Well-written but can’t break free of its all-too-familiar tropes.

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MERITROPOLIS

Ohman’s debut novel is set in Meritropolis, a walled city where every person lives at the mercy of the System, an algorithm that assigns each resident a number that determines their worth to society.

Teenage Charley has grown up in Meritropolis under the constant scrutiny of the System, which rules with an iron fist. When a citizen’s number drops below 50—as in the case of Charley’s older brother, who had Down syndrome—he or she is put outside the gates of the city, never to be seen again. The landscape outside is rife with murderous monsters: animal hybrids like the ferocious bion, a bull-lion combination, or rotthogs, Rottweiler-boar hybrids that are hunted for food. Charley, however, has an extremely high score, high enough to make him valuable, and he finds himself in the upper echelons of the System, groomed along with other high-scoring youth for a mysterious purpose. But Charley yearns for revenge—for his brother Alec and other innocents chosen for death by the relentless System—and he seeks to bring the System down from the inside. The novel is a clear attempt to join the wave of dystopia currently dominating the YA best-seller lists, and Ohman’s writing is a cut above: “The cork-gray, near-splintering steps accepted each of Charley’s strides with a ligneous grumble.” Unfortunately, he also seems to be assembling the plot from a list of well-worn clichés, starting with his hero: Charley is simply better than everybody at everything, which leaves him nowhere to grow as a character. From the outset, he’s clearly the chosen one to bring down the System, and the people he meets fall into simple roles: love interest, sidekick, nemesis, femme fatale who uses her sexuality as a weapon, etc. There’s also no sense that he was ever fooled by the System; his epiphanies about its corruption have already happened, and besides the faceless grunts he kills in his liberation quest, it seems everyone he meets has already decided the System is evil, which gives the entire book an odd feeling of anticlimax.

Well-written but can’t break free of its all-too-familiar tropes.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2014

ISBN: 978-1500189600

Page Count: 226

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Sept. 26, 2014

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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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An ambitious and bewitching gem of a book with mystery and passion inscribed on every page.

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THE STARLESS SEA

A withdrawn graduate student embarks on an epic quest to restore balance to the world in this long-anticipated follow-up to The Night Circus (2011).

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a typical millennial introvert; he likes video games, escapist reading, and drinking sidecars. But when he recognizes himself in the pages of a mysterious book from the university library, he's unnerved—and determined to uncover the truth. What begins as a journey for answers turns into something much bigger, and Zachary must decide whether to trust the handsome stranger he meets at a highflying literary fundraiser in New York or to retreat back to his thesis and forget the whole affair. In a high-wire feat of metatextual derring-do, Morgenstern weaves Zachary's adventure into a stunning array of linked fables, myths, and origin stories. There are pirates and weary travelers, painters who can see the future, lovers torn asunder, a menacing Owl King, and safe harbors for all the stories of the world, far below the Earth on the golden shores of a Starless Sea. Clocking in at more than 500 pages, the novel requires patience as Morgenstern puts all the pieces in place, but it is exquisitely pleasurable to watch the gears of this epic fantasy turn once they're set in motion. As in The Night Circus, Morgenstern is at her best when she imagines worlds and rooms and parties in vivid detail, right down to the ballroom stairs "festooned with lanterns and garlands of paper dipped in gold" or a cloak carved from ice with "ships and sailors and sea monsters...lost in the drifting snow." This novel is a love letter to readers as much as an invitation: Come and see how much magic is left in the world. Fans of Neil Gaiman and V.E. Schwab, Kelly Link and Susanna Clarke will want to heed the call.

An ambitious and bewitching gem of a book with mystery and passion inscribed on every page.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-54121-3

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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