I post series reviews after completing reading an entire series of books. It gives me a chance to reflect on and analyze the series as a whole. These series reviews are designed to also be useful for people who: A) have read the series too and would like to read other thoughts on it or discuss it with others OR B) have not read the series yet but would like a full idea of what the series is like, including possible spoilers, prior to reading it themselves or buying it for another. Please be aware that series reviews necessarily contain some spoilers.
In the not-too-distant future, the heavily populated world is run by corporations instead of governments. The corps keep their workers and people in Compounds where they’ll be safe from the rampant crime in the rest of the world. Supposedly. Those who can’t get jobs at a corp must live in the pleeblands, essentially ghettoes. The pleeblands are haunted by painballers–people who fought their way out of prison in a gladiator-style competition and who are usually now addicted to drugs.
The world isn’t entirely humans and corps, though. There are also a whole slew of new GMO plants and animals, such as rakunks and pigoons. Children can buy bracelets with live fish inside them as wearable pets.
Jimmy works in a corp with Crake. Crake is a genius who the corp allows to create basically whatever he wants. They share a love interest in Oryx, who works with them, caring for the creations Crake makes. Toby lives in the pleeblands, working in fast food restaurants. She is being pursued by a violent stalker, who she is sure will kill her one day. Then she discovers God’s Gardeners, a vegetarian cult that lives on the rooftops of the city gardening, learning all the species of the planet, and preparing for the impending End Times. And the End Times come in the form of a virus released by Crake to destroy humanity and make room for the new breed of humans he has created in his lab–Crakers. Crakers are herbivorous, polyamorous, and turn blue when they are in heat. The pandemic wipes out almost everyone, but not quite. Jimmy is left to care for the Crakers, and Toby survives, reminiscing about how her life has gone. And there are some that Crake gave an immunity drug to. They gather together and attempt to survive, guide the Crakers, and ponder on how things turned out this way.
The future world, prior to the virus outbreak that destroys most human life, is incredibly imaginative and simultaneously realistic. It is by far the strength of the series. Atwood takes real modern day science and intelligently extrapolates how that combined with our evolving culture would affect life on Earth. The change from politicians and nations controlling the world to corporations doing so makes excellent sense. The types of animals those corps create are also logical both within that context and from a scientific perspective. For instance, the mo’hairs are sheep who have had their genetics modified so that their wool is instead human hair to makes wigs out of. How the world works makes sense and is slightly frightening at the same time. It’s a subtle dystopia.
The post-apocalyptic setting is slightly less creative. Only a few humans survive and quickly leave the cities to live in the countryside. Conveniently, at least half of the group of survivors are from the vegetarian cult, God’s Gardeners, who predicted the end times, and so are well prepared for living in the wild. This setting is much staler compared to the pre-apocalypse dystopia. It feels as if the characters are just sitting in a clearing in the woods chatting at each other. This would not be a problem if the characters were rich enough to sustain the plot when the creative world has disappeared. But most of them are not.
Atwood is known for writing richly imagined female characters in scifi settings. Unfortunately, this series is dominated by men, with the women mostly relegated to secondary roles, with the exception of Toby. Toby starts out strong, and the book focusing on her story (The Year of the Flood) is the strongest of the series as well. But in the post-apocalyptic setting, Toby loses all of her vim and three-dimensionality. She becomes a woman obsessed with a man and pining for things she can’t have. The male characters who dominate the story lack anything compelling. Crake reads precisely as a slightly creepy genius. Jimmy is difficult to get to know since he spends most of the series narrating when he is out of his mind from the effects of the apocalypse. And Zeb reads as a muscled thug who comes to his senses when it best suits him. None of these male characters show real breadth or true humanity. They could have carried the story well, although I would still have missed the strong female presence Atwood brings to scifi. However, these men seem more like caricatures of types of men we meet throughout our lives.
The plot is clearly meant to show us how the world could be destroyed and also how new life begins, complete with religious mythology. Some of the plot twists that go with this core of the plot work and others don’t. For the world destroying, the plot approaches it in two ways. There’s telling how the world ends from an outsider, underprivileged perspective of a woman who happens to survive. This aspect of the plot had enough twists and differences, such as Toby’s involvement in the God’s Gardeners cult, that it maintained interest. The plot also tells how the world ends from the perspective of a man caught in a hopeless hetero love triangle with a kind woman and an evil genius. This common trope takes no different plot twists or turns. It is entirely predictable and dull. A bit of a flop. The twists in the final third of the story, how the world begins and the last of the prior world fades out with a murmur, does nothing truly daring. Toby’s romance ends essentially as expected. Loose ends are tied up. And the Crakers take over with a new mythology given to them by a flawed human being. I’m sure this is meant to say something radical, and maybe someday to someone it will, but to the reader who has already read many thinly veiled take-downs of religion and where it comes from in scifi, it was rather ho-hum and long-winded. Particularly when compared to the much shorter and more richly written work by Atwood taking a similar anti-religion stance: The Handmaid’s Tale.
Overall, this is a series with two-thirds of the plot set in a richly imagined and intelligently extrapolated subtle dystopia future. The basic plot of dystopia to apocalypse to post-apocalypse is told slightly non-linearally with some interesting poetic-style writing inserted in-between chapters. Most of the characters feel flat against the rich backdrop, although one female character at first stands out then slowly fades. Recommended to readers interested in a realistic near future dystopia who don’t mind a rather typical plot and two-dimensional characters will enjoy most of the series, although they may enjoy the first two books more than the third.
3.5 out of 5 stars
Source: PaperBackSwap, library, and Audible
Miriam Black is an early 20-something drifter with bleach blonde hair and a surprising ability to hold her own in a fight. She also knows when and precisely how you’re going to die. Only if you touch her skin-on-skin though. And it’s because of this skill that Miriam became a drifter. You try dealing with seeing that every time you touch someone. But when a kind trucker gives her a lift and in her vision of his death she hears him speak her name, her entire crazy life takes an even crazier turn.
This is one of those books that is very difficult to categorize. I want to call it urban fantasy, but it doesn’t have much supernatural about it, except for the ability to see deaths. The world isn’t swimming in vampires or werewolves of goblins. I also want to call it a thriller what with the whole try to stop the trucker from dying bit but it’s so much more than chills and whodunit (or in this case, who will do it). Its dark, gritty style reminds me of Palahniuk, so I suppose what might come the closest would be a Palahniuk-esque urban fantasy lite thriller. What I think sums it up best, though, is a quote from Miriam herself:
It starts with my mother….Boys get fucked up by their fathers, right? That’s why so many tales are really Daddy Issue stories at their core, because men run the world, and men get to tell their stories first. If women told most of the stories, though, then all the best stories would be about Mommy Problems. (location 1656)
So, yes, it is all of those things, but it’s also a Mommy Problems story, and that is just a really nice change of pace. Mommy Problems wrapped in violence and questioning of fate.
The tone of the entire book is spot on for the type of story it’s telling. Dark and raw with a definite dead-pan, tongue-in-cheek style sense of humor. For instance, each chapter has an actual title, and these give you a hint of what is to come within that chapter, yet you will still somehow manage to be surprised. The story is broken up by an interview with Miriam at some other point in time, and how this comes into play with the rest of the storyline is incredibly well-handled. It’s some of the best story structuring I’ve seen in a while, and it’s also a breath of fresh air.
Miriam is also delightful because she is unapologetically ribald and violent. This is so rare to find in heroines.
We’re not talking zombie sex; he didn’t come lurching out of the grave dirt to fill my living body with his undead baby batter. (location 2195)
As a female reader who loves this style, it was just delightful to read something featuring a character of this style who is also a woman. It’s hard to find them, and I like that Wendig went there.
While I enjoyed the plot structure, tone, and characters, the extreme focus on fate was a bit iffy to me. There were passages discussing fate that just fell flat for me. I’m also not sure of how I feel about the resolution. However, I’m also well aware that this is the beginning of a series, so perhaps it’s just that the overarching world rules are still a bit too unclear for me to really appreciate precisely what it is that Miriam is dealing with. This is definitely the first book in the series in that while some plot lines are resolved, the main one is not. If I’d had the second book to jump right into I would have. I certainly hope that the series ultimately addresses the fate question in a satisfactory way, but at this point it is still unclear if it will.
Overall, this is a dark, gritty tale that literally takes urban fantasy on a hitchhiking trip down the American highway. Readers who enjoy a ribald sense of humor and violence will quickly latch on to this new series. Particularly recommended to readers looking for strong, realistic female leads.
4 out of 5 stars