Tag Archives: insta-love

Book Review Saturday – ‘Arclight’

Happy Saturday, campers.

Today we’ll be looking at a book that made quite an impression on me – not necessarily for good reasons, admittedly, but an impression nonetheless. It’s ‘Arclight’, a début YA dystopian fantasy from US author Josin L. McQuein. Unfortunately, I’m probably going to have to drop a few spoilers in here in order to discuss my issues with the plot (though I’ll try to keep them to an absolute minimum), so if you’d rather remain unspoiled you might prefer to toddle off and have a cup of tea instead, and I’ll see you on Monday.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

Okay. So, you don’t mind spoilers? Are you sure? Right. Let’s get cracking.

This book sounded like it was going to be great. The protagonist is a teenage girl – Marina – who lives in a world where light is life, light is safety, and going into the Dark spells death. At some point before the story begins, she is found on the borders of the Dark in an area known as ‘the Grey’, with no memory of who she is, or how she got there. She’s taken into the Arclight – the ‘fortress of light’, for want of a better term – populated by humans, which acts as the last outpost against the Fade, creatures who live in the Dark. She is the only human to have survived an encounter with the Fade for generations; feted as a ‘Fade-killer’ and condemned as ‘Fade-bait’ in equal measure, she cannot find a place to fit comfortably in her new surroundings.

The story progresses in that slightly predictable way that all YA dystopian novels have: conflict, battle, injury, wounds, (insta-)love, powerful friendships, testing of friendships and family bonds, wrongheaded adults who refuse to listen to reason, journeys into the unknown to find out The Truth, and all that. If I sound jaded, I don’t mean to – these are the things a reader expects from a YA dystopian novel, and ‘Arclight’ delivers all this in spades, as it should. I have no problem with any of that, and the book does all of these things very well.

What I do have a problem with, though, is a book which leaves its reader feeling a bit like this while they’re reading:

Image: terisaburger.com

Image: terisaburger.com

At several points during my reading of ‘Arclight’, I have to admit that I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I couldn’t follow threads of conversation, I couldn’t get a mental hold on anything that was being described, and at several junctures I wanted to insert myself into the novel and give several characters a robust slap across the jaw. The book begins just as the Fade mount a violent attack on the Arclight (so, very much ‘in medias res’, which is not something I object to, generally, as long as the reader is given something to hold on to), and in this case I found myself flailing a little, not really understanding anything, but carrying on in the hope that it would all be explained as things went on.

Well – things did, and did not, become clearer as the story progressed.

My first issue was with the Arclight itself. I was never sure whether it referred to the physical building in which our human characters live, or merely the large circle of powerful lights which switch on as night falls, keeping the humans safe in the face of the Dark. Mention is made in several places of ‘breaches’; it wasn’t clear to me whether this meant that the enemy was crossing the light, or breaking into the physical building. It seemed to change, as required. Then, we have the Fade themselves – the enemy of the humans, and the frightening denizens of the Dark. Our first encounter with them, during the initial battle, makes them seem a lot like the Dementors from Harry Potter – tall, faceless, skinny, dressed in grey ragged robes, complete with slashing claws and gnashing fangs. They seemed like a cross between zombies and vampires, to my mind, at first; but then, midway through the book, they change completely into something entirely different.

Image: blog.8bit.io

Image: blog.8bit.io

Okay, so I can get on board with that. An author has a right to do whatever she likes to her characters, yes? Yes.

But then, we have Rue. A character who I liked, because he was strong and brave and loyal; a character whose human-seeming inhumanness did, to be honest, unnerve me a little. But, it’s also true to say that he’s a character whose actions, when he’s in the Arclight, make no sense – unless, of course, you guess at one of the novel’s major plot twists, and then things start to fall into place. Sadly, Rue’s actions mean that guessing at the aforesaid major plot twist becomes too easy, and – in essence – reading about his illogical insistence on Marina accompanying him through the Arclight compound when he’s more than strong and capable enough to do it by himself gives a Huge Giant Hint as to what the truth behind their relationship is. I thought that was a shame. To me, it was a major signpost toward the novel’s conclusion, and it sort of ruined the big reveal.

I also have major problems with the backstory between the humans and the Fade. If even half of what the novel says about the Fade, and what they’ve done to humanity, is true (within the story world), then the whole book makes me profoundly uneasy. As ‘Arclight’ progresses, and we learn more about the Fade and how they operate, the overall question in my mind was ‘why?’ Why did they choose this particular course of action, why would an organism develop or evolve in quite the way they have, and why – why now – do they want to interact with the humans? Most importantly, I found myself asking: ‘what exactly are the Fade?’ It’s explained, sort of, but I’m not sure I fully understood that explanation. It was pleasingly SF-lite, with mention of futuristic cures for disease and the perennial ‘man tinkers with nature, and nature bites back’, which never fails to deliver, but even still. I was left with a very confused idea about this species at the end of the novel. Then, this book is the first in a series, so perhaps the story of the Fade will be dealt with more fully in future volumes.

Anyway.

There were good bits to this book, too. There were some scenes I did enjoy, and there are passages which are exceptionally well-written. A scene near the end of the book when an unexpected person saves Marina from danger is touching, and I was intrigued by the character of Rue who, despite his courage and loyalty, has touches of cruelty too; he makes a nice change from the flat and bland Tobin (the other male lead – one female lead and two male, I’m sure you can see where we’re going with this one.) I enjoyed reading about Marina’s sparky best friend Anne-Marie and her family, and I sympathised with Marina’s essential problem – which world to belong to, which identity to cleave to, which family to choose – and her need to find a way to grow up into the person she’s supposed to be without denying her past.

But, overall, ‘Arclight’ left me confused, and bequeathed unto me a headache. It wasn’t a bad book, as such, but it reminded me of a freshly-plastered wall which hadn’t yet been smoothed over. It had everything a great YA book needed, but it all seemed jumbled and spiky and hard to enjoy.

Has anyone else tried this one? If so, what did I miss?

A Milestone Note, and a Book Review

Good morning!

So, this morning I awoke to find that my blog had ticked over the 10,000 hit mark while I slept. Also, I’d gained a few new followers on Twitter, bringing me to over 600.

Image: last.fm

Image: last.fm

Of course, I am aware that Twitter is a nebulous and quicksilver thing, wherein you lose followers as quickly as you gain them (more quickly, in some cases); I’m pleased to have reached another milestone, all the same. I’m happier, though, to know that my blog has had north of 10,000 hits since it first came online last August, and for that I have nobody but you guys – my lovely readers – to thank.

Image: gulfshoressteven.wordpress.com

Image: gulfshoressteven.wordpress.com

It’s amazing to think how frightened I was of beginning this blog. I was excited and happy about it, too, but mainly I was terrified. I could never have imagined how much happiness it has brought me, and how useful it has been, in so many ways. Thank you to everyone who’s helped it, and me, to go from strength to strength.

And now, as I am wont to do on Saturdays, shall we have a little book review? Let’s.

I’ve been wondering whether or not to do a review of the following book. I wondered if I was brave enough. Then, of course, I woke up and saw all the wonderful milestone-y stuff I mentioned above, and realised: Yes. I can do this. For this book, friends, is the one I mentioned a few posts ago, the one which took as its core concept an idea which I had also had, many years ago, and hadn’t been clever enough to put out into the world.

That book is ‘Crewel’, by Gennifer Albin.

Image: wordchasing.com

Image: wordchasing.com

I’ll say at the outset that I liked this book, but there were some problems with it. The idea at its heart – that the whole world (Arras) can be ‘woven’, the threads of its matter and time manipulated as though they were fabric being woven on a loom – is the idea I also had, many years ago, and had started writing a story about. The world I’d imagined differed vastly from the one Albin imagines here, and it was fascinating for me to see where she took the idea. Her world is one in which the sexes are segregated until the late teens, at which time most people are expected to marry (without any real ‘courtship’ or any sort of gentle introduction to adult life), where there are particular jobs for men and women (I don’t need to tell you which gender gets short shrift!), where women have to conform to both purity and aesthetic standards, and life in general is very circumscribed.

Then, there are women like Adelice Lewys, Albin’s protagonist. Adelice is a girl who is gifted with the ability to see the weave, and to manipulate it. She has been coached all her life by her parents to hide this ability, because they do not want her to be taken away and trained as a Spinster (the name given to a girl or woman with this ability to see the weave), never to come home to them again. The life of a Spinster is painted as a good one, full of comfort, luxury and freedom – most girls strive for it – but, of course, it’s not as straightforward as that. Adelice messes up her test, passes it by mistake, and gets abducted in the middle of the night. She gets taken to the Coventry, the training ground for future Spinsters, and thrust straight into the intrigue at the heart of her world.

There’s lots to like about this book. I loved the title, for a start – a play on the word ‘cruel’, and a reference to a type of weaving technique (crewelling). I liked Adelice, I liked her family – especially her bubble-headed, lovable, cutely childish sister Amie – and I liked the idea of the Coventry (or ‘Coventries’, as there are four of them), a cross between a convent, as Spinsters are expected to be (officially) celibate, and a quasi-military command centre. I (obviously) love the central idea of the matter of a world being woven, and the weaver having ultimate control over the ‘threads’ of life, able to rip people out of the pattern if they misbehave, or weave in new life wherever they wish. I enjoyed the way Albin uses this idea to examine notions of power, freedom and cruelty, and how easy it can be for those in power to misuse that power.

I liked, also, that she explored ideas of ‘otherness’ – there are a pair of instructors in Adelice’s Coventry who have an unconventional and (in this world) illegal relationship. One of them is ‘remapped’, or has her memory and personality wiped, in order to quell her feelings for her partner, which leads to heartache and horror. The relationships between the girls in the Coventry is interesting; we see bullying and cliques forming, and we notice how easy it is for people who are disenfranchised to start turning on one another, exerting whatever control they can within the straitened reality of their lives. One of these characters, Pryana, is a little too simplistic for my liking; some of her actions and thought processes seem completely irrational and silly, and that annoyed me. But, perhaps there are women like her in institutions like the Coventry, with minds driven mad by fear and a desire to please, and the need to survive.

Now, for the things I didn’t enjoy so much. Firstly, the idea of Adelice’s kidnapping in the middle of the night, and the damage done to her family in the attempt to extract her. If being a Spinster is such a prestigious thing, and every family in the world wants their daughter to have this life of privilege, why do they come in the middle of the night to abduct the girls and bring them to the Coventries? I thought that was strange. I also found Albin’s descriptions of the weave, and the ways in which the Spinsters can manipulate it, very hard to imagine – and I’m speaking as a person who spent years visualising a very similar world! I understand the concept she’s using, and I get the idea of people and buildings and places and lives being akin to threads, vulnerable and prone to damage or ‘ripping’ by a Spinster, and totally under the control of the one who weaves; but in that case, how do Adelice’s parents harbour rebellious thoughts? How does anyone, if they’re all being ‘woven’, including their thought processes and minds? Perhaps this will be explained in a future book. I also found the end of the book confusing and hard to visualise; it also felt ‘rushed’ and a little too convenient.

I’m not even going to start on the love triangle between Adelice, Jost and Erik, and the relationship between the two boys (which I saw coming a mile off); that whole thing really irritated me. I felt it was unnecessary – unless, of course, it’s going to become a vital plot thread (no pun intended) in a future book in the series. Please, YA authors – enough with the love triangles, the instant attraction, the floppy fringes and the lopsided grins. Please?

So, overall, I’d recommend ‘Crewel’ as a good read. It’s quick and enjoyable and interesting, and sets itself up well for its sequel. It’s not perfect, but then what book is?

That’s a good question, actually. Is there such a thing as a perfect book?

Tune in next week to find out… Happy weekend, everyone!

The Power of Love

I should just have stayed in bed this morning. I’ve been sitting staring at a blank screen for nearly two hours, trying to find a way to start this post – which, in a way, is sort of fitting, because today I want to write a little bit about my protagonist’s love life, and about love relationships in YA fiction generally. My character’s sixteen, so it makes sense, of sorts, that I can’t find a proper foothold on my words regarding her romantic life – because, when I was sixteen, I had as much knowledge of boy-girl relationships as I had about nuclear physics.

Picture of Nerdy Girl

I knew a lot about unrequited love, sure, and doomed, pointless, overblown, tearful dramatics; it was a painful time for me, in so many ways. I spent years convinced I’d never be loved, and I spent years wondering what was so wrong with me that nobody would even ask me to dance at a disco, let alone ask me out on a date (Not that we really ‘date’ in Ireland – it’s more like drink-fuelled combat). It would never, of course, have occurred to me to ask someone out on a date myself – when I was sixteen, the only tones permitted for use when speaking to a boy were utter disdain or raging sarcasm.* I could never quite manage to work out how other people managed to arrange to see each other romantically, when all they were able to do was hurl abuse at one another. At least I had the benefit of attending a mixed school, so boys were a part of my daily life from the age of thirteen or so. Well, they were a part of my daily life the same way that watching nature programmes on TV makes gorillas a part of your daily life; they were there, but untouchable – and, sometimes, a bit terrifying. Despite this, I’m glad I had the opportunity to get to know how to deal with male people on an everyday basis, as it proved useful in college and life. Somewhat useful, at least – I did manage to ask someone on a date when I was in college, as a postgraduate, actually, and it was a total disaster. At least I had the guts to try by then, though.

But there you have it – a potted history of my early love life. Not a lot to go on, really.

From my perspective now, as a (very) happily married (approaching) middle-aged person, the pain of my teenage rejections has largely faded, though of course I’ll never forget it. I can see now how much it shaped my character, and how not being seen as ‘dateable’ in school meant I learned to make friends with boys and appreciate them as people. In a strange way, I’m almost glad of it; I think the person I am now owes a lot to my teenage travails. My protagonist is quite different, insofar as she’s had a somewhat sheltered upbringing and hasn’t had a lot of contact with boys, besides her immediate family. She has no idea, at first, how to react when she meets a boy she’s not related to – due to the nature of their meeting, there’s a bit of fear there, but once her shock wears off she soon starts treating him just as another person. There’s no coquette about my protagonist, which I admire. Nothing gets my goat more when reading YA literature than encountering a previously strong, intelligent heroine who goes all giggly when a boy turns up, or who suddenly starts fretting about how she looks.  My character takes this strange boy at face value, and doesn’t even notice when he starts to warm towards her.

I’ve read a bit of criticism of YA books, and how love relationships are generally treated (just to make sure I wasn’t falling into any cliche-traps), and I learned lots about ‘insta-love’ and how much love triangles are abhorred by readers. Well, I don’t have any love triangles in my WiP, because they annoy me too, and I’m doing my best to avoid the ‘insta-love’ trap, where an author decides that two characters will fall in love without any real reason. I’ve read reviews of books which have decried the author’s decision to have the male lead fall in love with the female lead, just because it serves the story and not because there are any really lovable or admirable traits about the female character, nor any real attraction or chemistry between the pair, or any logical reason why they would fall for one another. It’s just love for the sake of it, which is something I want to avoid. I hope I’ve created a character in my protagonist who displays strength, courage, intelligence and self-confidence, who has bravery and integrity in spades, and who is easy to admire and love. It’s difficult, though, when you’re writing a story in the first person, because obviously we see everything from the character’s point of view. Her feelings about the male character are clouded and confused at first, because she doesn’t know what to make of them, and she ignores her thoughts in relation to him because they don’t make sense to her. Writing a love relationship like this is difficult, but all I have to do is remember my own confusion about love at that age, and it becomes a bit easier. I just wish I’d had my protagonist’s self-possession!

I’d be interested to know if anyone else has encountered similar issues in their characterisation – how do you deal with ‘awkward’ things like sexuality, romance, family issues and so on with your characters? Do you base their reactions on your own life history, or is it more a case of using your imagination? And does your choice of narrative voice help or hinder you?

 

 

*Not really. You were also allowed to talk to boys about music, cars and football, if you knew your stuff. For this, you could adopt a normal voice. I guess the dating stuff got mixed up in the football and music talk, but it will forever be a mystery to me!