Thursday, July 25, 2013


Divergent by Veronica Roth, 2011

It's pretty impossible to read Divergent (or any recent dystopian YA novel, for that matter) without feeling the influence of the mega-successful Hunger Games trilogy. Just like the boom of magic-school sagas after the success of the Harry Potter books, the young adult market is currently awash with post-apocalyptic adventure, plucky young heroines and tyrannical governments.

So it's a testament to Veronica Roth's considerable skill as a storyteller that I didn't think much about any of the similarities between the two after the first fifty pages or so. I was just swept up in the story.

Divergent's dystopian gimmick is fairly clever and reasonably original: at some point in the relatively near future, the city of Chicago is split into five factions - Abnegation, Erudite, Candor, Amity and Dauntless - each one representing a different virtue or characteristic. At sixteen, sheltered Abnegation teen Beatrice Prior must choose which faction to join for the rest of her life. To everyone's surprise, Tris joins Dauntless, the faction of strength and bravery. But she has a deadly secret: she's Divergent (which means she's suited for more than one faction), and there are those in her faction, and in others, who would kill her if they find out.

From the first chapter, Divergent is a propulsive, perfectly paced read, with a great heroine, plenty of thrills and an interesting setting. It's absolutely to Roth's credit that she sells the concept of the five factions, an idea that seems pretty hard to swallow at first. She does a nice job of subtly showing what could have led the people of Chicago to this seemingly bizarre form of government. She doesn't dwell too much on the post-apocalyptic elements, though - a good move, I think, especially for a first book - instead focusing on Tris and her character arc.

Make no mistake: Tris is the novel's top draw. I loved this character. Her journey from repressed, shy schoolgirl to tough, gun-toting soldier is hugely compelling, and well portrayed. Roth puts us right in Tris's head, and then throws crazy challenge after crazy challenge at her, and it makes for some really thrilling stuff. Roth doesn't pull punches because this is a YA novel (there was some stuff even I found unsettling, and I was brought up on Stephen King) and it makes the book that much more exciting and visceral. The other characters are all less memorable than Tris, but most of them have at least a couple of dimensions, some of them quite surprising.

I'll admit, Tris's obligatory romance with her Dauntless instructor Four wasn't my favorite part of the novel. I liked the odd, adversarial chemistry between them towards the beginning of the story, but by the time they get together mid-book, complete with swoony makeout sessions, it had become a little routine. Not a bad plot thread, by any means, but not as strong as Tris's journey towards self-awareness (and abruptly changing Four's name to Tobias was not helpful to me, as an Arrested Development fan).

In all, Divergent delivered just about everything I would have wanted it to: a memorable and kick-ass heroine, a thought-provoking dystopia and a gripping plot. While I don't think the novel is likely to go down as a classic, it's a smart, quite well-written page-turner that made me lose sleep more than once. I can't wait to pick up Insurgent and see where the story goes from here.

Payment in Blood by Elizabeth George, 1990

What continually irritated me about Payment in Blood - and Elizabeth George's first novel, A Great Deliverance - is that it came so close to being great. I mean, great. George is clearly capable of a novel that will vault her to the top of my list of favorite mystery writers. Blood isn't quite it, but it's close enough to still be one hell of a well-put-together novel.

The book opens, of course, with a murder. Author and playwright Joy Sinclair is found gruesomely stabbed to death in her bed at a lavish Scottish bed-and-breakfast. Among the suspects are most of Britain's foremost actors, as well as a powerful lord and his mysterious family. Sent out into the brutal Scottish winter to nail the killer, Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers contend with an incestuous web of deadly connections - a web that includes the woman that Lynley is in love with.

I'll deal with what annoyed me first. The book's biggest flaw is that George's pacing is uneven at best. The novel's first half feels cluttered to the point of claustrophobia; like in Deliverance, she throws so much exposition and backstory at you that the novel feels stalled from the beginning. The connections between all of the suspects are complicated enough that it sometimes feels like coming into a soap opera three seasons in. Wait, he slept with her and her? She's married to him? He's her brother? George's talents don't lie in relaying necessary information in a clear and entertaining way.

My second big problem is with the novel's central relationship between Lynley and Lady Helen Clyde. If you recall, Lynley spent pretty much the entire first book mooning over Deborah, his best friend's wife. Rather abruptly, we're informed early on in Blood that the woman Lynley truly loves is Helen (who, to make matters even more complicated, is the best friend's ex). Helen, however, is cheating on Lynley with an alcoholic stage director. Cue a whole lot of drama. Trouble is, for all the overwrought histrionics, George never really sells on us on the romance, or on Lady Helen, who seems a little too prissy and high-maintenance for Lynley (of course, I'm a Lynley/Havers shipper, so what do I know).
It might sound like I'm a little down on Blood, but the truth of it is, that what's good about the book is very, very good. Once George has all of her pieces on the board, the real fun begins, as she picks apart the psyches of every suspect, and our heroes, too. Her psychological approach is what sets her apart from her peers, and with good reason: she excels at it. Blood is at its best when one of the characters starts really peeling back layers, and we can fully appreciate just how skilled George is at what she does.

As the book goes on and the plot gets into gear, things really start to pop, and I found myself really getting into it. The subplots in particular take a while to heat up, but when they do, they reveal George's incredible capacity for complex, heart-wrenching human drama. Her dense, lavish prose suits her style well and sometimes rises to the level of beautiful, even if her reliance on ten-dollar words can be a bit much.

 I did correctly guess the identity of the killer about two-thirds of the way through the novel, but that's more a symptom of how logically constructed the plot is than an indictment of George's skills of deception. Payment in Blood eventually ends on a satisfyingly melancholy note, and it's a testament to how much I ended up enjoying the book that I couldn't stop thinking about it for days after. It's not a perfect mystery by any means and, honestly, the structure left a lot to be desired, but I know that the day will come when Elizabeth George will knock my socks off. And I'm looking forward to it.

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Hamilton, 2004

Starting a new series is always an exciting proposition, especially when the series comes as highly recommended as Kim Hamilton's Rachel Morgan books. The Hollows series has a small, but extremely devoted fan base, and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I wanted to check it out. I love a good urban fantasy, vampire detectives, werewolves driving cabs, all that stuff. I figured Dead Witch Walking would be right in my wheelhouse.

And. . . well, it kind of is. To be honest, there was a lot that I liked about Witch, and a lot that I thought was kind of awful. On the whole, I enjoyed the book more than I probably should have, and I think Harrison has some obvious talent when it comes to her characters and world-building. But why is the plotting so strange?

The novel follows Rachel Morgan, a witch who works as a sort of bounty hunter/federal agent for the supernatural equivalent of the FBI, the IS. When Rachel leaves the IS to set up a private-detective agency with a motor-mouthed pixy and a sensual vampire, her former boss puts out a hit on her (this is where the plot gets weird). Dodging fairy commandos and assassins armed with spell-loaded paintball guns, Rachel and her gang must bring down a mysterious drug lord in order to get the IS to call off the hit.

What I liked a lot about Witch was the characters. While Rachel is a fairly typical heroine for this kind of story, predictably feisty and sarcastic - think Stephanie Plum with magical abilities and leather pants - her sidekicks are a lot more interesting. Jenks, the wise-ass pixie, could have been a goofy comic relief character, but he has more nuance than you'd think. And while Ivy, the aristocratic, sexually ambiguous vampire, is responsible for some of the novel's more uncomfortable scenes, she's also the most complicated and fascinating character. Even Nick, the bookish human who shows up late in the book, seemingly as a classic love interest, has some dimension. Harrison succeeds at making these characters the kind of people you could easily imagine reading ten more books about: a nice mix of likable and dynamic.

The setting, an alternate Cincinnati populated by both humans and supernatural creatures, is relatively standard as far as urban fantasies go, but I liked Harrison's take on pixie/fairy relations, her clever magic system and some rather ingenious little concepts (like the magical "splatballs") that help immensely to flesh out her world. I was less taken with her vampires, who are your standard Anne Rice-y sex machines, The vampire-related erotic segments fit rather uncomfortably alongside anything else, especially the distinct lesbian subtext between Rachel and Ivy. Maybe Harrison has a clever plan on where to take that particular relationship, but in this book, it's just awkward.

For the most part, though, so far, so good. Engaging characters, a relatively interesting world, writing that's not half-bad, in a rote, chick-lit kind of way. Where Harrison really stumbles, though, is plotting and pacing. The plot is lumpy, half-baked and overly simplistic, and the pacing is just weird. Harrison founds the whole story on the idea that a government agency would put out a hit on an agent who quit. I get that it's an alternate timeline and not our world, but there's not nearly enough attention given to this far-fetched plot point.

The Big Bad of the story, Trent Kalamack, is actually a little bit compelling, but there's no real mystery to unravel, and no stakes. Again, the story is predicated on a plot point that doesn't make much sense: Kalamack running biodrugs is made out to be a huge deal, but it isn't even clear what he's using them for. And the pacing, like I said, is distinctly odd. Scenes tend to stretch out way too long, with conversations getting tedious and circuitous. The bursts of action are refreshing (especially a very creative wizard's duel towards the end), but they get repetitive and tend to be sandwiched in between long, dull stretches. There's some good stuff here, and lots of smart and funny and exciting bits, but the plot just never coalesces into anything especially coherent.

That said, I see tons of potential in this series. You could definitely tell some great stories in this world, with these characters. Dead Witch Walking is too full of plot holes and labored pacing to be a true success, but there's every chance that this could end up being a really entertaining series. It just needs the right story.