Book Review: A Million Suns, by Beth Revis

December 7, 2011 at 9:40 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

Note: this is the second book in the trilogy, following Across the Universe. If you have not read the first book, there will be spoilers below. You have been warned.

Things have changed aboard the Godspeed. Eldest is dead. Orion, the previous Elder, is incarcerated in a cryogenic chamber for his murders of frozen military personnel. Elder is technically Eldest now but he’s not the only one questioning his right- or his ability- to lead the ship in a time of crisis. And for Amy, her only chance of ever seeing her parents unfrozen again is to follow a game of clues left behind by a madman. Murder, intrigue, revolt, passions, all hurtle toward a discovery that could tear the ship apart.
Follow the leader.

I was very lucky to be part of an ARC tour for this book. I kept counting the names on the list and trying to figure out how long it would be before it got to me and then it finally did and I….maybe…squealed a little at the mailbox. I don’t necessarily consider myself a science fiction person (which is a little strange because I grew up on Star Trek and Robotech and Ender’s Game) but I LOVE that the genre is starting to get a solid representation in YA.

Pared down to its most basic points, this is a book about contrasts. It’s about the differences in things, in people, in perceptions and how hugely important those things can be. For Elder, the ship has suddenly become a vast world where millions of things can go wrong in the space of a breath. He’s inherited a ship that’s falling apart around him, a system of rule that may not have been right but may have mostly worked until recently, and a constantly frayed temper. Peace and solitude are pipe dreams and hope is just the milli-second between new problems arising. Everyone is looking to him for answers but he has no idea how to go about finding them, or if they’re the right answers, or how to put them into effect if he can convince himself they’re good decisions. Amy, meanwhile, is more alone than ever. The ship closes around her like a tomb, growing smaller with every passing day, and she’s surrounded by an almost overwhelming loneliness. At least half of that loneliness is of her own volition, too. As much as she mourns being the outcast, the ‘freak’ in an otherwise monoethnic society, she deliberately stays away from the other people on the ship. She doesn’t have the answers, but unlike Elder, she has the clues for a scavenger hunt that will show her parts of the ship no one else has even dreamed exist.

It’s more than that, of course. The people on the ship have long been treated like children, every piece of information they were given carefully chosen and censored to feed into an overall atmosphere of productivity and docility. No longer given the drugs that make them passive, suddenly they have an entire world and history to discover. And choices. Behaviors that were kept in check by the drugs are released. Things that have never been questioned before are scrutinized. What evolves from this is sheer chaos.

And I loved it. I loved watching this carefully structured, carefully monitored, carefully controlled society absolutely fall apart in such a short time. Free will isn’t an easy thing and it doesn’t always lead to good results. The Eldest/Elder system has problems, no doubts, but the sudden dissolution of the only system of government they’ve known for generations leaves a vaccuum that others will rush to fill. Those on the ship have never learned anything else, so they’re children playing with dangerous ideas and deadly consequences.

The constant push and pull between Amy and Elder is a steady thread through the story, through all of Elder’s struggles to be a leader and Amy’s quest to learn the truth about what’s happened to the ship. For the most part, it felt very real. For the most part. With that push and pull, there’s a cycle of explosion, sulking, big event, all forgiven, repeat ad infinitum. I would have liked to see them hold on to that anger more, see them have to work together despite/through it. Without that honesty of their anger, without either of them understanding/accepting the source of that anger as problems that need to be addressed, it started to lose some of its impact as it was repeated. Within those many arguments, however, were the foundations of some interesting character details. Specifically, with Amy. For Elder, the anger comes from many sources, mostly from stress with all the problems facing him in trying to run the ship and keep everyone fed and working and alive. His snaps and snarls spring largely from that, and so fades with the weariness that follows the quick bursts of temper. Amy, though, can’t be honest with herself about where her anger is coming from. Part of it is an overall stress reaction but she still hasn’t come to terms with Elder being the one who unfroze her. She snaps and snarls at him over a lot of other pieces, gets frustrated very quickly when he can’t or won’t do something she sees as important- because part of her feels like he owes her that for ruining her life. For putting her in a position where she might never see her parents again. Every time she’s in danger, there’s a part of her that blames Elder for it. And there’s a part of her that hates him for it (or is at least very, very pissed) but because she can’t face that directly, it comes out in a thousand less meaningful explosions. And she does blame him. Even in her own words: “Nothing’s been right since Elder’s fight with me”. Elder’s fight with me. It’s Elder’s fight, Elder’s problem. Elder’s fault. And holding on to that need to blame, holding on to that grudge without actually facing it, makes her more than ever the scared little girl who wants her parents, and like a little girl, things become very black and white. Good and evil, right and wrong, love and hate. There’s no room for scales and what she does she will do with every part of her no matter the consequences, whether that’s a scavenger hunt for secrets that may or may not be truths or hating the man who nearly killed her parents.

Even when they’re gone, Harley and Kayleigh continue to be the most riveting and sympathetic characters. We learn a great deal more about them in this installment, like ghosts without a form. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the phrases I loved most in the book are ones I could imagine Harley painting a scene to, words that hover on the backs of the eyes and paint themselves in more than letters. Both as a piece of writing and a piece of publishing design, there’s a layout of two pages about midway through the book that just took my breath away. In one of the special extras for the YA Scavenger Hunt held the first weekend of December, Beth said she pretty much wrote this book around the phrase “Silence and stars”. When you get there, it’s not hard to understand why. I love the evolution of the rather utilitarian word “frex” from FRX, the Financial Resource Exchange that funded the mission (actually, it rather reminds me of how certain very interesting curse words in our time came about). More than anything what cements how foreign everything is for Amy is how much it means to her when she can share something small, something otherwise insignificant, with someone on the ship, and for just a moment she can pretend like she’s almost home. Like a pinkie promise.

Hands down, though, what kept coming back to me through the entire book, is something Amy says very near the beginning. “I’m the only one who knows what it is to lie in the grass in your backyard and reach up to capture fireflies floating lazily through the stars”. It isn’t just the image of fireflies and stars- which is gorgeous- but the fact that I can remember doing that. My friends next door and I would even bring jars with holes in the lids and we’d catch fireflies so gently and watch our skin glow translucent red like an alien’s for a moment, but then I’d let them go because I couldn’t stand to trap them in the jar. The idea of being the only one among thousands of people with that memory, with the chance to even have that memory or know how the separate pieces could add up to a memory…that’s terrifying to me. And that thought kept coming back to me again and again, each time Amy hid her hair or followed a clue whose context only she could understand.

And, of course, if that’s not enough to make you want to read it, there’s this: Elder without pants.

A Million Suns by Beth Revis, out in stores in hardback and ebook 10 January 2012. Haven’t read Across the Universe yet? Well, that’s rather silly of you to have gone through this entire review then, but you can catch up in hardback, ebook, or a brand new paperback with a totally different (but awesome) cover.

Until next time~

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Book Review: Across the Universe, by Beth Revis

September 28, 2011 at 10:01 am (Book Reviews) (, , , , , )

It wasn’t a simple choice, but the fact of it was supposed to be: Amy would be frozen, stored on the ship Godspeed, and hundreds of years later when they reached their destination, she would be unfrozen and start life with her parents on a new world.
Then she woke up.
And nothing on this ship is as simple as it should be.

Across the Universe is in itself part of a brave new world in teen fiction: science fiction. Aside from the cross-aged Ender’s series, there’s been almost no true sci-fi in YA. Dystopians, contemporaries, straight fantasies, urban fantasies, even steampunk, but very little sci-fi. Now Across the Universe is heading the fleet, joined by books like Glow, A Long, Long Sleep, Tankborn, and others.

This book gives us two narratives: Amy, pre- and post-awakening; and Elder, in training to be the next leader of the Godspeed. They’re both wonderfully naive in their own ways, something that allows for a lot of shocks, a lot of growth, and a lot of change. Amy’s life on Earth focused around running (and just a brief point that I have to admit, really irked me: competitive cross-country runners in serious training for a marathon would not have lush breasts. Just saying.) and her family. She left behind extended family, left behind a boyfriend, to join her parents on their expedition. She is non-essential personnel, brought along mainly because her parents hoped for it, but the choice was hers. Up until the very last moment, her parents made it clear that they would love her no matter her choice. Elder, meanwhile, is set apart from the rest of the crew on the ship by his designation as future leader. He spends a great deal of time with the crotchety Eldest, sneaks time with his friends, and tries to learn the secrets he knows his mentor is keeping from him- which is how he discovers the frozen passengers.

Science-fiction is a worldbuilding experience as intense as any you’ll find in fantasy. Scientific speculation has to mesh with fact and expectation. It’s harder than it sounds. People assume certain things about space, scientifically accurate or not, and no matter how sound the fact, we resist anything that goes against those expectations. At the same time, we don’t want to see something blithely stated that we know for a fact is wrong. Beth Revis does a very good job at juggling those pieces, crafting a world inside the ship that has many, many echoes of our own, but that has evolved into something new through generations of isolation and subtle warping. Think the telephone game with history.

What I really loved about this book was the division between the artistic and the more prosaic. The artists are necessary, but they’re also considered insane, and kept away in a house so as not to bother those who do the more manual labors. Where everyone else in the society is dull and steady, plodding about their tasks, the artists are beautifully, vibrantly alive. There we meet Harley, probably my favorite character, and though we never actually get to meet her, Kayleigh is every bit as strong a presence. Within the confines of the hospital, they’re allowed to paint, to draw, to create, to read, to speculate, all things that set them apart from others, and they’re told they’re sick.

In his collection of essays called Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton holds that insanity is not, in fact, the overabundance of imagination, but rather its profound lack. Insanity is being too firmly wedded to reason. To use his example, a man who thinks he’s a chicken is absolutely convinced he’s a chicken, and there’s no room in his logic (in his reason) for any other possibilities. Sound like the hospital setting? Everyone out in the rest of the ship has a single task and they do it, day in and day out, with no questions, no thoughts, no imagination, simply the facts before them and the reasons it must be done. Meanwhile, the ones in the hospital can imagine, they can wonder where they came from and where they’re going. They can dream about things like a sky, like stars, things that they will never get to see. They can experience the whole range of human emotions.

Mystery weaves through the book, the question of the secrets Eldest’s hiding, the question of who is pulling frozen passengers from their cryo-cells and why, even the question of why they’re hurtling through space for generations at a time. And there are no simple answers. Not for any of these, or the other questions that arise, and there are so many questions that a geek-minded book club could speculate for weeks. Notions like insanity and the neccesity of artistic invention to prevent stagnation. Like genetic identity, personality, and predisposition. Like genetic inheritance. Like the moral implications of DNA modification. Like the ripple effect of history seen through an isolated culture increasinly distanced from context. Science, for all its black and white facts, is an extremely grey area when it comes to moral quandaries, and we get to explore a great deal here. Delicately, carefully, without being told what we need to believe.

And once you get to one hell of a confession at the end, you’ll be glad you only have a few months to wait for its sequel, A Million Suns, out 10 January 2012. Across the Universe is out now in hardcover and e-book, or look for its paperback, with a shiny new cover, out on 29 November 2011.

Until next time~

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