The Toll

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “There was no warning.”
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Others in the series: Scythe, Thunderhead
Content: It’s very violent, but much of it is mass violence, which somehow doesn’t have the same impact (for me) on the page as it does on the screen. There is one f-bomb and some mild swearing.

Spoilers for the first two, obviously. If you haven’t read this series yet, you NEED to.

I’m going to try and do this with minimal spoilers for The Toll. It’s not easy. Especially since there’s SO MUCH going on in this one.

Endura has sunk and Citra and Rowan with it; the Thunderhead is only talking to Greyson, which makes him a “prophet” for the Tonists; Goddard has taken over as Overblade of the whole Merican continent, except for the Lone Start state; Faraday and Munira think they have found where the “fail safe” that the original scythes created is being housed. I think that’s it.

From there, though, this book winds its way through multiple timelines — sometimes I felt like I needed a chart to help put all the events in relation to each other. Sometimes I lost track of what was happening when. It was a lot to keep track of.

But, I think Shusterman juggles all his balls really effectively. He really is a master of revealing just enough information at just the right time in order for you to put all the pieces together just before he reveals what you just put together. It’s a good ending, too: he wraps up all the plot lines (even though K thinks it was a bit silly) and did one in such a way that made me tear up.

And because all good science fiction is a commentary on real life, this one has shades of what it would be like to live under a narcissistic dictator with unlimited power and funds. And the ways in which the public reacts (or doesn’t react) to that. It’s illuminating. And about halfway through I realized the brilliance of the title as well.. (Not going to spell that one out for you; you have to figure it out.)

It’s a solid ending to a fantastic series.

Unearthed

by Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner
First sentence: “This is really, really not going the way I’d planned.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher for the Cybils.
Content: There’s some intense action, and some mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to either older or younger readers depending on interest.

My 30-second handsell: It’s Indiana Jones in Space! I mean, kind of. It’s set in the future, after Earth — especially America — has ignored climate change and basically driven itself into ruin. Then, we get a message from aliens — the Undying — that went extinct 50,000 years ago, welcoming us to their planet, if we “dare”, It’s got a pair of teenagers working together — a girl who’s a scavanger (read: thief) and a boy who’s an archeologist who has spent his entire life studying the Undying. Put the two of them on this planet, and they have to figure out how to make it through a temple and read messages to figure out what the Undying was trying to say. Oh, and the government is trying to stop them.

Full of action, suspense, death-defying stunts, and just a whole lot of fun.

Okay, maybe that was longer than 30 seconds. But seriously: this was a ton of fun. I liked Kaufman and Spooner’s vision of the future; it was bleak but not overly so, and the idea of mixing post-apocalyptic with aliens is an interesting one. I liked that they kept the action moving, and that it was (mostly) plausible. It really did feel like a fun action movie; nothing deep (there’s a wee bit of romance, which I suppose was to be expected), but it did keep me turning pages.

And yes, I am going to read the sequel.

We’re Not From Here

by Geoff Rodkey
First sentence: “The first time I heard anything about Planet Choom, we’d been on Mars for almost a year.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the author.
Release date: March 5, 2019
Content: There are some possibly scary situations, but Rodkey knows his audience, and the book is neither too long or too complex. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Lan and his family are part of the last of the human race, the part that escaped to Mars when the Earth dissolved into a nuclear holocaust that made the planet uninhabitable. They’re also the part of the human race that decided to take a chance on the offer of asylum from the Planet Choom — a planet full of insect-like creatures, as well as small wolf-like creatures and marshmallow-like creatures — and take up residence there.

However, when they get out of biostasis and arrive at Choom, they’ve discovered that the government is now against the humans settling there and they want them all to just leave. Except the humans don’t have anywhere to go. So the Choom government — which is run by the insect-like creatures — allows Lan’s family to come down on a trial basis. Which means they’re the sole representatives for the human race and whatever they do the entire race will be judged on it.

If you haven’t gotten the allegory that Rodkey is telling here, let me spell it out (mostly because I knew it going in, and it was quite obvious to me): he’s exploring — in a way that is accessible to kids — the idea of immigration and the idea of being the “other”. And since he can’t write an #ownvoices book, he’s doing it the only way he can: through science fiction. As far as an allegory goes, it’s excellent: it allows the reader to feel how it is to be “alien”, even if they (I’m white and while I’ve felt like an outsider, I’ve never really felt “alien”) are not. But, on top of that, it’s fun to read, it’s got great characters (#TeamMarf all the way! She’s brilliant!) and it’s got a good heart at the center of it. It’s quite probably Rodkey’s best work so far.

And it’s definitely one worth reading!

This Mortal Coil

by Emily Suvada
First sentence: “It’s sunset, and the sky is aflame, not with clouds or dust, but with the iridescent feathers of a million genhacked passenger pigeons.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are a few mild swear words, and an almost-sex scene, and a lot of violence. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) 

It’s the future, in which people have figured out how to write code that can write over your DNA, where everyone is literally plugged in, though panels on their arms, and VR nets in their skulls. The company Cartaxus basically rules the world, releasing apps and code updates solely though their company, controlling basically everything. 

And then the Hydra virus appears. This virus has three stages: you become infected, you get a fever,  the virus wraps itself around your cells, and then you explode. If you’re near an explosion, you get infected too. And if you’re near someone in the second it triggers something inside you that makes you go crazy and want to kill. The only way to become immune is to eat the flesh of someone in the second stage of the virus. Sure, Cartaxus created bunkers to keep everyone safe, but in doing so, they take away your freedom. 

Or so Catarina, our main character, has always thought. At the beginning of the outbreak, her father Lachlan, a genius coder, was taken by Cartaxus (at gunpoint) and Cat has been left to survive the virus wasteland on her own. And then one day, a soldier from Cartaxus shows up with the news that 1) there’s a vaccine for this virus and 2) Cat’s father has died creating it, and it’s up to her to figure out how to get it to everyone. 

It’s a lot more complex than this, but that’s the basic gist. And man, it is a fun, interesting, work of science fiction. I liked that it was intelligence — Cat’s ability to create and read code, as well as the whole theory of gene manipulation — not necessarily brawn that drove the plot (though there was a lot of shooting, running, stabbing, and blowing things up). There was a bit of a romance (which was kind of predictable) and the twist at the end wasn’t entirely satisfying for me. But mostly, I thought it was smart and fun. 

Thunderhead

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “How fortunate I am among the sentient o know my purpose.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Others in the series: Scythe
Content: There is violence (less than in Sythe) and swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Spoilers for Scythe, obviously.

K picked this one up first, and because we swore her to silence (no spoilers!), she suffered in silence. Then A read it, and she and K had to go off in a separate room to discuss it (because there is much to discuss). By the time I got to it, they kept asking “Where are you?”  “Have you gotten to The Part yet?” (and there are a couple of The Parts). And when I finished, K looked at me and said, “I couldn’t talk to ANYBODY!”

Because this book demands to be discussed.

It picks up nearly a year after the events in Scythe: Citra has become Scythe Anastasia and is serving her junior scythe years under the guidance of Scythe Curie. She has a very unique method of gleaning her subjects, one that gives her peace of mind at night which is good. Rowan, on the other hand, has become Scythe Lucifer, going around gleaning scythes that have become corrupt. Both are doing what they feel called to do. But then, things go wrong.

There’s also a side plot with a new character, Greyson, whom A loved and was wholly invested in and whose life becomes intertwined with Anastasia’s. And Rowan? Well, let’s just say his plot line made me super anxious. And Faraday’s plotline is interesting, but as K pointed out, kind of gets dropped near the end.

Oh: and I want to see the ending of this book on the big screen.

I know I’m being evasive, but really, the less you know, the better it’ll be. There’s really a lot to talk about: violence and corruption and religion and tradition and freedom. But mostly, just what an excellent storyteller Shusterman is.

I can’t wait for the next part of this story!

Scythe

by Neal Shusterman
First sentence: “We must, by law, keep a record fo the innocents we kill.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is, by the very nature of the book, violence. Some of it is graphic. There is also mild swearing. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore, but, like Hunger Games, I’d be wary about giving it to overly sensitive kids.

My co-workers have been on my case to read this since it first came out. A couple of them love it (and Shusterman), but I just didn’t have time. (Sometimes, when I need to sell a book at work, I rely on other people’s opinions rather than just reading it myself, since I won’t have time to read all the books. Unfortunately.) But then, it won a Cybils award, and was picked for my online book club (and then they picked it for one of my in-person book clubs), so I figured it was about time I read this.

And, oh wow, everyone was right. This is an excellent piece of speculative fiction.

The basic premise is this: in the future we will have figured out how to defeat disease and death, thereby becoming immortal (pretty much). However, the earth couldn’t handle the subsequent population growth, so a group of people — called scythes — were organized to deal with that. They have a set of commandments, are outside the general law, and basically get to decide when people should die. There are rules governing that, as well — they have quotas they have to meet and can’t go over, and they can’t do it with forethought or malice. The book follows two teenagers, Citra and Rowan, who were chosen as a scythe’s apprentices. As it follows them through the year of their apprenticeship, it’s fascinating reading about their scythe and his philosophies, and then the difference between scythe philosophies (including a radical one who was just horrid). There is a bit of a romance(ish), but that didn’t really go anywhere (thankfully). Mostly it’s about humanity and the meaning of immortality, and how one deals with the power over life and death. There is definitely much to think about and talk about in this book.

Module 8: The Drowned Cities

Bacigalupi, P. (2012). The Drowned Cities. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co.

Genre: Speculative fiction: science fiction, post-apocalyptic/dystopia, Earth’s future.

Book Summary: “War maggots” Mahlia and Mouse have their existence in the jungles of a war-torn future America figured out: Mahlia has apprenticed herself to a pacifist doctor and even though the villagers don’t particularly like her, she makes do. And Mouse, who saved her life once, is her faithful sidekick. That is, until a bioengineered war creature called Tool escapes his prison and ends up in Mahila and Mouse’s neck of the woods. Suddenly their life is gone: Mouse is taken by the soldiers and Mahlia escapes with Tool. From there, both friends will do what they need to survive, but perhaps the cost of  maintaining their is too high?

Impressions: This was fascinating. It took me a while to get into the book, mostly because I haven’t read Ship Breaker, but eventually I got hold of the world that Bacigalupi has built and fell into the book. It’s not a happy book though: Bacigalupi is very frank about the effects of war, and what that does to everyone: civilians, soldiers, leaders. It wasn’t a bleak, hopeless view though: Bacigalupi makes the reader care about his characters, and gives them — even Tool — a humanity that transcends the situations. I was a bit worried about 3/4 of the way through, wondering how he was going to wrap it up (and, to be fair, there is a proper sequel to this one — Tool of War — that properly finishes the story), but he managed very well. It was a satisfying ending, and while it left things open for the next story, it wraps this one up quite nicely. It’s definitely beautifully written, and it nails a lot of current issues — of violence and tribalism, especially — on the head.

Review: The reviews I read praised the world building and the action of the series, as well as Bacigalupi’s frankness when it comes to war. The staff review writes, “Beautifully written, filled with high-octane action, and featuring badly damaged but fascinating and endearing characters, this fine novel tops its predecessor and can only increase the author’s already strong reputation.”

Staff. (2012). Children’s reviews. Publisher’s Weekly. 259 (11), n.a.

Library Uses: This would go great on a “books about climate change” display, as well as a general speculative fiction display. It also needs to be in a book group; there is so much to discuss!

Readalikes:

  • The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness: This one is aliens rather than post-apocalyptic, but it has the same themes of tribalism, war, and understanding the “other”. Also, everyone should just read it.
  • Undertow by Michael Buckley: In this near-future, some humanoid creatures have come out of the ocean and tried to settle on land. There is tension (obviously) between them and the humans. This explores the tribalism angle as well.
  • The Fog Diver by Joel Ross: An environmental Earth future mashed with steampunk: Earth was destroyed through chemicals, which produced a “fog” that covered the world, so humans moved to the skies. Some fantastic action.
  • And, obviously, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins: This is the closest read alike to The Drowned Cities, but I think Bacigalupi does what Collins was trying to do SO much better.