Interesting ideas overburdened by flat characters and subplots.

PRESAGE

Cheung’s debut novel is packed with thrilling ideas about near-future technology.

When cub reporter Sophie wakes for her first day of work, she’s helped by her digital I-ssistant, and she enjoys a relaxing holographic recreation of a lagoon while interacting with a representation of her schedule projected in midair—and that’s only the first page. Other near-future pops up, from new types of transportation to new social technologies, including the Alpha Scores for rating charity and community service. The first half of the novel revolves around a discussion of the role of the market and the individual in society, as presented in a debate between digitally reproduced Karl Marx (rather, three versions of Marx) and the economist Adam Smith. However, while these high-concept ideas and philosophical debates are entertaining, Cheung doesn’t back up the ideas with clearly defined characters for the reader to identify with. Yet there are plenty of players: In addition to Sophie and her I-ssistant personality, Brad, there are also her adoptive parents, Lola and Otto; her biological mother, Xin Sun Er, and grandmother; her fiancé, Mitch; his twin brother, Sam; her colleagues, Karly and Tristan; the three Marx personalities and the Adam Smith construct; her boss and her boss’ many friends; etc. The vast array of ideas may be thrilling, but the large cast of characters can be confusing. On top of that, the narrator sometimes summarizes the situation with a bird’s-eye view, which doesn’t foster emotional identification with the characters, as in one instance when the reader is simply told: “People were shaken….But life went on, and autumn turned into winter.” Lastly, the book loses some excitement due to its structure and slow pacing; in fact, the title object—the virtual game “Presage”—first appears on page 233, finally kicking into gear a thriller plot involving intelligence agencies’ attempt to sabotage the game.

Interesting ideas overburdened by flat characters and subplots.

Pub Date: June 8, 2012

ISBN: 978-1477479988

Page Count: 380

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2012

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Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

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THE TESTAMENTS

Atwood goes back to Gilead.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), consistently regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century literature, has gained new attention in recent years with the success of the Hulu series as well as fresh appreciation from readers who feel like this story has new relevance in America’s current political climate. Atwood herself has spoken about how news headlines have made her dystopian fiction seem eerily plausible, and it’s not difficult to imagine her wanting to revisit Gilead as the TV show has sped past where her narrative ended. Like the novel that preceded it, this sequel is presented as found documents—first-person accounts of life inside a misogynistic theocracy from three informants. There is Agnes Jemima, a girl who rejects the marriage her family arranges for her but still has faith in God and Gilead. There’s Daisy, who learns on her 16th birthday that her whole life has been a lie. And there's Aunt Lydia, the woman responsible for turning women into Handmaids. This approach gives readers insight into different aspects of life inside and outside Gilead, but it also leads to a book that sometimes feels overstuffed. The Handmaid’s Tale combined exquisite lyricism with a powerful sense of urgency, as if a thoughtful, perceptive woman was racing against time to give witness to her experience. That narrator hinted at more than she said; Atwood seemed to trust readers to fill in the gaps. This dynamic created an atmosphere of intimacy. However curious we might be about Gilead and the resistance operating outside that country, what we learn here is that what Atwood left unsaid in the first novel generated more horror and outrage than explicit detail can. And the more we get to know Agnes, Daisy, and Aunt Lydia, the less convincing they become. It’s hard, of course, to compete with a beloved classic, so maybe the best way to read this new book is to forget about The Handmaid’s Tale and enjoy it as an artful feminist thriller.

Suspenseful, full of incident, and not obviously necessary.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54378-1

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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With every new work, Jemisin’s ability to build worlds and break hearts only grows.

THE FIFTH SEASON

From the The Broken Earth series , Vol. 1

In the first volume of a trilogy, a fresh cataclysm besets a physically unstable world whose ruling society oppresses its most magically powerful inhabitants.

The continent ironically known as the Stillness is riddled with fault lines and volcanoes and periodically suffers from Seasons, civilization-destroying tectonic catastrophes. It’s also occupied by a small population of orogenes, people with the ability to sense and manipulate thermal and kinetic energy. They can quiet earthquakes and quench volcanoes…but also touch them off. While they’re necessary, they’re also feared and frequently lynched. The “lucky” ones are recruited by the Fulcrum, where the brutal training hones their powers in the service of the Empire. The tragic trap of the orogene's life is told through three linked narratives (the link is obvious fairly quickly): Damaya, a fierce, ambitious girl new to the Fulcrum; Syenite, an angry young woman ordered to breed with her bitter and frighteningly powerful mentor and who stumbles across secrets her masters never intended her to know; and Essun, searching for the husband who murdered her young son and ran away with her daughter mere hours before a Season tore a fiery rift across the Stillness. Jemisin (The Shadowed Sun, 2012, etc.) is utterly unflinching; she tackles racial and social politics which have obvious echoes in our own world while chronicling the painfully intimate struggle between the desire to survive at all costs and the need to maintain one’s personal integrity. Beneath the story’s fantastic trappings are incredibly real people who undergo intense, sadly believable pain.

With every new work, Jemisin’s ability to build worlds and break hearts only grows.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-316-22929-6

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Orbit/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: June 14, 2016

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