Nightmares in the jungle: a review of Catching Fire

I can only form one clear thought.

This is no place for a girl on fire.

Catching Fire cover smallI’m already well into reading Mockingjay, but I wanted to stop and discuss Catching Fire (spoilers!), the middle novel of The Hunger Games, which came to movie theaters this winter.

I always expect second books in trilogies to be the weakest. In Catching Fire, author Suzanne Collins turns the story in a predictable direction: a budding rebellion against the Capitol. The plot lacks as much substance as the first book, but Collins manages to surprise me by throwing main character Katniss Everdeen back in the Hunger Games with a bunch of old people and young, lethal victors from the past annual “celebrations.”

Katniss will always have a place in the Games now, but I didn’t expect to see her back in costume so soon. It’s a good twist, but not everyone will approve: The Games segment of the book is short and too similar to events we’ve already seen, and the first half to two-thirds are plodding. The romance, fake or otherwise, between Katniss and Peeta — the boy with the bread and her star-crossed “lover” — and Katniss and Gale — her childhood friend and fellow hunter — is more prominent in this novel (that’s good or bad, depending on what you were hoping for) although Collins thankfully grounds it in the grim reality of their situation. In the Games or in District 12, every move Katniss makes still puts her life and the lives of others in jeopardy.

So Catching Fire is lighter on content than the first book. There are some beautiful or dramatic moments involving a wedding gown, Katniss’s lead stylist (Cinna), and her competitors — and supposed allies — in the Games. I found the story absorbing though maybe that was because the romance was so juicy, but I also liked Katniss’s opponents more this time around. They’re a lot more striking: Johanna, who strips and trains naked (the actress for her in the movie, Jena Malone, is perfect); Finnick, charming and arrogant and deadly in the water and on land, who becomes one of my favorite new characters; and the intelligent and weird “Nuts” and “Volts,” to name a few. I also liked all the environmental traps in the arena even if they felt contrived (monkeys, blood rain, etc.), like Collins was just dropping obstacles in there to pad out the Games (not that the wall of fire from book one was ever particularly clever or original). The characters’ interactions are what make the battle royale interesting, not anything the Gamemakers throw at them — although I did think the jungle and clock theme were fun.

I spent a good amount of time during my read-through thinking about Peeta and Gale and whom, if either, Katniss is better off with. I don’t think it’s fair that she should be forced into a romance when marriage and kids and love are the last things on her mind. But for her, these relationships are still happening — unwillingly and as much out of necessity as natural desire. Her survival in the Games depends on how well she and Peeta can put on a “show” for the audience, but they’re also thrust together privately through their mutual situation. They comfort each other when they’re tormented by nightmares; their trust in each other is strong because of the Games — and that bond, formed through the preservation of their own mortality, is much more intense than that between her and Gale. Those two only tasted a small measure of danger in the woods outside District 12. Their reading of each other’s body language is much more intimate as hunters, and perhaps their world view is more similar, but Katniss never expressed a love for Gale whereas with Peeta, she feels gratitude and admiration — for the eloquence of his words, for his optimism. For saving her life time and again. For understanding what it’s like to survive the Games because he was there with her.

I don’t know how the trilogy will end, but I’m hoping Katniss gets to be with Peeta. What started as distrust and confusion and a sickly sweet performance has morphed into genuine affection, friendship, and more. They sleep soundly next to one another. She notices his hands as they work on a painting or drawing, like a lover would. And that’s all because of the nightmare they went through in their first Hunger Games. Sometimes, life is funny that way.

Grade: B

Broken hearts and virtual glass: a review of Idoru

“If we could ever once stop talking about the music, and the industry, and all the politics of that, I think I’d probably tell you that it’s easier to desire and pursue the attention of tens of millions of total strangers than it is to accept the love and loyalty of the people closest to us.”

IdoruWilliam Gibson, one of the early movers of cyberpunk, wrote a novel in 1996 about cyberspace love. Idoru, which I didn’t even realize was the second book in a trilogy called Bridge when I bought it (and that doesn’t matter), is about virtual avatars and worlds that have become so real that they cross dimensions and enter into existence.

As a gamer, that’s not an unthinkable concept to me. That future is all but here, with virtual reality and technology like Google Glass. Even with our many phones and computers and televisions, we’re constantly plugged in. Our lives are as much online as they are physical.

In Idoru, those realities intersect. The lead member of the popular band Lo/Rez plans to marry a synthetic personality called Rei Toei, the titular idoru — only their love and such a union is impossible. She’s not real, merely a conscious hologram projected by a machine, and everyone around Rez is wondering what’s going on in his head.

Enter Laney, who’s good at figuring out that sort of thing. So good that when he worked at SlitScan, a company obsessed with the ratings roller coaster of making and breaking celebrities, exposing and destroying their lives for entertainment, he predicted that a wannabe-famous young woman would kill herself. Nobody believed him, but he’s good at reading the signs — discerning the “nodal points,” like seeing faces in the clouds. Too good.

Those are skills that could be put to better use — use with Lo/Rez, or at least the people who protect them. Laney’s hired to get inside Rez’s head, so to speak. That’s the idea, anyway. The data isn’t there in the way it should be, and the mysterious idoru plays her own part in it, as does an innocent girl named Chia who travels to Japan to learn if there’s truth to the rumor about Rez’s proposal on behalf of the Lo/Rez fan club she’s part of. Only, she becomes involved in a dangerous sort of business, all accidental, that changes her perception of life, with its many planes, and of her own idol, Rez.

It’s a bizarre plot for sure, but Gibson’s writing has captivated and stuck with me since Neuromancer, and it’s just as absorbing here. Gibson shifts verb tenses and sentence constructions as easily as the characters do realities. His writing is plain, stark on the page, yet totally imaginative in the way that brings you to this whole other state of being, this completely new future. Tokyo. The Walled City. A love hotel. Beautiful and ugly have a way of mixing up together.

Idoru seems to search for a sense of its own meaning toward the later chapters, all switching between Chia’s and Laney’s perspectives even when they inevitably intertwine, but the message to me is one we’re more familiar with each day: the union of technology and nature that’s so pure, so invisible as to be untraceable — to be as one. “Porting” — logging on — is a commonplace phenomenon, no different than walking down the street. The idoru and Rez’s love is real even though she exists only as embodied information. And some people, like the shut-in otaku Masahiko, live more in data spaces like the Walled City than in the real world.

This is a future where anyone’s identity can be fabricated, can be replicated or falsified, as avatars or doppelgangers on video — your face on someone else’s body, incriminating. Or how you want to be seen. The new real you.

Gibson is clever to pair this exploration of a new nature with the widespread, cult-like indulgence in the celebrity. Like the real to the virtual, the digital version to the truth, the images don’t quite match up. They’re slightly off, almost imperceptibly. Rez and the idoru can’t be accepted. Their relationship is too controversial. But they will be. We’re getting there — one reality infiltrating another.

Grade: B

Awesome book cover Friday: Irregular Creatures

Happy Friday! Today’s book cover pick is Irregular Creatures by author Chuck Wendig.

irregular-creatures
I love cats, so … yeah.

The book is 99 cents on Amazon and actually sounds pretty cool:

Contained within are nine stories featuring bizarre beasties, mythological mutants, and overall “irregular creatures” – including flying cats, mermaids, Bigfoot, giant chickens, and mystic hobo hermaphrodites.

It also includes stories about a radioactive monkey (cocktail … which I’m guessing doesn’t end so well for the imbiber) and a zombie that won’t die.

If anyone reads this, let me know how it is! I’m actually quite tempted to buy it, but I have a couple other books that are taking priority at the moment. This is only 45,000 words, though, so I may get it anyway.

Enjoy the weekend!

Awesome book cover Friday: City of Dragons

This week’s book cover is oh-so-cool because dragons. Dragons are cool. And this one’s totally owning this book.

City of Dragons

City of Dragons by Robin Hobb is the third entry in The Rain Wild Chronicles.

Here’s a description:

New York Times bestselling author Robin Hobb returns to world of the Rain Wilds — called “one of the most gripping settings in modern fantasy” (Booklist) — in City of Dragons. Continuing the enthralling journey she began in her acclaimed Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven, Hobb rejoins a small group of weak, half-formed and unwanted dragons and their displaced human companions as they search for a legendary sanctuary. Now, as the misfit band approaches its final destination, dragons and keepers alike face a challenge so insurmountable that it threatens to render their long, difficult odyssey utterly meaningless. Touching, powerful, and dazzlingly inventive, Hobb’s City of Dragons is not to be missed — further proof that this author belongs alongside Raymond E. Feist, Terry Brooks, and Lois McMaster Bujold in the pantheon of fantasy fiction’s true greats.

And she’s a female fantasy author. Hoorah!

Hunting for Elfstones: a review of Wards of Faerie

Wards of FaerieTerry Brooks has written over 30 novels, but they’re all new to me. Before now, I hadn’t read any of his stories, but the subjects he traditionally delves into are familiar: fantasy adventure, magic, and elves.

To acquaint myself with his work, I decided to start with Wards of Faerie, which came out last fall and is already succeeded by a sequel, Bloodfire Quest. Together they comprise the first two books in The Dark Legacy of Shannara, one of many series in the larger Shannara line.

I read a digital copy, so I rarely got a chance to look at the cover, but the design for Wards of Faerie is more symbolic of how Brooks concludes part one of the series than how it unfolds. The splitting of the coin represents the broken parties at the end of the novel — characters take separate paths with different priorities, and some even scatter to unreachable locations — which promises lots of excitement for Bloodfire Quest but little for Wards of Faerie itself.

Continue reading “Hunting for Elfstones: a review of Wards of Faerie”