Enter Enoch: Reviewing Cameron Dayton’s “Etherwalker”

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Review by Curtis Cole

The typical high fantasy story unfolds something like this: an ignorant and naïve youth, usually a farm hand or other such rural occupant, and almost always a White cis-heterosexual male, discovers something grand and unique—something which is precious and so must be protected (Lord of the Rings, Eragon) or that he himself is the precious something (i.e., the ‘chosen one’) whom, embedded with special powers, is destined to win the day from Evil (Harry Potter, the Wheel of Time series, countless others); following this, his blissful life is disrupted by tyrannical forces (because, you know that there is an evil dictator milling about) who raze his village/home/family. Should there be a mentor-figure by the lad’s side he is usually either killed at the get-go or dies in some hopeless, yet heroically Ur-fascist, confrontation in order to buy the hero time to escape. Then the young hero flees, finds new friends, continues along in his quest, and saves Middle-Earth from the armies of Mr. Dark Side Voldemort… or, whatever. Point is this is the standard fantasy plot par excellance and is the exact paradigm used in Cameron Dayton’s Etherwalker; the result of this is read was, for me, tiring and… well, tired writing is a mixed bag which, although far from bad, nonetheless could have been much better.

Story wise, the plot concerns young Enoch: a teenage boy trained in the ancient arts and lore by his master to one day (unknowingly) confront the evil of the land, a land drowned in chaos after the fall of humanity’s golden age. One day, upon accidentally activating a terminal, which his guardian had, eye-rolling, kept in their remote home as a study console, Enoch’s presence is announced to his enemies who had previously thought his kind—a race a beings called Pensaden blessed that hold the ability to manipulate technology—had long been extinct. So begins a grand hunt to murder Enoch; in short order Enoch’s village home is attacked and he and his master are driven into the woods where, surprise-surprise, they are assaulted by vile insect-men, the clichéd orc of this world; Enoch is forced into the wild world by himself, but thankfully, finds a motley crew of new friends and begins his training to… save the world, one can only assume, since Enoch’s exact purpose is never properly explained.

Part of the issue I have with Dayton’s book is not in his choice of clichéd beginnings but rather in his clumsy manner of assembly. Although far from the most original set-up to a teen fantasy book, Dayton’s weakness lies in his inability to present a strong narrative structure capable of remedying his shortcomings; by this I mean much of the book feels rushed, and subsequently, incomplete. Between the great jumps in time, sudden character developments and regression, and unexplained, or barely explained, plot points, by the end, the reliance on dues ex machinia becomes noticeable and drags the experience down. While reading, I constantly felt as though there was missing chapters extrapolating why Enoch performed certain actions or how [so and so] happened to some ancillary character. During the conclusion I felt as though there were at least a couple hundred pages on the cutting room floor, pages which desperately needed to be included in the final product.

Thankfully, however, not all of my opinions on Dayton’s effort are negative, for there is a great deal to like about this book, so I will mention two: one is the splendid world building; combining post-apocalyptic Anime inspired sci-fi with traditional high-fantasy is not an easy task, and yet, Dayton succeeds at sketching a world which have imprints of our own, while still being far enough removed into the future that upon the fall of humanity, the ‘fantasy’ divergences not only make sense, but seem like a natural outgrowth of the technological era. The second great strength Dayton manages is the characters themselves: while there are crucial points in the book where a character should have received more attention, or a certain event should have been explained better in order for the reader to gain a better insight into a cast member, the characters as they are written are both believable as well as engaging; their archetypes: farmboy, beast, fem fatal… are well penned and breathe life into the archetype to such a degree that they do not feel too hollow or pointless to pay attention to. Enoch especially, I am glad to see, brings a layer of depth in how his interpersonal interactions are rarely seen with his often vulgarly used archetype. Dialogue is often humorous and informative without wasting effort on needless description. So Dayton strikes a good balance between banter and plot, if at times relying heavily on long strings of exposition.

So is Etherwalker a perfect book? No, of course not, few such teen books reach such lofty heights. Is it original? Not at first, but once dug into it blossoms with creative renderings of beloved ideas and heroes. Dayton makes missteps, but overall, I think he makes an admirable job at redemption through the kind of ambition is he attempting to undertake in such a condensed space. While anyone hardened in the sci-fi and fantasy genres may remain unimpressed with Dayton’s product, any youth which finds their selves devoid of reading material yet interested in Anime, science-fiction-fantasy cocktails, will want to give this spiffy tale a try and come to their own opinion.

Etherwalker: Book One of the Silicon Covenant

Cameron Dayton

293 Pages. Published by Future House Publishing. $2.99 (Kindle), $13.95 (Paperback)[1]. 2015.

[1] Page number estimates and prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

The Road of Cliches: Reviewing book one of ‘The Safanarion Order’

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It may be unexpected, but while reading Ken Lozito’s first installment in the Sanfanarion Order series—Road to Shandara—I was reminded of Japanese Role Playing Games (or, JRPGs). Much like JRPGs, Lozito’s plot is predictable: there is a young hero discovering his powers, a princess in disguise, and the land needs to be saved from a malicious evil, but only if the hero can unite the disparate forces through the power of friendship. The narrative functions in much the same predictable way. With moments of action interspaced between moments of travel, moments in which the protagonist learns new skills to use in battle, the whole narrative feels lifted straight out of a video game (an unremarkable one, too); honestly, from the uneven pacing to the airship and the general developments, plot-wise, Lozito’s entire effort feels like a cobbled together tale imitating high fantasy. Poorly.

For a protagonist we have Aaron Jace, a university senior looking forward to graduate school (also known as Generic White Bourgeois Hero ripe for adolescent reader projection); unfortunately for our Mr. Jace, he is suddenly thrust into an inter-dimensional battle against the forces of evil when his grandfather dies and he learns that he is descended from a long line of powerful rulers who immigrated to Earth after their kingdom fell to an invading army of demons. (It must suck to live in Tolkein’s nightmare.) Now, armed with familial swords—AKA generic phallic symbols legitimating dude-bro violence— and the training his grandfather drilled into him, he crosses over into the land of his ancestors so as to make his way to the defunct capital—Shandara (roll credits!)—and liberate the imprisoned spirit of a family servant sworn to protect and help Aaron on his path to restoring the land; for you see, the land has fallen into decay after the ascension of some misbegotten tyrants. Along the way Aaron meets allies who flock to his banner, including a love interest and some best bros. This is the gist of Lozito’s plot.

But let’s pause and consider: uneven pacing. Aside from the cannibalization of other text’s ideas, most notably the obvious pilfering of Arthurian minutia, my biggest issue with Lozito’s book is that the pace moves absurdly fast and features hardly any character development. The one dimensional figures gain little, if any, depth while the protagonist’s fighting and survival abilities, not to mention his love interest, are festooned to his personage with mastery in the space of but a few short chapters; if there was ever a moment of ‘Zero to Hero,’ then this is it. Said again, the book explains nothing; events move in a linear direction without any idea of what the protagonist is experiencing: sometimes we get some vague idea of what he is thinking about or going through, but most of the time we just see things happen… boring things, too. To take an example textually paradigmatic: his romantic interest—she and he fall in love, literally, in the space of a few chapters and are married shortly after. This is not only unrealistic by any normal standard, but also confusing, since one would imagine that the protagonist would have hang-ups on finding a new love so quickly following the murder of his Earth-bound girlfriend. And yet, Aaron makes, again, literally, no mention, not so much as a single serious mental peep, concerning his previous engagement and hurls himself full throttle at this new woman without even so much as an acknowledgement at what drove him to move on so quickly or how and why he fell so madly in love with this new paramour; the best that I can come up with is that Lozito wrote the start of this book and the middle and end parts at different periods, possibly even part of different writing projects which were then later sown together in this later stage. As I said, this sort of void in character development, is poor writing; it shifts without explaining the subtending rational. Moreover, it is endemic to every part of the text.

All that I can say is that this is a shame since I can imagine how captivating this adventure would be had it been constructed with a more meticulous eye; should the author spent more time explicating the world and its inhabitants, and devised more intriguing methods of description and dissemination concerning his representation of the hero’s journey, this could have been a powerful read. I do not mind when fantasy authors borrow ideas from popular culture as Lozito does (ranging from the Lord of the Rings to even some Anime like Naruto), as I understand the fantasy-science fiction nexus only as good as the ideas each contributor is able to meld. But as it stands, this installment is anything but interesting: shot through with shoddy grammar, redundant phraseology, and poor story-telling mechanics, this effort, though not terrible, is far from the sort of material fans of fantasy enjoy; Lozito may make a valiant effort, but I cannot recommend this book.

Road to Shandara: Book one of the Safanarion Order

Ken Lozito

412 Pages. Published by Acoustical Books LLC. $0.00 (Kindle), $14.99 (Paperback)[1]. 2013.

[1] Page estimates taken from the Kindle version of the book and were provided by Amazon.com. Prices, likewise, were taken from the same source and were accurate at the time of writing.

‘Darkness Brutal’ by Rachel A. Marks (A Review)

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Review by Curtis Cole

                Do you have a hankering for Young Adult (YA) Urban Fantasy novels? If so then good news! Rachel A. Marks has you covered with her first installment in the “Dark Cycle” trilogy. Featuring all of the hallmarks of YA literature (hormones, passion, intimacy, emotions, etc.) with a healthy dose of inspiration taken from the television show “Supernatural”, readers of such works will be delighted to partake in the latest addition to the ‘up and coming’ sub-genre of urban fantasy; with the author having previously won an award for her novella “Winter Rose”, one should consider it an added bonus that the name behind the pen is talented as she is dedicated.

So what is the plot of this YA release, you ask? One of very expected content: Meet Aiden, a seventeen year old boy. He has special powers, including, but not limited to: the ability to read (and speak) in numerous ancient languages, see and communicate with demons, fighting said demons, and see peoples’ emotions waft from their bodies as colorful hues. Aiden must protect his little sister (Ava) whose (mysterious) importance is so vital to demon-kind that they have hunted her ever since she was a little girl; they congregate every three (or so) years—on her birthday—to make an attempt on her soul. People tend to die when this transpires and so Aiden, diligent to prevent any more innocent people from being torn to shreds, becomes desperate to protect her from the darkness, to find a lasting cure for her “demon problem”. In a bid to stave off the monsters he brings Ava to the home of Sid, a magically inclined gentleman who deals in the supernatural for a living, alongside his crew of “uniquely talented” youngsters. Though protected under Sid’s roof by his array of enchantments, things quickly become complicated for Aiden once he meets Kara and Rebecca; from here on out his life becomes a swirl of raging hormones and arcane secrets from his past—his mother’s death at the hand of demons somehow one of the keys to saving the world.

It is all standard fare. It is equal parts Supernatural and Harry Potter mixed with a bit of H.P Lovecraft. To Marks’s credit, much of the writing is handled exquisitely. The characters, for the most part, feel authentic: there is drama and emotions preserved in narrative layers; just when you think things become settled, something new transpires to throw everything out of orbit. Though there are many different sub-plots nothing ever feels too “out of whack”. Although some of the narrative aspects could have been more fully realized (such as a character or two or a plot thread), Marks should be congratulated on managing the largely successful fusion of so many different elements in a whole. Many authors, especially new authors, make the mistake of balancing too many balls in the air and end up crashing to the ground: Marks meanwhile juggles with pride.

So with this being said, I wish my opinion of Darkness Brutal was better, but quite frankly, I cannot lie: I found this book to be trite to the core. Though it may simply be I am not the target audience, I feel this only mitigates a fraction of the damage—I have read other YA novels containing far more substance. To make a list of my complaints: (1) the protagonist was jarring, (2) the plot itself easily recycled material from a wide range of supernatural and fantasy canon, (3) the drama needless and eye-rolling, and (4) some of the preaching, moralizing, and how it combined with the plot twists were laughable. Though there are many positive components to this books, these listed aspects were inexcusable mistakes.

First and foremost, the protagonist: he was thoroughly unlikable. Numerous times while reading, I wish I could shake him and/or punch him—he was a clueless, melodramatic, male chauvinist hiding behind a “nice guy” persona. His ignorance became more glaring with each chapter; his refusal to confide in people, ask for help, divulge information—along with his general arrogance juxtaposed with his stereotypical ‘I can handle anything since it is my responsibility to protect my little sis,’ when he is clearly outmatched—made him a target with legs in my eyes. His attitude was irrational and highly irksome since it was lazy writing on the part of the author; indeed, with Aiden she dropped the ball: truly he is nothing more than a walking amalgamation of tropes and clichés of the worst kind.

Another factor which pushed my literary buttons was Aiden’s disposition towards sexual activities. While this complaint factors into the various drama sub-plots, I found it to be a weakness of the author, and so subsequently attached it to her conservative social position; although the protagonist is on the cusp on adulthood, and openly remarks about his desperation to “get laid” and lose his virginity, he never engages in sexual activities when an able, willing and age-appropriate partner presents a consenting possibility.

To be clear: I am not railing against the fact that there are no sex scenes. No matter the genre, I prefer my literature to be free of pornography, as I feel it distracts from the narrative. What I am frustrated with, rather, is Marks’s moralizing and poor character design. Simply said, this seems of an authorial imposition: though I do not wish to make blanket statements about young people, I feel that many youth in Aiden’s position would have partook in a chance at sexual intimacy instead of passing up the offer. The fact that he refuses encounters extended to him by a willing, similarly aged, consenting partner, which even leads him to the fulfillment of the narrative’s major sub-plot, is indicative of a reactionary theist-oriented stance on human relations; Marks is building a world where youth resist the temptation of “sex before marriage” and are rewarded by divine powers. A position collaborated when seen contrasted to depictions of those who indulge in premarital carnal relations (i.e., deformed, sinful and unwell life forms who bring hardship upon their loved ones). With procreation constituting the major theme of the book (hardly surprising since Mormon extremist Orson Scott Card gave the title a sterling endorsement), and Aiden’s redemption of “The Mother(s)” achieved precisely through such conservative means, the aroma of sex negative thinking pervades the text.

For a teen and young adult novel, Darkness Brutal was a jarring read thanks to the overwhelming emphasis which conservatism occupied. The majority of the book’s inter-character drama played out against sexual desire and its repression. While the author did try and elevate non-sexual activities (like kissing and hand-holding) to a higher level of importance, the net-product was more condescension than reality. I felt that the focus of the plot was being subsumed. In place of an active engagement of Aiden as a uniquely talented individual, the focus of the narrative centered more on carnal delights which were only present due to the gifts given once rejected; in short: Marks does not know how to write youthful heterosexual males, a visibility made even more acute with the frustratingly cardboard “emotional wreck” of a love interest (“Kara”). It was needless and hapless preaching on the part of Marks; a kind whose obsolesce appeared all the more antiquated due to its awkward visibility in a genre usually devoid of such backward positions (teen novels such as Raziel Reid’s When Everything Feels Like the Movies depict how much a teen novel can get away with in terms of sexual philosophy without losing sight of the characters as driven agents).

All of this said, Darkness Brutal is still a fine read. Assuming one does not mind a great deal of cursing (or angst filled characters), I would recommend this as a suitable read to a teen or young adult with a penchant for the supernatural and otherworldly. The writing is evocative and the author knows how to keep the plot going. While she does trip over herself on more than one occasion, I do not feel it severely impedes the narrative to an unreadable degree; though I should be honest and say that I think this book can only be recommended to persons still developing a taste in this kind of thematic material; anyone, after all, who has read and watched more than a handful of similarly constructed texts, will be sure to find this a drab read. So, at the end of the day, while this is bound to be an adequate birthday-party bash for any number of young readers, older lovers of ‘the dark’ should stay away—nothing but ‘kiddy’ parties here!

Darkness Brutal

Rachel A. Marks

422 pages[1]. Published by Skyscape (NewYork). $4.99 (Kindle)[2]. 2015.

 

[1] Page estimates taken from Amazon.com.

[2] Prices were accurate at the time of writing.

‘When Everything Feels Like the Movies’ (A Review)

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Review by Curtis Cole

The funny thing about living in a capitalist society is that narrative runs your life, whether you recognize it or not. Jude, the young protagonist of Raziel Reid’s first book When Everything Feels Like the Movies, does understand this principal and so utilizes it as a coping mechanism, as a tool for him to help him deal with the homophobia present all around him. Jude is a movie star…! Or is in his mind, at least; he is correct, however, for he is the star of his own life: Jude, the Movie! We are all stars of our own lives and so it is the same with Jude: homophobic graffiti on your locker? Looks like the tabloids are running wild with speculation again; the betrayal of a former friend? What a plot twist! Bullies? You mean rapid fans. You get the idea—Jude’s life is one lived in a self-imposed fantasy because that is what he needs to embrace in order to cope on a day-to-day basis.

In the fashion of many teen novels, the plot of Movies is simple: Jude struggles through school while trying to find himself and hopefully, a romantic partner. Navigating a horde of hostile cis-gender, heterosexual teenagers when you are the only (out) gay, cross-dressing teen in the school, obviously, produces some tough results, and so it is unsurprising that Jude’s only friend is a dog and the school “slut,” Angela. Jude understands loneliness and what it feels like to get the emotional and physical daylights beaten out of you. Coming from a broken home, with an alcoholic father-in-law, absent biological father, and caring yet desperate mother, Jude does not exactly have a loving support system in place to help him through the rigors of adolescence. So he invents one, and being a (stereo)typical teen who loves celebrities, gossip, and the grandeur of stardom emanating from Hollywood, he, of course, places himself within the confines of what he loves and imagines himself as a yet-discovered star struggling through their low-key discovery phase. Other than the gay-bashing at the beginning of the book, details about Jude’s life, and the search for a long-term romantic partner while he saves up money to flee to Hollywood, there is not much to the plot other than the anticipation of discovering what next will happen to poor Jude.

In this sense, Movies sometimes feels like a cross between a drama, a snuff film, and a teen comedy, but this is the point: the ‘difficult’ subject matter, the frank discussion of sexuality, the bullying and violence, the delusion… all of this is a statement on narrative: on the romantic narrative differences which exist between gay and straight youth (of the double standard in courting and dating), on the narrative differences between bullied and non-bullied youth, how the latter do not need elaborate mythologies to keep themselves together, as well as the narrative of the media itself, how the oppressed are portrayed as the oppressor because they do not fit into the hetero-patriarchal norm. Jude’s cinematic delusion of starring in a movie, is an outgrowth of such a statement on narrative and so his manner of coping becomes a framing device capable of revealing the stark truth of narrative and the way it unclothes societal prejudices and class antagonisms. This is why Reid’s novel has garnered so much attention, both positive and negative, from the literary and cultural world—because it challenges conservative notions on sociality and youth culture; after Reid won the Governor General’s Literary Award, a prestigious Canadian prize, reactionary vultures came from all quarters to try and discredit Reid’s novel because it so threatened their own narrative delusion, that is, on society being ‘threatened’ by the outside perverse, the ‘radical’ youth and sexual minorities; what Reid has managed to do in a short period of time is to re-orient the debate on children’s literature to the vulnerable and disadvantaged, essentially returning a voice to the oppressed. So, of course the ruling elite, those counterrevolutionaries with a vested interest in maintaining the heteronormative status-quo, have attempted to smear Reid’s writing as ‘pornographic,’ ‘licentious,’ and ‘vulgar.’ To them, a world where the cis-hetero yells ‘faggot’ at the slightly effeminate kid is the norm and accords to a supposed human nature: Reid understands that this is not natural and accords to social processes where people, especially youth, are molded in accordance with the social-materiality of their surroundings, culture, media, and upbringing. There is nothing ‘natural’ about hatred.

Reid firmly stands with the silenced. Any friends who do likewise should purchase this book, should read and talk about this book, and share it with teens and Queer youth; the debate ignited around this text should not be forgotten but embraced and the fires flamed. Movies is a tour de force of humor, wit, and writing. With a film adaptation in the works, it seems likely that Reid’s project will continue to live and continue to harass the small-minded. I, and those who wish to see a better, more equalitarian world, should carry Reid’s banner and never let it go. Five out of five stars.

When Everything Feels Like the Movies

Raziel Reid

176 pages. Published by Arsenal Pulp Press. $9.99 (Kindle), $1.83 (Paperback), $19.15 (Hardcover), $12.24 (Audible audiobook)[1].

Age level: 12-18, Grade 6 and up[2].

 

[1] Page estimates and prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

[2] Recommended age range and reading level provided by Amazon.com.

The Wayward Youth of ‘Substance’ (A Review)

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Review by Curtis Cole

        Author Ashlyn Forge understands the finer points of drama: foregoing melodrama in favor of subdued, almost amnesiac thread of low-intensity existential angst, Forge’s standalone—Substance—set in her “Toys and Soldiers” universe, crafts a wrenching coming of age story set in an oppressive civilization called “The Colony.”

Protagonist Phil, a trainee of the martial arts master Job—the Colony’s most notorious sensei—is reminiscent of young people today: he lives with his father, a miner, idolizes Gara (a musical superstar), and is desperate to make his family proud, while at the same time resenting the overbearing affection placed on him while he simply wants to try and find his own way in life. An introvert, however, Phil finds it hard to become the extroverted, highly physical, warrior elite his father pines for as a means of financially liberating them to a higher class. With his training with Job coming to an inglorious end, Phil slips further into desperation as he imagines ways to earn credits. Coming to become part of a ransack-team hired to rob the home of a wealthy target, Phil’s world forever changes when the heist goes wrong and he is pulled into the depraved world of his idol—Gara.

Forge tells the story of a young man discovering himself both sexually and as an individual. His new life as a bodyguard for Gara becomes an allegory for growing up; experiments with drugs, insecurity with others and misconstruing hormones for love, being torn between family, pride, and necessity, and settling for the best one can get given the circumstances. Substance is not always a happy story, but it is realistic. When one considers that it is set in a homonormative sci-fi world plagued by a rigid class system and sexual segregation, this becomes remarkable.

Forge has a talent in breathing life into characters. Although Phil rarely speaks, spending most of the novella’s paragraphs in interior monologue, the reader gleans an interest in him as a person; distant, though emotional, thoughtful yet not intellectual, and caring yet blunt are but some of the ways in which a reader could describe the subtle nuance of Phil’s personage. His interaction with Gara is thus transformed into a multilayered interaction as traits about both men are revealed and as Phil gains insight into the world he has been dragged into. Together with details about The Colony gradually trickling down from organic moments in both reflection and conversation, the construction of this stand-alone installment in is a beautifully written tract on youth and its meaning.

Although a brief read, I would recommend Substance to anyone, especially in the Queer community, who is looking for a well-constructed story. The cast is enjoyable and believable in their deeds, the plot packs an emotional layer underlying the seemingly benign, irrational, series of events, and the ending is an unexpected, although heartwarming, surprise which mixed with equal amounts joy and melancholy, amounts to a movingly poetic, yet decentering, aesthetic. Fans of youthful struggle should not miss!

Substance

Ashlyn Forge

82 pages. Published in Japan by Ashlyn Forge. $0.00 (Kindle)[1]. 2014.

[1] Prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

The Death of Persephone: Reviewing “Red Rising” by Pierce Brown

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Review by Curtis Cole

Empire: it is a dirty word and for good reason. It stands for violence, oppression, exploitation and, perhaps most of all, lies. This is something the protagonist of Pierce Brown’s science-fiction debut knows all too well. Coming from the subterranean passages of Mars, male lead Darrow and his fellow miners, “Reds”, toil all day long in the dark, expecting their labor to propel humanity forward into the future by enabling the terraforming of Mars thanks to the precious Helium-3 gas they struggle to extract. But, as Darrow discovers, not all is as the ruling class claim: Mars was made habitable hundreds of years ago.

Darrow and all of Red kind are slaves. They are the lowest of cogs in a vast classist regime dedicated to the accumulation of wealth, of capital. The surface of Mars is littered with thousands of cities, all of which loudly proclaim the inebriation bestowed upon society through the machinations of capitalism; the romanticization of war, the subjugation of women as sex slaves, the unfettered consumption of alcohol enslaving the working class, while those who remain sober become bought with the super-profits reaped from those Reds who remain ignorant of the truth, all of which is heaped upon the single pivotal cornerstone of bourgeois society—that of obedience to those “higher” than yourself and of the overriding importance of class and caste in maintaining the power structure of the elite.

Darrow, recruited by a guerrilla organization called “The Sons of Ares”, quickly finds himself caught in the middle of a vast power-play: one ultimately between domination and emancipation. The Sons of Ares ask him to undertake a near-impossible mission: infiltrate the testing grounds of the imperial elite, the so-called “Golds”, best them at their own games and secure a place in their decadent society so as to one day use his power to support a Red uprising.

Brown’s text here is radical in content. It is the telling of a coming of age story through the lens of vicious class warfare; combining the best parts of a host of influences, from Ender’s Game, the A Song of Fire and Ice series, Divergence, The Hunger Games, and more, Brown moves beyond his literary contemporaries by offering a leftist take on alienation and class society. His fusion of Greek myth, and history (both military and socio-economic), and the accompanying layers of homoerotic subtext, create multifaceted layers to be explored, while his representation of a non-commodity based barter system (the underground society of the Reds, of whom over a billion are counted) act as a stand-in for a primitive communism in decline, one impacted with vices of bourgeois culture and ultimately on the precipice of revolutionary change. Darrow’s (anti-)hero’s journey into the belly of the beast isn’t merely one content to parrot dusty platitudes of peaceful reform: the central issue, after all, is one of class consciousness and of overcoming internal divisions inflicted upon one’s class in an effort to enforce weakness. Violence, in other words, and how it is used to liberate or oppress, is the theme which runs throughout. In this sense Darrow’s story, his journey into adulthood being refracted through the prism of social struggle, is a pure coming of age story, one which hits the heart of what such stories are about.

Red Rising is riddled with tension, anger, and frustration. Darrow’s campaign is not merely one of directionless angst but of focused discipline, one which can easily be extrapolated from contemporary society. All of which is to say that Brown is likely heavily preoccupied with socially pressing issues and perhaps has written this book at least as a partial lashing out against society’s ills. The pages overflow with emotion. Each chapter brings a new development and, more often than not, heralds an approaching twist (of which the plot has several which pull no punches). Characters are not merely alive or believable but filled with vibrancy and attitude; while at times platitudes appear too prevalent, Brown has a style of writing which repurposes clichés and archetypes into characters which you have not seen before or have, in the very least, not seen this way. The author’s skill with a pen shines through with each and every page: the tone, atmosphere, the world-building, the cast, the social critique… all is cast in stunning realism, if not one of a dark, gory nature.

For what it is—a piercingly violent assault on contemporary morality and values—Red Rising is something any fan of dark sci-fi/fantasy will want to read. While it will not hold up to the classics of the sci-fi genre, in terms of the young adult audience which is its target consumer, Brown’s story presents cogent and mature themes; while there are of course weaknesses in the thread, such as Darrow’s conflicted personage and many of the building blocks being recycled from other sources, in the end, Red Rising depicts a dystopia which is only just: one which is a distorted reflection of modernity.

Red Rising

Pierce Brown

382 pages. Published by Del Ray. $8.86 (Paperback), $16.77 (Hardcover), $6.99 (Kindle), $29.95 (Audible)[1]. 2014.

[1] Prices taken from Amazon.com and were accurate at the time of writing.

Outside the Ordinary: A Review of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary

Outside the Ordinary: A Review of Nick Burd’s The Vast Fields of Ordinary

By Tyler M. Michaud

The following doesn’t contain any spoilers

Originally published in 2009 by first-time American author Nick Burd, The Vast Fields of Ordinary is classified as a work of LGBT Young Adult Fiction. Since its release the book has had impressive success. It won the Stonewall Book Award in the Children’s and Young Adult Literature category. It was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for LGBT Children’s/Young Adult literature. It was added to Booklist’s 2010 Rainbow List. The New York Times listed it as one of the most notable books of 2009. And, this captivating novel earned Burd a place on the “OUT 100,” which pays tribute to people that make significant contributions to the LGBTQ community and culture [1]. TheVastFieldsofOrdinary

The novel explores the summer after Dade Hamilton graduates from high school—his last summer at home. Dade’s life appears to be ordinary from the outside. He works at the local grocery store, Food World. His family lives in an up-and-coming, wealthy suburban neighborhood. He’s socially awkward and the target of insults from the cool crowd, but his “boyfriend,” Pablo, is popular, so ideally he’d be safe.

Except, things aren’t as they appear. In fact, the more we learn about this suburbia, the more we realize that life beneath the surface is quite complicated. Dade is a closeted homosexual. His parents are on the brink of divorce. His job at Food World is anything but the stereotypical low-stress, part-time job. The cherry on top? Pablo refuses to openly acknowledge their relationship, probably because he’s dating one of the popular girls, which explains why the in-crowd targets Dade. 

The Vast Fields of Ordinary is a gay coming-of-age novel. Over the course of the summer, Dade comes to terms with the different layers of himself and the world around him. He falls in love with the dreamy Alex Kincaid, who teaches him to live in the moment and for himself. The “troubled girl” from down the block, Lucy, turns out to be wholly wonderful, and the best friend which Dade never knew he needed. By the end, Dade figures out that life is hard, but it’s also elastic; it’s able to bounce back.

This is my second time reading it. The first time was my sophomore year of high school. At that time, I considered it to be the novel to trump all novels. For years, everything I read was compared to it. To say I loved this book would be an understatement. Now, as a senior in college (~five years later), I decided to reread it, although I feared that, in my mind, I’d built it up too much. Plus, the thought lingered, what if I hated it? Alas, I really, really liked it. But, it’s not the perfect novel younger me labeled it.

My major thoughts are as follows (I’ll spare you a word for word review of the novel.): First, I’ll always have a special place in my heart for Dade. Although, in my opinion, he’s not the most dynamic character, he’s true. His voice is unique and convincing. He struggles with love, friendship, self-discovery and acceptance, all of which are universal issues. Most interestingly, I noticed that rereading this book has changed my perspective on pretty much every character. Dade, for example, is incredibly self-involved (Did I not notice this because as a teenager I was the same way? Oops. Sorry, Dad.) It’s not that he’s unkind, but he views everyone’s problems as they relate to his own.

Alex, the love interest, is a manic pixie dream girl (MPDG), if you will. The MPDG is a common trope in pop culture: 

Film critic Nathan Rabin, who coined the term after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown (2005), describes the MPDG as ‘that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures’. MPDGs are said to help their men without pursuing their own happiness, and such characters never grow up; thus, their men never grow up. [2]

However, this is arguably why Alex is enchanting. Actually, when I start to think about him realistically, I find that his charm completely melts away, exposing something quite ugly. Yet another way my perspective has changed—younger me loved Alex.

Pablo is by far the most dynamic and unique character in this novel. I used to hate him, although I’ve always been able to sympathize with him. However, now he’s my favorite character. Throughout the novel Pablo changes from the selfish guy that uses Dade to explore his sexuality, to somebody broken and aching for a fix, and, finally, to a person that’s all too real—however terrible this may be. The way Burd weaves Pablo into the story is interesting, because Pablo isn’t overly present in the action itself; rather, he’s ever-present in Dade’s thoughts.

Early-on in the novel, the secondary plot is introduced. A girl with autism goes missing from her yard. This story arch is threaded throughout the whole book. It’s done in a way that make me believe that it serves a larger purpose than how I currently understand it, that being it adds action to a social-based story. I did and still feel like I’m missing something. Maybe reading it a third time will help? 

Burd’s writing is beautiful, eloquent, and sincere, and yet unforced. It’s capable of tugging at your heartstrings and awakening your mind without the gratuitous voice some authors wield:

“I stopped wanting to float away from my life, because in the end my life was all I had. I’d walk the Fairmont campus and look up to the sky and I wouldn’t see myself drifting off like some lost balloon. Instead I saw the size of the world and found comfort in its hugeness. I’d think back to those times when I felt like everything was closing in on me, those times when I thought I was stuck, and I realized that I was wrong. There is always hope. The world is vast and meant for wandering. There is always somewhere else to go.” [3]

Just like the first time I read it, after finishing the novel I had to separate myself from the book to calm down. I would recommend this book to anybody interested in realistic young adult fiction, people interested in LGBT issues, and people that want a story that is more driven by character than plot. It doesn’t surprise me that it made such an impact in the YA and LGBT communities—it’s exquisite.

The Vast Fields of Ordinary

Nick Burd

309 pages. Published by Dial.

Hardcover: $12.67, paperback: $6.51 (amazon.com)


References

1. “The Vast Fields of Ordinary.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

2. “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 27 Sept. 2014.

3. “Nick Burd Quotes.” Goodreads: Nick Burd Quotes (Author of The Vast Fields of Ordinary). Web. 27 Sept. 2014.