Book Reviews · Young Adult

Book Review: Renegades

I absolutely love The Lunar Chronicles, by Marissa Meyer, so of course I had to read her latest book, Renegades, which was released this past November. I’m not really a fan of superhero stories, so I was a little uncertain at first. However, once I got past the nicknames and costumes and secret identities, I found myself really enjoying the story.

Renegades is set in a grim dystopian future where the superheroes can’t save everyone, the villains just might have a point, and in the end, it’s the ordinary people who suffer. It doesn’t pull any punches. The main character, a young villainess who volunteers to infiltrate the superheroes’ organization, grows increasingly torn between the two sides as the book goes on. Her own superpowers are less impressive than her ingenuity and resourcefulness, and she truly believes the world would be better off with no super-powered “prodigies” at all.

Nova and Adrian, the two main characters, have opposite goals and opposite views of the world. Yet at the same time, they have a lot in common. Both of them have their doubts about the Renegades, the powerful superheroes who rule the city. Both of them lost family members at a young age and are still looking for justice/vengeance. They were raised by the leaders of opposing sides and began working for their families’ cause at a young age. And they both have not one but two superhero identities, one of which is known to the Council and the other regarded as a threat. Perhaps it’s no wonder that when they meet out of costume, ignorant of the fact that they’re already enemies, they get along quite well.

Although the book is long, the plot itself is very simple, and almost seems to exist just as a framework for the characters, world-building, and extensive backstory. However, I don’t mean that as a criticism. This simply isn’t a plot-driven story. Despite the action sequences and superhero imagery, it’s a character-driven exploration of shattered faith and divided loyalties, and personally, that’s something that appeals to me far more than fights and explosions. Both Nova and Adrian won me over so completely that I enjoyed following their emotional journeys and didn’t really care how slowly the plot developed. However, if you’re someone looking for an exciting adventure story, you may want to look elsewhere.

If I have a criticism, it would be that the book is such a morally ambiguous mess, its two viewpoint characters are essentially the only likable characters. Adrian and his Renegade team are true heroes fighting for justice, but they are heroic antagonists who you still can’t always root for. Nova is compelling and sympathetic in spite of all her flaws and misguided goals, and that’s a huge achievement in itself. But the other Renegades, while many are well-intentioned, come off as a huge case of “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, exerting control over every aspect of life in their city, serving as judge, jury, and executioner in all cases of crime, and encouraging a sense of dependency in those without powers, leading them to believe they cannot cope without their all-powerful superhero leaders. Meanwhile, the Anarchists – the supervillains who have dedicated themselves to bringing down the Renegades – are even worse. They kill in cold blood, see assassination as the best way to change things, and don’t care one bit whether ordinary civilians get caught in the crossfire. And yet, with one or two truly villainous exceptions, they care for their own like family and really do believe they’re trying to liberate the world.

There’s something grimly realistic about that. It’s sometimes almost too easy to classify fictional characters as good or evil, heroes or villains. By using those labels and yet creating a world in which there’s not much difference between the two, Meyer emphasizes that things are rarely that neat and tidy. In real life, few people see themselves as the villain of their own story, and few conflicts are purely good vs. evil. I won’t say none. But there’s something about the book’s murky moral conflict that rings true and definitely makes the main character’s internal conflict and eventual decisions far more believable than they would be in a world of good and evil.

In one scene, the two main characters have a surprisingly honest discussion about their beliefs. They don’t agree by any means: she thinks the public is too dependent of superheroes to solve all their problems, while he believes that’s a superhero’s duty; she believes the world would be a better place if no one had special powers, while he seems shocked by the idea; and she openly defends her infamous uncle, who he’s not aware she’s related to and definitely does have any sympathy for. However, they trust and respect each other, and each of them listens to what the other has to say, without dismissing it outright. I would love to see this part of their dynamic explored further, and I think it will have to be if the series is going to have anything resembling a happy ending.

Despite the fantasy and superhero elements, I feel like there’s a message somewhere in this book that is relevant to our present-day world. I’m not saying the Renegades and Anarchists have real-life counterparts, because they and their conflict are products of the fictional world they inhabit, but I am saying that the novel paints a picture of a polarized, volatile society where rival groups fight for control at the expense of the ordinary people. It comes across not just as a fantasy story but as a dystopian novel, and every dystopian novel carries some kind of warning that is drawn from the real  world in which it was written. The Giver has a message about individuality and conformity, Fahrenheit 451 explores censorship of information, and 1984 warns against surveillance and brainwashing. Likewise, Renegade explores the responsibilities of those in power, the ways in which good intentions do not always have good results, and the inability of the novel’s two rival factions to find a peaceful solution. Don’t let the superhero capes and clever code names fool you: this book is not an escapist fantasy.

Book Reviews · Shakespeare · Young Adult

Book Review: Ophelia

I love a good retelling of a classic story, especially when it provides a new perspective instead of just repeating the plot. When I saw that the play I’ve just finished (Hamlet) had been retold as a YA novel, I just couldn’t resist. After all, Shakespeare didn’t come up with the plots of his plays on his own – they come from history, mythology, and other writers’ work – but he gave them the language and the form that we know today. It seems fitting that we continue to reexamine these stories and tell them again.

The novel is Ophelia, by Lisa M. Klein, and as you can probably guess from the title, it’s told from Ophelia’s point of view. Its plot takes quite a few liberties with Shakespeare, which I don’t want to get into too much and spoil the twists. But I will tell you Ophelia survives this version, which is hardly a spoiler since it’s revealed on page 1. This is actually one of my biggest criticisms of the book. I would rather have assumed it would keep the tragic ending and been surprised by the bittersweet one than know from the start it would be changed.

The part of the play dealing with Hamlet and his uncle is only about a third of the story, which is divided into three parts. The first of these deals with Ophelia’s childhood and family, as well as the beginning of her relationship with Hamlet. It’s a bit chilling to see things like young Hamlet and Laertes sparring with wooden swords, knowing what’s to come. This section does a good job of fleshing out Ophelia’s character, making her a bit of a rebel who was allowed to run around with the boys and encouraged to study as a child, before suddenly being expected to act like a proper lady. The flowers from her final scene are woven in throughout the story, so that by the time she hands them out, the reader understands just how significant they are.

The second part retells Hamlet – the play – focusing entirely on Ophelia’s perspective as she watches Hamlet’s transformation and falls into despair herself. However, here, she is able to save herself. The book then follows her as she finds a new path. Ophelia’s identity develops over the course of the story: she grows from an unruly child; to a dutiful lady-in-waiting; to a naïve, lovesick young woman; to someone who has suffered and forced herself to survive. It’s a joy to watch her grow up and find her place in the world. What happens in the epilogue might be unexpected to some, but I thought it was sweet and fitting.

Elements from others of Shakespeare’s plays are woven into the story. Like Juliet, this version of Ophelia fakes her death and subsequently loses her lover; like Viola and Rosalind, she travels disguised as a man. However, it also bears elements of today’s fiction. It takes the point of view of a teenage girl exploring romance and independence for the first time, like much of the Young Adult genre.  It’s impossible to classify as a tragedy or a comedy; Ophelia loses much along the way, but the ending offers hope. The language is updated to be easy for the modern reader to understand, and an anonymous guard is developed into a menacing villain. Not all the changes are good ones (the death of Ophelia’s father, for one – I’m still not sure how he got from where we last saw him to where he was killed. I’m also not sure about inserting Ophelia into “to be or not to be?”). However, these are minor complaints. Overall, the story was great.

I found Ophelia to be a good blend of old and new, its lead character well-developed beyond who she was in the play, and the section following her faked death a realistic hopeful alternative to her tragic fate in Shakespeare. I would definitely recommend it!

Young Adult

Stories Worth Telling

When you think of children’s books, do you think of small, unimportant stories? A lot of adults probably do. But the stories we tell to children can ask big questions and address important themes. In fact, I’d go farther than that. I’d say that kids’ and teens’ books have more freedom to address important issues, because they’re so often looked at via metaphor, via science fiction or fantasy situations that are a step or two removed from real life, and yet still very relevant.

When was the last time you read a book, for pleasure, that asked readers to consider what makes a society function, what makes a society just, what it means to be a good neighbor and a good citizen, how different groups can coexist in peace, and how to react to an unjust and corrupt government? I’m not talking about a book on political theory or a historical fiction novel that’s more history than fiction. I’m talking about one of my favorite YA science fiction series, Dark Life, by Kat Falls.

The 2-book series is set in a post-global warming world where much of what is now land is underwater, and that’s only the first sign that it’s going to deal with some serious issues. On the surface, people live cramped into skyscraper apartment buildings, whole families allowed only one or two rooms. Other people live on the ocean itself, in ships, houseboats, and submarines, while still others live in an experimental colony on the sea floor. It sounds like the setup for a grim dystopian series, doesn’t it? And yet, the story isn’t really about a world gone wrong. It’s about a world people are struggling to make right again. And in a way, it’s about a society starting from scratch.

The first book asks its young readers to consider whether we all deserve the same rights, even if we’re different. Children who are raised at the bottom of the ocean begin to develop strange abilities usually associated with marine life: electric shock, camouflage, echolocation, etc. The protagonist, Ty, has one of these, called a “dark gift”. And so does the story’s villain. Near the end, other characters attempt to lynch the villain, claiming that his abilities make it too easy for him to escape from prison. It’s only when Ty reveals his own gift and asks whether his friends and neighbors are going to take away his rights, too, that they stop to think about what they’re doing.

In the sequel, Rip Tide, we’re introduced to the surfs, short for Surfeit Population, who live on huge “townships” because they are not wanted on land. It’s only then that we see how lucky Ty and his family have been; their lives underwater are hard, but compared to the surfs, they have it easy. The conflict between the subsea “pioneers” and the surfs, who both have a claim to the continental shelf, is a lesson in negotiation, and they reach a compromise that enables them to share the area. That’s such an important lesson for kids to learn as they grow up: that sometimes different people’s interests conflict without anyone really being in the wrong, and that such situations are better resolved through peaceful compromise than violence.

The two books both deal with what it means to be a good neighbor. In the subsea settlement where Ty grew up, neighbors help and depend on each other. When one family is struggling, others help them out; for example, when Ty’s neighbors are robbed by subsea outlaws, their entire community comes together to help them replace their schools of fish and drain the water from their house. Meanwhile, Gemma – who grew up on land – has never been alone, but has had few people she could depend on. The people in her community were not her neighbors, just people who happened to live nearby. In an age when people have hundreds of Facebook “friends” they may rarely talk to in real life, it’s worth exploring what makes someone a true friend or neighbor.

Finally, the Commonwealth – the futuristic government which controls the world above water – is clearly corrupt. This isn’t one of those stories about a brave group of teens who bring an end to the dystopia. It’s the just-as-worth-telling story of a brave group of people who live within it and make it a better place in small ways. They carve out a part of the world for themselves that they can make fair, just, and worth living in, even if it’s at the bottom of the sea; they go to great lengths to help their neighbors, both fellow “pioneers” and others they share the ocean with; they decide against vigilante justice and in favor of treating everybody equally; and they are welcoming to everyone who wants to join them. In my opinion, that’s a story worth telling, worth reading, and worth giving kids to read.

Middle-Grade · Young Adult

Fictional Metaphors, Real-Life Issues

One of my favorite authors as a kid was Margaret Peterson Haddix. I still have most of her novels on the bookshelf I reserve for childhood nostalgia books, and I’ve been re-reading some of them. This time around, I’ve been struck by something I could never have put into words when I was 10 or 12 years old: the books deal with real issues kids face through sci-fi and fantasy metaphors.

Let me explain. One of her books – Claim to Fame – is about a girl who can hear everything anyone says about her, no matter where they are. No real kid is going to have that experience, but kids do deal with gossip and peer pressure. They do worry about what their friends are saying behind their backs. Another book, Double Identity, is about a girl who is a clone of her older “sister”, who died in a car crash before she was born. Real children might feel that they are living in an older sibling’s shadow, and twins – the closest real-world equivalent to clones – certainly struggle to define themselves as individuals. Game Changer talks about school cliques, bullying, and popularity, but uses an alternate world where the nerds are popular and the jocks are outcasts to do so. Turnabout features two women who are aging backwards and are now teenagers. Aimed at an age group that may be dealing with losing grandparents or other older relatives, the book explores old age and death via characters the readers’ age in a way that would not be possible without the sci-fi element. And the Missing series is about time travel and historical mysteries, but it’s also about adopted kids who want to know where they come from – which happens to be different time periods instead of just different parents.

I think there’s a lot of value in this. Kids who read middle grade books are old enough to be dealing with serious issues, like identity, peer pressure, bullying, and even death, but not necessarily ready for books high schoolers or adults might read which address these issues directly. Tying it into the supernatural aspect of the story seems like a good way to let kids explore these issues without hitting too close to home. I know it certainly worked for me when I was younger.