It’s been a while since I last wrote about Deep in Trouble, Cesi’s sequel to Bury’em Deep. A friend of mine inhaled Bury’em Deep recently, and her enthusiasm has reinvigorated mine. It’s also prompted me to revisit the setting and my ideas for how Deep in Trouble would work, and I’ve started making progress again!Continue reading
Category Archives: Books for Kids
Arabella and the Battle of Venus, by David D. Levine
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Arabella of Mars, and I’m glad to say that Arabella and the Battle of Venus lived up to all my expectations and then some. David D. Levine has crafted another excellent adventure story in his science fiction alternate history setting. If you like Regency-era drama, Age of Sail adventure, and historical science fiction, these books will (heh, it’s funny if you’ve read the books) float your boat.
If you took my advice and read and enjoyed the first book (yes, I advise you to enjoy the book), I think you’ve got a safe bet with this one. Arabella and the Battle for Venus is a solid sequel. Reading it was a delight, though I did squirm a little bit (more on that in a moment). It offers another excellent adventure while cleaving to the genres of the first book, and reminds me of the enjoyment I found reading Hornblower books in sixth grade but with altogether more depth… and the promise of additional depth to come.
Now, mild thematic and book jacket-level spoilers.
There is a little more weight lent to the romantic subplot this time around, as one might expect from a story about a young woman racing across a war zone to free her fiancé from a POW camp. I hadn’t expected there to be any other romantic complications, though I should have, and those stressed me out a bit! They’re what made me squirm, maybe for the same reasons rom coms do. I’m still not sure I fully understand that part of myself. But—despite my squirming—I think the book and characters are probably better off for those complications. They help to grow Arabella emotionally from where she started in the first book, and I appreciate that.
I’m going to take a tangent here, weaving back through the first book. I’ll eventually return to this book, and my tangent will have some vague thematic spoilers without hitting any concrete plot points.
My biggest concern with the first book was that it wasn’t clear to me whether Arabella—the character or the books in general—would more clearly confront the colonialism and racism of the setting over the course of the series. The first book had some confrontations with these ”isms,” in fairly constrained contexts, but our point of view character Arabella did not seem fully aware of their pervasiveness or their larger ramifications. Nor did she seem cognizant of the implications of her own life on Mars as an Englishwoman living among Martians.
In short, the Arabella of the first book was convincingly blind to problems that her privilege didn’t require her to face. Honestly, that felt very real. I think it was an understandable writing choice, and a solid one.
Crucially, this is not to say that Arabella was willfully blind or actively in denial. She set herself on the right side of those conflicts when they arose, opposing and loudly disagreeing with racist arguments. But it wasn’t clear whether the later books would also dig into the inherent colonialism of the setting.
So. I hoped, and I read into the titles of the two following books and the jacket blurb of this book (Battle of Venus), and I made some assumptions from my sense of the author. All of that, plus the tonal hints of the first book, encouraged me.
Having finished book two, it looks like I was right to be encouraged. I’m glad to say that Levine does continue to bring these issues to the fore. Problems and disagreements slowly and seamlessly bubble up into Arabella’s awareness through her immediate context. The positions Arabella takes and the solutions she finds all suggest that Levine is continuing this thread of growing Arabella’s awareness of the injustices around her, and that these things will all come to a head soon.
Now, Arabella doesn’t feel especially radical from a modern perspective. Arabella’s positions and opinions—as they’ve developed so far—don’t feel revolutionary. Except… they kind of are.
Arabella has a keenly felt sense of justice. She has a disregard for her society’s gender norms that is heartening to a modern reader and would probably place her at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement in her time, which was (contextually) a pretty damn radical place to be. Her opposition to racism and racist arguments is similarly steadfast, and admirably radical for the time. And that opposition extends to the casual anti-Martian & anti-Venusian racism she encounters, which I think is present to set up for her bigger and more overt confrontation with colonialism in the third book—though that’s merely genre-savvy speculation, since I haven’t read book three yet.
Basically, it looks like Levine has planned all this from the outset, just as I’d hoped. He pulled apart Arabella’s various stages of personal growth and burgeoning awareness into three books, allowing her emotional and political arc to develop across multiple perfectly solid adventure stories. If he’d tried to write this personal arc all in one go, the book would have felt congested and emotionally tumultuous—Arabella’s growth would have felt implausibly rushed and unreal. Instead, because Levine paid attention to spacing this arc out across narrative time and separate books we’re able to enjoy Arabella’s personal growth without ever choking on it.
This is another good example of the dynamic I mentioned in my reflections on Murderbot.
Given all that, I suspect that Levine will stick the landing in book three. I’ll let you know once I’ve finished it.
Okay, that’s enough for now. Like I said at the start, I’m really enjoying these books. Unless those genres I mentioned above sound like torture to you, I suspect you’ll enjoy these books too. Try them out!
Wait, one last thing. Based on his Author’s Note, David Levine finished this book while losing his wife to cancer. Finishing a book is hard enough in good times. I can only imagine that doing so (and doing it well) while experiencing that loss must be tremendously painful and difficult. David, if you read this, thank you for this story. And thank you for persevering to share it with us. May Kate Yule’s memory be a blessing and a comfort for you.
The Golden Enclaves, by Naomi Novik
I’ve deeply enjoyed reading Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series. I’ve recommended it to many people. And now, having finished it, I’m going to recommend it to you again.
This is how I started my review for the first book in the series:
“[W]hat if Harry Potter, but the school is *literally* a death trap full of monsters and there aren’t any adults around to ‘help?’” Add some socioeconomic inequality, teen drama, a pinch of prophecy, and an antisocial and justifiably angry teen girl for a narrator, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Naomi Novik’s A Deadly Education is like.
The Golden Enclaves delivers a solid close to that story. It is the third and final book in the series and—while the book ends with room available for more sequels if Novik changes her mind—the story is definitely concluded here in ways that will satisfy most readers. “Most,” because I know some folks will just want the story to keep going with these characters forever, which I believe is all according to plan for Novik (or at least a feature rather than a bug).
This book does what I wanted it to do. It resolves many hanging plot threads, it answers a series of questions I’d had since the first book, and—maybe most importantly—it dreams up a future in which people are able to make the world a better place, by hook or by crook. It has hope.
*That’s* the bit I’m most impressed by. That hope.
This book is full of a lot of struggle. It’s full of lots of traumatized kids. People die, or are hurt in awful ways.
But it’s hopeful. And it’s not hopeful in the Harry Potter “let’s go back to the world as it was, and pretend that without resolving any of the issues we’ve discovered everything will be fine” kind of way. It’s hopeful in the “let’s do our damndest to make the world a better place, without destroying it in the meantime” kind of way. The whole series has been hopeful like that, but this book really sticks the landing. And I love it for that.
So many YA and YA-adjacent stories are dystopian, and the resolutions to their dystopian problems rarely feel hopeful or real to me. Either the dystopian world remains awful, or the attempted fix doesn’t work, or the fix works but reeks of deus ex machina and only works because the author says it does.
Novik set up a whole bevy of problems in the first two books and made it clear that the world was an unfair and often awful place. She offered (difficult, dangerous) ways for her characters to work around those problems.And this book, like its series as a whole, manages to follow that thread through to the end without either disappointing me with a total lack of plausibility or falling into hopelessness.
Annnnnnd I hadn’t realized until now that I never reviewed The Last Graduate, the second book in this trilogy. That was an oversight. I’m not going to rectify it before I finish this post though, so here goes.
A warning: if you didn’t like El’s voice as the narrator in the first two books, this series might not be for you. Novik was extremely successful with her creation of her narrator’s voice. She does a good job of keeping everything inside El’s head, and of maintaining El’s voice as a consistent thing. Novik also manages to weave her story and world through El’s unreliability as a narrator without leaving us, her readers, totally bereft of clues that El might not be the most objective and reliable observer. I really admire that. It’s one of the things I love about these books. If that bothers you… you’re out of luck. Try a different series.
A separate warning: one of my friends mentioned El knowing or narrating a few things in this book that seemed outside of her scope of knowledge. I didn’t notice those as I was reading—I was quite caught up in the story and may have missed them. You might stub your toe on them though.
I’m not planning to dive deep into the plot of this book, but I will say that reading more will probably spoil you for the previous books with implications if nothing else. I’ll also casually drop in a few spoilers after this paragraph without further warning. If you care about that, I suggest giving the first book a go. I loved all three, I recommend them, and Novik has done a good job of starting this series as she meant to continue it. The series isn’t bereft of twists, but it’s very thematically consistent—if you like the first book you’ll probably like the rest, and vice versa.
The Golden Enclaves picks up precisely where The Last Graduate leaves off. Very precisely. And the rest of the story doesn’t honestly take all that much time as the setting reckons it. There’s a little slow period near the beginning as El tries to recover from her time in the Scholomance (more or less a machine for traumatizing children until they’ve survived hell). But after that, things move a bit faster. And they snowball wildly out of control, as El finds out what’s been going on outside the Scholomance while she and all the other kids were locked in hell.
Despite this—or actually because of it—there’s still plenty of time for Novik to ladle in several more hefty servings of revolution and commentary on inequality, until they become a driving factor of the story. That’s perfect, because it’s part of what I’m here for. She also adds more queerness, as she did in The Last Graduate, but where it felt unforced in The Last Graduate here it feels more like a surprise.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still here for it. I’m glad that Novik added more queerness, I’m glad to see it in this story. And next time I would love to see her do more of that earlier in a series. Having El find out that she’s surprise-bi in book three, however, felt a bit like a curveball given how carefully Novik sets up almost every other story element, like Novik improvised that element where she’d planned all the rest. Or maybe I was too oblivious, because one of my friends was shipping El and Chloe really hard at the end of book one.
Anyways. My words and thoughts are wandering.
If you want to read about wizard revolutions, or about magically obstinate people warping the world around them into a less destructive and more just place, this is for you.
I love this book. I love this series. I recommend them both. I hope that you enjoy them too.
p.s. my partner pointed out that I gushed more about this book in person than I did here, and I’ve made a couple edits following that. Don’t hold my gray brain weather’s bland tone against this series, I really did delight in these books, and in sharing them by reading them aloud to my partner.
Arabella of Mars, by David D Levine
David D. Levine’s Arabella of Mars is an excellent Age of Sail sci-fi adventure story replete with the drama of Regency-era social expectations. It has all the requisite ingredients: imperiled family in need of aid, dangerous shipboard voyages (between planets!), subdued romance, personal rebellion, social maneuvering, and a little bit of marriage. I inhaled this book.
I read perhaps a couple pages on Thursday last week and then spent almost all of Friday devouring the rest of the story. I very wisely did not take the book to bed with me on Thursday night, for which I’m glad. I probably wouldn’t have slept much if I had. As it was, I requested the next two books as soon as I finished on Friday afternoon.
This is the kind of story that I love… and having finished it, I have some concerns. I’ll focus on the things I loved first. Just know that (depending on the course of the next two books in this series) I might have to refile this from “delicious new candy” to “problematic fave“ on account of colonialism.
Also, there are a few things that I’ll cover here which might constitute very mild spoilers. I doubt any of them would surprise someone who’s already familiar with the genres involved, but if you want to avoid spoilers entirely I recommend you skip ahead to the last paragraph.
So. First off, I love the setting.
In the late 1600s, Captain Kidd sailed to Mars. There he explored, met and befriended the bug-like locals, and ultimately sailed back home. There are now human colonies elsewhere in the solar system (including on Mars), and ships which regularly make the voyage from planet to planet across the great rivers of air in between. Clockwork exists and automata are an advanced art, and coal gases are used in great quantities to fill the lift envelopes of airships until they’ve crossed “the falling line”—the elevation high enough for a ship to sail out of a planet’s orbit.
A quibble: I’ve seen this book called steampunk, and I don’t agree. Not yet at least. There are genre similarities, but this story is deeply rooted in the British Regency-era of the Age of Sail. Heck, it’s all set in 1812 or 1813, and the Napoleonic wars are still underway. While certain setting elements overlap with steampunk (clockwork and automata, airships, alternative versions of space) the story has more similarity to Novik’s Temeraire books and other Age of Sail adventures (e.g. C.S. Forester’s Hornblower, or O’Brian’s many naval novels). What’s more, there’s no concern with industrialization or the pressures thereof. So while there’s a little steampunk-ish set dressing, and I can understand using that as a marketing term in 2016 when this book was published, I don’t think it’s accurate.
Back to the setting! Despite the alternate history, social expectations have remained much the same. British Regency Era gender and class conventions are still potent forces, shaping our protagonist Arabella’s world(s). Her taste of something different, what with being raised on Mars by a Martian nanny with very different ideas of gender and class roles, is tantalizing. Levine establishes all of this with admirable efficacy in his quick prologue, setting the stage for the rest of the story and all the conventions that will stymie Arabella in her quest to aid her family.
Actually, I admire Levine’s writing here in general. He’s adopted a markedly period voice, straitlaced and constrained in a way that emphasizes the social restrictions and expectations without sacrificing the feel of personal insight into Arabella’s world. He’s skillful, and it shows. Even when things are predictable (in good, genre-confirming ways) they don’t feel forced.
And, maybe because of all that, this book has lots of fun (mostly quiet) social commentary going for it. Arabella’s struggles and observations around gender and class feel fitting to the genre, and give us a window into Arabella’s growth of her own perspective on what is right, proper, and moral, departing from the ”received perspective” she starts the story with. I really enjoy that growth, and it feels good to see it take place.
But I can’t mention that growth without discussing those concerns I mentioned above.
Stories in the Regency Era, and especially any kind of story involving the creation of colonies in a place with intelligent locals, will unavoidably engage with colonialism. I don’t think it’s possible to avoid in this kind of story, and pretending colonialism (and its problems) doesn’t exist is usually just a way to be an apologist for it. Fortunately, that isn’t the approach this story takes.
Okay, more implicit spoilers ahead, though they should remain pretty general.
For all that Arabella of Mars doesn’t ignore colonialism per se, it also doesn’t address it directly. Partly, I think that’s due to the narrator’s proximity to Arabella’s own perspective; there’s a lot that Arabella hasn’t examined deeply about the social order and her role in it, never mind the ways in which humans and Martians interact. There are, however, many overt hints that Arabella disagrees with or isn’t aligned with the common colonialist assumptions of her society.
This comes out in the little details: Arabella notices the ways in which English depictions of Martians are wrong, and they irk her; Arabella corrects others a number of times, and signals dissatisfaction with their racist and colonialist assumptions; and she is unwilling to embrace the racist and colonialist arguments of others even when they’re not focused on Mars and Martians. As I said, all the little hints are there.
Actually, reflecting on those little details, I wonder whether some of my enjoyment of this story is tied to similarities with how my mother spoke of her childhood in Uganda and the US.
Back to this book, Arabella’s rejection of English colonialism, or her opposition to it, isn’t fully articulated in the way that I think the setting (and the story thus far) calls for. Her own estimations of her fellow landed English gentry start mostly neutral and grow more negative. And she clearly feels more attuned to the social conventions of Martians (or even the crew she serves with) than to the conventions of her peers. But while she appears to judge the existing system as lacking and feels estranged from it, she’s still a part of it and hasn’t articulated a different position.
About par for the course in book one of a series, really. This is part of my reason for both liking the book and trying to reserve judgment.
Anyway. The story thus far feels poised to dive deeper into this struggle with colonialism. And so far, it feels like it’s aware of that. That’s all well and good. But it hasn’t (yet) made that confrontation its focus. If it doesn’t dive into that confrontation with colonialism, or at least face it along its narrative path, I’ll have to revise my opinion of the story.
If you were avoiding reading the spoiler-ish above material, rest assured this is the *END OF SPOILERS*.
I like the book. I like it a lot, and absolutely recommend it to anyone who likes Age of Sail adventure with a splash of Regency drama and a hint of Jules Verne. If you want alternate history science fiction on interplanetary sailing ships, this is your best bet. And if you know a younger reader looking for these sorts of things, this is accessibly YA-ish to boot.
Witch Hat Atelier #1, by Kamome Shirahama
This is strangely great.
No, “strangely” is wrong. Nothing about Witch Hat Atelier feels especially unusual, trope-wise. It feels… expected. And I love it. It smoothly delivers a genre experience that I love, and I want more.
I’ve only read the first book so far. I raced through it this morning, and I’ve already requested the next three. I’m amazed at how well the story manages to move comfortably inside its genre’s expectations while still catching my attention and winning me over.
It’s a healthy reminder of how much delight can be drawn from indulging in competent genre fiction. There are certain themes that I often enjoy (restricted access to magic, young magic users stepping up to face adversity, gradual revelation of infighting and intrigue within the magic world, gradual revelation of deeper complications about *why* magic is restricted), and when given books full of those I frequently fall into the story nose first. The first book of Witch Hat Atelier hits all those notes without knocking me out of the groove at any point. While this means that I haven’t been surprised yet, it moves quickly enough that I’m delighted to just be along for the ride. There’s just something marvelous about watching plucky young magic users improvise their way through magic to get the job done, especially when everyone assumes that they’ll fail.
I haven’t read enough of the series yet to say how it will shape up long term. I haven’t even read enough to say that any of the characters feel like they’ve grown beyond their familiar introductory archetypes. It doesn’t matter. Kamome Shirahama has done well here so far, and I’m looking forward to more.
The Orpheus Plot, by Christopher Swiedler
The Orpheus Plot is fun, and an excellent comp title for Bury’em Deep. Its dramatic arc has a similar structure, it has good kid vs adult conflict, and it digs into some moral quandaries. Even better, it’s all about a young teen coming into his own through his larger struggles against the powers that would control him and his world. It’s more than that, too, but those are parallels enough for me to know that I should reference this book. That fact that it’s also space-adventure MG sci-fi, vanishingly rare, is just icing on the cake.
The biggest reservation I had with In The Red is resolved here; The Orpheus Plot clearly digs into the social questions and issues of its setting, rather than more or less pretending those things don’t exist. I’m glad it does. I can see how In The Red’s narrator might not have been aware of those larger struggles, but I think The Orpheus Plot is more interesting and more rewarding for focusing so much on the societal struggles of Inner System-vs-Belter politics and the struggles of life in the Belt in general.
Now, because of how similar our stories are (and because I do actually think both my story and Swiedler’s are good) most of my quibbles about this book are smaller scale and more personal. If you want middle grade space sci-fi I can already tell you to pick this up. If you want me to pry a little deeper, keep reading.
First, a few thoughts about some of the emotional arcs.
Some of the emotional resolution later on felt a little rushed or unexpected. There were hints of social and emotional arcs that had outgrown the established material without enough support in place for their final end points—mostly in the narrator’s interactions with other students towards the end. And there were a few places as the climax rolled on where it felt like a scene or interaction happened because it needed to be in the story and the main character needed that push, rather than because the story world led us there… just normal issues, spots where I felt like I could see the seams that revealed the story’s artifice. Also, those interactions are classic genre tropes, and they don’t feel out of place so much as they feel noticeable.
Now, a bigger difference between The Orpheus Plot and Bury’em Deep: I think Christopher Swiedler has more positive opinions of hegemony, authority, and the system than I do. That, or he’s less willing to question such things in fiction for middle grade readers.
Relatedly, there are some ways in which Swiedler’s space-future feels remarkably staid. There isn’t much queerness (I think I recall one mention of a non-het couple?), and neither the hegemonic center nor the frontier fringe have much visible divergence from our own social norms. That feels odd.
Historically speaking, divergence from shared social norms increases with time and distance. “The past is a foreign country,” to quote L.P. Hartley. People telling stories about the past usually put considerable effort into rewriting, recontextualizing, and even obscuring pieces of the past in order to make history match the author’s social standards, preferring to highlight the places where things are still the same (and make up commonalities where they need more). Many Westerns are an excellent example of that, ignoring the queer, non-traditional, and racially intermixed communities that developed on the frontier of the expanding US in favor of writing about strong independent straight white men.
But the future is a foreign country too. I wanted more of a departure from our own ideas of how society works, more ‘foreign-but-recognizable’ social conventions. The Orpheus Plot clearly has some, and highlights the differences between Belters and Inner System folks, but I wanted more of them. I wanted to know that there were “total weirdos” out there somewhere, and I wanted to feel more confident that life as we know it feels totally foreign to our narrator—that, from our narrator’s perspective, we readers would be uncannily different.
But I think the key to this, the reason this story feels more staid or in line with authority, comes back to the stories it most reminds me of. This story’s narrative arc reminds me of Treasure Island, or a reimagining of something from C. S. Forester’s Hornblower or Patrick O’Brien’s series. And whatever issues this story might raise with authority (the Navy, Inner System-dominated politics, etc) those authorities are still presented as less-bad than the alternative.
I’ll go into further detail, but there’ll be some *SPOILERS*.
So, this story is more than a modernization of those old Age of Sail adventure stories. But while we’re exposed to the ways in which the system is clearly bad for Belters, and we’re given a sympathetic view of Belters’ complaints, the story’s key revolutionaries are never painted with anything but a villainous brush. Heck, the big villain—leading the revolution—is almost comically evil, engaging in some really tropey, mustache-twirling bad stuff. And we never see enough of his side of things, or hear enough about his story, for those actions to feel anything but melodramatic. Moreover, he’s enough of a scumbag the rest of the time that it’s easy to ignore the validity of his larger complaints. No matter how much sense some of his complaints might make, and no matter how the narrator might pointedly agree at times, he’s still obviously bad rather than complicated.
It’s okay to have bad guys in your stories. But I wanted there to be more complication to the central conflict, rather than having the most sympathetic revolutionary (not that main baddie) feel more like a less-charming Long John Silver.
Part of the struggle here is just time and focus in the book, I think. That less-charming Long John Silver, a Navy crewmate involved in the lower decks’ conspiracy with the revolutionary Belters, never quite has enough narrative focus to become a helpful replacement parental figure. Without that narrative focus, without the warm fuzzies of a friendly older ally on the ship, we (and the narrator) don’t quite feel close enough to him to wonder why he makes the choices he does. That means that even when he offers us a little more moral complexity near the end of the story, it doesn’t carry as much narrative weight as it could have, had there been more connection there.
Plus, our narrator is so concerned with making it in the Navy and not rocking the boat that we never get as much honest reflection on how the Navy isn’t doing well by the Belters. There’s a brief scene where that becomes relevant, but it’s not in the forefront enough of the time, the way it’d need to be if the story were really digging into the oppression experienced by the Belters. Honestly, I’m not sure how the story would have worked if that had been written differently. I suspect the book would have had to be longer. *END SPOILERS*
I don’t know that I did a better job (in Bury’em Deep) with any of the issues I’m critiquing in The Orpheus Plot. But I think interrogating those points, poking the issues and digging deeper, is really important. And maybe, I hope, doing that in fiction for kids will invite their further reflection.
The Orpheus Plot is good space adventure fun. If that’s what you’re hankering for, do yourself a favor and pick it up.
Today’s been an odd one. I’ve been productive on other projects, but without a specific book or game lined up to review, I’m at a bit of a loss here.
I’m partway through two books, Teen Killers Club by Lily Sparks, and The Orpheus Plot by Christopher Swiedler. The Orpheus Plot is another middle grade sci-fi book in the same setting as In The Red, this time with slightly more focus on politics and intrigue (a Belter kid wants to join the space navy, which is almost entirely composed of people from Earth, Mars, and the Moon). It does some of the things I’d wanted to see from In The Red, dealing a bit more with the social expectations of people in this setting and how that creates and influences political conflict, so that’s a plus. I’m about halfway through; I’m enjoying it, and I won’t render any verdict yet.
Teen Killers Club caught my attention for being a potential comp title for one of my friend’s YA projects. I’m about a quarter of my way through that one, so I have even less to go on, but at the moment I’d call it a fusion of Holes, Suicide Squad, and the surge in fiction about serial killers from a couple years back. It feels like one-part thriller, one-part mystery, one-part teen camp drama, and it ate a good deal of my time earlier this week and stopped me dead in my tracks in the middle of The Orpheus Project. I’m enjoying it so far.
I’m also rereading Naomi Novik’s socialist-Harry-Potter-but-different The Last Graduate, this time out loud to my partner. They’ve been loving these books (they insisted that I start this one the day after I finished reading the first book, A Deadly Education, to them). That’s good, because I love them too. But I’m not able to read multiple chapters a day because by the time I start reading it’s usually already late. So there’s been an amusing and agonizing dance of trying to find places where I can stop each evening that will both keep them hooked and give them enough breathing room to actually be okay with stopping. The first has been much easier than the second.
Edit: I realized while writing this that I never reviewed The Last Graduate here. I’ll have to rectify that.
I, like several friends of mine, have picked up Vampire Survivors. It’s not an especially complex game, but it does a stunningly good job of catching my attention and holding it. Compulsive. That’s what I’d call it. Usually that’s not a quality I want in a game, but I used it to distract myself from some unwanted thoughts earlier today and that seemed to work pretty well. Maybe not the healthiest solution, but quick and effective at the time.
With a little luck, next week I’ll have finished one of those books and be ready to share my thoughts on it with you.
In The Red, by Christopher Swiedler… plus other thoughts
I write this while distracted. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is eating at my mental budget (hot take: the Russian invasion is bad). I’ve struggled, wondering whether I should put this book review aside and instead write about the war in Ukraine right now, or just sit down and write a review without mentioning what was happening. But two things leapt out at me while thinking about that.
One, if I’m going to write about Ukraine, I’m probably going to approach it from an analysis of the speeches of Zelensky and Putin over the past few days, and a discussion of the social and geopolitical concerns involved. Worse, giving the invasion the attention it deserves will take more time than I have for this today… and possibly more time than today, period.
Two, my struggle with writing this review and ignoring mention of the invasion of Ukraine is relevant to my discussion of this book.
Give me a moment, and I’ll tell you.
In The Red, by Christopher Swiedler, is a fun science fiction survival adventure written for middle grade readers. For nerdy middle grade readers, probably. Sold as Hatchet meets The Martian, it delivers on those ambitious comp titles.
I found it in the process of researching agents for my own middle grade science fiction adventure, Bury’em Deep, and I’m glad I did. First, I’m glad because I think the agent who repped it might like my manuscript—though as ever, queries are a shot in the dark and I sent my query to her before I’d read this book, due to library delays. Second, I’m glad because it’s fun. I enjoyed reading it.
To elaborate: I was a huge fan of Hatchet when I got my hands on it in third grade. In The Red has a lot of the same energy, and Young Henry would have loved this book. So if you like middle grade survival fiction, and if you like science fiction, you’ll probably like In The Red too.
But finally, I’m glad I found In The Red because I think it’s a decent comp title for Bury’em Deep. Mostly. I’ll explore how they diverge in a moment.
But first, In The Red is a good comp title for Bury’em Deep because the two books are so similar in genre and structure. The rhythm of narrative tension, and the way both books escalate tension and stakes, is parallel. In several cases that’s true almost down to the chapter and page. I go a little harder right at the start of Bury’em Deep, but otherwise the books’ slow build and intermittent spikes match each other’s feel quite neatly. Furthermore, both main characters share the fundamental desire to be safe and go home, and both have some ”questionable” risk assessments. And the similarities continue in their emotional experiences: both Michael (of ITR) and Barry (of BD) are anxious, though I think Michael’s experience of anxiety is closer to a classic clinical diagnosis.
But how do the books diverge?
And what the hell does all of this have to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or with my desire to write about that invasion instead of writing this book review?
In The Red is a good middle grade science fiction survival story. It replicates the feel of Hatchet, and it threads The Martian’s needle of being a mostly-hard sci-fi survival story on Mars that still feels engaging.
But it confines itself to those stakes.
Our narrator’s survival story isn’t impinged upon by any other social concerns, or any awareness of what’s happening—please imagine me waving my hands—“out there somewhere.” This means that I have no sense, when reading it, of what the rest of the setting is like or what else might be going on. I don’t know who’s at war with whom, I don’t know what Michael’s parents worry about late at night, I don’t know what social issues are present and plaguing the Mars colonies or erupting out in the Belt. For that matter, I don’t know what the hell is happening in Florida, where one of our characters is from. We’re never given a hint. Apparently Florida still exists, and the Florida Keys haven’t been entirely submerged by sea level rise. But beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
I don’t know how well I succeed, but I’ve tried to make Bury’em Deep feel different than that.
Returning to the start of this piece, the answer to my struggle was to write about this book and to mention the Russian invasion. And that “yes both” approach was my approach for making Bury’em Deep feel like a more realized setting. I want readers to trust that they’d know if something as momentous as the Russian invasion of Ukraine were going on in Barry’s setting. I want them to trust that they’d at least find out when Barry did. I want them to believe that Barry would have opinions about such a thing.
Barry, and thus the reader, doesn’t know everything that’s going on. His understanding of his world (well, solar system) is imperfect, and he’s not well-versed in all the relevant political and social conflicts that are going on. But he’s aware of some of it, and he can’t ignore how those conflicts impinge on his life. Moreover, his awareness of those conflicts and struggles only increases over the course of the story. And while his immediate struggles for survival are small in scope, they are tied to many other much larger struggles.
Basically, Bury’em Deep is political. I try to give as deep a setting background as I can without ever breaking Barry’s train of thought. I want to enable my readers to draw their own conclusions about the status quo in Barry’s solar system, and I want them to question how reliable and astute a political observer this thirteen-year-old spacer kid might be. I’m not trying to pull one over on the audience with an unreliable narrator, I just want the readers to ask themselves questions. And I want deeper questions to be available for more advanced readers, without getting in the way of a less advanced reader’s enjoyment.
This difference, the distinction between something that feels “apolitical” (In The Red) and something that is absolutely jam packed with political observation and experience (Bury’em Deep), feels like a difference in era as well. The science fiction that In The Red feels like is older, and less interested in critiquing society. It isn’t as interested in examining, or even acknowledging, modern day moral and ethical questions. It’s willing to accept our social assumptions and go have fun doing something adventurous. It doesn’t encourage readers to imagine those possible moral arguments, or to wonder for themselves what might be right, just, or good.
And I’m fine with that. I don’t think every book has to be a deep dive into hegemony. I don’t think every book has to question our bedrock assumptions about society and personhood and what is moral or ethical.
But “apolitical” is a quiet lie: all art is political. Not poking at our social assumptions goes hand in hand with tacitly approving of them.
Thus, I fervently want some genre fiction out there that does question our social assumptions. I want some genre fiction that doesn’t put on its blinders and just focus on the fun adventure to be had. I want fun, yes, and adventure, but ideally I’d love those things with a dash of wondering about whether what someone has done was just or correct. I want young readers to enjoy a story, and I want to invite them to engage critically with that story’s world.
My hope with Bury’em Deep was that it would be gateway fiction. I wanted Bury’em Deep to steer young readers towards books by N.K. Jemisin. I wanted to introduce classic science fiction questions about the boundaries of humanity, popularized with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep / Blade Runner and the old versions of Ghost in the Shell. And I wanted to be honest about the struggles and conflicts in my characters’ lives, not keep troublesome and scary things hidden. That means mentioning the invasion of Ukraine, or allowing similar things to be a part of the setting.
In The Red focuses on being honest with readers about anxiety and panic attacks. My hope is that Bury’em Deep does that with the question of who we count as a person and where that boundary lies. So they’re not quite the same book after all.
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez
Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez, gave me warm fuzzies.
It walks the tightrope of middle grade fiction with flair, firmly accessible without condescending to the reader. It’s kind, it feels honest, it’s the kind of book that I’ll recommend to anyone (provided they don’t mind reading about kids in middle school). It’s a really solid book that deserves to be enjoyed by more people—and that more people deserve to enjoy.
There’s a couple things I think the story does really well, and I think I can cover them without spoilers.
I’m very aware that fiction is a facade. And I know that making it look and feel like something deeper, giving readers enough to cling to and build on to believe that the characters are full people, is a lot of work. Doing that for one or two characters is difficult enough. Sketching out the other nearby characters such that they also feel deep and don’t detract from the piece as a whole is beautiful.
Carlos Hernandez makes this story beautiful.
The kids who are our main characters all feel deep, human. And we see enough sides of them to believe that they are living, breathing, feeling people. This means the book never treats any of the kids in it as unknowable or other or villainous; even when characters don’t like each other, they’re still given the author’s empathy. It’s wonderful seeing a book put so much effort into humanizing its characters, and refusing to take the easy shortcut of using them like little cardboard cutouts.
And the adults nearby feel real too, in the slightly hazy seen-through-the-eyes-of-a-child way. They don’t get as much time as the kids (and that’s appropriate) but they round out the cast and give the impressionistic daubs of background color that evoke life without pulling the reader’s focus away from the main show. It’s a well written book.
It’s also written differently than I would expect for MG science fiction. It’s far more slice-of-life than adventure, more about the smaller puzzles and dilemmas faced by the protagonists than about large scale adventures or quests. This isn’t bad, but it might surprise people who came looking for tense adventure. And it means that, if you don’t become emotionally attached, you might not feel compelled to see the emotional plots through.
That’s in part because the physical plot is several disparate chunks, woven together to create the overall emotional and personal arcs for our narrator Sal. This didn’t bother me (it’s a good book!) but I think it may have contributed to my distraction about halfway through, when I wandered away from the book for a few days. I wanted to continue the story, but I didn’t feel like it had grabbed me by the nose and was dragging me onwards.
When I describe it like that, I’m not sure why I like that experience in the first place. But I do like that in my adventure stories. And that’s not really what this story is about or what it feels like. Instead, Sal and Gabi Break the Universe is touching and sweet and well-crafted, and it does an excellent job of building personal investment to keep its audience hooked.
I think this works partly because Carlos Hernandez has done an incredible job of “frictionless writing,” making a story that just slides you along without any feeling of resistance or struggle. The story isn’t dragging you with it—you’re gliding, and it feels effortless. This might have been aided by my familiarity with Spanish, which shows up sans translation several times, but I also think Hernandez does an excellent job of working code-switching between languages into the book with a minimum of confusion. Oh, and despite obviously being the first of two books, this book ends in a way that feels good and self-contained.
Basically, it’s good. It’s well written. I recommend it. I have the sequel on hold at the library, and am looking forward to reading it as soon as I get my hands on it.
No review for the moment, just an update. I’ve got Sal & Gabi Break the Universe right now, and am looking forward to getting my hands on In The Red soon (which for some reason wasn’t available as an ebook through Libby). My recent book-sprint has slowed down again, just waiting for it to pick back up again. Might have something to do with watching more shows than I usually allow myself to, or giving myself permission to watch them less attentively than I usually try to.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Murderbot to my partner and they’ve been loving it. I love rereading it too, though I’d forgotten how difficult some of it is for reading aloud. It turns out that while I think Martha Wells was right to bury some conversations in paragraphs the way that she did, simply because that’s how they fit in Murderbot’s stream of consciousness, it’s a lot harder to read those buried lines aloud without breaking up my reading to clarify what Murderbot says versus what it thinks. This could be easier, if I had thought to come up with a distinct voice for Murderbot’s speech as opposed to its thoughts, but alas I did not.
Besides, that would be odd, right? It’s all Murderbot. It should sound more similar than different.
It’s not all bad though. I did luck into some hilariously good voices by accident, especially while reading ART’s lines.
I’m not sure what next week is going to look like, or whether I’ll be able to post much; I’ve been selected for jury duty, and might be otherwise occupied.
Oh, and on the video game front, following up the Hero’s Hour post from two weeks back… there’s another game that also obviously wants to follow the path of the old Heroes of Might and Magic games: Songs of Conquest. It’s not available yet, though early access is supposed to start in March. From the little I’ve seen so far, it looks like they’ve focused a larger team with more resources on making fewer factions in a game with more visual polish and greater similarity to HoMM’s old combat mechanics. Hopefully it is also more stable.