Earth is overcrowded and overheated but people still don’t want to become colonists to other planets. The colonies on the other planets are so boring and depressing that the colonists spend all of their money on Can-D — a drug that lets them imagine themselves living in an idealistic version of Earth. The only trick is they have to set up dioramas of Earth first. The drug is illegal on Earth but the diorama parts are still created by a company there. When the famous Palmer Eldritch returns from the far-flung reaches of space, he brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, that doesn’t require the dioramas. What the people don’t know, but one of the manager of the Can-D company soon finds out, is that Chew-Z sends those who take it into an alternate illusion controlled by Palmer Eldritch.
I love Philip K. Dick, and I have since first reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? So whenever I see his books come up on sale in ebook format, I snatch them up. I picked this up a while ago for this reason, and then randomly selected it as my airplane read on my honeymoon. Like many Dick novels the world of this book is insane, difficult to explain, and yet fun to visit and thought-provoking.
The world Dick has imagined is hilarious, although I’m not sure it was intended to be. Presciently, Dick sets up a future suffering from overpopulation and global warming, given that this was published in 1965, I find it particularly interesting that his mind went to a planet that gets too hot. Even though the planet is unbearably warm (people can only go outside at night and dusk/dawn), they still don’t want to colonize other planets. Colonizing the other planets is just that bad. So there’s a selective service by the UN, only instead of soldiers, those randomly selected are sent to be colonists. The wealthy can generally get out of it by faking mental illness, as the mentally ill can’t be sent away. This particular aspect of the book definitely reflects its era, as the 1960s was when the Vietnam War draft was so controversially going on.
I don’t think it’s going out on much a limb to say that drugs had a heavy influence on this book. Much of the plot centers around two warring drugs, and how altered perceptions of reality impact our real lives. One of the main characters starts out on Earth hearing about how the poor colonists have such a depressing environment that they have to turn to drugs to keep from committing suicide. But when he later is sent to Mars himself as a colonists, his impression is that in fact the colony is this downtrodden because no one tries very hard because they’re so much more focused on getting their next hit of Can-D. The Can-D has caused the lack of success on the planet, not the other way around. Whether or not he is accurate in this impression is left up to the reader.
Then of course there’s the much more major plot revolving around the new drug, Chew-Z. Without giving too much away, people think Chew-Z is a much better alternative to Can-D, but it turns out chewing it puts you under the control of Palmer Eldritch for the duration of your high, and if you overdose, you lose the ability to tell the difference between illusion and reality. The main character (and others who help him) thus must try to convince the humans that Chew-Z is bad for them before they ever even chew it. The main character has another side mission of getting people off of Can-D.
It sounds like a very anti-drugs book when summarized this way, but it felt like much more than that. People chewing Chew-Z can come to have an experience that sounds religious – seeing the three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (a stigmata in Christian tradition is when God shows his favor on someone by giving them the marks of Jesus’ crucifixion. In this book, the three stigmata are three bodily aspects of Palmer that are unique to him). However, the experience of seeing the stigmata is in fact terrifying, not enlightening. The drugs thus represent more than drugs. They represent the idea that we could possibly know exactly what a higher power is thinking, and perhaps that it might be better to just go along as best we can, guessing, rather than asserting certainty.
All of this said, a few weaknesses of the 1960s are seen. I can’t recall a non-white character off the top of my head. Women characters exist, thank goodness, but they’re all secondary to the male ones, and they are divided pretty clearly into the virgin/whore dichotomy. They are either self-centered, back-stabbing career women, or a demure missionary, or a stay-at-home wife who makes pots and does whatever her husband asks. For the 1960s, this isn’t too bad. Women in the future are at least acknowledged and most of them work, but characterizations like this still do interfere with my ability to be able to 100% enjoy the read. Also, let’s not forget the Nazi-like German scientist conducting experiments he probably shouldn’t. For a book so forward-thinking on things like colonizing Mars and the weather, these remnants of its own time period were a bit disappointing.
Overall, though, this is a complex book that deals with human perception and ability. Are we alone in space? Can we ever really be certain that what we are seeing is in fact reality? How do we live a good life? Is escapism ever justified? Is there a higher power and if there is how can we ever really know what they want from us? A lot of big questions are asked but in the context of a mad-cap, drug-fueled dash around a scifi future full of an overheated planet and downtrodden Mars colonies. It’s fun and thought-provoking in the best way possible.
4 out of 5 stars
Picking up where Unwind left off, UnWholly finds Risa and Connor managing the Graveyard full of unwinds themselves with no adults in site, and Lev struggling to find a purpose now that he’s both free of clapper chemicals and under the watchful eye of the government. Into the mix comes Cam, the first ever “rewind.” He’s been assembled completely from the parts of unwinds of every race and religion. And his creator intends to meddle with the runaway unwinds too.
I picked this up right after finishing the first on audiobook, because finding a fast-paced story with a good narrator can be harder than it sounds. So once I found that with the first book in the series and I saw the rest of it had the same narrator, I figured I may as well continue along with it. While I found the first book engaging and thought-provoking, I found myself periodically bored with the plot in this one, and also found it more difficult to suspend my disbelief than before.
The basic premise is that Connor is all torn up over having the arm of his once-rival (who also just so happened to threaten to rape his girlfriend, Risa). He thus holds Risa at arm’s-length (pun intended) because he’s afraid of what his own arm will do. While I appreciate the fact that it must be truly atrocious for your boyfriend to now have your attempted rapist’s arm, I think the fact that Connor lends the arm so much agency is a symptom of one particular idea in this world-building that just doesn’t work for me. The idea that body parts have their own spark of soul or agency or thought. It’s rife in this entry in the series, and it’s just plain weird to me. I can understand a character not bonding with a transplant that was forced upon him. I can understand it being weird for loved ones. I don’t, however, find myself able to suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone’s arm has their personality in it so much that the person who it was transplanted onto would be afraid of it. It’s an arm, not a piece of brain or even a heart. The author does provide links to sources about transplant recipients feeling connected to the person whose body part they received or having memories or what have you. I appreciate that. But for me personally this plot point just does not work. Other readers may be able to suspend their disbelief better than I was able to. I for once can’t imagine not going near my own girlfriend because I was afraid of my arm. I also just disliked how much agency Connor removes from himself for his own temper. If he hits the wall when he’s angry it’s not him hitting the wall, it’s the arm hitting the wall. The arm got mad. The arm got out of control. There’s just a ridiculous lack of agency there, and I’m not super comfortable with that level of lack of agency being in a book marketed toward teenagers, who are at the best point in life for learning agency and responsibility.
I similarly have a hard time believing, from a neurological perspective, that the rewind boy, Cam, could exist. His brain is dozens’ of peoples all wound together. I could believe replacing a brain piece here or there with transplant technology, I couldn’t believe mish-mashing many together and having them actually function. Let alone with the only issue being that Cam struggles to learn to speak in words instead of metaphors. While Cam did strike me as grotesque, he mostly just struck me as an impossibility that I was then supposed to have sympathy for because he’s a person with his own feelings…but are they really? The whole thing was just a bit too bizarre for me.
On a related note, I found the scenes where Cam wakes up and learns to talk and slowly realizes what he is to be very tedious to read. They move slowly, and there is an attempt at building of suspense, but it is clear nearly immediately that Cam is a Frankenstein’s creature like experiment, even without Cam himself knowing it right away.
The other big new character is Starkey, a boy who was storked who is brought into the Graveyard. He’s basically exactly the same as Connor (he’s even still a white boy), the only difference being that was a stork and that he has no Risa to ease down his temper. I found his characterization to be uncreative, even if the building up of strife between the storks and the rest of the unwinds was a good plot point. It would have been better if the leader of the storks was more creative. Similarly, Starkey’s two main assistants are a black girl and an Indian-American boy. Just as with the first book, non-white people exist, but only as seconds to the white people. Why couldn’t either of them have been the leader of the storks?
All of these things said, there was still a lot of plot to keep the interest. I’ve barely touched on a couple of them. The world is still engaging, even if it’s hard to suspend the disbelief for it. I doubt I’d keep reading if I was reading this in print, but the audiobook narration makes it feel like listening to a movie, and it’s the perfect match for my commutes and doing dishes and such. Plus, now I’m curious as to where else the plot will go. I’m betting it will end up going in a direction I find it even harder to suspend my disbelief for, but it’ll be a fun ride seeing where that is.
Overall, fans of the first book may be disappointed by the slightly more meandering plot in this one. The addition of two new characters to follow will be distracting to some readers while others will find it adds to the interest and suspense. Some readers may be turned off by the continued lack of diversity in such a large cast of protagonists. The plot is engaging and the world is unique, though, so fans of YA dystopian scifi will probably still enjoy it.
3 out of 5 stars
Vlad the Impaler, a Wallachian prince, inspired the story of Dracula with his bloodthirsty, iron-handed ruling. This, though, is the story of his long-time consort, Ecaterina Floari, mother one of his sons and a daughter. She loves him deeply but is haunted by his ruling style, as well as spirits in a helmet he brings into their home from one of his battles.
I picked this up during the Smashwords Summer/Winter sale years ago but it took a while for my mood to be just right to read it. It is a historic piece set in 1400s with splashes of the fantastic, and I tended to be in the mood for one or the other but not both. Finally in the heat of the summer, I was ready for a dark historic fantasy that would take me away to heavy gowns and ancient rulers. I was surprised by the level of historic research and detail in the book, as well as the tie-in to the Dracula story, making it a marriage of two genres.
This is a long book with a lot of rich setting detail. That doesn’t tend to be my style but it works with the feel the book is going for, and many readers will enjoy the pace at which the book moves. The dark fantasy elements take time to set up, but when they get into motion they really add to the story. The story strikes a nice balance of Ecaterina working with the culture of her time-period and being bothered by certain things Vlad does. For instance, it bothers her that he has mistresses, but she comes to accept it as is expected of her in the time-period. This trajectory acknowledges the feelings the modern reader may have about the situation but also lets the character be true to her time-period.
The author toes a finely-held line of showing Vlad’s cruelty but also keeping him human and not demonizing him. He was a cruel ruler but he wasn’t a monster. Similarly, although Ecaterina loves him she is still disturbed by his actions when ruling. This lends both characters depth they would not have if Ecaterina’s love was blind or Vlad was monstrous.
In spite of appreciating the historic fiction plot covering many decades, I did sometimes feel that the plot meandered a bit too much. I also felt that sometimes the book told too much instead of showing. Similarly, there were a few too many typos and grammatical errors for a book that is in its final version. It was not enough to make me stop reading but it was enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the story.
I appreciated how much of the book is from women’s perspectives. Not just Ecaterina’s but her mother’s, servants, and other consorts and even a spy are featured. The female cast is strong, and that would be easy for a less thoughtful writer to pass over in favor of showcasing the men history chose to record more thoroughly.
Overall, readers seeking to learn something about the 1400s in Romania will be pleased by how much they will learn reading this book. Those who come to it due to the Dracula connection will enjoy the fantastical elements toward the end in particular. Recommended to readers of historic fiction and fantasy who do not mind a long book with a slow burn.
4 out of 5 stars
In the near future, the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life debate explodes into a war called the Heartland War. The only way the war could reach a peace was to come to an agreement. There would be no abortion but when children are between the ages of 13 and 17 their parents can sign an order to have them unwound. New scientific technology allows doctors to transplant all of a person’s body parts. They will then “live on” in a “divided state.” Teens whose parents choose to sign an unwind order for them are rounded up by juvie cops and brought to Harvest Camps to await their fate. Some families, particularly from fundamentalist branches of all faiths, believe in tithing 10% of their children, and will have a child simply to raise them to be a tithe. Additionally, many children end up unwanted and living in State Homes, where they are all given the last name of Ward–for ward of the state.
Connor is a light-hearted bad boy who just accidentally found his own unwind orders in his parents’ desk and immediately goes on the run. Lev is a tithe who is on his way to Harvest Camp. Risa is a ward of the state, and she is on a bus to be unwound, because she isn’t deemed exceptional enough to justify her upkeep. A series of events throws them into each other’s lives and leaves whether or not they will be unwound in question.
This was recommended to me years ago, but when I first read the description I was skeptical that the book was anything but Pro-Life propaganda. Years later I decided to check it out again, and most reviews mentioned how neutral the book was. Additionally, I read some interviews with the author where he stated he genuinely was trying to present a neutral story that analyzes some tough questions, so I thought I would give it a shot. Ultimately, the author has succeeded at creating a future world that is fascinating to visit and that also analyzes medical ethics in a creative way. I would honestly say the book is much more about medical ethics, particularly in regards to transplants, than it really is about abortion rights.
The basic plot is that three very different teenagers are supposed to be unwound but then find themselves on the run instead of actually at Harvest Camp. The book is in the third person but from the limited perspective of one character, and that one character switches around. It is predominantly Connor, Risa, or Lev, but it is also sometimes someone like a juvie cop or a parent. Sometimes this narrative structure works really well, providing many different perspectives on the same event or issue. Other times it feels too contrived. The perspective switches at just the right moment to keep the reader in the dark, or to reveal something we wouldn’t otherwise know. Sometimes this structure builds suspense and other times it kind of ruins it. Overall, though, I enjoyed the structure and found that the multiple perspectives really added to the world and the story.
This narrative structure is enhanced by clippings from real, modern-day newspaper articles and blogs, as well as fake advertisements and news from the future the book is set in. Partially due to the Audible narrator, who did a fantastic job at the ads, I really enjoyed these snippets of media from the future. They are very tongue-in-cheek and adult, but will still appeal to teens reading the book for their over-the-topness. I found the modern day news articles to be less interesting, and mostly felt a bit like scare mongering. They read as a bit heavy-handed in pushing the “this could really happen!” angle.
I did find it a bit frustrating that all three of the main characters are white and straight. While it is acknowledged that a few people (primarily adults) could be GLBTQ, the assumed norm is straight and cis, no matter what social organization is in control. Whether it’s mainstream society, rebels, or anyone in-between. The norm is always straight cis. Similarly, while the author does include non-white people to a much greater degree than non-straight/non-cis people (there are a wide variety of ethnicities and religions represented in the society), they are all secondary characters. One thing that really stuck out to me was that at one point in the book we meet a Chinese-American girl who is being unwound because her parents wanted a son, and they just kept trying until they got one and then picked a daughter to unwind, because they couldn’t afford all the kids. She’s also got an interesting punk aesthetic to her. What an interesting main character she would have been! Can you imagine her in the role of Connor? They are both running away from being unwound, and she could easily have taken that main character role. It just bothers me when a book has three main characters who are all in a similar situation due to society-wide problems, and yet they are so non-diverse, with just a nod at gender by having one female character.
With regards to the female character, Risa, I must say I was very disappointed to have one plot point be an attempted rape of her, and her then being saved by a male character. First, we only get one female main character and then she naturally is almost raped. Then naturally she must be saved by someone else. The whole scene sickened me, especially when I thought about teen girls reading it. It was just a completely unnecessary plot point. I once read an article that talked about how often rape scenes (or attempted rape scenes) are a sign of lack of creativity. I don’t think all of them are, but this one certainly came across that way. Unnecessary and a convenient plot point without thought to how it would affect the readers.
In spite of these characterization and style complaints though, the plot is very good, and the world is fascinating. Characters in a natural manner talk about and explore the ethics of life, when life begins, and who has the right to life, as well as who has the right to end it. The plot is fast-paced, and I read as quickly as I could to find out what happened. There are also a couple of twists at the end that rocked my socks off and left me immediately downloading the next book in the series.
All of that said, I have a few questions about the world that were never addressed. First, if everyone who is unwound is between the ages of 13 and 17, how does that work out with transplantation? People have not yet finished growing at 17, especially their minds. Does this mean a 67 year old woman would have a 15 year old’s arm if she needed a transplant? If so, that sounds very grotesque to me, and I wonder how society has learned to deal with something so mis-matched. This isn’t particularly addressed, except to say that sometimes it’s weird to look at someone with two eyes that don’t match. Similarly, the world at large isn’t really talked about at all. The kids who are trying to escape being unwound don’t even consider running into another country but they never explain why. How has the world at large reacted to the United States’ new law? Is there any country that would be a safe-haven for unwinds? Are there other countries following suit? The international impact is woefully underaddressed.
In spite of these various shortcomings, the plot and the world still sucked me in. It was a quick read that left me wanting more.
Overall, fans of dystopian ya looking for another series to whet their appetite will definitely enjoy this one. It’s a completely different dystopia from most of the ones that are already big, and I am sure YA readers who are currently teens themselves will find the idea of their parents being able to sign an unwind order on them chilling. Dystopian YA fans should definitely give this one a go.
4 out of 5 stars
It’s September 1768 in Boston, Massachusetts, and the King’s navy has sailed into Boston Harbor to start an occupation in an attempt to restore order and stop the stewing rebellion. Conjurer and thieftaker Ethan Kaille isn’t sure how he feels about the occupation but he is sure how he feels about the large spells he’s started feeling in Boston–not good. He feels even worse he finds out that all the men on board one of the British ships have been killed by a conjuring. The British navy hires him to investigate, while the mayor of Boston threatens to have all conjurers hanged in mere days if he doesn’t find the culprit.
I loved the first book in this series. Urban fantasy set in a historical time period in the city I actually live in just appealed to me so much. (I really do wish there was more historical urban fantasy. It is awesome). This book failed to capture my attention the way the first in the series did, and I’m uncertain if it was due to the tone, the plot, or the audiobook narration.
Ethan comes across as a bit more insufferable in this entry than in the first. Perhaps as an American and a Bostonian I just simply struggle to understand Loyalist leanings, but Ethan siding with the Crown over and over again, in spite of a literal military occupation just rubbed me the wrong way. It takes him far too long to be irritated by this over-reaction from the Crown, in spite of being on good terms with some of the Patriot leaders. I suppose what it comes down to is that I could take his waffling in the first book when rebellion was just beginning to brew. I thought he was closer to being on the Patriots’ side by the time period of this book, and he wasn’t. This would bother some readers less than it bothered me, I am sure.
Similarly, I had a hard time caring about the plot. I cared about Ethan solving the mystery in time to save the conjurers, but I simply didn’t care who had killed the men on the occupation ship. Everyone in the book, even the Patriots leaders, seemed to think it was this huge evil thing, and I just didn’t care much one way or the other. Part of this could be because I don’t see the difference between casting a spell and murder in other ways, whereas the characters in the book do. Part of it is that the reader never gets a chance to get to know anyone on the ship in a way that would make them sympathize. It felt for a lot of the book like Ethan was investigating a calamity of war, rather than a crime, and that just made it a bit dull to me.
All of that said, this book is a poor fit for an audiobook. I am certain I would have enjoyed it better if I was reading it myself, in retrospect. The pacing just isn’t suited to an audiobook’s speed. I wanted it to go faster, and I did speed up the narration speed, but I couldn’t speed it up too much or I’d miss important things. It was a bit frustrating, in spite of the narrator’s talents at creating unique voices for each character, which is something I always appreciate.
The ending of the book does speed up its pace, and the solution to the mystery is fascinating. This saved the book for me, although I am uncertain if I will continue along in the series. I may need to poke around and see if Ethan goes fully Patriot in the next book before I venture to pick it up.
Overall, this entry in the series fails to live up to the first, although an interesting ending will still spur the reader on to the next entry in the series. Readers who will be turned off by Loyalist leanings in a Revolutionary War book may wish to look elsewhere. But those who simply enjoy seeing urban fantasy in a historic era will not be disappointed.
3 out of 5 stars