The Scorpion rules, by Erin Bow

The Scorpion rules Book Cover The Scorpion rules
Prisoners of peace #1
Erin Bow
YA, Science fiction
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Sep 22 2015

In the future, the UN has brought back an ancient way to keep the peace. The children of world leaders are held hostage—if a war begins, they pay with their lives.

Greta is the Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, a superpower formed of modern-day Canada. She is also a Child of Peace, a hostage held by the de facto ruler of the world, the great Artificial Intelligence, Talis. The hostages are Talis’s strategy to keep the peace: if her country enters a war, Greta dies.

The system has worked for centuries. Parents don’t want to see their children murdered.

Greta will be free if she can make it to her eighteenth birthday. Until then she is prepared to die with dignity, if necessary. But everything changes when Elian arrives at the Precepture. He’s a hostage from a new American alliance, and he defies the machines that control every part of their lives—and is severely punished for it. Greta is furious that Elian has disrupted their quiet, structured world. But slowly, his rebellion opens her eyes to the brutality of the rules they live under, and to the subtle resistance of her companions. And Greta discovers her own quiet power.

Then Elian’s country declares war on Greta’s and invades the prefecture, taking the hostages hostage. Now the great Talis is furious, and coming himself to mete out punishment. Which surely means that Greta and Elian will be killed...unless Greta can think of a way to save them.

The above blurb describes one side of The Scorpion rules.  It fails to describe at least half of the novel I read.   Who's surprised by a YA dystopia anymore? Turns out, I am!

See, there are a lot of belligerent goats.  I like belligerent goats.  Tending them are the children of the world's nation leaders. They are held hostage by the AI who decided this would be part of a system to discourage warfare - now, you have to have a child in order to be allowed ruling power, and that child will be held hostage, so he or she can be the first to die if the parent goes to war.  These are children who know death can come knocking any day.

Humans are, evidently, slow to learn, and warfare still comes out looking necessary in order to gain scarce resources like land and drinking water.  Some of these goat-tenders will die.

You might be wondering, "what about the nearly-genre-required love triangle?!"

...I'll tell you, the ingredients are there, but the cook didn't put them together quite the way one might expect.  I'm an old grump, and I thought this was delightful, so there you go.  Oh, you can slap a "queer"-tag on it too, if that's relevant to you.

Oh, AIs.  Neural uploads, even.  These are some of my favourite things, which probably contributes to my high opinion of this book.

While reading, I was unaware this was a series starter, which warrants two comments:   1) The story wraps up and doesn't leave lots of threads hanging for what will be the next volume, and that is a great service to readers (who may be old grumps fed up with things called "Series starter" when in fact they're more like "One book, part one").    2) I honestly thought this would have to be a stand-alone, given the ending - I thought oh, it'd be amazing to get the story that comes after this,  and then I went to goodreads and found out that I am going to get to read the story that comes after this.  Awesome!


Updraft, by Fran Wilde

Updraft Book Cover Updraft
Fran Wilde
Fantasy, YA
Tor books
Sep 1 2015

In a city of living bone rising high above the clouds, where danger hides in the wind and the ground is lost to legend, a young woman must expose a dangerous secret to save everyone she loves

Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.

Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother's side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city's secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.

As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever—if it isn't destroyed outright.

Oh, my!  I have been swept away (sorry, no, not sorry) by Updraft.

I think there's been a bit of buzz around this book - at least, I've seen a fair share of it - and it's completely justified, because this is some of the best world building, and characterization, and action, and charm, that I've seen in ages.  Really.    Fran Wilde has created something amazing here, and I hope she's not about to stop.

We have a strong and resourceful - yet flawed - main character,  suddenly taken out of her familiar surroundings - and all of her familiar hopes and dreams - then placed into a new, not altogether friendly environment.  Kirit is, fortunately, a quick learner - and a good flier.

Oh, yeah, she has to fly. Nearly everyone has to know how to wield a pair of wings - because this is a city of towers, far above the clouds.  The worst possible characteristic, in this place, is clumsy.

Closely followed by unlucky.

While there is plenty of drama and terrifying turns of events,  this was a blast to read. Updraft appears to be made out of positive energy, resulting in a uniquely upbeat, fun read.   If I had to compare this novel to anything, I think I'd have to reach for something like: "Well, what if Roald Dahl decided to do the YA dystopia thing?".   There aren't giant peaches or telekinetic little girls or big friendly giants, but the world presented in Updraft has that level of invention and wonder.

(And, you know, coming from someone who read her Matilda to pieces in childhood, this is considered significant praise!)

Yes, yes, yes! You want to read this. Especially if you share my fondness for city fiction - books about cities that are at least as interesting as main characters. Read! Unless you want grimdark, but if you wanted grimdark that was grim and dark, you wouldn't even be looking at this bright cover and the accompanying blurbs. Obviously.

(I see a bunch of people on goodreads have shelved this as steampunk. Really, now? Because there's a pair of goggles in there? )

Afterworlds, by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds Book Cover Afterworlds
Scott Westerfeld
YA, Paranormal
Simon Pulse
Sep 23 2014

Scott Westerfeld is a huge favourite with a lot of YA readers, and while I understand why that is - and have pointed other readers in his direction, myself - I wasn't really won over by the only book of his I'd read until recently, which was Uglies.  It might have been bad timing, as it came at the end of an initially enthusiastic but ultimately disappointing YA dystopia spree. (Which mostly means I was all "another one?!", and not exactly "this is horribad!")

But I did pick up Afterworlds. (Audio version, about which I will say: Nice. Clear, good voices. No shenanigans.)  I thought it sounded cute, and I was right: It was.  It's also an endearing bundle of motivation for aspiring writers - the ones writing in November and other ones - tidily disguised as a novel, in which we follow the daily life of debut author Darcy Patel - AND read her novel, in alternating chapters.  This is a neat setup, and really highlights how simple everyday things find their way through a brain and into fictional writing.

Personally, I was more entertained by the daily life of an author preparing a novel for publishing, than by the fantasy story with its death god hottie.  Darcy forming new relationships, while learning where she fits now, next to idolized authors and her old high school friends,  while simultaneously discovering a few new things about herself,  is - to me - surprisingly pleasant to read about.  It's like a perpetual daydream and wish fulfillment all the way, which is quite rare, and usually boring at length.  Of course, the other story, in which a psychopomp and a death god make eyes at each other while other things also happen,  is... nice.  Neither story would be good enough on its own, to me, but they go together okay.

(And hey, I'm not voicing an opinion on whether or not Darcy's debut adventure is realistic, because I have no idea. I know it differs from how it works around here, but "around here" is not "there", so there's that. And it doesn't really matter on the whole pleasantness scale of things.  I added this parenthesis because I happened to see the words "SO unrealistic!!" in someone else's review, which... it didn't even occur to me to comment on until I saw it, because I really took for granted it was supposed to be fun! rather than realistic!)

Would I recommend it? Possibly, as a feel-good read, to the kind of people who still watch old Friends episodes because it's comfortable.  (Or younger ones who do some kind of equivalent of that, I guess.)  Light comfort-books have a place in many lives. (This one has terrorists and afterlife and ghosts and all, but still.)

If you're looking for something more than niceness, you could probably choose better.

The here and now, by Ann Brashares

The here and now Book Cover The here and now
Ann Brashares
YA, Science fiction
Hodder Children's Books
Jan 1st 2015 (For this edition - may have been otherwise been published earlier?)

Ann Brashares' The here and now is a book that came to me a bit sneakily;  first, it was suggested for me by means of a "what to read next?"-quiz on BookRiot.  So I read about it, and thought "Huh, that's nice", and would have forgotten, if it hadn't reappeared where I could ask for a review copy.  I did, and now I've read it, which didn't take long, but was definitely pleasant.

I tend to avoid YA with heavy romance plots, possibly because I'm an old grinch;  Mostly because I just can't suspend disbelief enough to go along with some of the more unbearable Soulmates-at-first-sight stuff. This could have been a problem in reading this book - but it wasn't.   The author handles the emotional parts of the plot elegantly, keeping it somewhat subdued, though it is certainly there.

Subdued is an appropriate description of the whole novel; The story unfolds quietly, subtly, in a way that deceptively makes it feel slow and languid - even though the pages turn rapidly.  I enjoy this narration style,  it allows for dramatic events but without waving all its sharp edges and fists directly at the reader.   Some will inevitably find it boring, of course.

Prenna James is an immigrant, living in a sheltered community of fellow immigrants, in New York.  Her interaction with the outside world is shy and tentative - she's been warned against it. Never let anyone get close, never let an outsider know you. Don't get involved.   There are rules, several strict rules, and Prenna knows how important they are - and yet, she's going to break just about all of them.

Because she never wants to go back to where she and the others came from. When they came from.  The future they travelled from was a broken one, all horror and blood plagues, and this place - this time - it is a paradise, by comparison. You'd think 2010 had no idea what was coming.  But it does, Prenna realises; They do know what they're doing to the planet, and yet it continues.  The rules are strict about staying away, but she has to change things. Doesn't she?

Ethan agrees.  He's been watching Prenna literally since the day she arrived in his time;  She can't remember it, but he was there right at the start.  He was there when she walked into his classroom, later on. He knows,  all the things he's not supposed to know according to the rules, and the rules say he should hate and vilify her and the other time travellers, but he doesn't.  He really doesn't.

I'd call this dystopia-adjacent - the nightmare future is there, lurking in the background, but there is hope. There is a chance it can be changed.  If only they change the right things...

Who would I recommend this to?  People looking for YA science fiction exploring other tropes than just dystopia, perhaps - here's time travel and a bit of medicine mixed in.  And if you just want a quiet book that won't shout itself at you - which is a completely valid thing to want from a book - this is a decent choice, and it won't occupy much more than an afternoon.

However, if you know yourself to be quickly bored by the kind of quiet atmosphere and downplayed action I've described,  then, of course, read something else.  This doesn't have people jumping onto trains in motion or whatever.  The fate of the world is at stake, but without explosions.

(And, of course do not read it if you're obsessive-crazy about time travel in a way that makes it hard for you to enjoy a narrative that doesn't go all hard  science about it. Go watch Primer.  But for what it's worth, this novel annoyed me a lot less than The time traveller's wife.)

Dystance: Winter’s rising, by M.R. Tufo

Dystance: Winter's rising Book Cover Dystance: Winter's rising
Series starter
M. R. Tufo
YA, Dystopia
Sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc
June 12th 2014

Dystance is Winter's home - the only place she knows. From the time Dystancians exit the Bio Buildings when they're eight years old, all they can do is struggle to feed themselves enough to survive until ten years later, when they either go to the War - or, optionally, if they're female, to the Bio Buildings to make more future Dystancians.  Pretty firmly dystopian, I'd say.

What Winter discovers by chance, though, is context.  Stumbling across a remnant of a past world - a library! - it dawns on her, and her friends, that the world has been different. Humans have lived lives very unlike theirs. Once they even had an abundance of paper - enough that stories could be written that weren't even real.  She starts asking questions...

I'm going to do this in a pro/con sort of list:

What's good about this novel?

After a bit of a slow start, it becomes a decent pageturner.  There's a lot of action, and through the action parts, the writing flows excellently.  (I haven't read any previous books by this author, but I imagine his incredibly long Zombie Fallout series might be pretty good if this is what it brings to the table.)    The characters are, for the most part, well defined - I was completely charmed by Winter's friend Cedar, whose introduction to the library's romance section was perhaps the most memorable part of the whole book.   The question of what kind of world this really is, outside of the absolute war the Dystancians and a few other communities are locked in,  grows increasingly interesting.  What's the framework, here? Who made things to be this way, why are these people kept in these meaningless warrior/babyfarms?    If you're curious enough, you'll very likely keep reading the series.

What do I dislike about this novel?

First of all, the romance. It doesn't work for me. Being sixteen years old gives a character a lot of room for feelings-without-reasons, but here, I'm just being told the main character has romantic feelings for a person, and a flash of childhood memory to explain their close connection, but I don't really get it.  It's unfortunate, because part of the (quite decent) characterization later on has this romantic interest making himself less than charming,. For good enough reasons - but it just keeps reminding me I don't know why I should care.   I also find the character interaction to be written a bit stilted and awkwardly - contrasting the fluid ease of the more action-filled paragraphs.

My main problem is - I know this is a series starter, but is it not supposed to function as a novel of its own?  For that, it just leaves too many questions unanswered or unresolved.  I close the book without having satisfied my interest in the questions that kept me reading,  which is more than mildly frustrating.  If I've misunderstood the construction of the story - if this is more like a first episode than a first book - that's all right, but it doesn't really make me any happier.

...I believe this is going to find an enthusiastic audience, though.  All things considered, I'm an old grump, and not quite as devoted to teenagers-in-dystopia as a lot of other people are. Really, a lot.