Lockstep by Karl Schroeder: The Pain of Time Away

LockstepLockstep by Karl Schroeder

Published: March 25th, 2014
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Young Adult
Format: eBook
Length: 352 pages

Lockstep is a fantastic, entertaining novel that I find a bit difficult to summarize. The short version is that it will probably appeal to readers of young adult and hard scifi, but existing experience with scifi will definitely help ease the process. Schroeder is most interested in the way developments like cryogenic sleep and interstellar travel might change human society, and he dives deep into almost every aspect of the “lockstep society” he’s created for this novel.

The story kicks off when seventeen-year-old Toby McGonigal goes on a fairly mundane mission to claim an asteroid for his family, who’ve settled on a far-off planet to escape Earth’s corruption. Something goes wrong with Toby’s ship while he is en route, and instead of staying in cryosleep for a short time, he wakes up to discover that a huge amount of time has passed and everything he knows has irrevocably changed. These changes are social, political and extremely personal, and the more we learn about the lockstep society, the more heart-breaking Toby’s story becomes.

The first important thing that Toby learns is that humans colonized hundreds of far-flung worlds thanks to one of his family’s inventions. However, because faster-than-light travel doesn’t exist and most of the colonized worlds are short on natural resources, the only way for the colonies to survive and trade with each other is for every world to go into cryosleep for set periods of time at the same time. While everyone is in cryosleep, ships travel vast distances and limited resources build up enough to keep them alive. In the lockstep society founded by Toby’s family, this means thirty years of cryosleep for every month of time spent awake in real-time or “fast time”.

This leads to Toby’s second discovery, which is that despite the fact that huge amounts of time have passed since he left on his ill-fated trip, some of his immediate family members are still alive. The problem is that they are now infinitely powerful, decades older than when he last saw them, and, much to his surprise, bent on killing him just for existing.

It turns out that while Toby was gone, his family members not only cemented their control over a huge society of hundreds of worlds, but also built up an intricate mythology behind his disappearance. His reappearance in their world threatens their control, and he soon finds himself running from the man and woman he used to call his little brother and sister.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Lockstep is the idea of human civilizations getting out of sync; inside the lockstep society, everything stays the same despite decades spent in cryosleep, while outside societies rise and fall in real-time. Humans slowly become post-human, intergalactic wars destroy entire worlds, and cities build up outside the gates of sleeping locksteps. A constant influx of settlers from outside worlds means that there are people born millennia after Toby now living inside the lockstep society, people who grew up their entire lives hearing about the legendary McGonigal family and their lockstep worlds.

Lockstep definitely has the young protagonist common to the YA genre, and the lockstep world is ultimately a failed utopia, but the hard scifi elements might make it hard to sell as a YA novel, which is probably why it’s not marketed as such. However, I definitely think this book would appeal to YA readers if they’re willing to wrap their head around some fairly complex world-building.

I might recommend it to someone who enjoys books like Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, but wants to read something that plays on a bit bigger canvas. Personally, I really enjoyed reading a book that explored theoretical worlds in such depth, and I highly recommend it. Also, the book definitely wraps up all of its threads at the end and feels like a very solid standalone, but I wouldn’t mind reading another story set in the same universe.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride

Hold Me Closer, NecromancerPublished: October 12, 2010
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: eBook
Length: 352 pages

In Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, Sam LaCroix is a college drop-out with a dead-end job at a burger joint. He just coasts along, hanging out with his friends/coworkers Ramon, Brooke and Frank, never quite satisfied with his lot in life, but not exactly unhappy, either. That all changes one night when he accidentally smashes the headlight of a sports car while playing potato hockey behind the restaurant.

It turns out the owner of the car, Douglas, is a dangerous man with a chip on his shoulder, and when he comes into the restaurant to complain about the smashed headlight, he sees something in Sam that puts him directly in Douglas’ crosshairs. Apparently Sam has been hiding in plain sight his whole life, but Douglas is suddenly able to sense his powers and demands to know what he is doing in Seattle. Sam blows him off, but finds out very quickly that this is a huge mistake.

First, Sam is attacked by one of Douglas’ henchmen, a man who somehow manages to slice up Sam’s back without using a weapon. Sam makes it out of the encounter alive, but Douglas isn’t done with him. The next morning Sam wakes up to discover his friend Brooke’s decapitated head in a box… and then she talks, and explains that she was sent as a message. Things only get weirder and more dangerous for Sam and his friends after that.

For whatever reason, this book took me a long time to finish. I started it about a month ago, but put it down for weeks before finally plowing my way through most of it in one sitting. I ended up enjoying it overall, but there were definitely a few plot holes and strange choices throughout that didn’t bother me while I was reading but felt a bit more problematic once I finished and let the book sink in.

First off, the book jumps back and forth between first person and third person. The first person scenes are told from Sam’s point of view, and take up most of the book, but the third person scenes are both longer and more common than I was expecting. There are several scenes from Douglas’ perspective as well as some from a girl named Brid whose connection to Sam’s storyline isn’t immediately apparent. These scenes do eventually come together with the main storyline, but in retrospect I think part of what bogged me down for so long was getting stuck in one of those third-person scenes without understanding its purpose.

Also, Douglas’ motivations don’t entirely makes sense. He tells Sam that he needs training and can either die or be his apprentice, but never even tries to gain Sam’s confidence. It’s clear to both Sam and the reader that Douglas only means him harm from the outset, so there’s never really any danger that Sam might be tempted towards the dark side. It’s kind of a shame, really, because if Sam had been presented with more of a moral quandary, it might have ramped up the tension a bit.

That said, I enjoyed the book enough that I immediately bought the sequel when I was done. I like McBride’s writing style, and I enjoyed the setting and characters. I’m curious to know what happens next, even if this book started unravelling a bit after I let it sink in. I think there’s a decent chance this is a series that will actually improve as it goes on despite my criticisms of the first book. Worth a read.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster CallsPublished: September 27th 2011
Publisher: Walker Books
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy, Horror
Format: Hardcover
Length: 215 pages

A Monster Calls is a young adult book with a deceptively simple plot – a thirteen year-old boy wakes up in the middle of the night and discovers a monster in his back yard – that reveals an unparalleled depth of emotion and storytelling prowess. Patrick Ness, working from an idea by the late Siobhan Dowd, takes that simple start and builds it into a novel that I would argue is a modern masterpiece.

The first complication to the story is that the boy, Conor, lives alone with his mother, who has been sick for months. She is in and out of the hospital, trying new treatments, bald and thin but always firm in her belief that the next treatment will do the trick. Over the course of this up-and-down cycle of treatment and relapse, Conor has become withdrawn and angry. He’s bullied at school and outcast from his peers by their knowledge of his mother’s sickness.

Then one day a monster wakes him in his room at 12:07 AM. The monster comes as a walking yew tree – the very same one that watches over Conor’s house from a nearby graveyard – but it is an ancient thing, older than the tree and apart from it, taller than his house and powerful enough to knock holes in the walls. Conor, strangely enough, is unafraid, because it “isn’t the monster he was expecting”, and he’s “seen much worse” in his horrible recurring nightmares.

The monster, only momentarily taken aback, smiles its evil, leafy grin and informs Conor that it will tell him three tales and then he will return the favor with a tale of his own. Thus begins the meat of the story, and it is quite a story at that. Ness weaves together fairytales, horror, fantasy and the crushing banalities of modern life in a strange and compelling novel that packs an incredible emotional punch.

The book is illustrated throughout with stark black and white paintings that splash across the pages, bleeding into the margins and evoking just enough of the story to fill in the corners of your imagination. The monster looks like something you might find hiding in the darkest shadows at the back of a closet, and its head is a bundle of spikes that could either be twisted branches or alien spines.

As I read the last few pages of the book, I had to stop several times to get my emotions under control. In fact, the book affected me that strongly several times throughout. It’s a powerful story with an ending that lingers long after the last page is done. A Monster Calls is sold as a young adult book, but I think Ness tells a universal story here, one that could – and should – be appreciated by readers of any age. It’s an intense experience, but well worth it. Very highly recommended.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

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Young Adult: Just Another “Dumbed-Down” Genre

Harry PotterRecently while thoroughly frittering away an evening online, I decided to respond to a commenter who was doing a bit of trolling with some admittedly low-hanging fruit. The thread was over at io9, which actually has what I consider the rare comments section worth reading, and it was on their post about essential SF&F reads of 2013 (my own list is in the pipeline!).

The commenter’s complaint was related to the inclusion of a number of young adult books in the list. As they saw it this was clear proof of “a decline in reading comprehension and vocabulary”. Yes, I should know better than to try and respond to that, but I couldn’t help myself. I was of course tempted to point out the irony of complaining about a “dumbed-down” genre on a post (and site) devoted to science fiction and fantasy, but I reserved that bit of snark for Twitter instead.

Unfortunately, this kind of opinion doesn’t just appear in comments sections, it’s also propagated by professional critics, as my friend Kiersi noted in her recent discussion of criticism directed at the “new adult” genre. This particular criticism seems to rely largely on the assumption that young adult writers aren’t doing anything but churning out simplistic hack-job trilogies intended for a quick turnaround as the next summer blockbuster. That just because a book is intended for teens means it can’t or won’t address weighty themes. Or that the writing will be childish and simplistic.

The Catcher in the RyeWhen did simplicity and readability become such a crime? Hemingway would surely disagree. The Catcher in the Rye – possibly the ultimate prototypical young adult novel – stands the test of time because the writing is simple, straightforward and clean. Holden thinks and talks like a teenager of his time, and if that book was published today, it would be marketed as young adult, no question about it.

I’d also argue that some of the best writing I’ve read recently was in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I thought the book had some pacing issues near the end, but Taylor’s prose was so drop-dead gorgeous that I still consider the book a five-star read. In fact, it easily outshone the writing in some of the “adult” books I’ve read recently.

The thing I find strangest about the argument against reading young adult fiction is that its proponents seem to believe there isn’t inherent value in reading just for the sake of it. The only response I received from the comment’s originator was a petulant dismissal of my “‘at least they’re reading something’ argument”. It boggles the mind.

The Bad BeginningSee, I know from personal experience that reading lots of young adult fiction is part of what helped me get back in the habit of reading in general. A few years ago, when I first set a goal to read 52 books in 52 weeks, some of the very first books I read were A Series of Unfortunate Events, which aren’t even young adult books because they’re pitched at children, not teenagers. I also listened to a lot of audiobooks, which I’m sure is another literary no-no (Tim Curry reads the Unfortunate Events books, which are marvelous). However, once I was in the swing of things, I decided it was time to challenge myself, and picked up the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo.

I don’t think I would have been mentally prepared to tackle a 1400+ page classic novel if I hadn’t already reminded myself that reading is fun, and I’m sure my experience isn’t unique. I feel certain that there are people who got back into the habit of reading thanks to Harry Potter, or The Hunger Games, or some other YA series, and once they remembered how much fun it was to read, they decided to keep doing it. Maybe they only read YA books now, but who cares? How can reading for fun ever be a bad thing? I don’t care what you’re reading as long as you just keep doing it.

People who argue otherwise are assholes.

That’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Every Day by David Levithan

Published: August 28th, 2012
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Genre(s): Young Adult, Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 336 pages

Note: The narrator of Every Day is essentially genderless, but for simplicity’s sake I use male pronouns throughout this review.

David Levithan is an interesting standout in the young adult / fiction world. He seems more than willing to experiment with storytelling forms; his previous book, The Lover’s Dictionary, chronicled the ups and downs of a relationship through alternately hilarious and painful entries in a dictionary. His new book, Every Day, is more traditional in form, but still full of the same thrillingly out-there ideas that I loved about his previous work.

Every Day’s premise is simple but striking; what if you woke up every day in a new body and a new place? Some essence of your self – your soul, some ineffable store of memory – survives the jump from body to body, which gives you continuity of identity, but you also have access to the memories of your “host” so that you can pass unnoticed in their life. How would it feel to look out from different eyes every day, experiencing the world from an infinite number of perspectives? More importantly, what would happen if, one day, you fell in love… and couldn’t let go?

A, the narrator of Levithan’s story, wakes up one morning in the body of Justin, a sullen teenage boy who doesn’t take care of himself, doesn’t get along well with his parents and mistreats his girlfriend. A usually tries not to interfere with the lives of his hosts – who seem to match the age he would be if he lived normally – but something about Justin’s relationship with his girlfriend, Rhiannon, makes him decide to try and improve her day. They skip school and go to the beach… and A falls in love. After that, A spends each successive day trying to find Rhiannon, working to get to know her and eventually revealing his body-jumping secret.

Levithan plays with some fascinating philosophical concepts throughout. Once A reveals his identity to Rhiannon, the major question becomes: how exactly do you have a relationship with someone who isn’t in the same body twice? A, who grew up unsurprisingly open-minded after experiencing life through the eyes of every possible type of person, feels like there shouldn’t be anything keeping them apart, but Rhiannon isn’t quite so ready to live outside the norms. For example, A notices that she isn’t quite as receptive when he is in the body of a girl or someone who isn’t traditionally attractive. Late in the book, the question arises of what it would mean if A and Rhiannon had sex in one of his host bodies, since it has been made clear that the hosts do remember vague details of their lives the next day. All of these complications make A’s story poignantly tragic, and the romance compellingly star-crossed.

A’s experiences vary wildly from day to day. One particularly harrowing experience involves a day spent in the body of a habitual drug user going through withdrawal; another centers on a girl who is planning to commit suicide. A is almost always understanding and open-minded about the lives of the people he inhabits, although he does admit early on that he doesn’t necessarily like everyone whose life he takes over. The only real false note in the book comes on a day when A inhabits the body of an extremely overweight boy. A refers to him as “the emotional equivalent of a burp” and it seems strangely judgmental by comparison.

The author also introduces a subplot about a boy named Nathan who gets in trouble with his parents after A controls his life one night. When Nathan comes home after curfew, he blames his behavior on demonic possession. Eventually the story gets picked up by the national news and a shady evangelical preacher starts asking more of the “possessed” to come forward. Nathan remembers enough about his experience to get in touch with A through his secret email account, and tries to convince A to reveal his true nature. Although this storyline does add some tension to the mix, I felt like the book didn’t necessarily need it. Every Day largely focuses on the romance between A and Rhiannon, so when a late reveal implies that the story might slip into thriller territory or start exploring explanations for the body-jumping mythology, it doesn’t quite fit. Luckily Levithan avoids straying too far down that path.

That isn’t to say I wouldn’t be curious to know more about the cause of A’s body-jumping experiences, and the book definitely ends on a note that would leave Levithan wide open to write a sequel if he chose to. I’d definitely read it, but I imagine it would need to be a very different book, simply because it would only diminish this book to try and repeat the romantic storyline.

All in all, I highly recommend Every Day. It’s a quick read full of powerful emotional moments and thought-provoking ideas, and I definitely look forward to seeing what Levithan comes up with next.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Shift by Kim Curran

Published: September 4, 2012
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Young Adult, Horror
Format: eBook
Length: 320 pages

Shift is the story of Scott Tyler, a British teenager who accidentally discovers that he has the power to “shift” between possible realities by changing his past decisions. Along with this discovery comes his entry into a secret world of shifters and a dawning understanding of the terrible powers at play in a world where reality can be changed at will.

One on side there is a clandestine government organization called ARES that focuses on training young shifters to use their powers for good, and on the other there is a rebel faction of shifters called the SLF, who believe that shifters should be allowed to use their powers without regulation. Scott’s first contact with the world of shifters, Aubrey Jones, is also, conveniently enough, the girl of his dreams. Aubrey is a pixieish blonde with a chip on her shoulder and conflicted loyalties between ARES, who took her away from her family, and SLF, who seem bent on anarchy and destruction for the sake of it. At first it seems like the book might be about a clash between ARES and SLF, but then we meet the true villain, a morbidly fat man wants to eat Scott’s brains.

The villain, Benjo, is easily most original thing Shift has going for it. However, he is so vile and over-the-top that he seems slightly out of place in the story. I actually would have liked the author to delve more deeply into the darkness that might result from people with the power to reset their decisions controlling the world. As it was, the book felt like it flipped back and forth between a fairly by-the-numbers secret world adventure and a squick-inducing serial killer tale.

I did also appreciate that the book retained its inherent Britishness, using uniquely British phrasings and colloquialisms that seemed slightly exotic to this American reader. I suppose it’s possible that when the book is eventually published in America, that regional flavor will be stripped out, but I certainly hope not.

However, my main problem with Shift is that the underground world of the shifters never seems particularly exciting. The scenes in the school for shifters feel fairly dull and a bit cliché when compared to other similar entries in the genre. In fact, the author ends up quickly summarizing Scott’s time at school after a few scenes, and promotes him to junior agent status as if impatient to get past all that training. The end results is that we never really understand why Scott feels an allegiance to ARES, and it seems like he only really dislikes SLF because they’re the snotty popular rebels.

Also, after one of Scott’s early shifts goes terribly wrong, he never really experiences any further consequences from his new-found shifting ability. Although he uses his ability to save himself from death at one point, it never feels like we get to see him exploring his shifting powers. Additionally, the author establishes early on that shifters can only control conscious decisions, so whenever there is a passage where Scott agonizes over a decision, it openly telegraphs that he will need to shift a few pages later, which immediately lowers the stakes. The only real stakes that come into play are when the villain, Benjo, lumbers onto the scene, simply because he is so outrageous that it feels like anything could happen when he is around.

Overall, Shift is a bit of mixed bag. The storyline follows familiar contours, as a “normal” kid discovers that he is actually very special and then proceeds to save the day. The cast of supporting characters are all fairly two-dimensional, and several characters established early on barely get more than a few lines before being shuffled off-stage for the rest of the book.

Although the villain is a uniquely twisted touch in an otherwise familiar-feeling story, he never completely meshes with the rest of book around him, and the end result is a story that only hints at something darker and more compelling.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Across The Universe by Beth Revis

Published: January 11, 2011
Publisher: Razorbill
Genre(s): Young Adult, Science Fiction, Romance
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 416

Across the Universe is a mash-up of scifi, mystery, and young-adult fiction, with a bit of romance thrown in for good measure. In a nutshell, it tells the story of a colony seed-ship on a journey towards a distant planet and the teenage girl who wakes up early – 50 years before the trip is over – only to find herself stuck in a strange, dystopian society where someone may be trying to kill her. All of this sounds fascinating, but the end result is a mystery that is telegraphed far too early and scifi that doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny.

When the main character, Amy, wakes up from cryogenic sleep – nearly dying in the process – she quickly meets the leader of the society, Eldest, and his protege, Elder, who will assume the reigns of leadership when Eldest retires. The book alternates viewpoints between Amy and Elder, which is a nice way of giving us both the insider and the outsider perspectives.

The more Amy finds out about the ship society, the stranger it seems. Racial and class distinctions are gone because all of the people are genetically uniform. Rather than reproducing normally, the people on the ship go into heat during “the time”, which Amy is told is coming soon. Everyone in the working class is strangely emotionless and distant, as though they are running purely on autopilot. The only people who seem to show any spark of intelligence or normality are all considered “crazy” and given a regimen of pills to keep them under control.

The mystery revolves around discovering who is unfreezing and (sometimes) killing the colonists. The author spends a lot of time early on talking about how nobody locks doors on the ship because privacy is so respected, but too much of the mystery relies on important doors remaining unlocked. This is a bit hard to swallow when Eldest spends most of the book jealously guarding his secrets, even from Elder. I didn’t have much trouble figuring out the culprit fairly early on. This is only disappointing because the book spends so much time focused on the murder mystery when it seems like the true mystery should be the nature of the ship itself. However, I will give the author credit for throwing in a few good surprises near the end of the book.

One other thing that didn’t seem entirely credible was the initial configuration of the ship, with frozen Earth colonists below and living lower-class workers doing the menial upkeep of the ship for centuries while the colonists sleep. It just seemed like a recipe for class warfare, as if the ship’s initial designers set out to cause as much social friction as possible. How do you reintegrate those two groups into a working colony, with one sleeping while the other toils away? I also questioned how sustainable the ship could be with the bulk of its passengers living and reproducing and using up resources. It seems like it would be far more practical to keep everyone frozen.

Although I wasn’t entirely satisfied with this book, I did check the author’s website to see if it was planned as the first in a series, and it is. The ending doesn’t exactly scream for a sequel, but it doesn’t necessarily tie everything up in a neat little bow, either. Amy finds out some hard truths after she wakes up on the ship, and those hard truths don’t just go away at the end of the book. I’d definitely be interested in reading future books set in this world, although I do hope that the author shifts her focus towards exploring some of the intricacies of the society she’s established, rather than spending so much time on a so-so murder mystery.

LIKED IT
LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a review copy of this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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