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.

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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.

Vicious

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genres: Science Fiction
Pub date: Sep. 2013 (read Nov. 2018)
Series: Villains #1

I have a weird relationship with Victoria Schwab. I really liked her Darker Shades of Magic trilogy, but for some reason it took me absolutely forever to read. I still don’t know if it was just bad timing and I was really busy, or if it the story was somehow slow paced (despite not being slow paced). I know, it sounds weird, but it took me forever to get into the books.

Then I read Our Savage Song, which is the first book in her duology, and I just didn’t feel it at all. I think I gave it 3 stars at the time, but in retrospect I was very uninspired by the book and decided to abandon the series without reading the second one. Vicious sounds a lot different than her other books though, and I’ve heard lots of people say they like it even better than the darker shades trilogy (high praise indeed!), so I was curious to pick it up.

Vicious was totally different from what I was expecting, but I can absolutely see why people like it so much. I was enthralled with the story from start to finish. The plot was mildly confusing at first with the jumping back and forth in time, but I definitely could never accuse this book of being slow paced. I don’t know what I was expecting from Vicious, but it wasn’t a story about near death experiences gone wrong. Plus it was extremely Vicious, which I know, I know, it’s baked right into the title, but the story was a lot nastier than I was expecting and I loved it.

I thought the plotting was fantastic. I think the jumping back and forth between timelines worked really well in this story and I liked how the story felt like it was split in two. The first half is really Victor and Eli’s origin story. To give you a quick synopsis, this is basically the story of two college roommates who do their thesis on EO’s – people with ExtraOrdinary powers. But through the course of their studies, things go horribly wrong and the two students end up as enemies. The first half of the book is very much the science of their studies and how things go so horribly wrong between them, whereas the second half is much more action oriented with both men trying to get revenge on each other.

I thought the world building was fantastic in explaining where EO’s come from and all the different superpowers the characters have are really interesting. The characters were also fantastic and I loved Victor’s little ersatz family with Mitch and Sidney. Eli and Serena were great antagonists and I loved how clever the story was. That Schwab makes you really care about some pretty broken characters who make questionable, and often bad, decisions.

The Humans

Rating: ⭐.5
Author: Matt Haig
Genres: Science Fiction
Pub Date: May 2013 (Read Apr. 2018)

I have mixed feelings about this book. The author definitely provided some interesting social commentary on humans and some of our eccentricities and social norms, but I thought the story was flawed and there were a lot of things that bothered me.

The Humans is a sci-fi novel very reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ writing. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy isn’t one of my favs, but I did appreciate some of the humour in this book. The book starts with an alien who has taken over the body of professor Andrew Martin. Martin worked at Cambridge University as a mathematician and had a breakthrough in his work with prime numbers that could have changed everything for humans and greatly accelerated their technological advancements. The aliens are apparently threatened by this and send an unnamed alien to inhabit Martin’s body and destroy all evidence of his discovery (and anyone he might have told).

The alien is confident in his mission, but he quickly becomes baffled by humans and their emotions and begins to develop feelings for Andrew’s wife and son. He had thought the humans were a primitive race and is confused by many of their social norms and customs, but he starts to learn there are more to humans than meets the eye and that their ability to love and care for one another is actually one of their greatest strengths.

Like I said, this did have some interesting social commentary and made me think about how odd we can actually be. Humour is an effective way to highlight shortcomings and I thought the author did this well. But I just got so hung up on some of the inconsistencies in this book that I couldn’t love it. Minor spoilers below.

First of all, why do the aliens care about earth at all? They live a million light years away and I couldn’t understand why they would care if earth started to become more advanced. I kind of pictured things like star trek, but where humans are the primitive species that hasn’t yet progressed enough to be invited to join the federation, so the rest of the galaxy just leaves us to our ignorance. If there’s so many galaxies and other life forms, I don’t see what the big deal would be with earth advancing. We’d probably just accelerate the destruction of the planet knowing humans. So I thought the story was incredibly flawed for this reason.

Second, there were too many inconsistencies in what part of our culture the alien just inherently understood and didn’t understand. He can extrapolate the entire english language from one reading of Cosmo magazine, but he doesn’t understand why it might be imperative that he find himself some clothes so as not to draw attention to himself? Likewise, he knows to hit up a bar to drown his sorrows in alcohol, but he doesn’t understand that infidelity is not an acceptable thing? He read Cosmo! He should know better!

I get the whole not understanding emotions, but I feel like the author was just picking and choosing what would make sense to this alien to try and make the points he wanted to make. I was too frustrated by what was the point of it all to be enamoured with the author’s writing and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief that the alien would adapt to earth so quickly. If this alien came from a race without emotions, would he really start to develop emotions so quickly? Wouldn’t he be more like the vulcans and just not understand emotion at all? And don’t get me started on the “advice to a human” chapter. I’m sorry, but this was one giant eye-roll for me. This alien has been on the planet for like 2 weeks, no way he understands complex human emotions or is able to offer any meaningful insight about it that writers, artists, philosophers, and psychologists haven’t already observed.

So this wasn’t a win for me, but sci-fi isn’t really my genre. I don’t like being beaten over the head with social commentary and prefer for it to be woven into a story in a more meaningful way. This storytelling was more, ‘I’m going to tell you want’s wrong with humanity and what’s impressive about it’, vs telling me an emotional story that is going to indirectly lead me to the same conclusions. I can understand why some people like this, but overall not for me. Just taking the time to reflect and write this review has already lowered my opinion of this book, but I have a book club meeting about it on Friday, so I’ll see if maybe they can drag me back up on this one. (spoiler: they didn’t)