Review: Rebel Seoul

Title: Rebel Seoul
Author: Axie Oh
Genres: Science fiction, romance
Pages: 400
Publisher: Tu Books
Review Copy: ARC received from publisher
Availability: September 15, 2017

Summary: After a great war, the East Pacific is in ruins. In brutal Neo Seoul, where status comes from success in combat, ex-gang member Lee Jaewon is a talented pilot rising in the ranks of the academy. Abandoned as a kid in the slums of Old Seoul by his rebel father, Jaewon desires only to escape his past and prove himself a loyal soldier of the Neo State.

When Jaewon is recruited into the most lucrative weapons development division in Neo Seoul, he is eager to claim his best shot at military glory. But the mission becomes more complicated when he meets Tera, a test subject in the government’s supersoldier project. Tera was trained for one purpose: to pilot one of the lethal God Machines, massive robots for a never-ending war.

With secret orders to report on Tera, Jaewon becomes Tera’s partner, earning her reluctant respect. But as respect turns to love, Jaewon begins to question his loyalty to an oppressive regime that creates weapons out of humans. As the project prepares to go public amidst rumors of a rebellion, Jaewon must decide where he stands—as a soldier of the Neo State, or a rebel of the people.

Pacific Rim meets Korean action dramas in this mind-blowing, New Visions Award-winning science fiction debut.

Review: I knew I needed Rebel Seoul in my life the moment I heard it compared to mix of Pacific Rim and Korean dramas, and I was not disappointed. There were giant robots, fight scenes, complicated (and angsty) family relationships and (ex-)friendships, questionable loyalties, rebellions, and a lovely romance—basically, author Axie Oh delivered everything I had hoped for.

Jaewon was an excellent narrator whose position in life gave him a unique look at his far-future society. His priorities (getting a decent military placement, using it to leverage himself out of the Old Seoul slums, and just plain surviving) gradually started to shift as he learned more about the Amaterasu Project. It isn’t that he lost his innocence so much as he began to understand that there was a broader world out there with people who were more complex than he originally thought. There were some wonderful moments throughout the book where Jaewon considered someone else’s point-of-view, which radically changed how he saw them.

The world of Rebel Seoul is fascinating. It’s not so far into the future as to be unrecognizable, and the classic divide between the haves and have-nots that’s common in dystopian-ish worlds was there. But one of the things that Oh did well was that this brutal government is frequently just as awful to its elites as to its poor, and being rich or from an important family isn’t as good a shield as its frequently portrayed to be. (Hello, first test! And mandatory military service for everyone, though privilege and excellent scores could get you less dangerous positions.) We got just enough detail to have an idea of how this militaristic superstate formed, and I liked how much it felt like this was a society that had been at war for decades. That kind of society made a good contrast for drama among more intimate relationships, like classmates, friends, neighbors, and romantic partners.

I have a weakness for “forbidden” romance, so Jaewon and Tera’s budding relationship was a delight. My favorite parts about it where how it developed out of time spent together and Jaewon’s empathy. He could have kept his distance—should have kept his distance from a girl raised and experimented on to become a weapon—but his empathy made him view her as a person first, not a tool for the exclusive use of his government. These two have become one of my favorite battle couples in YA.

There were a few plot twists that I felt were too easily predicted and a few characters I wish had been fleshed out, but overall Rebel Seoul was one of my favorite reads this year. It is a book set in a messy, complicated world without easy answers or neat resolutions, and I loved it.

Recommendation: Buy (pre-order!) it now. Axie Oh’s debut novel is a phenomenal mix of science fiction and romance set against a militaristic dystopian society. Rebel Seoul’s compelling characters and fast-paced plot means that this will almost definitely be on my year-end best-of list.

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Review: The Edge of the Abyss

the edge of the abyss Title:  The Edge of the Abyss (The Abyss Surrounds Us #2)
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 281
Publisher: Flux
Availability: Out now!

Summary: Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to the ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Cas dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers that Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and ruining the ocean ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect? Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: The Edge of the Abyss is the sequel to The Abyss Surrounds Us, which centers on Cassandra Leung, a young Reckoner trainer who fights for survival on a pirate ship, all while training up a giant sea beast to terrorize the oceans. Yes, the book really is as epic as it sounds. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend reading the first book in the series. It’s incredible, thrilling, and sets the scene for its sequel perfectly.

I’ve been keeping track of The Edge of the Abyss ever since I read the first book in the series, which ends on something of a cliffhanger, especially when it comes to the romance. Cassandra, now a pirate on Santa Elena’s pirate ship, must find a way to right the wrongs she has helped set in motion, while also grappling with her conflicting feelings for the ruthless pirate girl Swift. Their relationship certainly had a rocky (and ethically murky) beginning, but in this book, they’re finally on level ground, and it was exciting to see where the two would go.

If you can’t tell, I read the book just as much for the romance as for the epic sea battles and fearsome beasts. Of course, the epic sea battles and beasts did not disappoint. (I will never get over how cute it is that Cassandra’s pirate Reckoner beast is named Bao – reminds me of how my friends named their rabbit Mantou.) In the background is the constant thread of ambition and manipulation – the way Santa Elena controls and manipulates everyone on the ship, shaping their futures, and the way Cassandra deals with those around her. The book manages to weave all these elements together perfectly.

I loved The Abyss Surrounds Us and its sequel lived up to, and exceeded the first. If you want to read about queer pirates and epic sea monsters (and really, who doesn’t?), these two books are must-reads. Put them on your to-read list!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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New Release

This is the week that The Edge of the Abyss is released. Check out Jessica’s review of the first book in the series – The Abyss Surrounds Us.

The Edge of the Abyss (The Abyss Surrounds Us #2) by Emily Skrutskie
Flux

Three weeks have passed since Cassandra Leung pledged her allegiance to the ruthless pirate-queen Santa Elena and set free Bao, the sea monster Reckoner she’d been forced to train. The days as a pirate trainee are long and grueling, but it’s not the physical pain that Cas dreads most. It’s being forced to work with Swift, the pirate girl who broke her heart.

But Cas has even bigger problems when she discovers that Bao is not the only monster swimming free. Other Reckoners illegally sold to pirates have escaped their captors and are taking the NeoPacific by storm, attacking ships at random and ruining the ocean ecosystem. As a Reckoner trainer, Cas might be the only one who can stop them. But how can she take up arms against creatures she used to care for and protect?

Will Cas embrace the murky morals that life as a pirate brings or perish in the dark waters of the NeoPacific?

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Review: Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation

Title: Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Author: Octavia E. Butler, Adapter Damian Duffy, Artist John Jennings
Genres: Graphic Novel, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Historical
Pages: 240
Publisher: Abrams Comicarts
Availability: On shelves now

Summary:  More than 35 years after its release, Kindred continues to draw in new readers with its deep exploration of the violence and loss of humanity caused by slavery in the United States, and its complex and lasting impact on the present day. Adapted by celebrated academics and comics artists Damian Duffy and John Jennings, this graphic novel powerfully renders Butler’s mysterious and moving story, which spans racial and gender divides in the antebellum South through the 20th century.

Butler’s most celebrated, critically acclaimed work tells the story of Dana, a young black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported from her home in 1970s California to the pre–Civil War South. As she time-travels between worlds, one in which she is a free woman and one where she is part of her own complicated familial history on a southern plantation, she becomes frighteningly entangled in the lives of Rufus, a conflicted white slaveholder and one of Dana’s own ancestors, and the many people who are enslaved by him.

Held up as an essential work in feminist, science-fiction, and fantasy genres, and a cornerstone of the Afrofuturism movement, there are over 500,000 copies of Kindred in print. The intersectionality of race, history, and the treatment of women addressed within the original work remain critical topics in contemporary dialogue, both in the classroom and in the public sphere.

Frightening, compelling, and richly imagined, Kindred offers an unflinching look at our complicated social history, transformed by the graphic novel format into a visually stunning work for a new generation of readers.

Review: Kindred is not generally tagged as young adult, but it will likely be a cross-over title and it was one I wanted to read for our focus on women in graphic novels this month. Dana, the main character, has just turned twenty-six when the main action begins so it’s not about teens, but Dana’s a young woman and is interacting with a variety of young people. It’s a book that deals with slavery through the eyes of a relatively contemporary person and it shows aspects of slavery and racism through multiple perspectives. Dana’s beliefs about slavery are challenged as she lives among enslaved people. Things are not as clear-cut as she had thought. Dana learns about what she’s willing to do to survive and finds herself doing things that go against her ideals.

This book also deals with interracial relationships. The relationship Dana has with her white husband is simply incomprehensible to the people on the southern plantation 30+ years before the Civil War. A white man using the body of a black woman is accepted, or at least ignored by whites, but a white man loving a black woman is somehow shameful. Even in the 1970s, Dana and Kevin’s marriage isn’t fully accepted by some of their own family members. This issue, among many many others, highlights the fact that slavery affected everyone involved and those effects lasted throughout generations.

In some ways, the graphic aspect of this adaptation added to the original story. The visuals keep the pacing quick and definitely bring the action to life. Some of the scenes are extremely painful to see and increase the emotional impact of the events and interactions. In other ways though, this format wasn’t quite as powerful as the novel. For this to work, the text had to be streamlined and while the overall story line remained intact and the main ideas are all there, some of the more subtle aspects were missing or just not as clear. I was glad I’d read both so my brain could fill in some of the blanks. For those who have never read Butler’s works before, this would be a great introduction that would likely lead readers to want more. Those familiar with Kindred will probably enjoy the adaptation, but may find it lacking a little of the depth.

Recommendation: Get it soon. This graphic novel adaptation is one more way to experience an amazingly powerful story from Octavia Butler.

Extra:
Interview with John Jennings & Damian Duffy

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Review: Exo by Fonda Lee

Title: Exo
Author: Fonda Lee
Genres: Science-fiction
Pages: 384
Publisher: Scholastic
Review Copy: eARC received via Edelweiss
Availability: Available now

Summary: It’s been a century of peace since Earth became a colony of an alien race with far reaches into the galaxy. Some die-hard extremists still oppose alien rule on Earth, but Donovan Reyes isn’t one of them. His dad holds the prestigious position of Prime Liaison in the collaborationist government, and Donovan’s high social standing along with his exocel (a remarkable alien technology fused to his body) guarantee him a bright future in the security forces. That is, until a routine patrol goes awry and Donovan’s abducted by the human revolutionary group Sapience, determined to end alien control.

When Sapience realizes whose son Donovan is, they think they’ve found the ultimate bargaining chip. But the Prime Liaison doesn’t negotiate with terrorists, not even for his own son. Left in the hands of terrorists who have more uses for him dead than alive, the fate of Earth rests on Donovan’s survival. Because if Sapience kills him, it could spark another intergalactic war. And Earth didn’t win the last one . . .

Review: It has been a while since I’ve read any science fiction, and Exo reminded me of several of my favorite aspects of the genre: aliens, moral quandaries, and cool technology.

Unlike a lot of my favorite science fiction, the aliens that Fonda Lee has created for Exo are very un-human-like, what with their mushroom-like bodies with six legs, six eyes, fins, and armor. The scattered information we got about the War Era and the conquering of earth—a billion people dead, the reshaping of political boundaries, a new social system—was intriguing. Occasionally, I felt like the world of Exo was too wide for just Donovan’s point of view and wished to see it from inside someone else’s head. Particularly someone from a less privileged life.

Donovan was an engaging character, and it was easy to root for him even when I didn’t think he was making the right choices. Watching him start to question the way of life he was raised in—while simultaneously criticizing opposing views—was a satisfying character arc, though it doesn’t feel complete. (But I suppose that’s what sequels are for.) While I wanted to see more of his life not centered around his job, I have to admit that there were several riveting action scenes because of it. Lee did a great job with her action scenes and in creating the tension- and dread-filled scenes leading up to them.

Perhaps my most significant complaint about Exo is the limited development of several significant side characters, most notably Anya and Donovan’s father. While we were told some formative parts of Anya’s backstory, even Donovan had a throwaway line about how little he really knew her and speculation that his attraction to her was more the result of trauma and loneliness than anything else. Considering the great personal risks he takes for her in the climax, I wish that Anya—and her relationship to Donovan—had been more fleshed out. Similarly, I don’t feel as if we ever got to know Donovan’s father very well on an intimate level, which was a shame, considering how important he was within the story.

I also noticed something that concerned me: the use of Native American imagery. Saul Strong Winter is the name of the Sapience cell leader in the Black Hills, so I presume he is of Native descent, but we are never given a specific tribe or nation for him. A “Native American eagle” design is a symbol of Sapience, referred to as a symbol of freedom, but it gets put on bumper stickers, and features in a tattoo (by a character I believe is non-Native) that turns out to be an important clue for Donovan later on. I don’t know enough about Native American representation to talk about this further, but I would appreciate hearing from any Native American readers about their thoughts on this book.

EDIT (2/20/17): I have been informed by the author that she and her editor made changes to the book prior to printing regarding this imagery. While an eagle tattoo still features in the plot, it is no longer a Native American design. They realized that Sapience’s use of a Native American design would be problematic and corrected that for the print version of the book.

Recommendation: Get it soon, if alien conquests in science fiction are your thing. While Exo isn’t without problems, it is a fun, fast read with some interesting world building. I’m looking forward to the next book.

Extras
Interview with Fonda Lee at Rich in Color

Excerpt of Exo

Shades of Grey – Developing Unique Characters That are a Blend of Evil and Good by Fonda Lee

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Review: Mirror in the Sky

25802922Title: Mirror in the Sky
Author: Aditi Khorana
Genres: Science Fiction, Contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Razorbill
Review copy: Library
Availability: June 21st 2016

Summary: For Tara Krishnan, navigating Brierly, the academically rigorous prep school she attends on scholarship, feels overwhelming and impossible. Her junior year begins in the wake of a startling discovery: A message from an alternate Earth, light years away, is intercepted by NASA. This means that on another planet, there is another version of Tara, a Tara who could be living better, burning brighter, because of tiny differences in her choices.

The world lights up with the knowledge of Terra Nova, the mirror planet, and Tara’s life on Earth begins to change. At first, small shifts happen, like attention from Nick Osterman, the most popular guy at Brierly, and her mother playing hooky from work to watch the news all day. But eventually those small shifts swell, the discovery of Terra Nova like a black hole, bending all the light around it.

As a new era of scientific history dawns and Tara’s life at Brierly continues its orbit, only one thing is clear: Nothing on Earth–or for Tara–will ever be the same again. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: If you’re into space (and who isn’t, considering all the exciting discoveries happening in the last few years), then Mirror in the Sky has, from the start, an arresting premise. Tara Krishnan is starting junior year at prep school without her best friend when the world is rocked by a discovery of, well, another alternate Earth somewhere in space. The effects of the discovery start to influence Tara’s life little by little.

Of course, as with most science fiction, a certain amount of good ol’ suspension of disbelief needs to happen. With this book in particular, I had to work especially hard to suspend any disbelief. I had a hard time believing the physics explanation introduced to explain a parallel Earth where they had their own version of Virginia Woolf, named Virginia Wool — and so on. (To be fair, I definitely switched out of my high school physics class in favor of TA-ing for English… so I may just be bad at physics.)

Tara’s narration of the changes in her world – in school and in the universe – is strong and distinct, with plenty of detail. There’s a definite melancholy, here-is-what-i-am-thinking tone to it, which may or may not be your cup of tea. There’s also Tara’s life at Brierly as she’s plunged into the social lives of the popular kids. It gets very Mean Girls, but with a much more serious tone to it, which melded well with all the space intrigue.

Honestly, if you need your sci-fi to have a strong scientific basis, or if you dislike school drama, then Mirror in the Sky may not be for you. These factors, along with the final events at the end, threw me for a loop.

But if you’re looking for a solid YA science fiction book, Mirror in the Sky is it. Definitely check it out when you get the chance! In my opinion, YA can always use more sci-fi, and this is a great addition.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday, especially if you like science fiction!

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