A Voyage Through Air (The Queen of Dreams III) – Peter F. Hamilton

Following immediately after The Hunting of the Princes, the final volume of the trilogy takes our protagonists to the realm of air, where rocky islands drift weightlessly in a vast ocean of air, and ships ply between the, dodging storms and monsters. Taggie, Jemima and the others are in a race with time to find Myrlin’s Gate in the hope it will end the looming conflict between dark universe peoples, and bring peace to the realms.

The last book is a breathless, almost relentless race against time. But Mr. Hamilton doesn’t lose track of character development. Taggie, Jemima, Lantic and Felix especially grow change during their adventures. There are several gems among secondary characters as well, especially the flamboyant Captain Rebecca. While the books have all the trappings of fantasy, Mr. Hamilton’s science fiction roots are showing, especially in this last book. The worldbuilding is imaginative, whimsical and awe-inspiring.

The Hunting of the Princes (The Queen of Dreams II) – Peter F. Hamilton

After the somewhat standalone narrative of The Secret Throne, Taggie and Jemima are back in England. After a series of assassination attempts against royals, they must face a threat not only to the First Realm, but to all the realms. The adventure takes them to the occupied Fourth Realm, where winter and evil reign.

The second book in the series is more complex and more exciting than the first, as if Mr. Hamilton is becoming more comfortable with the fantasy medium. The story is both engaging and thought provoking, as characters of supposed integrity find their beliefs and ethics challenged when confronted with adversity.

The Secret Throne (The Queen of Dreams I)

Taggie and Jemima are pre-teen sisters, sent off for the holidays to their apparently eccentric father who lives somewhat distant from modern society. Quite suddenly, he is kidnapped by dark forces. And the sisters discover that they are heirs to a dynasty in a very different realm.

Mr. Hamilton’s prose is as tight as ever, even when he is writing for tweens and young adults. The characters are engaging, complex and imperfect. The plot is fine, but unfortunately rather linear and predictable. A good read, but Mr. Hamilton’s efforts to make things more approachable for his expected audience have not quite worked out.

Side note: My ten-year-old daughter adored this book.

 

Escape from Earth – Allen Steele

Escape from EarthOur hero is a teenager who once dreamed of being an astronaut, but his life in a small town is not conducive to such dreams. His father was killed in Iraq, his mother is working two jobs and his older brother is a petty criminal. Life isn’t looking to go anywhere. Then one day he has a weird encounter…

This short story is solidly in the young adult camp. Not especially inspired but at least hits the right teen wish fulfillment note.

2Rosbochs

Podkayne of Mars – Robert A. Heinlein

PodkayneofMarsPodkayne is a girl from Mars in her late teens. Mars is a bit of a frontier planet, and she has dreams of venturing further afield. Together with her younger brother Clark, she goes along with her uncle, a powerful Senator, on a journey towards Venus and Luna aboard the luxurious liner Tricorn. Intrigue awaits.

Published in 1962, there is some debate on whether this novel should be considered one of the Heinlein Juveniles or not. I would say it is somewhere in transition territory, still passable as Young Adult fiction but definitely starting to explore more adult themes than its predecessors. The publishers were apparently not entirely pleased by this, and Heinlein even had to rewrite the ending before publication to make it less dark, though many current editions include the original ending as well.

The story is told from Poddy’s perspective. She has ambitions to break into the male dominated industry of spaceship flight crews. She wants to be treated as an equal in those respects, but she is certainly aware of how to make men do her bidding through manipulations. The sexual dynamics are rather dated, even though Heinlein was a progressive thinker on the subject in his day. The story is somewhat banal, but Poddy’s sassy and irreverent narration saves it from being boring. The setting also cleverly avoids most things that would date it, ensuring it does not age as badly as most SF of the time. The one thing that cannot be avoided is the view that Mars and Venus would be in any way inhabitable by humans, views that were refuted completely in the years following publication. However I was happy to squint at those details, treating Mars and Venus as “the way they should have been” in more innocent Universe.

3½Rosbochs

 

The Far Horizon – Patty Jansen

TheFarHorizonWhen Cory was eight, his mother died of cancer. Now two years later, his father is marrying an “extraterrestrial humanoid” or “Ethie”. Humans are in contact with a number of alien species, all of which are genetically related to humanity and each other. Cory and his family then leave for Midway Station, where his father takes up the post of director shortly before an important conference between the Union and the nations of Earth. But radical factions of humanity want to throw a wrench in the works.

This novel is squarely aimed at young adults. It uses a strict first person viewpoint in Cory, so everything is seen from a child’s eyes. The story is a bit slow at first and I almost gave up, but after the first third things pick up. The Ethie and human political systems add a lot of color. The themes are obvious. Tolerance and acceptance of difference. The book suffers from being a bit simplistic with its characters and character interactions, especially when adults are involved. Good enough for a few hours of distraction.

2½Rosbochs

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

TheGraveyardBookA toddler slips out of his house just as his parents and older sister are murdered by a mysterious man called Jack. He walks up to the local graveyard and is taken care of by the dead, who name him Nobody. His upbringing is unusual, to say the least.

The premise behind this book is clever in the extreme. It completely subverts the trope of a graveyard being a frightening place with shadowy monsters lurking. For “Bod”, the graveyard is home and refuge. It is where he plays, where he is educated, where he feels kinship with his people. Death is not something to be feared, but an event which changes people.

The novel is semi-episodic to start, with every chapter almost a self-contained shorts story, but later the thread of the initial murder is picked up, leading towards a resolution. Gaiman’s whimsical style certainly goes well with the setting, and I found myself smiling as Nod interacts with the dead from many different epochs, greeting and speaking to each with the mannerisms appropriate to the age.

3½Rosbochs

Apollo’s Outcasts – Allen Steele

ApolllosOutcastsJamey Barlowe is a teenager with such weak bone structure that he cannot walk unsupported. This is because he was born on the Moon. He is roused from sleep and hurriedly taken to a space launch facility along with his sisters. The Vice President of the United States has come to power due to the mysterious death of the President. As becomes apparent, she is a bit of a nut and, among other things, wants to imprison Jamey’s space scientist father due to his signing a petition regarding the space program. Jamey and one of his sisters are sent to safety on the massive Moon base Apollo, established to mine Helium-3 for power generation. And so begins Jamey’s adventure, with a looming confrontation with the United States on the horizon.

It dawned on me after a few pages that this was Young Adult fiction. After a few more pages I noticed that it was clearly inspired by Heinlein’s “juveniles”. Not a bad place to start.  The story is a not too complex bildungsroman. Jamey meets girl. Jamey’s best friend meets girl. They have to acclimatize to life on the Moon. They have military training on the Moon. The base is attacked.

It is a lightweight read even for a Young Adult novel, and despite the elaborate Moonbase setting some things kept nagging at me. Despite Steele’s effort to introduce at least some modern trappings, it seemed as if these kids were stuck with current technology and the social mores of the 1980s. Given that the novel takes place in 2097, I think it is safe to assume that there would be more advances than a Moonbase and some cell phone technology that could come on the market in 2014. I also wondered why people still listen to the radio in cars (which at least drive themselves) the way they do today, or why they have landlines. Another point was that Steele confused weight and mass in zero gravity. He might just have been trying to simplify but even Young Adult science fiction should get it right.

2½Rosbochs

Mockingjay (The Hunger Games III) – Suzanne Collins

In the third and final book, Katniss is among the rebels. She has survived The Hunger Games, twice, but she is more and more a broken person. Friends and others want to use her for their purposes. She is no longer a Tribute but she is still a pawn.

Throughout the book, Katniss falls victim to a psychological trauma that has its roots as far back as the first book. The way in which Ms. Collins describes Katniss’s descent into madness is chilling, especially as the narrative is in the first person. The last third of the book is very bleak, as there seem to be no good options. And yet, the pace is kept up, the action moves on. Even in the darkest, most introspective passages the reader still feels carried forward in the story.

A great ending to a great trilogy.

Catching Fire (The Hunger Games II) – Suzanne Collins

A few months have passed since the events of The Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta now live as neighbors in the Victor’s Village, along with Haymitch. Things are strained because, despite Katniss’s status as a victor, she is also a symbol of defiance against the capitol. The President would probably like her eliminated, but cannot do so because of her status as a popular public figure. To top things off, she must pretend to be in love with Peeta in public, while Gale now works in the mines and she is in general unsure how she stands with him.

Since this year will be the seventy-fifth Hunger Games, the rules are special. Katniss’s troubles are just beginning.

While it cannot quite reach the level of the first book, Catching Fire is a more than worthy sequel. Yet again, the strict first person perspective forces the reader to see everything through the eyes of Katniss. More importantly, we see the world through the lens of her thoughts and doubts. It is a cruel and dangerous world, and she must make brave decisions in order to protect her loved ones. The action scenes take up less space and are, perhaps, not as gripping. I felt that Ms. Collins could have spent some more time here. In any case this was a page turner just like book one.

The ending leaves little resolved, and book three directly follows.

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games I) – Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, quite literally the end of the line of the twelve vassal districts where laborers toil and starve to support the rich Capitol inhabitants in the nation of Panem, located in what seems to be a post-apocalyptic North America. Almost a century ago, the districts rebelled against the Capitol and were brutally repressed. Since then, each district must offer two youngsters, one male and one female, as “Tribute”, every year. The youngsters are chosen through a lottery system. The youths will compete in the titular Hunger Games. To the death. The point being to remind the districts who is boss. Through a series of circumstances, Katniss ends up in the Hunger Games.

Readers familiar with Ender’s Game will feel a strong familiarity with some of the themes. Both books deal with youngsters thrown into cruel and unfamiliar situations beyond their control. There is even some similarity in the sparse style.

The fact this novel is marketed as “Young Adult” should not scare off adult readers. The characters and settings are memorable. Seeing the world through the first person perspective of Katniss means we are forced into her constrained existence. She has no freedom in her world and may not leave District 12. She has no freedom after becoming a Tribute, with her intricate preparations for the games stage-managed by a mentor and a team of stylists. In a bitter irony, she becomes somewhat free to do as she wants in the Hunger Games Arena itself, but the freedom comes at the price of having to fight for her life, often against opponents she has deep affection for.

The pacing is perfect and the action sequences are gripping without reveling in bloodshed or cruelty. Certainly there are strong scenes of violence but the purpose is to convey the horror and evil of the Hunger Games, not to draw readers in with schlock. This novel has that rare compulsive page-turning quality.

The love triangle is somewhat cliché, but clichés can work too. The dilemma of feelings towards someone you may well have to kill, or see killed, is well done.

All in all, a superb novel that I raced through. The ending is a satisfying conclusion but leaves many questions unanswered. And so it is on to book two.

 

The Call of the Wild – Jack London

I don’t think that I can add much about this classic beyond what has already been said by other reviewers. Although it is, perhaps, more intended for a teenage audience, I found it very engaging. Quite simply a great yarn about a boy and his dog.

Silverhair – Stephen Baxter

After I started to read this, I discovered that this was actually aimed at “young adults”. No matter. I quite enjoyed this tale of intelligent mammoths surviving until our time and having to accept that they would have to allow contact with humans.