The Toll

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Neal Shusterman
Genres: Science-fiction
Pub. date: Nov. 2019 (read Dec. 2019)
Series: Arc of a Scythe #3

Oh boy, this book. Holly Black’s Cruel Prince trilogy and Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Sycthe trilogy both concluded around the same time and I read them one after the other. I had mixed feelings about all the previous books in both series. I liked them, but didn’t love them. While Holly Black’s conclusion totally shocked me in the best possible way, Neal Shusterman’s conclusion had the opposite effect.

I would actually give the edge to Shusterman’s first book over Black’s because while I also find his writing style kind of boring, his plot had a lot of depth and the first book made me think a lot about humanity, death, technology, and AI. While I’m fuzzy on the details of Thunderhead now (except for that crazy cliffhanger ending), it also raised a lot of interesting social commentary about different ways of thinking and how prejudice and power can corrupt and turn people against one another.

I thought Shusterman lost all of this in The Toll. This book was super long and inspired no critical thought from me. I don’t really understand why the Thunderhead decided to mark everyone as unsavoury and keep it that way and I felt like Shusterman totally abandoned his themes about AI and how involved they are in our life. The Thunderhead starts to become a sentient being, but I feel like it’s not really discussed in the book the impact that would have if our robots suddenly started feeling and how unlikely it is that society could recover from all-knowing robots suddenly having the ability to feel.

I felt like the plot totally went off the rails, with Shusterman trying to make this more of a blockbuster action story rather than the thoughtful, scary dystopian world he created in the first book. I also recently finished reading the Golden Compass series and I had similar thoughts about Philip Pullman’s final book in that both authors completely lost the subtlety of the first two books, which made for a much less interesting or impactful read. I felt like this book was self indulgent. The plot didn’t feel at all clever because nothing ever seemed to link together. While all our main characters do eventually end up in the same place, I felt like I was reading separate and unrelated storylines the entire book. Plus like, what was actually the point of it all?

SPOILERS AHEAD
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Honestly, the ending was just a huge disappointment for me. I feel like Shusterman avoided actually dealing with the monster he created in Goddard and I felt like it was cheap to just get rid of him with a random “fail safe” that basically just killed off all the scythes. Shusterman just used space travel to avoid the whole trauma of how you deal with death in a society that can no longer die. It was disappointing. I wanted a different kind of showdown between the new order scythes and the old order that better represented how the general population would feel about the whole thing. The general population would still hugely outnumber scythes and I would have like to see more of a revolution from them. The Thunderhead marked everyone unsavoury – I feel like they would be pissed off and revolt. Plus the whole idea of new vs. the old and different trains of thought leading to extremism is so relevant to our society today, I would really have liked to see these themes developed in a way that was more relatable than space travel.

Anyways, this was never my favourite series, but I’m impressed that I actually saw it through when I’ve since given up on better fantasy series. Overall, a very disappointing ending and I’m relieved to just be done with it.

Recursion

Rating:
Author: Blake Crouch
Genres: Science fiction, Thriller
Pub. date: Jun. 2019 (read Oct. 2019)

Okay, I need to get my thoughts down about this book before I start to forget them! Recursion was my book club’s pick for October and I was pretty excited to read it because we also read Dark Matter together a few years ago and all really liked it. I really hadn’t wanted to read Dark Matter, but I ended up loving it, so I was cautiously optimistic about Recursion.

I am going to have to give the edge to Dark Matter, but Recursion takes you along the same wild ride as Dark Matter does. Crouch writes this really interesting blend of sci-fi and thriller, which I think works really well. His plotlines are totally f-ed up, but embody everything that makes for a great I-cant-put-this-book-down read. They have lots of mind-bending science and crazy plot twists, but also maintain a nice balance of emotional depth and characterization. It’s easy to get caught up in the science, but Crouch always grounds his characters through their relationships and it makes for a much more compelling read.

I think it’s best to go into Dark Matter and Recursion blind, but if you want a small synopsis, Recursion basically looks at memory functions – how we remember (or don’t remember) things and how those memories impact our personal well being and understanding of time. What would happen if we could record and map our memories? Would it help people who suffer from diseases like Alzheimer’s, or does it have the potential to completely warp our sense of time and space.

I did really like this book – it has a strong start, it’s very engaging, and it’s definitely hard to put down. But I ultimately decided to give it 3 stars instead of 4 because I struggled with the last third of the plot, which I found numbingly repetitive, and I thought the ending had some major plot holes.

But that’s all I’ll say about that for now. For the rest of this review, I’m going to have to get into some spoilers. I have a lot of thoughts about the ending and I’m hoping that other readers (or my book club) might be able to clear up some of my questions, but if you haven’t read the book and are planning to, definitely tap out of this review now. Major spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned!

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So here’s where I struggled with this book. I thought it had great pacing during the first half, but the more messed up everything got with the chair, the less interested I got. The world ending time loop at the end was a nightmare and it just went on forever. It gave me anxiety while also being super long and boring. You could tell Helena was taking the total wrong approach to ending the time loop and with every reset I was counting how much older she was getting and just kept finding it less and less believable that she would be able to live the same life over so many times without losing her mind. By my count she was like 282 years old when she finally died!! As someone who has not even yet reached the age of 33 (the length of the time loop), I found it hard to fathom reliving your life for that long. I thought it was realistic that she finally just passed away from sheer mental exhaustion, but it was a little annoying to have Barry then come in less than a year later and solve everything. Helena was the hero of this story for me and it was really annoying to watch stupid Barry take all her glory.

Fellow readers, I need your help in understanding the ending, because to my mind it has some serious flaws. Here’s all my issues:

1. How did Barry just go back to a dead memory? Going to a dead memory killed the original test subject (forget his name), so why was Barry able to do it? I feel like this should have been explained.

2. On that note, when the first guy died from going to a dead memory he had this wonderful experience where he went to heaven (or whatever you want to call it), which was enough to make him kill himself later, how come no one else had this experience in their many deaths?

3. Barry basically solved the time loop by going back to the original timeline and stopping Helena from dying, which is what started Slade’s obsession with the chair, but I don’t see how this was any different than Helena going back to the age of 16? She was always returning to that time because it was still part of her original timeline, but the fake memories would always still catch up with everyone later. Wouldn’t the fake memories still catch up with everyone in Barry’s original timeline?

4. Or does the memories not catching up have to do with the fact that Barry is springing off of a dead timeline? I don’t really get why that would matter though, I guess the fake memories from the other timelines haven’t been created when you launch off a dead timeline, but it still begs the question, how did Barry return to a dead timeline?

5. What happened to Helena’s memories from her original timeline – the one where she worked for the R&D company? Slade apparently kills her for the first time in 2018, but I don’t remember her ever gaining those memories?

I think that mostly sums it up. But like I said, it was kind of disappointing to see Barry solve the problem, especially when Slade tells us that Helena originally figured it out and then he reset her memories (which also doesn’t make sense, she would have got those memories back n’est pas?) Or did she not get the memories back because Slade went back to a dead timeline? That would make sense actually, maybe that is the answer to why she never remembers Slade killing her either? I guess I will go with the answer that previous memories don’t catch up with you in a dead timeline, which would explain a lot of my confusion and questions 3-5, but still raises the question of how you travel to a dead timeline?

Anyways, this helped me sort through my thoughts, but still doesn’t change my rating. Crazy action doesn’t always make your story compelling and I just didn’t find the last third of this book compelling. But I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts on the ending and all the plot twists! Am I right about the dead memories thing? Do you have the answer to any of my other questions? Would love to know what everyone else thought!

The Grace Year

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: Kim Liggett
Genres: Sci-fi, Dystopian, Young Adult
Pub. date: Oct. 8, 2019 (read in July 2019)

Special thanks to Netgalley and Wednesday Books for providing me with a free advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

I was halfway through this when I had to set it aside to read my book club pick for the month, No Exit by Taylor Adams. Both of these books are f***ed and I feel like I’ve been so anxious for the last two weeks because of it.

Both of these books succeeded in racking up my blood pressure, but that’s about where the comparisons end. No Exit was not a good book, this was.

The Grace Year is dystopian fiction about a society that believes women have a powerful magic that they grow into when they get their first period and that they must be sent away for a year to burn off that magic before they can be welcomed back into the community as wives. It’s a total wild ride that had me enthralled from the very beginning. It’s a dark read with a lot of violence, but unlike some other books I’ve read, the violence achieves something. Liggett uses that violence to make powerful social commentary on the roles of women in society, the way we treat one another, and how things could be different.

The Grace Year refers to the year when the girls are sent away to live in the woods and burn off their magic. The society is very much controlled by men who believes women need to be punished for Eve’s original sins. The Grace Year is never spoken about in the community, but is a grim time in every women’s life. Many come back missing body parts or emotionally scarred, and that’s just the girls that return. Many never return and are instead taken by poachers who harvest their body parts because the community believes in the medicinal properties of the dead girls magic.

While all the other girls are concerned with landing a husband before their grace year, Tierney is perfectly content to labour in the fields when she returns, not wanting the be controlled by a man. But once the girls begin their grace year and discover the freedom they have for the first time in their lives, they start to turn on one another and realize the real danger is not the poachers, but the pain they will inflict on one another.

It’s a dark book and I did struggle with it at some points, but like I said, I think the violence serves a purpose in this book, which is why I was able to read through it. Liggett has an interesting writing style and the book itself has a really interesting structure. The girls take out their frustrations on one another because they’ve never been allowed to express emotion before or learned healthy ways to deal with their anger. They have allowed the men to control them for so long that they’ve completely lost any sense of compassion and have never experienced the beauty of female friendship and empathy.

Liggett keeps us guessing throughout the novel and I thought she did a great job with world building. At first things are a little confusing, but the confusion makes it more engaging because you don’t really understand the terrors lurking in the woods or why they exist. The narrative doesn’t follow the traditional storytelling structure, yet the concept of moving through the seasons of the grace year provides enough structure to guide us through the story.

I’m not sure if this is meant to be a standalone or not. I went into it thinking it was a standalone, but now I think it could go either way. It still works as a standalone, but I could also see the author expanding the story. There’s lots of room to continue developing the ideas of this book, but sometimes it’s not needed. The ending is ambiguous and I kind of like it that way.

The Grace Year will be available in stores Oct. 8, 2019.

Wildcard

Rating: .5
Author: Marie Lu
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pub date: Sep. 2018 (read Dec. 2018)
Series: Warcross #2

I read this book on my way home for the holidays and I fear I may have waited too long to review it. I’m already starting to forget parts of this, but I will do my best to review.

Warcross really surprised me last year and ended up being one of my favourite books of the year. Sci-fi is not my favourite genre and I did not like Marie Lu’s Young Elites trilogy, so I didn’t expect to like Warcross, but ended up falling in love with this vibrant and futuristic version of Japan. Sadly I hadn’t heard great things about Wildcard, but I tried to go into it with an open mind.

I thought Wildcard had a pretty strong start. It jumps right back into the action and I was really excited to be re-introduced to the Phoenix Riders and Emika’s world. There is a strong mystery element in Wildcard and you really don’t know who you can trust, so I was definitely intrigued.

Sadly though, Wildcard was not able to live up to the world Marie Lu created in Warcross and I felt it started to buckle under the weight of the plot and the lack of character development. I love a good fast paced plot – and despite everything else, this plot remained fast paced throughout the entirety of the book – but I felt that Lu abandoned a lot of the characters and character development from the first book in favour of new characters and it caused this one to just fall flat.

In Warcross, Emika struggles in trusting her teammates. She is used to working as a lone wolf and takes a lot of pressure and responsibility upon herself. Her teammates want to help and she eventually learns to trust them and realizes that being part of a team is better than operating alone. While the Phoenix Riders are still present in this book, I felt they weren’t integral to the plot and much of the book focuses on Emika and Zero. I liked that Emika made a new girlfriend in this book (I’m sorry you guys, I literally can’t remember her name!! Zero’s second, can anyone help me out here?!), but I really wanted to see more development of the characters we were introduced to in the first book and the Warcross world, but this was really Hideo and Zero’s party and I thought Emika struggle to carry the story.

Where Wildcard lost me was in the plot. I think Marie Lu made this too technical and tried to throw in way too many plot twists. I’ll admit, she got me on a lot of them, but I felt the plot got way too convoluted towards the end that I just kind of tapped out on the book. Warcross introduced this really interesting VR world that I could totally see happening within my lifetime. Lu introduced a lot of thought-provoking moral issues like is it justified to remove people’s freewill in order to completely eliminate crime? I thought there were a lot of interesting ethical questions to explore in this book, but I think Lu sacrificed this development in the interest of writing more action, which really did a disservice to the world she created. It’s a resounding YES that Hideo’s technology to eliminate crime was a bad idea, but we never really explored the benefits and consequences of his algorithm and jumped right to the need to destroy it.

There was so much action in this book, and yet, I was kind of bored. The entire last 30% of the book is just one extended action scene with very limited character development. I stopped caring about the Phoenix Riders and I thought Emika added very little to the development of the story. This really became more about Zero and Hideo and even though there was a lot of action, things started to feel a bit repetitive. I like a good plot, but for me, stories are always first and foremost about the characters. A book needs a good plot to move the characters forward, but I would never sacrifice development for action. I wanted to think about the ethics of a VR world and how to integrate morality with technology, but I guess Lu just wanted to deliver a fast-paced action novel. She delivered on the action, but I’m not sure why I should care about it.

Vengeful

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genres: Science Fiction
Pub date: Sep. 2018 (read Nov. 2018)
Series: Villains #2

I didn’t think it was possible, but Vengeful is like 5 times nastier than Vicious! Our favourite characters are back, along with some new ones, and they are out for vengeance. This book had an interesting dynamic in that I would say the new characters were actually more interesting than the existing characters. Vicious explores that line between good and evil and whether your intent impacts the morality of your actions. It became very clear in Vicious that both Victor and Eli were bad people. They make really bad decisions, resulting in horrific consequences, and they don’t even feel bad for it. Eli is driven by his belief that EO’s are inherently wrong and that it is his duty to remove them to protect innocents. In contrast, Victor is motivated to get rid of Eli to protect EO’s, but also for his own personal form of revenge. Both are dangerous men who commit evil deeds, but somehow Schwab still gets you to care about them.

Vengeful introduces two new main characters, Marcella and June. June is really interesting because she is a but of a mystery and we don’t even really know what her motivations are, yet we still cheer for her despite all the bad things she does. Marcella is more straightforward and makes for a deliciously evil character. She is straight up driven by selfish motivations, yet they are born out of a lifetime of being a woman and being constantly pushed to the side. Power has always belonged to men and they don’t want to give it up, but when Marcella gains some truly horrifying abilities, she is finally poised to take power for herself. Her intent and her actions are evil and you know she really does need to be taken out, yet a part of you still really wants to see her succeed in her bid for power. To finally take what has been denied to her gender for so long.

So I was really into the new characters and how Schwab constantly makes you evaluate your feelings for these characters. Victor kills so many people in this book to protect his anonymity that it became hard to see the good in him, whereas Eli’s experience in EON is so horrible that I really wanted him to escape, despite how dangerous I know him to be. I also liked Sydney’s development in this book. She struggles with the realities of her sister’s death and clings to a hope that she might one day be able to bring her back. She’s a growing girl stuck living with two grown men, and she’s stuck in a body that no longer reflects how she feels on the inside. I love Sidney’s relationship with Mitch and I loved him just as much in this book as I did in Vicious, but I felt he could have been developed a little bit more.

Overall though, I don’t think this was quite as strong as Vicious and I do have some criticisms. I thought the disjointed structure worked well in the last book, but this book was so long (too long), that I don’t think it worked as well in this one. Vicious really only switched between the present and 10 years ago, whereas Vengeful had a running 5 years of plot that it was constantly moving between. it got a bit confusing and it took pretty much the entire book for the plot to finally reach present day, which I found frustrating. Overall I didn’t think the plotting was as strong. Honestly, Victor’s story was extremely repetitive and I didn’t feel invested in it at all, plus it never really had a conclusion. Eli’s storyline was stronger, but overall I don’t think Victor and Eli carried this book. It was really carried by the other characters.

Mostly I just wasn’t sure what the plot was. We never really know what Marcella is plotting and it took a long time to finally figure out where the story was going. Victor’s entire story felt like the beginning of a story arc. Like I kept waiting for him to figure shit out so that the story could move on, but it just never happened and I felt like he didn’t really have a story arc at all. So overall, I thought the characterization and themes were really strong, but something about the plotting just seemed lacking. I still really liked it and the conclusion was pretty open-ended, so you never know, we might be getting a third book out of this.