Teen Killers Club, by Lily Sparks

Sometimes books read like TV shows. This is one of those times. Hardly surprising, given that the author has a background writing for TV dramas. She does a good job of it here, too.

Lily SparksTeen Killers Club handled me roughly. I loved it. Riding its ups and downs, I felt emotionally whipsawed and had to set it aside a few times to take breathers and regain equilibrium (something our poor narrator never has a chance to do). By the time I finished, I felt like I’d just gotten off a roller coaster. I wandered around in a daze for an hour or so, still locked in admiration for the ways the story had pulled me back and forth time and again. Because for all that I’d been on a ride, it was an impressive ride. Sparks knew how to grab my heartstrings, and she did it fearlessly. The book had caught me and reeled me in, and pulled me along for the whole thing.

Well, not quite the whole thing: at the start I was partly distracted by needing to finish another book. But it was easy to slip back into it after finishing the other book. Then, of course, it was hard to put it down.

And yes, I’m on board for reading the sequel (which I suspected would exist, but wasn’t certain about until writing this). I’m a little concerned about it, for reasons that are lightly spoiler-y and which I’ll share in more detail below. Blandly put, I’m not sure which genre tropes the story-to-come will follow. There are a variety of options available, after all. But the story’s overall tone could go in several directions, and I won’t know how well it will fit my palate until I read the dang thing—which I will definitely do.

All of which is to say, if you like YA teen drama and serial killers and murder mysteries, this is a great book for you. Be ready for a heck of an emotional ride.

Now.

I can’t go into detail about this without implied spoilers for the book. But this series of observations are eating my brain, so here goes.

*IMPLICIT SPOILERS*

This varies by subgenre, but dramas don’t like to kill characters or let them stay dead. This is especially true of TV dramas, which often suffer from what I’ll call a dramatic conservation of characters.

I say suffer, but in moderation this conservation is a positive thing. Because dramas build up value in their characters, investing them with growth, backgrounds, and relationships that make them richer and more interesting, these dramas are loathe to sacrifice their developed main characters or let them die—even when that death would make sense. This dramatic conservation of characters feeds into the “main character glow” or “plot protection” that shields developed characters from death. But this conservation also provides the audience with reliable narrative focal points, and both encourages and rewards the audience’s emotional investment.

Some stories are more prone to this than others, but I think it’s especially prevalent in character dramas that specialize in arranging (and rearranging) their characters along various social faults of contention. Characters twist or are twisted into new disagreements, the situation is milked for all the drama it can hold, and then some new development arises that prompts another realignment. The longer a story runs, the more realignments happen, and the more strange situations people end up in as the writers try to deliver new and exciting stakes. This is the process that leads to jumping the shark. It’s also the process that results in somebody being caught in a terrible accident or dangerous what-have-you and then miraculously surviving (possibly with some character-altering development, like amnesia).

Usually, dramatic conservation of characters is maintained. Usually the characters don’t actually die, or if they do they aren’t actually gone for all that long. That’s part of the reason that so few character deaths are treated seriously in these stories… or at least, why so few are treated seriously amongst these stories’ audiences. The genre-savvy know from past experience that characters don’t usually die or stay dead.

This, sadly, only makes it harder to actually up the stakes in these genres.

It doesn’t help that these stories sometimes try to up the stakes by killing off people the audience has little attachment to. Instead of demonstrating that the situation is dangerous, this only reinforces the relative safety of the main characters. Scalzi’s Redshirts is all about this trope as it exists in Star Trek. Other stories try to demonstrate how dangerous and gritty they are by killing off characters seemingly at random—sometimes this works, and sometimes it just feels like the author is trying to be edgy.

I think character death in these stories usually works best when it’s given space and weight, or at least makes an impact on other characters (I’ve written a bunch of posts about this). There are a handful of exceptions.

But the thing that’s eating at me, the thing I’m concerned is going to happen in the sequel, is that Sparks won’t let characters die when they really ought to… or will kill more characters just to show that she can. She’s set herself up for a tricky path going forward, and I suspect *EXPLICIT SPOILERS* based on the end of the book that she won’t let characters stay dead when that would actually fit her story well. But I don’t know! Maybe she’s just lulling me into a false sense of security. As I said above, I’ve got to read the sequel to find out. *END SPOILERS*

Still on board for YA drama about teen serial killers, with some murder mystery on the side?

Get thee to the library (or bookstore).

The God Engines, by John Scalzi

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My apologies for the brevity of this post, I’m writing with an odd tremor in my left hand and that’s throwing me off.  Anyway…

If you’ve read my previous reviews of Scalzi‘s work, you’re already familiar with how much I love it.  There’s something about his style that I find captivating, perhaps unreasonably so.

The God Engines is no exception to my love for Scalzi’s writing.  It features space travel powered by faith and subjugated gods, and eschews many of the “upbeat” qualities (for lack of a better word) that I’ve come to recognize in Scalzi’s other pieces.  It’s short, sweet, and ultimately horrifying, and I would happily recommend it to anyone who would like to read about holy war in space.  Having just written that, yes, the setting does feel a little like Warhammer 40k, but not quite in the same grandiose grim-dark fashion for which 40k is pilloried.  I don’t want to say any more that might accidentally spoil sections of the story for the especially perceptive, I’ve already had to rewrite this bit several times to cull possible references to spoiler material.

Also, well done Scalzi for writing an entirely genderless character.  I’m not sure I understand how they fit into the larger scheme of things that you devised for this setting, but they felt wonderfully human in a way that some might have ignored.  And while I loved the appropriate ending of the story, I was sad that it meant that I wouldn’t get to learn more about the world that encompassed all these wonderful and terrible things.  I suppose that means you hit the perfect length for the piece.

I really liked the fact that no character felt like they were entirely “good.”  Some were certainly more sympathetic than others, but mostly people seemed very human: they wanted, they feared, and they cared (or didn’t) in ways that pulled me into the piece.  It never felt like we went very deep with any of them, perhaps due to space restrictions, but I got enough of a sense of them to feel connected before the end of the book.

Would I recommend this book?  Yes, definitely.  It’s short, it’s an easy read (I went through it in one sitting), and it’s a lovely look at a frightening concept.  It’s a quick piece of horror writing done well.

p.s. Oh, and here’s Scalzi’s favorite negative review of The God Engines.  It’s pretty good.

Unlocked, by John Scalzi

I don’t know if you follow Scalzi on Whatever, but if you don’t I strongly suggest that you take a look at what he posted today.  In addition to putting up the first chapter of his new book over at Tor, he’s also made his novella Unlocked available for free.  And it’s fascinating.

It’s an oral history of a disease that has yet to happen, and as such it feels very familiar; I kept thinking of World War Z as I read it, reminded of how well Max Brooks managed to create a world through the memories of his fictional interview subjects.  Unlocked doesn’t hit quite as high a note as World War Z did for me, but I don’t think it was meant to.  It doesn’t try to give us a worldwide view of what it was like to survive the end of the world.  Instead it serves as an introduction to the setting of his new book, and also tells a story in its own right.  The background created here sets the stage for a book that looks like it will be a very worthwhile read.

Oh, and it’s also good on its own.  It totally sidetracked me from the article that I was going to write for you today, and here I am writing about it instead.  I suggest that you check it out.

The Human Division, by John Scalzi

Usually by the time that I hit book five of a series, I need a break.  I’ll feel a little tired of the author; I’ll have come to expect their turns of phrase, I’ll know some of the ways in which they think, and I often have some inkling of where the story will go before it ever gets there.  Tired isn’t quite the right word, but you get the idea.  It’s right around then that I start looking at other books longingly and prepare to binge my way through a different series.

But John Scalzi has completely avoided this predicament.  I mean, sure, maybe I expected some of what was coming from Zoe’s Tale, but that’s mostly because it covered a lot of territory that I had already read in The Last Colony.

Where am I going with all of this?  Here: The Human Division is great, and I want more.  In fact, I want to see the next book in my hands as soon as possible.  I accept that this might take some time, as I am certainly aware of the frustratingly slow pace at which stories are often written, but nevertheless.  This series is exceptional, and reading it feels a bit like I imagine being sucked out of an airlock must feel.  Except that the frigid void of space is actually a deeply engrossing series of story lines, and you don’t end up boiling your liquids out through your pores while freezing at the same time.  Ok, look, the analogy was a bit forced, but these books will grab you and pull you along mercilessly with all the force of an explosive decompression, only freeing you once you’ve come out the other side.

Treat yourself to a good time and read this series, you won’t be disappointed.  Would you like to know more?

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The Last Colony, by John Scalzi

I really should have written this review last week.  I’ve been on a Scalzi kick, and finished The Last Colony last Wednesday.  Then I started and finished Zoe’s Tale on Saturday, and started The Human Division Saturday evening.  I’m afraid that things have gotten more than a little jumbled in my mind at this point.  That said, I’ve still got enough details in order that I can tell you for certain that The Last Colony follows in the footsteps of its predecessors and offers up a fabulous read.

Also, I know that it shouldn’t matter to the book itself, but John Harris’ cover art for the book is just gorgeous.

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The Ghost Brigades, by John Scalzi

I shouldn’t be surprised that I went through The Ghost Brigades in one day.  After my experience of reading Old Man’s War I should have expected this compulsion, the need to rush headlong through the story as quickly as I could, even to the point of ignoring my friends and the rest of the world.  All of the nice things that I said about John Scalzi’s writing last time still apply.  This book is easy to read and hard to put down, and when I finished it I was left wanting more.  Fortunately, my friend whom I’d been ignoring sympathized with my plight and had a copy of the next book in the series ready to loan to me.  So, of course, I stayed up late reading more of that.

Right, series: in my review of Old Man’s War, I think I somehow failed to mention that it was the start of a series of books.  The Ghost Brigades is the first of several sequels, but while it builds on the setting established in Old Man’s War and even features some of the same characters, its story builds off in an entirely new direction.  It reads like a standalone story, but if you really want the full experience I strongly suggest that you read Old Man’s War first.  There are interlocking complexities that become readily apparent as you continue the series, and you’ll benefit from reading the books in order.

My verdict, once again, is that you should get your hands on this book with all possible haste.  Right after you get your hands on Old Man’s War, of course.  For more of my thoughts on the story, read on below…

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Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

I’m delaying my game-system flavor post again due to overexcitement.  You see, I finished Old Man’s War yesterday and I just had to share my thoughts with you.  In case you were wondering, I also started Old Man’s War yesterday.  What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been better put by Cory Doctorow and Ken MacLeod?  I suppose I’ll start with, “I was silly not to read this ages ago, because it’s really damn good.”

Seriously, this book has been sitting on my reading list for years, ever since my brother Nate suggested that I should read it soon after it came out in 2005.  At the time, I had no idea who John Scalzi was or why I should like his work, and the title and concept simply didn’t grab me.  Apart from the prodigious numbers of recommendations I had received telling me to read the book (and my growing infatuation with Scalzi’s writing), not that much had changed as of yesterday.  Then I opened the book and read the first few pages, and boom, I was gone.

I really should have expected that something like this would happen again, given how I felt about Agent to the Stars and Redshirts, but I was once more taken by surprise and pulled right into the deep end.  I barely came up for air, and dove through the book in the course of several hours.  The short take?  Read it.  My more considered opinion?  Read on…

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And Then You Die: A Good (Character) Death

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Bye bye Boromir.

I love Boromir.  I know I’m not the only one who does.  And however much I like Boromir when he’s alive, there’s something that’s almost even more (tragically) appealing about him dead.  This is less because I like his ruggedly handsome corpse, and more because of what Homer touched on thousands of years ago: in his death, because of how he died, Boromir becomes something more than he was in life.  Boromir had what we might call a good death.  Key to this, Boromir dies before he truly succumbs to the power of the Ring, and in his death he tries to make up for some of the mistakes that he has made previously.  His act of self-sacrifice protecting the Ring-bearer is a fairly hefty weight in his favor on the scales of Judgement, making up for some of his earlier errors.  Interestingly enough for such a perilous setting, he is also the only member of the Fellowship to die and stay dead.

It turns out that that single heroic death is pretty standard.  Most stories, like most role-playing games, don’t have lots of character death.  In reality, people engaging in the same activities that most adventurers and main characters pursue with wild abandon have a fairly high casualty rate.  People are killed while fighting, they’re permanently injured, they get sick… and in many cases, their deaths and debilities feel meaningless.  For every handful of people that die doing something we would idolize as heroic, far more are killed or injured in an almost banal fashion.  Would we feel the same way about Boromir’s death if he had, I don’t know, been killed without having a chance to fight back?  Stepped on a landmine?  Slipped in the shower and broken his neck?

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