Thursday, May 22, 2014

REVIEW: Divergent/Insurgent/Allegiant by Veronica Roth

I've always been someone who likes to read the latest fad novel/series, rather than turn up my nose and deem them as pop trash, which happens far too often I think. Just because something has become part of popular culture, appeals to the masses or has been picked up by Hollywood doesn't automatically negate any literary integrity ... I mean, it must have had something going for it? Which is why over the last week  I have been reading the Divergent trilogy.

I started reading Divergent after first seeing the film, which suprisingly didn't colour my opinion that much other than dampening the effect of the novel as a consequence of spoilers. I actually thought the film was better after restructuring the story to achieve a better impact, which isn't usually the case with book to film adaptions.

I think the trilogy's success can be largely attributed to writing style, which is very comparable to Twilight, The Hunger Games et al. It's perfectly paced, easy to process and it's addictive in a way that you can easily sit down and read one novel in a day without needing a break. Dystopian-future-Earth fantasies are all the rage these days too, especially if they also include a teen romance.

Ultimately I really enjoyed reading the trilogy. Roth was incredibly successful in her world building and particularly in developing characters that we connect with and invest in. Their teenage confusion/angst/hormones can become a little frustrating at times, but really that's probably testament to Roth keeping true to the characters given their age, so one can't really complain.

But let's get into what really let this series down, which is that the whole premise was so ridiculously unrealistic that it beggars belief.

In Divergent, we discover that an isolated city of people are divided in five factions based on their predominant personality trait. Anyone who doesn't fit, or even make it through initiation is made 'factionless' and basically lives as a homeless bum. You missed the train on initiation day? Too bad, you're now a social outcast with no future. I'm sorry, but WTF. Roth handles every member of society as if they are one of five archetypes ... I cringed every time I read about the Dauntless running around, jumping off things, wooping. So many things are avoided, omitted or vaguely explained for the convenience of it all, which really just comes down to Roth being incredibly uncreative or just plain lazy. Where do old people go in Dauntless? Oh they just kill themselves or become factionless ... because that's what you do to loyal and longstanding members of your society and who cares what their family and friends think.

It's all so very shallow and two-dimentional.

Thankfully it's easy to let all the idiocy fade into the background for most of the book as we focus on Tris, her initiation and her first forays into romantic feels, which aren't overly mushy and very well handled by Roth. The final conflict is where we really get hooked (even if Roth has the same grasp of the workings of IT as a toothpick) and it's easy to move right into book two, Insurgent.

This was by far and away the best novel out of the three. In it we focus on the conflict continued from book one and move away from the ridiculous faction system and focus more on the characters themselves and their dealings with one another, which grow in complexity.

The most satisfying part is that by the end Roth unexpectedly delivers information that to an extent justifies how this society exists in a way that is vague enough to be believable. It's a slow clap moment.

That is until book three, Allegiant, where she ROYALLY fucks it up. Like big time. I'm talking like she had some kind of stroke between books one and two.

Within the first few chapters of the final book Roth vomits out a huge chunk of under developed exposition in the most ill-timed and unceremonious way you could imagine. It somehow manages to kill off the entire story to date and makes wading through the middle 50% of the book an absolute chore because frankly, we don't care anymore.

All credibility is thrown out the window as Roth soars to new heights of 'that-would-never-fucking-happen' socially, technologically, logistically and chronologically. I can't give any specific examples without including spoilers, but if you're going do something that affects everyone that someone has ever known in a negative way, you don't invite that someone to the planning meetings about it. Roth is so incredibly naive that I truly think her and her editors thought that only the dimmest of teenagers would read this book and therefore probably wouldn't be scrutinised.

It's such a shame because the writing itself isn't bad at all. Roth seems to be a more than capable wordsmith and is great at writing about people and relationships ... she's just absolutely incapable of crafting a story of this magnitude without gaping logistical holes.

That being said, the final chapters saw the trilogy come back to and draw upon the strengths I just mentioned to give us a sentimental and resolved ending. The fact that I found that I was still intensely invested in all of the key characters was really the saving grace of Allegiant.

I think if you have enjoyed the last few series turned Hollywood blockbusters then you should give this one a go. It's certainly nowhere near as well crafted as The Hunger Games trilogy, but it shares many of the same themes and settings and while the romance doesn't rival that of Bella and Edward, tragic teens will have something to heartache over. I think perhaps if you're not such an Erudite (logical and factual person) you might even be able to look past the flaws in the narrative.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

REVIEW: Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

I was a massive fan of Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire trilogy; it had brutally honest, raw and sadistic protagonist in Jorg, a dry, witty brand of humour and was one of the most well executed settings of post-apocalyptic Earth I have encountered.

With his latest novel, Prince of Fools, Lawrence decided there was more to be found within the world of The Broken Empire and we follow the journey of the somewhat cowardly Prince Jal, which occurs alongside the events of the original trilogy - we even get a glimpse of some of our favourite characters as they cross paths with Jal.

It is easy then for loyal readers to expect more of the same, in terms of both quality of writing and the feel of the story and characters themselves. It's perhaps a trial for every author who presents their first new work after the one that brought them acclaim and I have no doubt draws more scrutiny for it. For this reason I have spent a lot of time considering my opinion and how it has been hugely coloured by a comparison to the first trilogy. I think it really comes down to that they are inherently part of the same series, being a part of the same world and conflict.

My initial reaction was that Prince of Fools fell extremely short of The Broken Empire trilogy. Even though Prince Jal was a fully developed, stand alone character, he always felt like a watered-down Jorg to me. I think for Lawrence this was always going to be inescapable and is more a reflection on how powerful Jorg was, rather than on his ability to create a new protagonist.

The world-building, magic system and political intrigue were definitely not as strong as I felt Lawrence heavily depended on what had come before in previous novels, like Prince of Fools was piggy-backing on it's more burly cousin. The fact that in an indirect way Prince of Fools and The Broken Empire share the same conflict and antagonist also means that we as readers ultimately know how it ends. Yes, yes, your dead come back to life and The Dead King is coming, we know ... this for me was the biggest killer for the story.

It must be noted too though that that Prince of Fools is perhaps a smaller, quieter tale of a personal journey, rather than more of the epic, world changing events we experienced with Jorg.

Some elements were not handled as deftly as they could have been, with some jarring moments in the narrative. I have to admit that some instances were partially due to the awful formatting of the eARC I received, but one example is the introduction of the voices in Jal and Snorri's heads, which happens abruptly and unexpectedly, so much so that I turned back a few pages to see if I had missed something. The protagonists also seem to learn things and come to conclusions with little to no information, such as deducing who one of the villains is, which just seemed like a rushed plot convenience.

I am being quite critical but I now must say, trying to distance myself from comparisons, that I never once thought about not finishing Prince of Fools or anything of the sort. I still very much enjoyed Lawrence's style of writing and particularly, once again, his exemplary wit. Every time I think of 'the heir apparently not' I have a little giggle. It must also be noted that in some cases I am comparing one novel with a whole trilogy, which is really not fair. 

I am interested to see where this story goes and how it and my opinions will develop and change over the coming books.

For other readers, I would recommend giving Prince of Fools a go if you read and enjoyed The Broken Empire trilogy, but not to simply expect another shot of Jorg and his cutthroat ways. For those who haven't read anything by Mark Lawrence, I would strongly suggest reading the first trilogy before this novel - even though they are standalone I think contextually the latter relies on the former.