Looking over the review I posted for Veronica Roth’s Allegiant a couple of weeks ago, I realized it’s such a negative one that it may have given the impression I’m a Nelly Negative, which can’t be further from the truth. In fact, over the last couple of months I’ve read some terrific books and thought I’d share some mini-reviews:
1. Doctor Sleep by Stephen King – This long-awaited sequel to The Shining follows the troubled adulthood of Danny (now Dan) Torrance, the boy who survived the father possessed by demonic ghosts while his family was snowed in at the Overlook Hotel. He has “the shining”—a way of seeing things that other people can’t see, such as dead people. As he grows up, Dan finds his gift is more a curse and he’s more like his father than he wants to admit, both when it comes to anger and a tendency to abuse alcohol. Haunted by an incident where he steals money from a single mother after a drunken one-night stand, he finally seeks out recovery in a small New Hampshire town. He settles down as an orderly in a hospice where he becomes known as “Doctor Sleep” because he uses the shining to ease the dying patients’ journey into death.
He begins to get psychic messages from a little girl named Abra, who turns out to be even more gifted—and cursed—with the shining. They learn a group of vampire-like creatures known as the True Knot are after Abra. The creatures survive on “steam”—the essence of children who have the shining. The way they harvest steam is by torturing and killing these children. Dan must find a way to save a child he’s never even met.
In the afterword of this book King talks about expectations and how sequels can fall short. Does this book live up to the original? No, but how can it? Why does it even have to? It’s still a solid, enjoyable effort. It suffers from not having one of the elements that made The Shining so terrifying (characters trapped in an inescapable location) but it’s still pretty scary. I also liked how he had a female child character for a change, when in most of his books the children in peril are usually boys. Even better, Abra is no cowering wimp. King draws from his own experiences as a recovering alcoholic, which gives the story more heft than you would expect. I would rank Doctor Sleep in the upper-mid range of Mr. King’s books.
2. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed – I rarely read fantasy (up to now, the only fantasy books I’ve really enjoyed are George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series) but when the #DiversityInSFF (diversity in sci-fi and fantasy) hashtag discussion on Twitter was going on a couple of months ago, Ahmed was one of the most vocal participants. I found his insights so interesting (and sometimes provocative) I decided I just had to check out his book. I’m so glad I did.
Unlike most fantasy fiction, the world is not based on Western culture, but rather Middle Eastern, which immediately makes it feel unique. Another unique aspect: in spite of the title, the focus of the story is not royalty and political intrigue. These elements exist but mostly hum in the background. This is about common folk fighting against forces of evil.
Wait, there’s a THIRD unique aspect to this book: the main character is a man in his sixties. He is Adoulla, who wants nothing more than to retire and marry the love of his life. But as long as he hunts supernatural monsters known as ghuls, tradition says he must remain unmarried. He and his young assistant, the pious Raseed, are tapped by Adoulla’s old love to avenge the death of her niece, who along with her nomadic band was killed by monsters. They find a survivor of another attack, a young girl named Zamia, who can shape-shift into a lion. Together they must stop a ghul apocalypse that could destroy Adoulla’s beloved city.
Ahmed has a gorgeous prose style. My one complaint about the book is the ending is a tad abrupt, but Ahmed’s characters are so vibrant and the world is so beautifully realized that it’s forgivable. Ahmed is currently writing another installment in this series and I can’t wait to read it. I guess I like the fantasy genre a lot more than I thought.
3. Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig – when I finished Allegiant, I was reluctant to start a new dystopian series. But I had been following Wendig on Twitter and reading his blog for a while and hadn’t read one of his books yet, so I went ahead with this one, anyway.
Well, it just about reaffirmed my love of everything dystopian.
This is the story of Cael, a teen boy who lives in The Heartland, where the Empyrean government only allows residents to grow an aggressive, genetically-modified strain of corn. The Empyrean live a privileged life above the Heartland in aerial flotillas. Heartlanders deal with starvation, massive pollen storms, and deadly tumors. They must marry someone picked for them by the government. Cael and his friends are scavengers but have their livelihood threatened when Cael’s rival sabotages his land-boat. Finding an illegal garden of fruits and vegetables, Cael thinks he has made his fortune. When his love Gwennie, “obligated” to marry his hated rival, wins a lottery to live on one of the flotillas with her family, it shakes things up for almost every character in the story.
As with many first books in a futuristic series, there is a lot of set-up and world-building, so the beginning is a bit slow. But Wendig soon gets things hopping. As you would expect in a dystopian, the characters are torn by the instinct for personal survival and a desire to fight the injustices of their society. It ends with a big cliffhanger that left me practically screaming to know what happens next. Needless to say, I am eagerly awaiting the next installment.
In the first book Wool (actually an omnibus of several connected short stories), Howey tells of a society that lives in a silo buried underground where even mentioning you want to leave is a death sentence. The inhabitants can see the ruined world outside but some still want to get out. They are let out in suits that let them live long enough to clean the sensors that allow people to see outside.
Except for one “cleaner”—Juliette Nichols. She manages to survive and finds another silo, which is uninhabited except for some young children. She eventually returns to her silo and is elected mayor.
This is where Dust picks up again, as well as picking up the story where Howey’s prequel, Shift, left off. Shift explains the what and the why of the silos (mostly). I can’t get into that without giving away a lot of spoilers, so I won’t give a plot overview of Dust.
Instead, I’ll just say that Howey’s conclusion to his series is very gratifying in many respects. Since I didn’t care for Shift, this was a delightful surprise. Just not a fan of exposition-heavy prequels, for one thing, and I found some of the “explanation” of how things came about a little on the goofy side. But if you want to read Dust, you have to read Shift, or you’ll be lost. Though sticking all that exposition in a prequel probably helped make Dust a much better book than it might have been.
Where Dust REALLY shines, though, is the characters, particularly the women characters, who are complex and (oh, my heavens) have inner lives and their own narratives. Even one female character I initially thought fell into a lazy stereotype turned out to have been misjudged, by other characters AND by me.
Although Howey claims this is the end of the series, there are ways he could return to this world for more storytelling. I hope he does, and that’s the highest compliment I can think to give it.
What books have you been reading lately that you would recommend? Let us know in the comments section!