I have to admit, I can be a bit superficial when picking the books I want to read. There’s something just really pleasant about wandering around a bookshop and picking up something you’ve never heard of just because the cover has attracted you. On pay day, I went into Forbidden Planet and did just that, several times over (plus a couple of recommendations). It seems to have gone… okay, I guess? Except that I got distinctly poorer quite quickly.
This is the first cover that sucked me in:
I’m not certain why, since it is rather blatantly even from that a bit on the teen-romance side of the spectrum (spoilers, yeah, it really is). That is not usually my genre. But the blurb promised fantasy dystopian society with super-powered aristocracy… so… yeah. I figured I’d give it a go, after I read the first few pages in the shop and quite got on with the writing style.
And it turned out ok. Not amazing or anything, but definitely ok. For the genre it is, it’s a well-written, well-paced, well-rounded and quite pleasing book. And it wasn’t even as tropey on the romance as I expected*, which was a pleasant surprise. The characters are less flat and carboard-cut-out than one might imagine. The world is rather well thought out and explored. Basically, it’s actually a good book.
Up to a point.
It’s not stunning literature. This is no fabulous reinvention of the genre by any stretch of the imagination. I knew, picking it up, that this was going to be light, escapist… if not “trash” exactly then whatever the non-derogatory term for that is. And it is. I won’t lie, it’s not-being-mean-but-honestly trash. But I like trash. I like my silly escapist books. And when they’re done well, in full knowledge of what they are, they can be really really excellent things. Books don’t have to be terribly deep and thought-provoking, or challenge the fundamental nature of a genre, or even do anything particularly new and shiny at all, to be excellent little bits of art. If something is a really well-executed example of whatever-it-is, it can still be a wonderful thing, even if that genre is not desperately highly regarded.
And that, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, is exactly what this is.
The story is another coming-of-age thing. Young girl from a poor background in a war-torn world, where a rich and powerful elite oppress those they control, discovers unexpected powers that propel her into that elite and the politics that come with it, while along the way learning that their lives aren’t as easy as she imagined and discovering that she can like them (and fall in love with them) even though she thought she’d hate them. Drama, politics and emotions ensue. It’s a story that has been done before, well and less well, and one that a lot of people really enjoy. And Aveyard has done it well. The world it’s set in isn’t your standard pseudo-medieval fantasy-land. There are definitely aspects of that, but there’s also industry and electricity on a… um… post-industrial scale, and the power wielded by the elite isn’t your usual books-of-spells magic, but rather more the super-hero style of thing. The author doesn’t fully document all the available powers, but there are a lot of the traditional ones – telekinesis, mind-reading, fire, super-strength, super-speed, FIRE… And then of course our newly-empowered heroine who doesn’t fit into any of these. It’s all done really nicely, blending elements of the pseudo-medieval fantasyland’s politics and aristocratic power structure (and the trappings that go with it) with a slightly more SF-based mythos and world in general. We get hints throughout that this is a post-nuclear-apocalypse world, too.
But the characters are pleasingly well-developed. There’s a fair bit of balance – almost no one falls fully into the trope you expect of them, and you do get surprised by people along the way. The main character is sympathetic and fun to read, but also sometimes annoying. She’s not stupid, and not as stupid about the men she likes as the genre would lead you to expect, but nor is she overpowered and ridiculously perfect. The romances both also walk that nicely balanced line. I think the only criticism I’d really have is that the characters outside of these three are a little underdeveloped. There are a couple I would really like to have seen more of just because they seemed so fun and interesting, but they don’t get much page-time. And maybe that’s for the best. If the author had dug deeper into more things, more of the world (which isn’t enormously explored) and more of the characters, it would have considerably slowed the pace of the book and probably made it much less enjoyable.
A lot of what makes this book so fun is just that pace – it doesn’t quite hurry, but everything builds up really quickly and you get through at a fair rate. You’re gripped; you want to just find out what happens next, just the next page, just the next chapter… and then you’ve finished. And that’s great escapism. It was a heck of a contrast to the Murakami, and to what I read next (Disavowed – a fairly slow Star Trek novelisation that was something of an effort to plough through), but very much what I like reading, a lot of the time.
And that’s really all there is to say. It’s a fun book, not an amazing, stunning book, but it does what it does really well, and doesn’t care that what it does is fairly stock-fantasy. It’s just enough not-quite-the-same to be not-boring, but without being actually outlandish, and she’s worked in enough originality in things like setting and character to be fresh without being strange or desperately thought-provoking. It is a perfect example of the light, escapist novel and I loved it. I’m definitely going to read the sequel (I’m assuming there’s a sequel) and probably anything else I find by the author… but I’m not going to run around seeking them out. If I see them and I have funds, I will buy.
Basically, well done book, you have successfully booked. Hurrah.
*Okay spoilers: it kind of is. There are two men the female protagonist could sort of end up with, one is really obvious right from the start, and the other one you instantly categorise as “well, he’s going to turn out evil”. But then… the first one ends up seeming a bit evil. And carries on seeming that way. Well past the point where you feel like it would stop were it just the necessary wibble in the middle of their inevitable relationship. And the totally-going-to-be-evil one persists in being not-evil. Again, well past the point where you think these things would reveal themselves. The author genuinely convinced me that she’d not been all tropey and I finally gave in and started believing the characters to be the way they were presented… and then she went “HA!” and it turns out I was right all along. Which… ok, on the one hand, she did do the massive trope. But on the other, she managed to convince me that she wasn’t going to do that until really really near the end (as in, the same tube journey I finished the book in). So I think she gets just as much kudos as if she’d not done the trope at all, because it was very convincing.