April 27, 2012

Numquam Periit Amor (Review: Fever by Dee Schulman)

Dee Shulman
Razorbill 2012

London, 2012 – Eva has just been expelled out of the umpteenth school she has attended and is wondering what her future holds.  Literally too clever for her own good, she’s never been a good fit for conventional schooling and finds it hard to identify with kids her own age.  When she finds the elite St. Magdalene’s online, she quickly applies and joins the ranks of the super-smart.  Finally thriving, she throws herself into her work and even manages a to nurture a blossoming social life.  All is going well until she gets sick, really sick, and finds herself remembering people and places that she cannot possibly have knowledge of. Londinium, 152 AD – Seth lives in the spotlight and shadow of the gladiatorial arena.  Far from home he has become one of Londinium’s most celebrated fighters and if he doesn’t exactly enjoy his life, he at least survives it.  Fawned over by Roman WAGS he has little interest in romance until he catches sight of Livia in the arena crowd.  This chance glance leads to love, sickness and worlds that Seth cannot comprehend.  Impossibly, fantastically, Eva and Seth are linked but their story is one of violence, blood and fever.

Eva’s a rather lovely character.  She’s smart on a genius level and has a thirst for knowledge and confidence in her own abilities that, rather than seeming smug or arrogant, is charming and believable. Genuinely misunderstood by her family and erstwhile schoolmates, St. Magdalene’s allows her character to develop in a way that allows readers to get to know Eva at the same time she is getting to know herself – something that works beautifully.  The only aspect of her character that is slightly difficult to swallow is her discomfort with her own appearance and the attention that it garners.  While it is clear that she doesn’t see anything extraordinary when she looks in the mirror (this isn’t a girl who is decrying her beauty while secretly enjoying it, she genuinely just doesn’t get it), her problems with any boy showing an interest in her seem strange.  In fact, they seem like a plot device – because they are.  Later, when she meets someone she is interested in, one suspects that the contrast is meant to be dramatically extreme, rather it feel slightly contrived.

Seth is harder to relate to than Eva.  Many readers, one suspects, won’t be particularly au fait with Londinium and so it takes a while to get to know him out with the arena.  However, as the story develops, so does Seth and his focus and determination are attractive traits.  He seems older than his eighteen years, as is suited to a life of fighting, but lacks the ability to see the bigger picture.  His friendship with Mattias is one of the more interesting aspects of the story, particularly towards the end, being multi-faceted and confusing for both characters.  While Eva is the more accessible character in Fever, Seth is the most intriguing and his is the character that has most potential in any sequel – if only because he remains slightly underdeveloped even in the books conclusion.  Incidentally he also is the kind of gladiator that fights wearing few clothes, using only a net and a trident – like Finnick.  And one can never have too many things that are like Finnick.

The storyline of Fever at first appears complicated but is actually pretty simple and while enjoyable in parts is not without flaws. Told in a duel narrative (first person for Eva’s sections, third person for Seth’s – something that doesn’t help with his characterisation) readers are flung between modern and latter day London and this means that both stories take a while to get going.  In fact Fever, while interesting as a whole, only really becomes compelling in its third and final section, where readers can finally glimpse where Dee Shulman is taking her characters.  Sadly, this third section is also the shortest of the book and one feels that the overarching story could have been introduced by the midway point of what is a fairly long title rather than waiting until nearly the end.  There is, by necessity, a fair amount of both illness and science – yay for mystery diseases!  This is actually a lot of fun and Schulman has pulled off a real Michael Crichton in making the scientific jargon interesting.  However, the section where Eva seems to be bouncing between school and hospital with mind blowing speed did become slightly wearing although the school itself is a lot of fun – yay for boarding schools!  Schulman’s vision of gladiatorial London is also well written and visually affective although it probably helps if readers have seen Spartacus or somesuch.  

As the first part of a trilogy Fever is intriguing enough that readers will be curious as to the fate of Eva and Seth but should book two be both as lengthy and slow-moving as book one, they might find themselves wondering whether this is a story that could have perhaps been told in just the one volume – something that these days would be a novelty all by itself.  Certainly Fever is worth a look and Dee Shulman should be congratulated on her vision but only time will tell whether the series lives up to the potential of her imaginative premise.

Fever is available now.  Thank you to the publisher for sending me this title to review.

April 17, 2012

A Weapon The Size of Her Heart (Review: Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver)

Lauren Oliver
Hodder and Staughton 2012

Pandemonium is the second book in Lauren Oliver’s Delirium trilogy.  If you have not read Delirium, the first book, then this review will contain spoilers.  You can find a review of Delirium here.

After the life-changing events of Delirium, Lena Haloway finds herself alone and running headlong into a future that she cannot imagine and has little control over.  Finally collapsing in the wilderness she is found and adopted by a rag tag band of Invalids – those uncured of the deadly disease that is Deliria Amor Nervosa.  As she embarks on a life that epitomises struggle, Lena is also experiencing the pain that Deliria can cause as she mourns Alex and tries to face a future without him.  Eventually she finds herself in New York working for the undercover Resistance, spying on a young man who represents everything she once was and everything she now hates.

Lena is a different girl from the one encountered in Delirium.  Her rather inward-looking naivety has disappeared, replaced with a toughness borne of loss and hardship.  Rather than give in to her pain, Lena ploughs through each day in a daze of grief and physical frailty that soon morphs into an inner strength, not to mention a deep cynicism when she finally finds herself out of the Wilds and in New York.  All in all she is a far more likable character than in Delirium and one that it is hard not to admire.  As she learns to live with her grief she finds herself slowly moving on from Alex and begins to embrace the life and freedom that he wished her to experience.  However, she is not so far removed from the past that she has forgotten what it is like to believe that Deliria truly is the “deadliest of all deadly things” and this allows her interaction with new character Julian to be both finely nuanced and completely fascinating.

Julian himself is interesting in that it his motivations aren’t always entirely clear.  Son of a leading figure in the fight against Deliria, he clearly believes the disease to be dangerous yet there seems to be more to him this - something that Lena picks up on straight away.  He clearly has secrets and as they slowly emerge he is not only a hugely sympathetic character but a compelling one.  He has an odd sort of integrity and the conversations between him and Lena are riveting.  He’s not Alex, in fact he is as far removed from Alex as one could imagine but in many ways he a more multi-faceted character.

Of the group that Lena finds herself a part of in the Wilds, leader Raven is by far the most mysterious.  Not much older than Lena, but aged by the life she has led, her motivations are about as clear as Julian’s.  On one hand she seems genuinely caring but on the other bears a prickly coldness that can, ironically, only have been created through having loved and lost.  She’s pretty hard to fathom but that only makes her all the more readable.  Her male counterpart, Tack, is even more fathomless – yet increasingly likable.  Alex, of course, is not part of this group – he is gone, lost at the fence that Lena runs from at the end of Delirium.  Yet, for a character that does not feature in person he is ever present, haunting both Lena’s dreams and her waking moments.

The storyline of Pandemonium is clever.  Told in alternate chapters, the narrative swings between “then” and “now”, allowing readers to learn both what Lena is doing and how she got there concurrently.  This works surprisingly well.  What works even better is the way that Lauren Oliver has effectively subverted the story of Delirium in its sequel.  Lena has become Alex, Julian plays a version of the old Lena and Deliria looms all around.  While Pandemonium is far from a retelling of Delirium it is fascinating to see how Lena has evolved and what this evolution brings to the new relationships in her life.  Cleverly, Oliver also illustrates the pain and conflict that love can engender, using Julian’s often extreme views in clever contrast with the agony that Lena feels over Alex, leading readers to ponder who is better off.

Oliver’s writing is, as usual, beautiful.  She is able to use language in ways both gorgeously fluid and bluntly harsh and it is never less than effective.  She is also a mistress in tension be it in action-filled sequences of evade and escape or quiet moments in dank, city sewers. Delirium invited comparisons to Matched by Ally Condie, another extremely readable dystopian vision of life without love, but as the two trilogies continue apace, it is clear that Oliver has created something completely original in terms of vision, scope and heart-break.  Indeed as Pandemonium reaches it’s oh-so-inevitable yet heart-rendingly awful climax readers will be left gasping for more and counting the days until next year’s Requiem – the final in the series. As with Delirium, Pandemonium is highly recommended.

Pandemonium is available now. 

April 02, 2012

Everybody's Got The Fever (Review: Fever by L. DeStefano)

Lauren DeStefano
Harper Collins 2012

Rhine is free.  Having escaped the candy-cane prison of her husband and sister wives she is back in the world with the oh-so-trusting Gabriel right by her side.  Yet Rhine had become used to her prison of softness and holograms and Gabriel cannot remember anything else.  As they attempt to make their way to Manhattan and Rhine’s lost twin, they stumble from harsh reality to harsh reality often barely aware of themselves or their goal.  As they move through the country, Rhine’s captor Vaughn pursues them, slithering in the shadows and never more present than when Rhine becomes desperately ill.

Never the most accessible character, Rhine emerges in Fever as stubborn yet unfocussed, strong yet weak, caring yet selfish.  In truth, her character is hugely paradoxical and therefore sometimes hard to like – for no other reason than it is hard to grasp what truly motivates her.  On one hand, her determination to reach her brother is tangible throughout the book but on the other, her complete inability to plan anything is hugely frustrating.  She often refers to her guilt at dragging Gabriel into a situation that he was in no way prepared for but at the same time also seems irritated at him.  Her refusal to remove the wedding ring that signifies her recent imprisonment seems downright strange and her frequent longing for the nicer things in life makes her seem shallow and prissy.  Honestly, her ongoing obsession with a jumper that sounds downright ghastly gets old pretty quickly. 

Fever is crying out for a duel narrative structure which would aid the title by not only allowing readers a break from Rhine but also allowing them to get to know Gabriel, a character who has the potential to be far more compelling.  Gabriel wants to plan, to move forward, to find the wonderful world that Rhine told him about and his realisation that it doesn’t exist is extremely sad.  It would be more effective, though, were his character to have been developed more.  In Wither he was a rather mysterious love interest, one that seemed sure to come into focus in any sequel but he remains lightly sketched which is sad as in the brief moments when he does come into focus he is one of the more multi-faceted characters. 

Other characters fare better but are often introduced only to disappear as our protagonist moves on.  From the megalomaniacal rule of Madame and her scarlet girls to the quiet tragedy of a couple still mourning the loss of a long dead son they are all extremely readable.  Latterly, the character of Silas becomes interesting (oddly, for a bit player, he comes into sharper focus than Gabriel) and tiny Maddie engenders real sympathy.  Fascinatingly, though, it is Linden who is once more the most compelling feature of the story.  It’s not that he’s particularly likable but more that DeStefano spent so much time on him in Wither that readers will find themselves fascinated to find out what has happened to him. Interest in his character is also aided in the fact that there is absolutely no chemistry between Rhine and Gabriel.  At no point do they seem to be genuinely in love and often it is easier to believe that they actively dislike each other.  At the very least, Gabriel seems exploited by Rhine and at the worst almost completely dismissed.

The plot of Fever is relatively straight-forward, following Rhine and Gabriel as they move towards Manhattan, pursued by a variety of horrors along the way.  The writing, as in Wither, is stunning in places with the first third of the book particularly evocative.  DeStefano has a real gift in painting incredibly visual scenes and Rhine and Gabriel’s passage through a drugged hinterland of carnival horses, feathers and emaciated girls is so real that it’s often hard to read.  Yet it is in the author’s pretty words that the problem with Fever becomes apparent – one of style over content.  Yes, the writing is beautiful and often transportative but this is all at the detriment of real, relatable characters and progressive plot.  At the end of the day, Rhine is still conflicted, Gabriel still vague and Vaughn still being evil in his basement.  Only the last few pages offer hope, leaving Rhine in a precarious position due to a  development that could lead to a fascinating and compelling finale to DeStefano’s trilogy.  Perhaps Fever falls into that “difficult second album” territory and the final chapter of Rhine’s story will live up to the promise that the writing holds – time will tell.

Fever is available now.  Thank you to the publisher for sending me this title to review.