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review 2020-07-14 11:33
It masterfully blurs the line between dystopia and reality
Survivor Song - Paul Tremblay

Thanks to NetGalley and to Titan Books for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I have read a number of glowing reviews of Tremblay’s novels and being a horror fan, I was eager to read one of his books. When I found this one was available for request and read the description, I requested it although wondering if, in the current situation, I’d dare to read it. Then I read a review of it by one of the reviewers of horror I trust and decided to take the plunge. I’m pleased to report it was the right decision.

The description does justice to the plot. This is one of those novels that seem to start with a big “What If” , and we have a clock ticking to ramp up the tension. The fact that the situation has become familiar and requires far less suspension of disbelief than it might have when it was written adds nuance to the story and also increases the chill factor. Yes, the details are different (there is a virus, but it is a variety of the rabies virus rather than a coronavirus, and therefore the illnesses are very different, thankfully), but the background situation and the consequences of the health emergency are eerily similar (lack of resources, lack of PPE, confusion, hospitals overwhelmed, lack of coordination, fake news, conspiracy theories, nay-sayers, heads of governments ignoring scientific advice…). Rather than going large, the author bring the crisis to a personal level, focusing on the story of two women, one British who emigrated and studied Medicine in the US, Ramola, or Rams, and the other, her best friend, Natalie, Nats, married and in the late stages of pregnancy. They shared an apartment while they were students, and although their lives have changed, they’ve kept in touch. Things go wrong very quickly, and Ramola is soon forced to make decisions that place her professional duty in the balance against her friendship. Would you put your duty to society before your friendship or your love for your family? This is a question many of us have probably wondered about, and many have been force to face for real in recent times.

The story turns into a nightmarish road trip where almost everything is against the protagonists. There are infected animals (and people) on their way, roadblocks and rogue patrols wondering the streets, and every time they seem to get a break, a new obstacle or delay makes survival more and more difficult. And, of course, we have the illness itself, which turns humans (and animals) into raging wild beasts.

 I have mentioned some of the themes, and although this is a dystopian story that feels like reality at the moment (unfortunately, reality is looking grimmer than this novel’s scenario), and it does have much in common with zombie stories (no matter how insistent Rams is that the infected are not zombies, and, of course, they are not dead but ill, their behaviour is quite similar), it is also a story about friendship and the families we create. We have not only Ramola and Nathalie, who are like sisters, but also other characters (especially a couple of teenage boys, Luis and Josh, who are like brothers, share a dark secret, and whose story is given space as well). There is no lack of social commentary either:  there is a strong indictment of the lack of training, of PPE, and of resources in general that hospitals and health providers have to contend with, and also support for the usefulness (indeed need) of vaccines and vaccination campaigns. (Tremblay explains at the end that his sister works at a small hospital and she gave him a lot of information.  They make a great team). Although none of it is original, it does work well, and the focus on only a few characters makes it very compelling.

The story is written in the present tense (for the most part), in the third person, although the chapters alternate between the points of view of Natalie and Remola in the three main parts of the novel. There are also a prelude, and interlude, and a postlude, which are told from a seemingly omniscient viewpoint, where the narrator provides a frame and a commentary on the story itself (we are told this is not a fairy tale, it is a song, and we are also given information about the larger scale of things, and even told about the future). My experience with present tense narration has not always been good, but I felt it worked well here, as it makes readers feel as if the story was taking place right now, and as the main narrative develops over a few hours, it does bring home the relativity of time, how two minutes can feel like two hours, or vice versa. The book has some lyrical passages, and it’s particularly strong when reflecting the way our minds can wander even at the most inconvenient moments, and how we all have our own protective mechanisms (telling ourselves stories, taking refuge on events from the past, fairy tales…). The author writes fluidly and he makes good use of the alternating points of view, and of other devices, like Facebook chat pages, the video diary Natalie is keeping for her child… This also provides variety and a bit of a break from the tension of the story.

I’ve read some reviews where people didn’t like the book because they didn’t like the main characters. It is true that because of the way the story is told, if you don’t connect with the two protagonists, I don’t think the story will work. We don’t know everything about the two characters straight away, as much is revealed through the novel, as they think about the past, about shared experiences, and also about the future. For me, the relationship between the two characters felt real. They often knew what the other person was thinking, they cared for each other and it was like reading or witnessing the interaction between two close friends, where not everything needs to be said, and there is a lot of background to the relationship that will not be evident to strangers. Being a doctor, I probably felt closer to Ramola and her difficult situation, but I enjoyed the story and I also got to like Luis and Josh (and some of the minor characters as well).

The ending… Well, if there wasn’t a postlude, the ending would be ambiguous but the postlude makes up for it, and we get a satisfying ending (if not particularly surprising). I confess I’m not a fan of happy endings for horror novels (or films), but this is not standard horror, and despite the warnings about this not being a fairy tale, I do think it reads like a fairy tale for adults (or a scary tale). And perhaps the ending is right for the times we are living. Let’s hope…

So, yes, I recommend this novel to fans of Tremblay, and to readers of horror or dystopian fiction in general. I’d advise readers to check a sample, in case the present tense narration doesn’t work for them, and if you prefer your stories big and your disasters of world proportions, this is not that kind of story. Although the focus is on a couple of characters (mostly), there is plenty of violence, blood and guts, so I wouldn’t recommend it to those who prefer their thrills to be subtle and understated. Also, if you are concerned about reading this story right in the middle of a pandemic and are very anxious about the news, I’d recommend waiting for a while before reading it, because it does hit very close to home. I look forward to reading more novels by this author.

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review 2020-06-01 13:20
Terrific characters and a ray of hope in a dark, dark world
Blackthorn - Terry Tyler

I’ve read quite a few novels by Terry Tyler, and the whole of the Project Renova series, and I was looking forward to this one as well, as it is a story set in one of the settlements we visited in the last novel in the series, Legacy(you can find my review of Legacy here and there are also links to the rest of the novel available on that post).  Blackthorn is a pretty memorable place and my previous visit to that world made me think of Westworld (the old movie rather than the series, which I haven’t watched), because it was like an amalgamation of the worst of Ancient Rome and a Medieval court. Some of the events that happened in that novel are bound to be fresh in the minds of readers, and they are referred to in this novel, but I think even people who haven’t read any of the other novels in the Renova Series would be able to enjoy this one, as the author does a great job of creating a vivid world, and it’s not difficult to understand the rules and get to know the characters that play the different parts. Yes, those who have read the whole series will have a fair more background, and it fits in beautifully with the rest, but that should not deter new readers from trying it (and judging by the reviews, it seems that many new readers have enjoyed it as well).

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the plot, because there are a number of surprises, and the author has built them up perfectly and paced the story so that we discover each bit of information with the characters at a particular point in the story, sharing in their feelings and emotions, and that helps explain and justify their actions. Most of the story is told in the first person present tense, by the three main characters: Evie, a young girl, a shacker (because there is a strict social order, and where you are born determines your lot in life in Blackthorn. It’s very difficult to rise above one’s station and those who try pay dearly for it), who works in a bakery and leads a very modest life (she has no other option), clever, witty, and a bit of an outsider; Byron Lewis, a guard from a family with a long tradition in Blackthorn but also a bit of an outsider; and Lieutenant August Hemsley, who is a good an honest man, a bit of a loner and has always tried his best to do his duty, remaining blind to some of the most unsavoury aspects of life in Blackthorn. There are also brief chapters told in the third person (and in italics) that offer readers some hints and clues as to other things that might be going on behind the scenes and that our three narrators have no access to. Although those three get to learn plenty about what is really going on, readers get an even closer look at the darkness and horror most of the population are completely unaware of. This is a dystopian novel, science-fiction about a possible future if civilisation were to collapse (in this case due to a virus, a particularly scary thing to read at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic), and it touches on a lot of themes: social control, organised religion, faith, spirituality, and tradition, power and manipulation, family, friendship and identity…

I have mentioned the main characters and the way the story is narrated. There are other characters who play important parts, like Ryder Swift, an outlier who used to visit Blackthorn every year, charismatic, good at telling stories and a favourite with the shackers, who becomes something of a religious leader; Wolf North, the governor, a master manipulator who is one of the darkest characters in the whole story, and many others with smaller parts, like Evie’s friends and relatives, the other guards, the women who live in the House of Angels (I’ll let you learn about that when you read the story)… but if I had to choose one, my favourite would be Evie, who reminded me of Lottie, one of my favourite characters in the whole of the Project Renova series. Tyler excels at creating characters, some likeable, some dislikeable, but all real human beings (no matter what strange worlds and circumstances they might live in), and we see how the three protagonists grow and develop during the novel (the three of them are keen readers, so that helps the connection as well), refusing to be defined by socially-designated roles and categories and coming into their own. This helps us engage with them and feel touched, marvelled or horrified by their experiences, and we feel sorrow when we leave them (although the author hints at a possible follow up on some of the characters’ adventures).

Notwithstanding the author’s focus on her characters, she manages to create a truly compelling and realistic world in Blackthorn, one that might feel fairly alien to our daily experience and we might not like, but one we can understand, and some aspects of which might be uncomfortably recognisable. Her description of the different parts of the city, the conditions the inhabitants have to live in, their routines, their way of life, their hardships and/or privileges are seamlessly woven into the story, rather than told in long stretches of information dumps, and we learn all we need from wandering around Blackthorn’s streets with the narrators, sharing in their observations, their day-to-day life and their adventures. We see their homes, their places of work, we follow them to the bakery, the prison, the outskirts, the governor’s home, the bars, their friends’ homes, and we get to know the hidden spots in Blackthorn as well. This is done in a fluid style, with an eye for detail that does not disrupt the narrative or interrupt the plot (even when there are short chapters that take us back to earlier moments in the story), and the writing is perfectly in sync with the narrative, not calling undue attention to itself but rather serving the story. There are contemplative and beautiful moments; there are some funny touches; some truly horrific events, and some touching and hopeful passages as well. Tyler’s writing mastery keeps increasing with every novel as demonstrated by this book.

The ending hints at new beginnings and at many more stories. It brings some wonderful surprises and some disappointments (not totally unexpected), but I won’t go into details. I loved it, and, for me, it is a hopeful ending.

This is another great novel by Terry Tyler, and one set in a world that most readers will be able to connect with. I loved its unlikely mix of characters, the fantastic baddy (Wolf North his pretty up there with the best, or worst, depending on how you look at it), the masterful way the story is told, and how it makes us pause and think, about the past, the present, and the future. A few words of warning, there are some violent scenes (not extreme but upsetting), some very dark and nasty happenings, and its take on official religions could be challenging for some readers. Personally, I can’t wait to read the sequel to Hope.

 

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review 2020-04-14 19:16
The Mother Code
The Mother Code - Carole Stivers

[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A bit of a sore spot for personal reasons as well as in the current situation (long story short, and not spoiler since it’s revealed in the first chapters: man-made bio-weapon targeting lung cells to make them immortal and proliferating, aka welcome lung cancer). But that’s just me, of course, and the story itself was a good read all along, even though I didn’t absolutely love it.

The premise of this novel hinges on the “illness” I mentioned, on the need to conceive human babies with modified genes who’ll be able to survive in this not-so-brave new world, and on that other need: the babies will need mothers, and those won’t be human women, since they’ll be pretty much, well, all dead soon. Quite a ghastly future, this. The story thus follows two timelines: one where Kai, one of these new children, travels with his mother Rho-Z; and one, a few years before that, where scientists desperately fight against time to engineer suitable embryos and robotic mothers.

I must say, I liked that second timeline: as frightening as it was, I enjoyed the technological and genetic basis on which it was built. Another aspect of the book I liked was that, all in all, it still deals with hope, with thoughts about what being human is and about parent/child relationships, and with a deep-seated desire to help the children survive. The world they’re in is not hostile the way it is in traditional post-apocalyptic stories—no bands of looting survivors is threatening them; but it is empty, desperately empty, and that means scavenging for dwindling resources while also being restricted in some ways by the “Mother Code” . For 10-year-old kids, that’s not so grand.

Where I didn’t love the novel was in terms of characters. They’re good in general—they have motivations and background stories of their own—yet for some reason, I didn’t feel a connection with them, or not enough to make me really love them. The children didn’t feel like they were “children” enough, and the world of the adults was a little too… distant?

Conclusion: Interesting story and an overall interesting read, even though I didn’t connect much with the characters.

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review 2020-03-05 15:35
DNF: The Orphanage of the Gods
The Orphanage of Gods - Helena Coggan I received a copy from Netgalley. Another one for the DNF pile. This was also book of the month in one of my Illumicrate book boxes so I got a nice hardback signed with sprayed edges. Unfortunately I just didn't like the book. I got about 200 pages or so in, but I just have no interest in picking the book up to finish it. There was little to no world building - in the world the book are based on gods are living being who ruled the world but the regular humans rebelled and wiped them out and took over. All that seems to be left were the gods children who were rounded up and put in prison like orphanages, and treated terribly. The story starts with two teens escaping from one of these orphanages to find the girl of the duo's missing sister. The reader is just thrown in to the action and off it goes. There's a bit of flashback story telling to go into the history of how they got to where they were when the novel started, but I just didn't find myself caring or really connecting with any of the characters. Everything was kind of flat and to me felt unemotional and that made the story dull. Even when the escaping duo get involved with a group of rebels who oppose the way things are run. The point of view suddenly starts shifting and it's a whole different set of characters and histories introduced all of which are going to come together with the other plot. I just don't have any interest in finding out anymore. So calling it quits on this one. Thank you Netgalley and Hodder & Stoughton for approving my request to view the title.
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review 2020-03-02 18:05
DNF: Renegades
Renegades - Marissa Meyer

I received a copy from Netgalley.

 

Calling it quits on this one. It's been several months since I last picked it up, I read a few pages and am just not interested. Superheroes are not my favourite thing, but it's an author I love and I have enjoyed superhero themed books before and this one is all original characters. So it sounded like something I would enjoy. Heroes vs villains and a POV from each, with the main POV seeming to be from the girl who's on the bad guys team. With a dangerous power and someone no one seems to know much about.

 

There's a little bit of world building but no real character introductions. There's a list various superheroes before the story starts - names, powers, aliases and what team they're on. So when the story starts going you're supposed to know who they all are.

 

Personally I never bother with character lists when they're at the front of books. I want to be  introduced to who the main people are as the plot progresses - not thrown in at the deep end. So having to go back to the list and flip through even after reading it thoroughly a few times, it was still really  confusing and annoying. 

I wasn't connecting with the characters and the thought of picking this one up again became less and less appealing especially with it being quite a long novel. So time to call it quits.

 

Thank you to Netgalley and Pan Macmillan for approving my request to view the title. 

 

 

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