Monday, September 28, 2015

Veronica Roth's Divergent (with extras!)

I know the rest of the world read Veronica Roth's Divergent back during the late Pleistocene, but I just got around to it recently. Chalk it up to being busy and reading other stuff but I'm way behind here and I know it. At any rate, I thought I'd give this a try when I caught a copy of it for a good price. Also, it includes some extras that I thought I'd check out since this is such a hint and that kind of thing seems like it might be helpful in my own attempts at novel writing since she's obviously good at what she does. This is a dystopic novel for sure, but Roth makes things look like they may be on the upswing possibly... if things go right in the rest of the series. Don't worry. I won't spoil you. I haven't read the things, nor have I seen the movies, so I don't know what's coming. If you do shhh... I hate spoilers.

Roth does a magnificent job describing a post-apocalyptic Chicago as the setting of her novel. All of the details, from the El, to the Sears Tower to the remains of Lake Michigan are there. I've been to Chicago a few times and although I don't consider myself to be the expert a native of the area would be, I do recognize it. I won't promised you that none of the details were fudged but there is enough there that it feels authentic to someone who has been there. I felt like I was walking the streets and/or riding the El with her characters and it was an awesome feeling. I'm a little bitter because I feel like taking a trip there now and can't manage it right now, but that's actually a good thing from a reader's point of view.

Divergent  takes place after a catastrophic war. In the wake of the destruction, the survivors divide themselves into five factions: The Abnegation believe that a society based on self denial and helping others will lead to lack of conflict. The Amity believe that getting along and avoid aggression will lead to peace. The Candor believe that conflict comes from dishonesty and that the only way to avoid conflict is through complete, blunt honesty. The Dauntless believe that direct action and meeting problems head on is the only way to avoid war. Lastly, the Erudite believe that lack of knowledge and understanding leads to strife and that only education can prevent it.

That there are huge gaps between the factions is obvious. That things eventually come to a head is inevitable, especially given that the entire government is given over to one faction, the Abnegation. It is thought that they're the best for the job because they are self-sacrificing and don't want everything for themselves. The rumors aren't true but they don't have to be. A big lie will often work when nothing else will.

Members of Roth's society are able to choose their own faction at the age of sixteen. They are raised by their birth parents and then subjected to an aptitude test to show them where they would fit best. Trainees are allowed to pick their own faction regardless of the results of the tests, but this is not without risk. After selecting a faction, they are then put through a training and indoctrination period. Anyone who fails is forced to become factionless; homeless, poor and unvalued. These are the people who do the jobs that no one else wants. Ending up factionless is the worst fear of many trainees and for good reason. Who wouldn't fear a life of no meaning and no resources, starting at age sixteen? The story begins the day before main character Beatrice's Choosing Ceremony. The majority of Divergent deals with her attempt to get into her chosen faction.

Beatrice's training is not always easy for her, but she comes through it like a champion. This is a girl that I would be proud to call my daughter. She develops an interesting relationship with one of her trainers and finds out not only what she is capable of, but what her worst fears are and how to overcome them. Tris faces betrayal from among her closest friends and a fear of having her darkest secret discovered but through it all she never gives up. This is a main character that I can admire.

The conflict between two of the factions ramps up throughout the book and Beatrice becomes increasingly aware of the problems. She finds herself caught in the middle as her father is a leader in the Abnegation and is at the heart of the controversy. As the story goes on, things come to a head. Beatrice finds herself in a bad place and facing a situation no human being could ever be truly prepared for. Her method of dealing with it leads directly into the ending and the obvious set up for the next novel.

The extras that came with the edition of the book that I got were a lot of fun as well. Roth's writing tips are not exactly earth-shattering secrets to instant success but they are things I've heard mentioned by other successful authors and so I trust them. The faction manifestos are awesome. I have a sneaking suspicion that these were attached (at least in part) to Roth's notes as she was writing the book and that they were worked in later. I loved the chance to see what makes these factions tick. The faction quiz was nothing special but it was fun. The interview was excellent for people like me who enjoy getting a chance to learn more about famous people and how their mind works. Roth's comments on utopias versus dystopias were interesting and something I'm working very hard to avoid using as inspiration for a new writing project as I have too many irons in the fire already. There is also an excerpt for the next book, but I don't read excerpts. I'll read the whole thing when I get a chance and the excerpt will be in there somewhere.

This is yet another work containing my most hated character: Cliff Hanger. Seriously people. I get the fact that it does an author (and their publisher) good for the next book to sell too. That doesn't necessarily mean that we have to be dangling off the edge of a cliff at the end of every book. Ugh. It also occurs to me that Tris suffers from Harry Potter syndrome: She gets away with a lot more than she should be able to at times. In one particular instance I was flat out shocked and thrown out of the story when she got away with something scot-free that she should have been seriously punished for. Overall though, this book was pretty epic.

Bottom Line: 5 out of 5 Simulators

Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2011

Divergent is available for purchase here:

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pam Uphoff's Outcasts and Gods

 How far will we go to create a better type of humanity? I'm not referring to that the way a liberal would because I'm not defining "better" as more compassionate and easily herded. I'm defining "better" here as being stronger or at least less weak. Is it possible that we could one day be willing to alter our very DNA to do it? What would the reaction to such a thing be? Would "normal" (IE unaltered persons) be comfortable around those who had been altered? Would they want them around? I'm not sure what my answer would be to any of those questions, but Pam Uphoff lets us all know where she stands in her book Outcasts and Gods and she doesn't seem to be all that optimistic.

This book cooks from beginning to end. The pace is relentless. It starts out with genetically improved children being seized from their parents and moves through training, subterfuge and ultimately exploration. There is always more going on than there seems to be. The main character, a young man named Wolfgang, is perpetually three to four steps ahead of everyone and he needs to be. The one time he goofs it costs him his freedom.

OAG's heroes are a group of genetically engineered teens and young adults (up to, I think, age twenty-four) who have been taken from their families or raised in captivity under the guidance of a company. The government has decided that since they have been genetically altered they are not human and can be treated as property. Basically, they're treated as slaves and they're not happy about it but here's the kicker: These are kids who have been given powers the rest of humanity never had. They can throw fireballs, open and closes locks using telekinesis and do all sorts of other interesting things. I don't want to spoil too much but let's just say that messing with a telekinetic person is not a good plan. The fun really starts when they figure out how to open gates to other dimensions with alternate Earths.

The genetically engineered "gods" (as they are derisively referred to) are not at all passive participants. They work throughout the tale to improve their living situation and/or escape. The guards are afraid of them. They do whatever they can for themselves and hide things from their captors for as long as they can in an effort to give themselves an advantage. They're hardcore people stuck in a jacked up environment. It's not hard to make a comparison between Uphoff's "gods" and Jews in a Nazi concentration camp as long as it's not taken too far. The gods are enslaved and dehumanized but they do at least receive decent food and clothing. It's not a one to one match but for government work, it's a reasonable approximation.

Speaking of government, Uphoff's opinion toward government and mine appear to be not far off from each other. The US government in OAG is a greedy, control-hungry structure that takes over later than it could have simply because it can't get its act together to pass the necessary legislation. In short, Uphoff's government is bumbling, incompetent and power-hungry. I calls 'em as I sees 'em and I think she's got it right. The kids are left in bondage not for any real biological reason, they're as human as you or I, but because it's more convenient that way. There would be nothing stopping the company from hiring these people and paying them. They just don't want to and they're aided and abetted by a government that sees things as more convenient that way.

The thing that I really like about this book is that it was written first in a series and it NEEDS to be that first book. When I read the Dragonriders of Pern series at first I had no clue that it had ever had a basis in science fiction. I assumed that it was a purely fantasy story. It wasn't until I read  The Chronicles of Pern: First Fall that I had any clue about the true origins of the series. Uphill has done an excellent job in putting the first story first and cluing her readers in on how things started and why they happen the way they do. Kudos to her.

If there is anything that bothers me about the book it's that Wolfgang seems to be just a bit too slick and to have knowledge that he really should not. At one point he uses medical knowledge that he had no way to obtain to create a solution to a problem and not get caught. It didn't quite work for me. Also, some of the (admittedly lesser used) powers of the gods seem just a bit too convenient. Then again, I grew up watching Transformers and the same type of thing happened there all the time. All in all though the book was a lot of fun and I'm looking forward to reading all of the sequels. I think. There seemed to be two missing from the list on Amazon or maybe I just missed them. But, if I can find them, I intend to buy them. If I can't, well.... Let's just say I hope I can. Oh, and it looks like Outcasts and Gods is available for ninety-nine cents on Amazon as of the date I posted this. I'm not sure how long that'll last.

Bottom Line: 4.75 out of 5 Altered Genes

Outcasts and Gods
Pam Uphoff
Self Published, 2011

Outcasts and Gods is available for purchase here:

Friday, September 18, 2015

Declan Finn's Honor at Stake

Something I've always enjoyed is a new take on an old trope. Vampires have been around forever. Seriously, think about it. I personally have read everything from Bram Stoker's Dracula to P.N. Elrod's I, Strand: The Memoirs of a Vampire to about the first hundred and forty or so pages of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles will always have a place in my heart. I've literally read and watched so many vampire stories that I can't remember them all. I have never seen vampires done quite like Declan Finn did his in Honor at Stake. His take is new and refreshing and I loved it. The story itself was both entertaining and action packed, but vampire lore as interpreted through Catholic philosophy a la Thomas Aquinas is both new and interesting. The fact that he seems to have added a scientific explanation for the existence of vampires was a lot of fun as well. The nerd in me approves of this for the simple fact that I like to know everything and Finn offers me the answer to one of Fantasy's oldest questions.

Finn is the proprietor of a blog known as A Pius Man and is also a member of The Catholic Geeks so it's hardly surprising to see him take a Catholic point of view on anything. Still, his Catholic background clearly provides him with the background needed to fit his theory of vampirism into his own strange theology. I admit to not being as familiar with the philosophy of Aquinas as Mr Finn but he makes it work even to a relative neophyte such as myself. He also made me a bit bitter toward my Intro to Western Philosophy professor but it's not Finn's fault that my prof skipped from Aristotle all the way to Friedrich Nietzsche. Still, Finn got his point through to me and I had no familiarity. He explains enough to get his point across without coming to a full stop and delivering a lecture.

Finn is also obviously and old-school roleplayer. No, I'm not referring to someone who plays Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games like Everquest or World of Warcraft, both of which I have enjoyed, but someone who has played pen and paper RPGs. I'm not sure which ones but one of his characters flat out states that alignment has an effect on the powers and limitations of his vampires. He actually phrases it better but I can't remember the exact quote and I'm too lazy to look it up. I got a kick out of it. I've played Dungeons and Dragons and just about every Palladium RPG published in or before the mid 90s. I don't want to think about how many I've read through and never gotten a chance to play. I got a kick out of it. It's not a major part of the story, it's more of a throw away line, but it made my day. If you've played you'll love it. If not, it's like one paragraph out of the story and you probably won't even notice it. Either way, I couldn't NOT mention it.

The plot of the book combines a mystery with a Blade style battle against vampires with a government agent that knows about the supernatural and fights it just like in everybody paranoiac's fantasy about conspiracies. Oh, and let's not forget about the Vatican's special forces unit. Just like the old Prego commercial, "It's in there!" There is a surprise around every corner and one or two other factions that I've intentionally left out. The crazy part is that the conspiracy isn't even led by the government. Trying to figure out how it all goes together is just part of the fun.

Finn's characters are both deep and flawed and that makes them entertaining. Two of them fall in love and won't admit it. One of them is truly a sadist and wants to hide it. Others have a weird sense of humor. His villains are truly villainous. There is always a sense that worse is about to happen and it usually does. Not all is revealed and even when things are revealed they open up more questions. I'm still trying to figure something out and it's bugging me. It seems to me that there has to be at least one more book coming and this has the feeling of an ongoing series that never ends.

As much as I enjoyed the characters in Honor at Stake there is one who I can't stand: Cliff Hanger makes an appearance. Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the book and I'm glad to know that there are more coming but after all the freshness and goodness of this story Finn hit us with the most overdone cliche in the history of history. Cliff hangers drive me up a wall. Having said that much, I'm still looking forward to the next installment. I just hope it gets here soon after he dropped that on all of us.

My only other complaint is that the cast may be a little too big at times. This seems to be the beginning of a series so I guess it's to be expected but it's not always easy to remember who is who. I really felt like I needed a scorecard at certain points. It's a manageable problem and seems to be something that will work itself out over time as we have more story to get used to the characters. I still loved the book.

Bottom Line: 4.75 out of 5 fangs

Honor at Stake
Declan Finn
Eternal Press, 2015