Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Book review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

This is the third and final installment of the Divergent trilogy, and since it will be difficult to speak another word, including giving any summary, without tremendous spoilers for the first two in the series, the rest of this review will go behind a cut.
Goodreads summary: "The faction-based society that Tris Prior once believed in is shattered—fractured by violence and power struggles and scarred by loss and betrayal. So when offered a chance to explore the world past the limits she’s known, Tris is ready. Perhaps beyond the fence, she and Tobias will find a simple new life together, free from complicated lies, tangled loyalties, and painful memories.

But Tris’s new reality is even more alarming than the one she left behind. Old discoveries are quickly rendered meaningless. Explosive new truths change the hearts of those she loves. And once again, Tris must battle to comprehend the complexities of human nature—and of herself—while facing impossible choices about courage, allegiance, sacrifice, and love. "
Allegiant picks up right were Insurgent left off, much like the latter did for Divergent. My opinions are very divided on this book, so the best way I can think of to organize my thoughts will be in a pros and cons list.
  • Pro: If you were irritated by Tris in Insurgent, you'll like her better here. She's essentially returned to how she was in Divergent: confident, brave, loyal, and generally someone who seems worthy of leading others.
  • Con: This isn't Tris's fault, per se, but probably Roth's -- Tris becomes essentially untouchable in this book. She's right about everything, and she becomes everyone's salve. She's kind of superhuman and even though you love her because she's your protagonist and you grew with her, she's not exactly relate-able anymore.
  • Pro: This is a maybe-pro, just depending on the individual taste of the reader. The brooding, mysterious Four is given POV sections, an audience request that I've noticed lately seems to be born more out swoony impulses to hear about the other half of the romance than to really get at someone's characterization, but in any case, we get a little of both here.
  • Con: Four's POV sections dismantle how we see him, which is as a strong and determined person, a rock for Tris. Indeed, she even describes him as such: the stone to her knife, to support her and make her sharper. Four's sections allow us to see his vulnerability, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but when combined with Tris's sudden elevation to near infallibility, it makes Four seem unworthy of her. Whereas Four's defining characteristic before seemed to be that he understood and respected his fears but didn't let them control him, here he seems to be unilaterally propelled by them without any input from his conscious person. We don't like this! 
  • Con 2: Except for context clues, there isn't really much in the way to distinguish the POV sections. The way Roth has written them, Four and Tris's voices are basically identical. It cheapens the quality of the writing overall, because rather than really working on developing those voices, it ends up just being a cop-out to establish author omniscience while writing in the first person.
  • Pro: If you're a fan of Roth's action-packed writing, you'll get that here in spades.
  • Con: A lot weighs here on eugenics and Bad Scientists™, which is fine as a narrative when the Bad Science™ actually makes sense scientifically (if not morally,) but here it kind of doesn't. 
  • Con: For me, the ending was pretty unsatisfying in a lot of ways. This marks the second time this year I've finished a major YA trilogy this year and been pretty let down by the ending. There is something of a sense of relief and baseline satisfaction at finishing a series you've grown to love, but both in this case and in the other (Requiem, the end of the Delerium trilogy) it seemed that the author was really rushed and had to hang epic endings on unrealistic scenarios and deus ex machinas
Now, onto the Spoilery bits. Seriously, here be spoilers. And mostly complaints.
  • Delving a little more into the eugenics thing: basically, the entire format of their society at this point is that the Bad Government™ decided to "fix" genes that made people dishonest, cowardly, unintelligent, unkind, and selfish. This backfired and made people allegedly worse than before, leading to a Big War™ and resulting in major class divisions between the Genetically Pure (GPs) -- people who didn't undergo the "therapy" -- and the Genetically Damaged (GDs) -- people who did. The Divergent, then are people who, after generations of breeding, have acquired GP status again by getting enough Pure genes from their lineages. I could go into a huge "I'm an actual geneticist" explanation why this is silly, but I'll just leave it at this: if you have scientific technology sophisticated enough to make all of these genetic modifications in the first place, it's absolutely ludicrous that they couldn't modify people back to "Pure" state.
  • The huge war brewing in Chicago between the factionless and the Allegiant (who want to repair and restore the factions) is so troublesome that the government and scientists outside the wall basically wants to shut down and reset the whole city, but it's solved in about three simple steps that are hugely out of character for most of the parties involved. Basically, 1) Son talks to mother who has repeatedly put her own interests above his, 2) Said mother talks to estranged abusive husband-slash-opponent in war, 3) ???, 4) No war!
  • Meanwhile, outside the wall, the plan to shut down the war is to use aerosolized "memory serum" (actually memory-loss serum) to reset everyone. The Good Gang's plan to combat this is, partially, to specifically inoculate their families against the serum in case of the worst while combating dosing outside the wall and in fact launching an attack on the innermost weapons chamber of the facility they're at. It's a flashy idea, but when you consider that a) the facility they're at has the remote ability to dose everyone with memory serum and b) they already have access to the anecdote without breaking into anything, trying to -- for instance -- remotely administer the anecdote instead of the serum requires far fewer heroics than their actual plan and is therefore much more likely to succeed.
  • And finally, let's not dance around the elephant in the room any longer. Tris's death is, in some ways, a fitting end to the series. It's perfectly in character for her, and she really is the flame that burns twice as bright but half as long. I don't want to completely rail against it because I think it is a bold choice that Roth made despite knowing she was going to piss off a lot of people. I'm not one of those people that's hopping mad about it, but I think in the context of the rest of the plan being so sloppy (as discussed above) her death feels like a sacrifice that is done a little more for shock value than out of necessity. The disconsolate chapters that followed from Four had their intended effect -- I was ugly crying -- but I did feel a little manipulated and unsettled in kind of a dirty, cheap way.
If you're a fan of this series, you're going to read this book regardless of this review (and in fact, mine probably isn't the first review like this that you've read,) so you don't need my recommendation or not. I just wish I were less disappointed, personally. Rounding up to three stars, charitably, for overall enjoyment of the series, but this installment is the weakest of the three.

Book review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Goodreads summary: “1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.
At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.”
I am so grossly behind on reviews that it hurts. Anyway, this was a very good story: bittersweet with poignant glimpses into close family relationships strained by death, jealousy, prejudice, and alienation. June, the protagonist, feels lost in the world following the death of her uncle. She’s born very much from the Loner Girl mold, an introvert who sees herself as irredeemably weird but who nonetheless manages to get along with people around her (and even attract attention from boys) when she puts the effort in. The relationship between her and her older sister – two girls feeling a chasm between them, trying to bridge it but not trying too hard for fear of getting hurt — was heartbreaking and felt all too real. This and other fragmented relationships in the novel were just a few of several reasons why this book felt very painful to read at times.
I was alive but not really cognizant of the emergence of HIV/AIDS (the epidemic central to the foundation of the novel,) but I have long been curious about both the pathology of the virus and about the curious intersection of paranoia and bigotry that made AIDS such a controversial, willfully misunderstood disease. Reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home didn’t, therefore, stir up any painful memories for me, but it did offer a really powerful and unflinching look at how those living with AIDS, and even those who died of the disease, like Finn, were demonized rather than comforted and loved.
Anyway, I read this over a month ago, so I have forgotten a lot of the details I might otherwise mention in a review, but I can say for certain that I really liked the book and would definitely recommend it.