Book Review: Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

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I recently read a New York Magazine article describing how climate change will have a catastrophic impact within the next decades, likely within my lifetime. The reality that we live in makes books like Ship Breaker (and Want, another recent read) seem more near-future and predictive than science fiction and is part of what makes this novel so effective.

Ship Breaker is set along the Gulf Coast in a near-future America full of drowned cities where city-killer storms can radically change the coastline in a day. Nailer is a teenage ship breaker, small enough to crawl into the dark depths of beached oil tankers and strip them of metals like copper that are shipped out and sold. He and his fellow inhabitants of Bright Sands Beach are dirt poor and work in what is essentially indentured servitude. They live in shacks and lack access to necessities such as enough food, protective working gear, and antibiotic medicine. His father is a violent, abusive drunk and his mother passed away from illness years ago. One day, Nailer and his friend Pima discover a beached clipper ship–one of the modern ships they often seen in the distance that only the rich can afford–and while stripping it of the excessive wealth that they find, they discover a swank, a rich girl, and must decide what to do with her: kill her and take their plunder, or save her and hope that she can lead them to a better life?

The only novel I’ve read from Paolo Bacigalupi before Ship Breaker was The Water Knife, one of his adult novels that has a similar theme examining the devastating effects of climate change. Although I found Bacigalupi’s themes and content interesting, I struggled to engage with his writing, and ran into the same problem with Ship Breaker. It took me several chapters before I was hooked, but there was sufficient action so that when I was in, I was all the way in and Ship Breaker ended up being a pretty quick read.

Ship Breaker has many elements common to a poor-boy-meets-rich-girl story, but differentiates itself in the complex way it handles morals vs. money and the post-apocalyptic setting. The changing climate has exacerbated income inequality and money is almost a vice, becoming the driving factor in people’s lives and outweighing moral principles. The rich believe themselves to have morals while the poor are all too willing to do whatever it takes to get some money and improve their lives. Nita, the girl that Nailer and Pima discovers, takes pride in her company’s commitment to “clean” industry, but her company also directly contracts and benefits from “blood buyers” who profit from the blood, sweat, and tears of poor workers like Nailer. He voices the complicated relationship between morals and money when he tells her, “The only reason you think you’ve got morals is because you don’t need money the way regular people do.”

Throughout the novel Nailer struggles with his own moral principles. Ship breakers run on their on moral codes where breaking blood oaths means social exile. But the ship breakers are also willing to turn their backs on those they do not have oaths with, and aren’t afraid to shed blood for self-preservation or self-promotion. In multiple instances Nailer must make a decision between self-preservation, doing what he thinks is “right”, and getting ahead in life.

Ship Breaker is a strong novel and good read despite its slow start with a warning message about climate change that is worth heeding and a little more complexity and depth than your usual young adult novel.

Book Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Rebel of the Sands because of some mixed reviews that I’ve read online, but I really enjoyed the story and zipped right through the novel. Rebel of the Sands is a well-written and entertaining young adult fantasy romance with a strong female protagonist who is easy to like.

The novel is set in a magical fantasy world and focuses on a vaguely Middle Eastern/Persian-inspired kingdom, Miraji, where young teenage heroine Amani Al’Hiza is trying to escape her oppressive life in a tiny town in the desert. She manages to escape with the help of a dashing young foreigner named Jin, and tries to leave him behind, but the two end up getting entangled with each other on their respective journeys as they try to evade the soldiers who are after them.

Most of the criticism of Rebel of the Sands (that I’ve read) have been about how it’s boring or about cultural appropriation. I think the boring aspect is a matter of personal taste — I never got bored and was quickly reeled in by the smooth writing, folklore, and magic. As for cultural appropriation, I recognize that as a risk of any young adult novel that tries to use other cultures that are foreign to a writer (most commonly, a white author writing about a non-white culture.) Making a world fantasy but appropriating real cultures doesn’t make it “okay” but I would also as a reader just read with the awareness that cultures in reality cannot be reduced to the simplifications and stereotypes that often appear in stories. As someone who has not personally experienced the culture being appropriated, it’s difficult for me to judge the offensiveness of cultural appropriation, so I just try to be an aware reader.

I got a lot of Under a Painted Sky and Walk on Earth a Stranger vibes from Rebel of the Sands, mainly because of the Western vibe of the opening parts of the novel. There is a similar theme of an oppressive culture and sexism forcing a girl to escape her current life and go on a journey in order to do so. They all end up cross-dressing and on the run from someone. I also got some Star Wars vibes, because part of Rebel of the Sands involves a rebellion led by a dethroned prince and a mega-weapon subplot. Seem familiar?

Rebel of the Sands is an interesting mash-up of genres: it involves some Western gun-slinging, shooting, and journeying, but is also a fantasy full of mythical beings and folklore rooted in reality. I thought this mash-up worked really well, and it also showed some of the clash between technology and nature/magic, progress and tradition. Despite the comparisons with Walk on Earth a StrangerRebel of the Sands feels very much like a fantasy whereas Walk on Earth a Stranger barely felt like a fantasy at all.

The protagonist Amani is an easy character to like. She is strong and independent, and in a world imbued with magic, I like that her greatest skill, shooting, is one built up with practice and time. She is a self-made woman.

Her relationship with Jin, a classic different, bad-boy, rebel type of love interest, has a healthy dose of insta-attraction built into it that raises of the question of whether their relationship is built on teenage hormones or a true deep connection. But he does give a pretty little speech on how he likes her because of how she “taught herself to shoot” and “made herself matter” that made him just a little more appealing.

Overall, Rebel of the Sands is an entertaining and enjoyable read good for anyone who likes a good fantasy.

Books: Want

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Want wasn’t originally on my to-read list, but I was browsing books at the library and the Asian male face on the cover caught my eye because it’s so rare to see POC in the young adult genre. I’ve read Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix and while it didn’t blow me away, I love that she’s introducing something new and different to the YA genre in the form of Chinese culture (in that particular instance.) With Want, she moves away from fantasy and into a more sci-fi territory.

Want is set in near-future Taipei where the air quality has gotten so bad that the rich, the you (literally those “who have”), have purchased special suits in order to venture outdoors. Meanwhile, the mei, the common folks who can’t afford suits, are plagued with short lifespans and succumb young to various diseases because of the toll that the environment has taken on their health. Jason Zhou was orphaned at 13 when his mother passed away from pneumonia, lacking the money and good health in order to fight the disease off. Now, he and his friends have made it their mission to take down Jin Corporation, the manufacturer of the suits, in order to open the eyes of the legislators and rich to the plight of the environment, because that’s the only way change can be made.

What I love about the world of Want is that while there is a certain futuristic quality to it, with the suits and whatnot, the danger of such a toxic environment is a very real and imminent threat to everyone on Earth. The novel is set in Taipei, but as of right now, the air quality there isn’t even as bad as it is in other cities like Beijing, which makes the world of this novel so much more impactful because if Taipei is that bad, then what does Beijing look like?

Unfortunately, when it comes to the actual plot and writing itself, Want is very average for me. It feels very over-familiar and done-before, and despite the novelty of having a POC cast and non-Western setting, the actual characters and plot itself feel a lot like every other similar vaguely-sci-fi, heist-centered young adult novel I’ve read. I got some toned-down Red Rising vibes mixed in with your choice of teenage heist novel (Heist Society, perhaps? or Six of Crows?) But in writing and storytelling Want fails to distinguish itself.

It took me several chapters to get into the story and characters, and even then there would be stretches where I just was not interested in the writing or story. The writing is very visual and movie-like, but too much visual description bores me when there isn’t enough other content to give the story and writing substance. A lot of parts of the story are glossed over very superficially (things happen as if by magic) and I would’ve liked to see more nuance or complexity.

Despite my personal inability to get into the novel, I do appreciate that we’re getting more non-white characters (and writers) in the young adult pool and I like that Pon hit some very relevant (and buzzword) topics such as the environment, privacy, and income inequality. I’ll be looking out for the sequel because I want to support and encourage racially diverse YA novels as a reader, and there are a couple of loose ends that still need tying up. Also, I’m pretty convinced that even though Jason treated his connection to the rich Lee family of California very casually, there is sure to be much more to this family relationship than a photograph that he disregards with a one-sentence thought.

Books: Magic Study

1265703.jpgI really enjoyed Poison Study, the first book in this series, so I had high hopes for Maria V. Snyder’s Magic Study. Unfortunately, I found Magic Study to be a disappointment. It failed to entertain and engage me, and felt at once both too broad and too narrow.

At the end of Poison Study, Yelena had essentially been exiled to Sitia and had planned to go there anyway in order to learn more about her magic. In Magic Study, she finds her family in Sitia, but her time with them is fleeting as she must go to the Magicians’ Keep to learn more about her magic. Of course, Yelena can never stay away from drama for too long, and she becomes involved with a man who has claims to the Ixian throne as well as a darker plot involving rogue magicians.

As I mentioned, Magic Study felt both very broad and very narrow to me. The breadth came in terms of the plot: we essentially see the development of two or three plotlines in this story. There is the introduction of Cahil Ixia, the supposed nephew of the former King of Ixia; then we have the Ixian ambassador’s visit to Sitia and the tensions related to that; and finally we have the real main plot, involving disappearing magicians and threats of a dark magic.

For a book of only about 400 pages, there is a lot going on, and the story as a whole suffers because of it. The magician plot ends up feeling a lot like the plot of Poison Study, and Yelena spends so much time traveling from place to place that we don’t really get to learn much more of the world or the new characters in it even though we get to see a lot of different places and characters. This is where the narrowness comes in. For all the breadth of settings and characters that we see, the only character that we get to know more of is Yelena. The supporting characters are underdeveloped and don’t have much depth, which makes it less tragic when they are captured or tortured or die. Former favorites from Poison Study make cameos but barely have a presence. Which would be fine except that it stole “screen time” (or page time) from the development of new characters.

Like a lot of second books in trilogies, Magic Study felt like a lot of transition and set-up for a finale of a third book. I hope that the final installment, Fire Study, is everything it is set up to be.