Allegiant, Veronica Roth

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The Premise:

Now that their city knows the truth, Tris and Tobias want to travel outside to see what, as divergents, they can do in response to the video that has revealed their importance. Desperate to escape the city that is now under the control of Evelyn, Tobias’ mother, they leave without authorisation and come across an unexpected world. What do you do when you discover that everything you know is a lie? And in a world where everyone you know is considered damaged, who do you save?

The Verdict:

I was a bit nervous about reading Allegiant after the disappointment of Insurgent, but I am glad that I’m stubborn and insist on finishing a series if I start it because Allegiant brought back a lot that I loved about the first novel that the second lost.

MASSIVE SPOLIER

Tris dies!

I am always complaining about how authors set their characters into impossible situations and yet, remarkably, the protagonist always survives. When Tris decided to go into the control room rather than her brother to face a deathly serum, I tutted and ploughed onwards, knowing that despite all the adversity Tris would survive and the novel would end with her and Tobias happily moving on with their lives. And when she defeated the serum and didn’t die immediately, my frustration grew. Now she was facing David, who of course had a secret inoculation against the death serum. When she went for the memory serum deployment and got shot, my cynicism told me that aid would soon be rushing to her side. But it didn’t. Then she saw her mother, and rather than encouraging her to return to the world she was desperately trying to save, Tris’ mother said yes, your work is done, come with me now. And Tris died. It was a moving moment, but from my point of view the real triumph there was Roth’s, who had the audacity to kill off her protagonist properly. It was both heart wrenching and satisfying at the same time, a victory for realistic, modern teenage fiction, but a loss to the world that Roth created. I was impressed with the skill that Roth wrote the scene, which will stand out in my mind as a highlight of the entire series.

Of course, Roth had to pave the way for her to be able to do this. Rather than focus on the singular narrative of Tris, she created a dual narrative which alternated, a little ad hoc, between Tris and Tobias. This made up for the deficit in Insurgent by adding a little more depth to the narrative, however, Tobias’ character was stiff and unnatural. Despite being given his own voice, he was still Tris’ Tobias, with little depth or character beyond what Tris had already painted. Even his attempt to go along with the failed revolution was a little boring because he didn’t have the depth of character that made us really sympathise with his struggle or his final choice. There was also not enough build up to the fact that all he wanted was a mother and he was willing to risk the safety of his city, his friends and everything he knew to give her a chance to come back to him. Evelyn failed as a character precisely because she wasn’t the sort of person to put family first, and her desire to be a mother could not fulfil her dictator tenancies. Killing Tris off was impressive, but giving Tobias a mother to replace her kind of undermined their relationship by showing that Tobias was just desperate for a strong woman to love him, and when he lost Tris, his mother was going to become enough.

Some of Roth’s world building was fascinating, especially the use of propaganda which is portrayed as a truth and then systematically taken apart as Tobias and Tris make several different discoveries. The fear of the ‘other’ here is not gender, or skin colour or orientation but an invisible genetic different. The genetically pure decided that anyone with altered genes was problematic, and altered their history so that future generations would believe this. This was an indictment of current society, where we take differences and nurture them into hatred rather than building a better world together. Tris’ understanding of Caleb helped with this belief – he made the decisions he made because of who he was, not necessarily because of who his genes made him, and she had to learn to forgive him completely before she could move on.

I don’t think enough was made of Tris’ heritage – the link to Edith Prior or the history of her mother who joined the city later. A clandestine love between David and Tris’ mother was detrimental to the main narrative as it wasn’t gone into in depth and seemed like a clumsy afterthought. Roth’s story is very plot drive, and lacks the depth of some of the mature fiction that focuses on the building of a world and characterisation as a priority. Everyone seemed to fall into a character cliche – the boyfriend, the best friend, the side character who died and their loving family – and there didn’t seem to be much else to them. The focus was Tris, and partially Tobias.

However, complaints aside, I enjoyed Allegiant a lot more than I expected to, and hats off to Roth for following through with the challenging authorial decision to kill off the protagonist (albeit with some painful cliches as Tobias processed her departure). I won’t seek out Roth again specifically, but if I came across something by her I would probably read it. Perhaps it’s time I focussed on some adult fantasy to give me the depth and commitment that I need… I do still have Wheel of Time to finish!

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Divergent, Veronica Roth

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I’m embarrassed to say that this is one of very few series where I have actually seen the movies before reading the series – partly because when I went to see it at the cinema in 2014 with my sister I didn’t realise it was also a novel, partly because the three movies that are out so far are all on Netflix, and partly because buying it always seemed not quite worth it. I have, however, rediscovered those amazing things called libraries, and am glad that I can now work my way through this series – although I have to wait for the second and third ones to arrive!

The Premise

In a world where conflict and human failures have been managed by splitting mankind into factions, which rarely communicate with each other, Tris takes a test that decides where she belongs, only to discover that she is equally split between three factions – a supposedly rare occurrence called ‘Divergence’. When she chooses a faction that isolates her from her family and everything she knows, will Tris survive the intense training and probation period? And why is there so much hatred for her old faction? Life as a Divergent is secretive and challenging – and life in her chosen faction, Dauntless, offers everyday bodily risk and harm.

The Verdict

It is nice to read a teen fiction with a romance that is actually quite realistic. Bearing in mind that Tris and Four are 16 and 18 respectively, the passionate physical love affair that is often portrayed in teen fiction is not appropriate and in fact, when it is written (in other novels), it is dangerous to set those expectations for young teens. Tris and Four have a professional relationship at first, with Four training Tris, which does make their relationship a little taboo as he does hold a position of authority over Tris. However, their feelings and their expression of them are realistic. But Roth takes this further by presenting Tris’ fear of both emotional and physical intimacy as so severe that it comes up in her final test. Four not only accepts this, but respects it, and their relationship develops organically. Too often, these types of romances are rushed because of the situation the young people are in, but Roth protects their tentative romance. This is truly a healthy relationship for teenagers to read, that puts no pressure on them to further their own relationships.

Unfortunately, due to the proximity of Divergent and The Hunger Games being released, it seems almost impossible to write about one without comparing it to the other. Now, I love The Hunger Games, but I have a real hatred for Katniss. Her supposed strength is really only portrayed when she volunteers as tribute, and throughout the rest of the novels she is mostly a victim of circumstance, constantly fighting becoming stronger. She is very whiny and easily manipulate, and I don’t think her character sets the best example. I much prefer Tris. From the outset, Tris makes her own decisions. In Dauntless, male is matched equally against female. Tris fights for her right to remain in her faction, and her motivation is internal determination. Rather than being caught up in events, Tris dictates them, making changes to herself, those around her, and eventually leading the small band of rebels that stops the brainwashing of Dauntless and the eradication of abnegation. Tris is truly a hero for our time – not limited by her gender, her age or her upbringing.

The story itself is fascinating, and it wasn’t any less so for having seen the movies first. I was surprised at how accurately the movies stuck to the books, as often they lose a lot, but despite some clear alterations in events, everything that happens in the book seems to happen in the movies. The creation of the world is interesting. It cannot be defined as dystopian as there is much development and peace, and until Erudite try to take control, peace has been maintained for years. Perhaps the best word is post-apocalyptic – technology has advanced, but a lot of what we take for granted now is no longer present in every day life. Roth creates a vivid world, filled with relevance. It is hard to comment without focussing on what I know already about the sequels here, but it is interesting to see that in what should be a utopia – where human weakness has been weeded out and everyone lives in harmony – there is discord and unfairness. Roth pains a disturbing picture of human kind, where greed comes to the forefront of a reasonable world.

I enjoy the idea of divergent thinking. Relating it to my teacher’s training, this is an interesting concept in which pupils who think more abstractly have better problem solving skills, higher intelligence and more prospects. Tris’ world is trapped into thinking that the factions cannot combine to create a greater way of life. Tris is a one person representation of what can happen when the different worlds collide. Perhaps we can take that into our own lives – and instead of being threatened by those who think differently to us, we embrace it and learn from it.

Overall, Roth creates a fascinating and enjoyable landscape, with a strong teenage female lead. It is an inspiring book to read and I look forwards to completing the trilogy when the library gets them in!

The Rose and the Dagger, Renee Ahdieh

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The Premise

Returned to her family and separated from the man she loves, Shazi must now reconcile her love for a ‘monster’ with the family that believe they have rescued her. But there are darker forces at work – the curse which drove Khalid to his initial killings is rearing its head now that he has stopped bowing to its requirements, and the whole kingdom stands poised to fall as nature and greed stand firm. With betrayal coming from every angle, who can Shazi and Khalid trust with their secret? And can the curse really be broken?

The Verdict

It’s nice to read a duology which is truly that – two books in which all the action takes place and everything is wrapped up, even more so when some of the issues I raised before are addressed.

So let’s start there with the gender imbalance of power. Ahdieh showed a stubborn young woman and her maid, )really a spy in her chambers), in the first novel, as exceptions to the rule, where they stood out because of their independence and strength in a very male dominated world. I commented on this last time, and was pleased to see the development of a few more female characters in The Rose and The Dagger, namely the character development of Shazi’s sister Irsa, probably my favourite character. Unlike Shazi and Despina, Irsa is not the exception that surprises everyone because a woman is strong. Rather, Irsa is a true representation of the progression from childhood into womanhood – a character with faults who learns to overcome them. She is overplayed initially as the ‘perfect’ younger sister, who rarely has a temper and is loyal to her family but also her kingdom. Ahdieh begins to unravel this as Irsa helps Shazi to hide the ring belonging to Khalid, and continues to do this throughout the novel, such as where Irsa uses her innocent reputation to steal the book her father clings to. Ahdieh begins to develop more rounded and believable characters that are different to the standard ones that plagued the first book. You could lift Shazi and Khalid and plant them into any young person’s book and they would fit (with a little tweaking), whereas Irsa moves away from this generic characterisation and begins to show some of Ahdieh’s talents in creating unique fictional characters. I believe she still has a way to go, but this was definitely a step in the right direction.

As a result of this improved characterisation of Irsa, the focus on the strength of the male characters was drawn away – in fact, Ahdieh exploited more of their weaknesses and highlighted the importance of the female role. This was most apparent at the conclusion, where Yasmine replaces her father on the throne and is considered a far more fitting ruler. There is a lot of potential in this novel for the development of characters that was left unexplored, and Yasmine was one who suffered – she was a means towards an end rather than a person in the narrative, which was a shame.

The plot was satisfying and the conclusion was well done. I always prefer a nice big twist, which the reveal that Despina was in fact the Sultan’s daughter didn’t quite satisfy, but for a young person’s novel, everything was well wrapped up and explained. I enjoyed the ‘battle’ scene, if it can be called that, and found Ahdieh’s descriptions eliciting very visual images, demonstrating her skill with descriptive language. All the different strands of the story tied up, and the cliched happy ending was nice – a break from some of the more serious stuff I find myself reading sometimes!

Overall, the series was a creative retelling of a popular tale, filled with likeable characters, one stand out little sister, and descriptions that brought the location to life. I enjoyed the plot, although I found it predictable, but I would definitely read something by Ahdieh again if I came across it.

The Wrath & The Dawn, Renee Ahdieh

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Chosen for me by my loving fiance, who thought that I needed something a little lighter than some of the stuff I normally read, I have raced through The Wrath & The Dawn with eagerness. A well written tale based on the Arabian Nights, Ahdieh paints a picture of a tortured king and the young woman stubborn enough to save him with finesse and skill.

The Premise

I have never read a version of Arabian Nights (Disney’s Aladdin does not count!) but was familiar with the concept prior to starting this novel, and a few chapters in had to put the book down and check that it was deliberately following the popular framing I knew already existed. Once satisfied that this was a deliberate narrative choice, I was able to settle down to enjoy the novel.

Shazi has volunteered to marry a troubled young prince, who executes his brides at dawn and has done for several months. The death of Shazi’s best friend has driven her to seek retribution against the man who caused the death, but instead she finds herself puzzled by the quietly spoken boy-king she faces. Two young people carrying heavy secrets, seeking to be understood in a world that can’t understand them find comfort in each other… but this is not to everyone’s pleasure.

The Verdict

I have enjoyed this novel surprisingly much – so much so that its sequel is on the way already (it is nice to read a duology rather than a 14 book series for a change!). Ahdieh takes a well known narrative frame (that of the queen telling stories to save her life), but focusses more on the surroundings of the story than that stories themselves, which from what I know is what the original Arabian Nights does. Her subtle nods to the original tales are clear and respectful, but it is obvious that her real fascination was with the couple, the development of their relationship and their individual motivations.

The parallel between the two main characters, Shazi and Khalid, is striking. Khalid, a murdering king, meets Shazi and decides for one night to hold her execution. Shazi, an innocent girl in love with another man who has never hurt another person, has entered the royal palace with the intention of killing Khalid. Her murderous intent is driven by the death of her best friend, while Khalid’s breaking of habit is driven by wanting to get to know the girl in front of him. Her anger and his interest collide several times, creating the complex romantic narrative outside of the normal ‘boy meets girl’ trope. Ahdieh shows their confusion with depth and skill, exploring how the couple can possibly come to be in love when their motivations are so against each other. The real heart break is when Shazi learns why Khalid does what he does, and suggests that he should kill her too. His determination to keep her alive, at the risk of losing his kingdom, is the greatest show of love the novel contains, as is the lead up to the final love-making scene in the novel – a stark contrast to the business-like transactions that have gone before. Ahdieh shows the internal conflicts of both protagonists thoroughly, and whilst there are occasional overt comments that stand out for the obviousness of the statement they put forwards, it is mostly done subtly and gently.

Ahdieh shows a world very dominated by men, where women have a role to play in the grand scheme of things, but always in a subservient manner. This suits the setting and style of the writing, but does raise several questions – why is Shazi the first to halt the king? What right does Tariq have to demand she go with him? Is her father wrong in not stopping her from marrying the king? There are 2 women in the novel – Shazi and Despina. Shazi is in an arranged marriage with the threat of death hanging over her, and Despina is a pregnant maid who dares not dishonour the father by telling him the truth.  Both are, in their own way, strong characters, but the perceptions around them are that they need rescuing, taming and controlling. Shazi can hold her own against Khalid’s enemies, but Tariq cannot accept her independence and still sees her as a beautiful thing to be rescued. Khalid is the only male who comes to any realisation concerning Shazi’s independence, when he agrees that she is not a ‘thing’ to be sent away, but it is his love for her and fear of losing her that drives this and not a change of attitude towards women. Some of the repression experienced is difficult to read, albeit culturally sensitive.

It is interesting that when putting this into a genre I immediately went for ‘fantasy’. Magic and the supernatural only play a small part in the main narrative – the curse that Khalid is under happened prior to the events of the novel, and whilst Shazi’s father’s experiments with magic are interspersed throughout, they only really appear towards the end of the narrative. However, there is a strong sense of a fantastical culture and the writing suits the fantasy genre. I will be interested to see how this develops in the conclusion to the series.

This was an interesting take on an age-old tale, filled with innovative thinking and expression. It wasn’t full of surprises or shocks, not for a seasoned reader, but it was a nicely decorated and intriguing narrative filled with some stunning descriptions, especially of the clothes, and characters with depth that was expressed with skill and charm. Definitely recommended, though likely to a teenage audience!

Ostrich Boys, Keith Gray

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I had never heard of Ostrich Boys prior to attending placement days in my school were I’ll be starting work as a trainee teacher in September, but on hearing that I would be teaching it to year 8 in the first half term of teaching, it became quite the priority to read. Keith Gray was also a mystery to me. A quote from The Herald on the back of the copy of the novel that I’ve read said ‘one can’t help thinking that if there were more writers like Keith Gray more teenagers would read’. I can’t help but think that it’s quite an accurate statement, as towards the end of the novel I was turning those pages as fast as I was the first time I read Nancy Drew.

The Premise

Blake, Sim and Kenny, disappointed by the funeral their best friend Ross received, decide to steal his ashes and take Ross to Ross, a small village in Scotland. Their spur of the moment decision results in them being immediately chased by Ross’ family as they head to the train station, and eventually being chased by the police. What should have been a simple train journey with plenty of supplies turns into a bit of a nightmare when Kenny loses his back, which contained not only all his cash but also his train ticket. The boys do what they can to continue heading north, from getting a lift with young men with a taxi, to bungee jumping to stealing scooters. As they travel, more is revealed about Ross and the role that each of them played in his death, which is later revealed to be a suicide. Angered by Ross’ sacrifice of life, Sim abandons the mission, but Kenny and Blake succeed in taking Ross’ ashes to Ross, leaving a part of him there as their final farewell.

The Verdict

Ostrich Boys far exceeded my expectations. Instead of the normal, sugar coated reality that teen fiction often portrays, this was a brutally honest portrayal of life, death and mourning. The first person narration of the smart, overweight and straight forward Blake meant that the reader didn’t discover all that had happened to Ross straight away, or from a removed third person perspective. As Blake came to understand his own part in his friend’s suicide, the reader slowly came to realise that the perfect painting of a life that his friends put forwards was far removed from the truth. Each member of the group played their own part in Ross’ death, and whilst they struggle to come to terms with that, it is obvious that they had no idea how bad the rest of his life was or how difficult he was finding it. The first real indication to me that they were ‘protesting too much’, to paraphrase Shakespeare, was when they talked about a story that Ross had written about a boy being torn apart by his parents’ different expectations. Up until then, I believed, along with the boys, that it was just the driver making up stories to assuage his guilt, but it became more obvious that Ross was actually a very troubled character. Gray doesn’t sugar coat any part of the suicide, or the boys’ reactions to it. It is a very real, very raw and emotional scene when they discover the truth.

The tried and tested trope of boys going on a physical journey that runs alongside their emotional journey is a little over done. Each barrier that they face physically is matched by an emotional one. Whilst for a young person reading the novel this might not be quite so tiresome, for me it was a little too much parallelism. However, it worked for Tolkein, so I supposed I can’t complain too much.

Overall, however, I can see how this is a valuable text for study by tweens and teens. Whilst the subject matter is quite challenging and heart-wrenching, actually it could be used as a therapeutic way of teaching them about suicide, friendship and depression. I’m a little stuck on how I would teach it, I’m going to have to put a lot of thought into it over the next couple of weeks. We’re often told as teachers to ensure that pupils know the story first before we teach it, but I don’t think I actually want pupils to read it with the knowledge that Ross committed suicide, as the revelation is quite important to how you review the story after you’ve read it.

Gray is an exciting author for young people, and I’ll definitely be looking out for others books by him to read. I’m looking forwards to teaching this novel, although I am going to go and read something a little happier in the meantime!