Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
Though a young adult novel, Leviathan is one of the most fun books I've read in a while. Its alternate universe version of Europe on the eve of World War One imagines the major powers equipped with cool steampunk technology. The British and their allies have fantastical genetically-engineered creatures, such as living airships, on their side, while the pickelhaube-clad Germans clank about (naturally) in giant, armored walkers. Such concepts have been done in fiction before, but Westerfeld creates a thoroughly enjoyable world, filled with likable characters, drama, wit, sci-fi speculation, and some real history. It's written on a level accessible (and appropriate) to middle school-aged kids, but I think many adults will like it just as much. Can't wait for the sequel! PS. If you get the audio version, be sure to check out the grotesquely cool map of Europe on Westerfeld's web site.
For my money, Paulo Bacigalupi is one of the few writers of dystopian science fiction right now who's not just channeling the social anomie of the moment, but is gazing out over the ramparts towards the approaching dust cloud. He asks a direct and urgent question that other novelists don't: what would happen if our fossil fuel-driven, environmental havok-wreaking global economy broke down? Would human society have to foresight to adapt, or would it just start to cannibalize itself, reverting to ugly old patterns?
Forget the Hunger Games, with its elaborate Big Brother fantasy -- The Drowned Cities (and its companion novel, Ship Breaker) portrays a more immediate kind of dystopia, a "future" that's already arrived in places like Somalia, the Congo, Iraq, or Afghanistan. It's just not a future that's gotten to our shores. Yet.
Just as importantly, Bacigalupi is a visionary who can write. His novels burn with a quiet, measured intensity, the calm of the language bringing the fear and struggle of his world to vivid life. He doesn’t give his characters easy moral choices, but puts them in a position where doing the right thing is often very dangerous, and being less-than-heroic is sometimes the only way to survive.
The Drowned Cities is a page-turningly grim novel, perhaps a shade or two more intense than it’s companion book, Ship Breaker. Here again, we meet two adolescent characters trying to keep their heads down and make it to adulthood, although not the same two characters from that book, and in a new setting -- near the flooded remnants of Washington, DC. We also have a return of the monstrous half-man, Tool, who plays a more prominent role as both a reluctant ally and a knowing but decidedly unsympathetic observer of human affairs, and is perhaps Bacigalupi’s best character to date. Here, the plot puts its protagonists squarely in the middle of a war between vicious militias of mostly-teenage conscripts, who, as we come to see, are as much victims of their circumstances as anyone else, unable to escape what their exploitative warlords have turned them into.
If that sounds like heavy material for a young adult book, it is, and I don’t know that I’d recommend this one for younger readers, given some frightening characters and scenes of brutality, torture, and enslavement. But, it is, like Ship Breaker, a very good book, framing its moral questions in a sober, even-handed way, and keeping the level of action high. I’m pleased to see that the economy required for shorter works has improved Bacigalupi’s chops at plot and characterization, and look forward to seeing him return to writing grown-up novels with those lessons in hand.
PS. If you haven’t read Ship Breaker, it’s not really a prerequisite, but I’d still suggest that one first, since it introduces Tool and is a bit more of an adventure.
If you're in the mood for a somber, gorgeously visual novel that's part Philip Pullman, part Tolkien, and part a world out of one those artful fantasy illustrations that seemed to have had a heyday in the 1970s, Sabriel might fit the bill. The heroine of the title is a girl of mysterious origins who was born in the magical "Old Kingdom" and possesses a rare natural gift for necromancy. However, Sabriel has spent most of her life in Ancelstierre, a non-magical country that resembles Britain of the early 1900s, but shares a strange border region with the Old Kingdom. The story begins with its heroine, who is completing a clandestine education in magic, learning that her often-absent father, who spends most of his time in the Old Kingdom, has gone missing. Meanwhile, the undead ghouls and spirits that plague that region have been acting up, for reasons that Sabriel doesn't understand, having been away from home for so long.
While the quest that ensues follows a well-worn good-versus-darkness script, I enjoyed its world creation. Many of Nix's ideas, from the militarized zone between Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, to the different bells that perform different kinds of necromantic magic, to the beautifully eerie World of the Dead, a Stygian realm populated by beings and souls that have not yet passed entirely from life (and a third parallel reality in the story), have a delicious sense of old history to them. I also enjoyed the side characters, a sardonic, semi-helpful creature of unclear origins named Mogget, who is trapped inside a cat's body, and a stolid, brooding young man named Touchstone, who is wrapped up in his own past.
The writing resembles Pullman's The Golden Compass in that it takes its dark reality seriously and contains a few "adult" things, such as some glancing references to sex and several grim scenes of death. There's nothing I'd consider prurient or inappropriate for the average 12-13 year old, though. For my money, The Golden Compass was more interesting, but readers looking for a work like it, albeit with a more traditional sensibility, would probably enjoy Sabriel.
Tim Curry's audiobook performance, which is a touch campfire tale and a touch Shakespearean theatre, fits the tone delightfully.