Tag Archives: Divergent

Red Rising: Fantasy Mashup and Bestseller Bonanza

Red-Rising-2

I described Pierce Brown’s Red Rising to C. as a cross between Hunger Games, Divergent and Game of Thrones and then as she was reading the back, she pointed out the same description was on the cover. Probably because it’s an apt way of capturing the plot and theme points. And because I’m a book reviewer genius and the Kirkus Review has nothing on me.

Right… so like the Hunger Games in that we’re set in a dystopian society of stratified classes. Instead of Districts we have Colours (like the Divergent factions) each associated with a different professional role in the Society (capital S on purpose). Like HG the young must do battle with one another in an arena (or sorts) though instead of killing one another the quest is to establish dominance over the land (think Game of Thrones battles, strategy and endless betrayals). It’s a battle within a battle (sort of like Enders Game come to think of it) with our hero – Darrow – working to infiltrate the upper echelon of the Society so he can take it down from the inside and free his people.

There’s some pretty silly bits. In the early chapters Darrow’s realization of his captivity and subsequent awareness of the wider world reads as an obnoxiously similar description of Plato’s cave: like there’s an actual cave and actual fire. There’s a lot of searing pain (think Harry Potter and the interminable descriptions of How Much His Scar Hurts) and teenage hormone.

But these silly parts are endurable for the well-paced plot and the genuine interest and care cultivated for Darrow and his quest (cultivated in no small part in that Darrow is a very well developed character with complex and unpredictable reactions – except when it comes to women, more on that in a minute). I liked reading this one so much I couldn’t wait to order it from the other library and (actually) waited outside the bookstore for it to open this morning so I could get the second installment (it is, of course, a trilogy).

*light spoilers to follow*

I liked reading it even while I was troubled and annoyed with the representation of women. Darrow’s wife, Eo, is a singular martyr and Darrow’s romanticization of her throughout the rest of the book put me off as it made Eo’s entire purpose the inspiration and motivation of her husband-man: “They didn’t create me. She did” (115). His later love interest, Mustang, is more developed as a character, but similarly defined in relation to Darrow: she is a traitor, she is loyal, she is helpful, she is destructive all in terms of what she does to or for him.

A related sticking point is the representation of bodies. The women are – without exception – only loveable or worthy of character development if they also happen to be slight and wispy whiffs of a person: “Though she’s swaddled with wolfcloaks as thick as my own, she hardly comes up to my shoulder. And when we walk through deep snow, it’s almost a laugh to see her try to keep apace with me. But if I slow, I earn a scowl. Her braid bounces as she keeps up [for real. her braid bounces]. When we reach easier ground, she glances over at me. Her pert nose is red as a cheery in the cold, but her eyes look like hot honey” (309-310). Okay, this passage probably won’t make you want to run out and get the book (it really is a fun read and worth checking out). I highlight it because it’s an example of the fragility-made-tough that women are meant to have in the book. And the way our ponytails should bounce. Contrast with the male characters who are worthy of veneration for all kinds of body types and shapes.

All that said it really was a romp of a fun read with Allegory and Importance thrown in for some fun. You could easily enjoy on the beach, a plane or wait until – inevitably – the blockbuster movie comes out (unless you’re in book club, in which case you have to read it because we’re reading it).

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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Yawn

n-k-jemisins-the-hundred-thousand-kingdomsNetflix knows I’m a feminist. Untrue. Netflix knows I like movies and TV shows with “strong female protagonists.” May as well be the same thing. I should probably create that as a category on this blog, too. I do like books with women who are complicated, deep and challenging. I guess because I like reading about nuanced, complex characters and turns out, women are those, too. What I do not like reading are stock ‘strong female protagonists’ you know the sort who have ‘boy-like’ figures and unwieldy curly hair and piercing eyes (you noticed those were all descriptors of appearance, too, huh?). Who are awkward or ungainly, who aren’t supposed to succeed, but do because they are overlooked because of their previously stated ‘unconventional’ appearance. These female characters are confident, they’re independent and yet they end up relying on men (or in this case gods) (see the Divergent series for a great parallel, here, or Twilight for that matter) and don’t see it as reliance (or an abdication of their independence), but as a admission that their fierceness is all exteriority and really they do need help and someone has finally recognized their preciousness. Someone sees them for who they really are. Yawn.

It wasn’t just that The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has one of these stock ‘unconventional’ strong female protagonists (who is secretly not-as-strong-as-she-looks and needs her man). Usually I can accept the character – or the text – on its terms and enjoy other elements, or enjoy the character needing others (because that can be enjoyable, too). But this book was just terrible in so many other ways, too. Woe was me that this was the only book I took on the plane with me (lesson here in packing more than one book in your carry-on. I made the same mistake in only bringing How to Be Both on the flight-there and finished it in the first half of the flight leaving me bookless and bereft – or maybe a lesson in getting an e-reader? but we all know how that ended last time: submerged in the tub).

Anyway, here are the ways it was terrible (in addition to its really sucky protagonist):

Overly and unnecessarily complex world-building: one of the reasons I love fantasy is for reading the way the worlds are constructed and imagined, the elements of magic (and where they appear) the alternate and parallel societal structures and the ways these are played with, the introduction of geography and the effort to situate the reader among these elements. One of the reasons I disliked this book was it made no effort to guide the reader in these elements. It assumed familiarity (to the point I thought maybe I was reading book two in a series) and in consequence overwhelmed this reader with detail, hierarchies, names, relationships and histories. It was too much and not enough all at once.

Inconsequential Plot: The thrust? Some gods have been made ‘slaves’ to a race of people and are being ‘held captive’ in human bodies. Our ‘daring’ female protagonist happens to have a duel soul – sharing her soul with that of one of these gods – only she didn’t know she had this duel soul until the sexy-god-man revealed it to her (yawn). With her duel soul she can emancipate the slaved gods and punish their captors. To do so she’ll be killed (or will she? or will the sexy-god-man save her? you might as well predict the outcome). This plot has potential! Make some connections to social inequality, to racial inequality, to inequality! make connections to forms of violence and oppression. Make the god characters someone I could care about by describing more than their “cavernous dark eyes”. No such luck.

Tired tropes of other characters: Evil step-sister? check. Punishing patriarch? check. Wise woman with potions and herbs? (re: witch) check. Sexy-dangerous lover? (Edward, anyone?) double check.

So yeah, this wasn’t a good book for me. But a bazillion other people seem to really love it (getting both Hugo and Nebula nominations for best book). So… tell me where I’m wrong. I’m willing to change (because, I too, am secretly not-as-confident-as-I-look). Untrue.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Worst Books

Divergent and Insurgent: Reading for Pleasure and Diminishing Returns

reading-for-pleasureSeldom have I been so excited about a book while reading it and then so utterly disappointed by its conclusion. So it was with Vernoica Roth’s *Divergent* and then *Insurgent*. I have no comment on the final book in the trilogy because I won’t be reading it. Why did I bother with the second, you ask? Well, I was so captivated by the first half of *Divergent* that I went and bought the second book and lest I be one to squander my (tiny) book buying budget, I had to read the second out of deference to Not Wasting Book Money. The gap between my enthusiasm and my eventual feeling about the book is hard to retrospectively bridge. That is to say, it’s hard to find something good to say about the series when I now have so many complaints, but I *must* have found something worthy and exciting if I was willing to pay for it (note: I am not library-monogamous, just library-preferential).

So what did I enjoy? The world-building aspects of this series are terrific. Like The Night Circus, the physical space imagined by the novel is captivating. So, too, the initial characterization of Tris (a characterization that takes a decided turn for the wooden and flat as she reacts and acts without any consequence to character development) and her confusion of what and who she is. The mystery elements: where are we in time and space? What kinds of cultural, social, political forces are at work? What’s the allegory here? compel the reader to keep reading with an urgency and a pleasure often misplaced in Literature that wants to slow you down enough to savour each word or sentence.

Reading *Divergent* was certainly an exercise in reading for pleasure. In much of my graduate and undergraduate discussions of literature outside the classroom my peers expressed discomfort or disbelief that “reading for pleasure” might even be possible. Having such extensive training in being critics,  how, they wondered, might it be possible to turn this critical eye “off” long enough to enjoy a book? Trained to say “no” and “but,” (how) could we allow for appreciation and commendation? I suppose I could argue that the two aren’t mutually exclusive: it is possible to find pleasure and retain critical faculties. I think I could also argue that books get read – or we read – with different intents and purposes. That the same book can be read by the same reader with different foci and attention. Putting aside the precision and attention of close reading and allowing – or abdicating? – attention to the pleasures of plot and character might well be possible (I think they are). It’s tempting to be self-depricating and say I was just a poor critic, unable to notice that worth being critical. But I’m not: I’m a good reader. So I suppose it’s an argument for the dialectic: that a reader can take pleasure from a text and simultaneously be aware of its problematic bits. *Divergent* has troublesome politics, Tris and Four have an imbalanced sexual relationship and her gender gets worked out and worked over in disturbing ways, choice and freedom get bizarrely dichotomized against violence and power.

So if it’s true that I could enjoy *Divergent* and still be aware of its problematic politics, when did I stop enjoying it altogether? I’m tempted to say it was when Four’s named turned to Tobias and I stopped being able to remember him as a sexy and mysterious instructor and could only think of him as a predatory creep, but I think it’s more basic: I stopped enjoying *Divergent* and I disliked all of *Insurgent* because the writing was bad. Really, really bad. Written for a movie and without the subtlety to pretend otherwise kind of bad. Written without the attention of an editor bad. Written as if the reader might not have ever read anything else before bad. BAD. Which is not to say that *Insurgent* doesn’t have its share of ideological issues, just that before the reader can start to think about those she has to get past the terrible writing, lack of character development and uninteresting plot. It will make a terrific movie, I’m sure, because it was written to one.

I almost wrote “Avoid both,” but I don’t think I should. *Divergent* is pure pleasure. Read it and enjoy. Just don’t – for the love of God (and boy does Veronica Roth love God – capital G) bother with the second or third.

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Filed under Fiction, Young Adult Fiction