30 April 2012

Book review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I love dystopic fiction. I've always found stories about societal breakdown and how people cope with it fascinating, not least because they reflect the failings of modern society, magnified to an extreme.

The former United States, years after an unspecified disaster, likely some combination of war and rising oceans, is known as Panem. The Capitol (in former Colorado) controls twelve districts, each with a specific product: technology, textiles, food, fish, etc. District Twelve, where the story begins, produces coal.

Seventy-four years before this story, the districts, then numbering thirteen, rose up against the Capitol to fight their oppressive hand. The Capitol won, obliterating District Thirteen, and continued to oppress the districts. They added a punishment in the Treaty of the Treason: every year, one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18 inclusive, from each district are selected in a Reaping as Tributes to fight in a battle to the death: the Hunger Games.

Katniss Everdeen (16), the narrator, lost her father in a mining disaster, and since then, she's been hunting (illegally) to help feed her mother and sister. She's hard and determined, and she's willing to sacrifice everything to protect her 12-year-old sister Primrose. Her best friend, Gale, an older boy who lost his father in the same mining accident, goes hunting with her.

The day of the Reaping, Prim's name is pulled from the fishbowl. Katniss volunteers to go in her place: that's legal in the Games' rules. Her co-Tribute, baker's son Peeta Mellark, joins her on stage, and she remembers him as the boy with the bread: he tossed her a loaf of bread when she was starving.

They go to the Capitol, where they're prepared for the Games, fed and bathed and cleaned and trained. They're interviewed on TV to try to get sponsors interested in them. Sponsors can send them gifts during the Games, like food or medicine or weapons, and the more sponsors a Tribute has, the greater chance they have of survival.

Katniss is determined to win the Games, because she'll be able to take care of Prim. (A Games Victor receives extra food and money for life.) Peeta, in a conversation the night before the Games, says he doesn't want the Capitol to change him in the Games, and if he's going to die, he'll do it on his own terms, as himself.

Katniss' slow rebellion of the mind begins there, and it continues throughout the Games, as she plays the role she thinks will draw more Sponsors then, over time, comes to understand what Peeta meant. I wish I could go into further detail, but that would be too many spoilers.

The Hunger Games trilogy is dark, brutal, heart-rending, and, ultimately, hopeful. It's a compelling read, as Katniss, a survivor, does her best to survive in the Games, then cope with her PTSD in the second and third books as the world she's known her whole life changes around her.

On top of Katniss' story, Collins paints a target on reality-show culture and the massive divide between haves and have-nots. The movie version does a brilliant job of the reality-show aspect and questioning our own complicity in the Games.

I highly recommend both.

23 April 2012

Book review: Leviathan trilogy

Leviathan, Behemoth, and Goliath, by Scott Westerfeld.

Leviathan opens in an alternate late-July 1914, with Prince Aleksandr, son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, being spirited away by his fencing tutor and the master of mechaniks late at night. They climb into their Stormwalker and head for Switzerland. Anyone passingly familiar with real-world history may recall that Franz Ferdinand's assassination in late July 1914 was the spark in the tinderbox that led to the First World War, and if you made that connection, you would be correct.

Up in England, a girl named Deryn Sharp is taking the midshipman's exam for the British Navy (Air Navy? I forget what he called it, exactly.) The thing is, only boys are allowed to be middies, because it's 1914 and the military is a bit sexist like that. So Deryn calls herself Dylan, cuts her hair short, and dresses like a boy. Because of a storm during the first test flight using a Huxley (a jellyfish-hot air balloon), she ends up on the great airbeast Leviathan, a zeppelin-whale.)

The alternate part of Westerfeld's 1914 is that the world is divided between Darwinists and Clankers. The Darwinists have figured out how to take the "life strands" of creatures and fiddle with them in the lab, thus creating living airships and beast weapons, like strafing hawks and bats who eat razor blades stuck inside fruit then poop them onto their target. The living airships are an ecosystem, and it requires a delicate balance.

Clankers use mechaniks, or diesel-powered robots of a sort. The Stormwalker moves on legs, and the land ships are sort of like tanks on legs. Pretty straightforward.

Except, because the world in 1914 was pretty complicated, Alek's escape isn't so easy. They have enemies not just in the Darwinists, but among their own theoretical allies, the fellow Clankers in Germany. Deryn is always in danger of being discovered as a girl and kicked out of the service.

Through a series of events, Alek ends up on Leviathan with Deryn, and they become friends and have adventures while saving the world. (This book is targeted to a teenaged/young adult audience.) It's a great, fun read, and the story ends up taking them literally around the world, to Turkey (the Ottoman Empire), Russia, Japan, the US, and Mexico.

One thing I enjoyed were Westerfeld's endnotes on each book, explaining briefly what the real history was and how he changed it. I'm more than passingly familiar with the beginning of the Great War, and I enjoyed noticing things that I knew were the same (or close) and finding things he'd changed.

I purchased this for my kobo e-reader, and the only complaint I have is that it's hard to see the illustrations on the e-ink screen.

If you like adventures with mostly-happy endings, you'll enjoy this series.

20 April 2012

I need to update more often.

I have a stack of books I've read and need to review here, a smaller stack I need to review for money, and a very-slowly-shrinking stack of books I'm reading. I also have a few ideas for posts that aren't book reviews (shocker) and an announcement that I'm waiting on until I can link you to it. (I sold a story!)

To review here:
- Scott Westerfeld, Leviathan trilogy
- Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games trilogy
- Jo Walton, Among Others
- CJ Cherryh, Regenesis
- Georgette Heyer, Devil's Cub

To review elsewhere:
- Natania Barron, Pilgrim of the Sky
- TC McCarthy, Exogene

Currently reading:
- Elif Shafak, The Flea Palace
- Uli Hesse, TOR! The Story of German Football
- Walter Moers, Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher

- Kürshat Bashar, Music by my Bedside
- Bilge Karasu, The Garden of Departed Cats
- Oliver Plaschka, Die Magier von Montparnasse
- Frank Schätzing, Limit
- Jack Turner, Spice: the History of a Temptation
- Mary Robinette Kowal, Glamour in Glass
- Jonathan Wilson, Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football