to the desecrated world she comes from and the brusque angel who has led her to the heart of the invasion.

Despite having lived through the end of the world, nothing can prepare Penryn (or the reader) for what she finds in the aerie.

If you’re someone who consults Goodreads for recommendations, there’s a 99.99% chance that you’ve seen this image recently

so what did I think?

Angels aren’t a particularly unique topic at the moment, especially in the YA genre. That said, Susan Ee writes this tale of celestial intervention so well that she leaves her competition (namely Hush, Hush) gasping at her heels. The potentially controversial concept of biblical end-times could have been frumpy, preachy and bland (think Left Behind), but Angelfall is engrossing, fast-paced and action-filled. I am endlessly fascinated by angels, and I loved the way this author portrayed them. She managed to make them frightening and alien, but also familiar, in that they strongly resemble their biblical incarnations.

As far as characters go, Angelfall is fairly standard. Strong, selfless and determined, Penryn is motivated to push forward in a desolate new world for the sake of her sister and mentally ill mother. Despite being an angel, Raffe is the brusque, practical and ultimately troubled male counterpart that we’ve already seen in Gale (The Hunger Games), Four (Divergent) and Bradwell (Pure). And Paige, Penryn’s crippled little sister, is a cut-copy of Prim, Katniss’ motivation to win the Games. What makes Angelfall stand out from the rest of the YA post-apocalyptic novels I’ve been devouring is the way the characters interact with one another.

One of my favourite things about Angelfall was the fact that romance took a back seat to more important things, like saving one’s sibling and safely navigating post-apocalyptic society. This made everything feel more realistic.  If one’s world had ended, one would probably be in shock for quite some time, and not prioritising romantic prospects. That’s not to say that there is no romantic tension – there is – but there’s a huge, enormous, unimaginable obstacle in the way before Penryn and Raffe could indulge in any sort of relationship. Most YA romance is graced with a suitable obstacle, I admit, but in this case, it’s a downright biblical disaster. And it’s awesome.

Paige, on the other hand, meets an entirely different fate to Prim (her THG counterpart). In fact, what happens to Paige makes the wait until Angelfall’s sequel all the more excruciating.  I have to admit that, when I first read that Paige was wheelchair-bound, I thought Ee had been trying too hard to portray her as vulnerable. By the end of the book, though, I realised she had a plan for Paige all along…

Angelfall features an angel with lost wings who winds up stuck with a “Daughter of Man” as they work together to achieve their separate goals – he of getting his wings reattached and she of being reunited with her stolen sister. Who’s betraying whose race? Could their objectives ever be anything but mutually exclusive? What do the angels intend to achieve? Could a human resistance movement have any traction against celestial beings supposedly sent from God? Could an angel from on high really doubt the existence of God?!

This book is really, really good. You should read it, right now, and find out.

Angelfall is available in hard copy for the ridiculous price of $4.99 on Amazon currently!

So readers, what do you think? Will you be picking Angelfall up?

Much love,
Kalystia xx

Coming soon…

July 10, 2013 § 3 Comments

Here’s a sneak peek of some of the posts we have coming up in the next few weeks:

  • A review of Gillian Flynn’s popular psycho-thriller, Gone Girl
  • Our thoughts on Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song, which is steadily gaining traction online
  • Yet another five-star review of Susan Ee’s Angelfall
  • Itsnotnatalie begins a journey through the works of Neil Gaiman, working from his lightest (Stardust, one of her favourite books in the world) to his darkest…
  • We take a look at Warm Bodies, beloved by Kalystia, and its recent film adaptation (which is really just an excuse for us to watch it again)
  • We start getting excited for the Brisbane Writer’s Festival

And, of course, we hope to hear some recommendations for reviews from you!

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